English Language Foundations

Sarah Irvine and Linda Clark

Boy and girl sitting with backs to each other with laptops
Figure 4.1 Every institution and every course in Australia has its own English entry level requirements. Image by Sasin Tipchai used under CC0 license.

Introduction

Welcome to the English Language Foundations chapter. Here, we are going to discover some of the academic English foundational skills required for study at university. Firstly, we will look at levels of English proficiency that are usually required for academic study. In the second half of this chapter, we will examine some of the mechanics of academic writing including grammar and techniques to enhance your academic writing skills. If English is not your first language, you may find this chapter especially beneficial.

English entry level requirements

Every institution and every course in Australia has its own English entry level requirements, so it is always best to first look at what requirements your institution states you must have before studying a particular course. If English is not your first language, you may be required to undertake an English proficiency test, examples of which include: IELTS (International English Language Testing System) Academic,  Pearson PTE (Pearson Test of English) Academic, TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language internet-based test), CAE (Cambridge English: Advanced) and OET (Occupational English Test) (Studies in Australia, 2020). Each testing system scores participants according to a scale. Please always check with your institution about what requirements you need to enter your preferred university course.

Academic English

Writing is the main way to show your understanding of a particular topic or concept in your course. It is important to work on improving your writing skills as in most courses, you are assessed on your written work. Academic English is the particular style of English that is used at the university level. It is important to note that every person entering university studies for the first time, needs the time to learn and develop their understanding of what Academic English is and how they can apply it to their own writing. In the sections below, you will see what some of the basics of academic writing are and you will see some key rules and explanations of Academic English. Further into the chapter, you will also be able to learn about some of the basic grammatical structures of academic writing as well as some techniques for applying academic writing to your work to make it stand out.

Academic English Basics

If you are new to university, it is normal for academic writing to seem a little daunting. Academic writing can sometimes feel like you are learning a whole new language, even if you feel you are proficient in English. Remember, we all have to start somewhere, and therefore it is helpful to familiarise yourself with the basics of academic writing. Fortunately, there are many great support services available to support you at university as you develop your academic literacy and by following a few guidelines, you will also be well on your way to communicating effectively in the academic context. Let’s look at some do’s and don’ts of academic writing:

Do’s

Write clearly and concisely

  • This is important not only so your writing is clear, but also so that you can stick to the word count.
  • For example: it is better to say, “the research data” rather than “the data from the research”.

Reference your research and information

  • Referencing is an essential skill to learn throughout your university studies as it helps you to credit the sources of information you are using.
  • For more information on referencing, check out the next chapter on Working with Information.

Write in third person

  • Writing in third person means to write from the perspective of other people rather than yourself. It is better to name other researchers/professors/academics by their name (in the appropriate referencing system) to support what you are saying. For example, it is better to say Smith (2020) believe that…. Rather than say “I believe that…”
  • Please note however, that first person is sometimes acceptable for some assignments when you are asked to reflect. In this case a balance of first and third person may be used. You can read more about reflective writing in the Writing Assignments chapter. 
  • You can also read more about how to use third person below in the section ‘techniques for academic writing’.

Plan your writing

  • Planning is an important early step before you start writing and can help you to focus and answer all parts of the assignment question. Check out the Writing Assignments chapter in this book for more information.

Do Not’s

Use slang words or colloquialisms

  • Academic writing is considered formal, so informal language including slang and colloquial/idiomatic expressions should be avoided in writing (Uni Learning, 2000).
  • For example, avoid saying, “Managing climate change is easier said than done” because easier said than done is a colloquial expression. It would be better to write, “Managing climate change can be difficult in practice.” This example is more formal and academic, and therefore more appropriate for academic writing.

Write sentences that are too long or too short

  • Sentences that are too long can be difficult for the reader to follow.
  • Similarly, sentences that are too short can sound ‘choppy’ or disjointed.
  • Try to keep your sentences roughly between 15-25 words. You can also have sentences that are longer and shorter than this, but if you aim for this length, it will assist in making your writing coherent.

Use contractions

  • Contractions are when we shorten two words together as one word. For example, ‘do not’ becomes ‘don’t’. Although contractions are common in our everyday spoken life, they are not commonplace in academic writing. You should always use the full words rather than the contracted forms of words while writing in academia.
  • For example, do not write, “It doesn’t seem accurate to label the author’s words as exceptional.” Instead you should write, “It does not seem accurate to label the author’s words as exceptional.”

Be overly emotive in your language

  • Academic writing is often described as being ‘objective’, which means that it relies on evidence-based research and practice to support arguments.
  • The opposite of objective is subjective, which relies on emotions to support a position, and is therefore considered less effective. Therefore, it is important to avoid emotive ways of backing up your arguments, as they are not considered as reliable as evidence from good quality research.
  • For example, avoid using a sentence like “It is such a shame that too many people do not take advantage of the benefits of exercising every day.” Instead, it would be better to say, “Research suggests that exercising every day has many health benefits.”

Grammar for academic writing

Review of parts of speech

Parts of speech are what we call the different words that make up a full sentence. It can be useful to familiarise yourself with the parts of speech in a sentence so that you can recognise where the different parts of speech normally go in a sentence and can also help you understand where you may need to make improvements in your own writing. Here are some of the most common parts of speech:

Table 4.1 Parts of speech

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Sentence structures

There are four main types of sentence structure in English, each described below. In your academic writing, try to use a mixture of sentence types, rather than sticking to just one or two. By having a variety of sentence types in your writing, you can improve your coherence and cohesion between ideas and help the reader make sense of your argument.

Simple sentences

Simple sentences only require one subject (a noun or noun phrase), and what is known as a ‘predicate’ which is the information about the subject and contains the verb (or verb phrase).

The research is completed.

‘The research’           =         the noun

‘is completed’           =          the predicate

Compound sentences

Compound sentences make up at least two independent clauses. Independent clauses are parts of a sentence that have at least a subject and a verb. Importantly, the independent clauses must be joined together with one of the following conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, yet, so. For example:

The research is completed, and the assignment is finished.

‘The research is completed’            =          independent clause one

‘and’                                                              =          conjunction

‘the assignment is finished’            =          independent clause two

If we consider the two independent clauses, they make sense on their own and therefore are considered independent clauses.

Complex sentences

Complex sentences are made up of at least one independent clause and one dependant clause. A dependant clause also contains a subject and a verb, but it relies on the other information in a sentence for it to make sense. Complex sentences can be joined together by any other conjunction not listed above for compound sentences. For example:

I completed the research which was difficult.

‘I completed the research’ =          independent clause

‘which’                                   =        conjunction

‘was difficult’                        =         dependent clause

In this example you can see that the dependent clause relies on the information in the independent clause for it to make sense.

Compound-complex sentences

Finally, compound-complex sentences as you may guess, are a combination of compound and complex sentences. These sentences can be useful for conveying complex ideas and information. For example:

I completed the research which was difficult, but I still managed to submit my assignment on time.

‘I completed the research which was difficult’        =     complex sentence clause

‘but’                                                                                                  =     conjunction

‘I still managed to submit my assignments on time’        =    independent clause

Example paragraph using a mixture of sentences

Can you identify the simple, compound, complex and compound-complex sentences in the paragraph below?

Study is an important aspect to a students’ life. Students may take on a variety of tasks such as studying, working and socialising which can impact negatively on their study success. However, study should be a key priority for those students who wish to succeed, despite what challenges they may encounter. Each student has a different style and each university has its own expectations of students. Managing these expectations may be tough, but over time you will become more confident as a student. Overall, students who focus on their study are successful students.

Punctuation rules

Using punctuation correctly is essential to success at university. Knowing the rules about how to use punctuation marks correctly can not only improve the logic and flow of your sentences, but also can improve the quality of your writing. Take a look at the table below which outlines the main punctuation marks used in academic writing and consider the explanation and examples.

Table 4.2 Punctuation rules

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Transition words

Transition words are very important to help link your ideas together between your sentences and between your paragraphs. They help to improve coherence and cohesion in your writing and should be evident in most, if not all, pieces of writing you do at university. Look at the transition words image below and take note of how different transition words are used to show different ideas.

Table 4.3 transition words and phrases

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Verb tenses

When writing, it is important to be mindful of the tense you are using and to be consistent, particularly when you are highlighting results from research or a study. Check out the below table for an overview of the common tenses used in academic study.

Table 4.4 Tenses

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When you use a reporting verb in the past tense you must change the verb tense used by the other person.

Tenses in reported speech

  • Present simple – past simple (The report found that 90% of participants agreed with…)
  • Present perfect – past perfect (…found that 27% of the patients had responded favourably…)
  • Past simple – past simple or past perfect (…found that most students planned / had planned their semesters…)

General tips for using tenses in academic writing:

  • Using the past tense or the present perfect tense is most common when writing the literature review and/or the describing past events such as research. For example, ‘the authors researched…’ or ‘the authors have researched…’
  • You should also use past tense to describe the results, because the results are a result of past actions. For example, ‘the participants results increased after the intervention’.
  • However, when you wish to discuss the implications of results and the possible conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence or research, it is best to use the present tense. For example, ‘these results indicate that…’

Subject-verb agreement

Subject-verb agreement refers to how both the subject and the verb must agree with each other in a sentence based on whether it is singular or plural. For example, if the subject is singular, then the verb must also be singular, and if the subject is plural, then the verb must also be plural. Take a look at the examples and explanations below of some of the most common mistakes when it comes to subject-verb agreement.

Subject-verb agreement with ‘to be’

When you use the verb to be (e.g. am/is/are/was/were), remember to change the form according to the subject:

  • am / was
  • you, we, they are / were
  • she, he, it is / was 

Remember this when you use any verb in the continuous tense or in the passive voice. For example:

  • Those students [‘they’] are having problems with referencing.
  • We were having dinner when she arrived. 
  • It was made in Bangladesh.

Subject-verb agreement with ‘to have’

When you use the verb to have in the present simple, it goes with the subjects I, you, we, they. However, if the subject is third person singular (he, she or it) then the verb should be ‘has’.

I, you, we, they have

she, he, it has

  • The past simple, however, is always had.
  • Remember this when you use any verb in the perfect tenses

For example:

  • I have been to France.
  • My sister [‘she’] has never been to France. 
  • We had finished dinner when she arrived.

Subject-verb agreement with other verbs

When you use a verb in the present simple and the subject is the third person singular (he, she or it), add an –s to the verb:

  • Professor Smith lives nearby.

Remember that there can only be one –s ending: either on the subject or on the verb:

  • That car costs too much.
  • Those cars cost too much. 

Remember also that you must not add an –s to modal verbs (can, could, will, would, shall, should, must):

  • e.g. It can be rather difficult.

Using modals

Modal verbs (e.g. can, may, must) are auxiliary verbs, which means that you use them with main verbs to do the following:

  • show ability, probability or necessity
  • give advice or permission
  • They can express the present, past or future tense.
  • You must not use ‘-s’ with the third person singular. For example:

He must study hard this weekend.

Modal verbs are useful in academic writing as they can often show how strong or tentative arguments/ideas/points of view are. For example: What is the difference between these two sentences?

  1. Smoking causes lung cancer
  2. Smoking may cause lung cancer

In the second sentence the use of ‘may’ indicates the possibility of lung cancer, whereas, in the first example there is more certainty that smoking causes lung cancer. When presenting evidence-based research and facts, it is important to be mindful of using modal verbs to indicate to the reader the strength of the evidence you are presenting.

Checklist for assessing your grammar in academic writing

  • Have you used modals appropriately in your writing?
  • Have you checked your sentences to ensure the subject and verb agree?
  • Check your verbs in your sentences to ensure you have used the correct tense throughout your paper.
  • Does your paper use some transition words to help your reader understand the ideas you are presenting?
  • Does your paper have a good mix of simple, compound and complex sentences?
  • Have you checked the correct use of punctuation within your sentences?

Techniques to enhance academic writing

If you are still developing your academic English skills, there are some techniques that you can use to help enhance your writing and take it to the next level. This section covers nominalisation, active/passive voice, and using third person.

Nominalisation

This refers to the process of changing verbs (or other parts of speech) into nouns. This process can be effective in your academic writing, as it not only helps you reach the point you were making quicker, but also helps you with paraphrasing and creating headings as well if needed.

Process of nominalisation:

  1. Identify the verb (or verb phrase) in the sentence
  2. Change the verb into a noun (or noun phrase)
  3. Reconstruct the sentence using the noun, instead of the verb. Sometimes additional information is needed to complete the sentence.

Example

Take a look at the following sentence:

  • The assignment was completed by the student.

Was completed = verb phrase.

The noun phrase we can use here instead could be = The completion of

Now, let’s reconstruct the sentence:

  • The completion of the assignment by the student…

Here, the sentence is not complete as it still requires a verb. However, by doing this, you can bring in extra information which you could not have done in the first example.

You can usually spot nominalisation when we need to use ‘of’ after the noun, and many nouns will end with the suffixes -ion, -ness, -ment. However, be careful of using too much nominalisation in your writing. Although this technique can be handy in some situations, overusing it can result in your writing becoming unnecessarily complicated and less explicit.

Active vs passive voice

Active voice means that the subject comes first in the sentence and therefore is the most important thing in the sentence. For example: I ate the biscuit. ‘I’ is the most important part of the sentence here, because it is about ‘who’ ate the biscuit. Therefore, ‘I’ comes first.

Passive voice means that the action in the sentence is the most important and the subject is not important or doesn’t belong in the sentence. For example: The biscuit was eaten (by me). The fact that the biscuit was eaten is the most important part of this sentence, and who ate it is not relevant or important, that’s why ‘by me’ is in parentheses because it can be included if needed.

Passive voice

You use the passive voice:

  • to avoid using informal personal pronouns (I, we, you)

It will be argued that…  (instead of I will argue that…)

  • when the ‘doers’ of the action are not important, or you don’t want to mention them:

e.g.          The buildings were built in 1950.

A mistake was made.

  • to describe a process

e.g.            The dry ingredients are mixed together.

A word of caution:

  • Overuse of the passive voice can sometimes make your writing ‘wordy’, vague, and more difficult to read. Try to keep a balance of active and passive voice in your academic writing.
  • When reporting on research especially; be sure to include some active voice.

Using third person

Using third person refers to using either proper noun or pronouns to refer to the subject in a sentence. It is usually recommended to stick to third person in academic writing as it helps you to support your argument using credible sources, rather than from your own position.

Consider the two sentences below:

  1. Many researchers believe that looking after the community’s mental health is important.
  2. I think that looking after the community’s mental health is important.

The first sentence is more appropriate for academic writing as it not only points to research that support the argument made, it doesn’t come across as a personal opinion. Check out the examples in the table below for more ways to maintain third person in your academic writing.

Table 4.5 First, second and third person examples

First or second person Third person
In this essay I will discuss… This essay will discuss…
When you have finished the task… When the task is finished…
I strongly agree that this is a valid point. This is a valid point.
If you’ve never written an essay before these techniques may help. These techniques may help those who have never written an essay before.

Conclusion

Overall, this chapter has explored the English language foundations required at university level study. More specifically, this chapter gives an overview of general advice for English language requirements, then explores some of the basics of academic English. Finally, it explores a number of areas that cover grammar for academic writing, as well as techniques for academic writing to help students with their study success.

Key points

  • Each university and each degree has its own English language requirements.
  • Academic English takes time to master and requires practice.
  • Following some basic rules for writing in academic English can help enhance your writing.
  • Reviewing key grammatical concepts such as parts of speech, tenses, subject-verb agreement and punctuation can help you to improve your academic writing.
  • Some techniques to improve your writing and paraphrasing skills are nominalisation, understanding active/passive voice and using third person.

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge and extend my thanks to my colleague Fiona Perry for her advice and feedback on this chapter.

References

Studies in Australia. (2020). English Language requirements FAQs. Retrieved December 7, 2020 from https://www.studiesinaustralia.com/Blog/about-australia/english-language-requirements-faqs

Uni Learning. (2000). Checklist of language to avoid in academic writing. University of Wollongong. https://unilearning.uow.edu.au/academic/2e.html

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Academic Success by Sarah Irvine and Linda Clark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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