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Academic language

Learning the language of university

What is academic language?
• The language used in an academic
environment, for:
• Thinking and communicating
about abstract, technical and
complex topics
• Learning about academic
subject areas
Academic vs everyday language

Everyday Academic
language language

• Register: the type of language used depending on audience,

purpose and context
• We all use different registers regularly, and often use multiple
in one day
• Academic register: different because the audience, purpose
and context are not the same as everyday situations
Examples of language types
Example Audience Purpose Context Formality
Social media Friends & Inform & Written, online Everyday
post acquaintances entertain
Newspaper General adult Inform, Written, print or Everyday or
article (unfamiliar) persuade online semi-formal
Online video General adult Inform & Spoken, online Everyday or
(unfamiliar) entertain semi-formal
Academic Academics, Inform, argue Written, print Academic,
journal article experts and online formal
Why is academic language different?

• Not about ‘trying to sound “Learning academic language

smart’ or being complex just is not learning new words to
do the same thing one could
for the sake of it have done with other words;
it is learning to do new things
• Necessary to think about and with language and acquiring
explain abstract, technical and new tools for those purposes”
complex ideas, which can’t be (Nagy & Townsend in Gottlieb
& Ernst-Slavit, 2014, p. 5).
done with everyday language
Dimensions of academic language
• Text types
Discourse • Cohesion of text & ideas

• Types of sentences
Sentence • Word order
• Phrases

• General, specialized and

Word technical vocabulary

Adapted from Gottlieb & Ernst-Slavit, 2014, p. 6

Features of academic language
• Knowledge of academic language PLUS knowledge of
specialist content
• Challenging to read (when unfamiliar) because specialist
knowledge is often “complex, technical and initially alienating”
Academic language is… Everyday language is…
Formal Informal
Objective Personal and subjective
Clear within text Based on context
Concise Wordy
Specific and technical General
Example: journal article
Title: Building bridges: understanding student transition to university

This article explores challenges in ensuring effective student transition from school or
college to university. It examines the complex liaison needed for students to progress to
appropriate courses, settle into university life and succeed as higher education
learners. Secondary data (international literature on transition and the formation of
learner identity) are analysed to identify underpinning concepts. Primary data are
taken from two studies of student transition in England using student and staff surveys,
student focus groups, staff interviews and staff–student conferences that discussed
selected project data sets. The article goes on to offer a model of the process of
transition and the formation of learner identity. It proposes that the development of
higher education learner identity is essential to student achievement and is initially
encouraged where schools, colleges and universities adopt integrated systems of
transition. This has clear implications for practice for higher education administrators,
academics and quality officers.

Abstract from Briggs, Clark & Hall, 2012

Developing skill with academic language

• Includes academic language AND specialist content

• Remember the three dimensions: discourse, sentence
and word (don’t just focus on vocabulary)
• Familiarisation: read a range of different types of
academic texts
• Narrow reading: start by reading one topic or one author
• Practice by reading and writing
Activity: informal vs formal language
The sentences below are written in an informal register.
Re-write each sentence so that it is more formal.

1. I don’t believe the results are accurate.

2. The patient got over his illness.
3. Lecturers still count on students to use correct grammar
and punctuation in essays.
Source: University of Technology Sydney,
Academic Word List:
Briggs, A. R., Clark, J., & Hall, I. (2012). Building bridges:
understanding student transition to university. Quality in Higher
Education, 18(1), 3-21.
Gottlieb, M. & Ernst-Slavit, G. (2014). Academic Language in Diverse
Classrooms: Definitions and Contexts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Krashen, S., & Brown, C. L. (2007). What is academic language
proficiency? STETS Language & Communication Review, 6(1), 1-5.
Snow, C. E., & Uccelli, P. (2009). The challenge of academic
language. The Cambridge handbook of literacy, 112-133.