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International students: Assignments

Improving your writing

Writing essays will inevitably be a part of your course at university so improving your writing is important in order to achieve top marks. There is support though to help you with this.

For more advice, see writing skills.

Attend a workshop

Workshops may be organised by your department or by the Student Learning Centre. At Student Learning Centre workshops you will meet students from many different departments, both new and native speakers of English.

Talk with the lecturer about your draft copies

Some staff members are willing to read the drafts before you come and write things on them. When the supervisor makes a suggestion you need to understand whether he or she is saying you really should do something or just that you might want to do something.

Practice writing

If you find that writing is a difficult task then you may find yourself writing less and therefore improving less. Students who enjoy writing usually write more, have more practice and usually get even better.

Write first, revise later

When you are writing, try to keep going with your ideas as long as you can without thinking too much about the language. As one student said:

My words don't stop my thinking.

Use the best words you can to write the assignment. Then you can go back later and improve the language.

Learn from good writers

Students can learn if they see good examples of essays, as this student found:

I read aloud from good essays. That way I can hear good language in my head.

When you look at one of the essays that has a high grade, remember to read the comments from the marker. Why did the essay have such a good mark? Has the marker made any suggestions for making it better? Even an essay with a high grade could improve. Some people say you should look too at the essays with the low grades to see the difference? What does the marker say is wrong?

Talk about essay writing

This next student has a good idea. If you talk about essay writing with all the students in your class you will collect plenty of ideas to try with your next essay.

For more advice, see essay writing.

Use the computer to improve your writing

When you are writing essays or assignments, the computer can be a great help. Word-processing software has functions that can make the writing process easier. One is the spellchecker, a function that many people are familiar with and use frequently. The spellchecker can check not only spelling but also grammar. If you make a mistake, or the spellchecker doesn’t recognise a word you wrote then it will make suggestions. Later versions of these programmes also have a built-in thesaurus that gives you synonyms of words you have used.

Learn from textbooks

Some students find that having a textbook is a help, even if they don't attend a class. You may even be able to find a book that tells you about essay writing in your own subject.

Learning new words

Some people say that just learning new words the way we do with our first language is good enough. Gradually as we read and listen we'll know more words. Many tests have been done to see if trying to learn words makes students remember them better and it seems that trying does help more than just waiting until you know them from reading and listening.

Remembering new words

  • Some ways to remember new words and their meanings:
  • Make lists with explanations in English or your own language.
  • Think of interesting ways to remember meaning such as sounds, rhymes and pictures.
  • Learn the meaning of common word starters (prefixes) and word endings (suffixes) in English and group similar words together.
  • Try to work out the meaning for yourself first.

This last point needs explanation. When you come to a new word what do you do first? Many students turn quickly to their dictionaries but the dictionary is not always a great help, especially if you are using a small electronic dictionaries with only one meaning for each word. Another difficulty is that words do not have meanings just by themselves. They get their meaning partly from the words around them.

Even if your dictionary is really good, there is a reason for not using it immediately. Research shows us that when readers try to work out the meaning of the word on the page they say to themselves "What is that word most likely to mean? " before looking it up in the dictionary to check. In this way they remember it better.

Learning words from electronic articles

Some of your reading will be available electronically. Here is a way to learn new words from an article:

  • Find an article that your lecturer has recommended.
  • Bring it up on the screen.
  • If you can, copy it electronically to your own documents.
Now you can look for answers to questions such as:

What are the most important words? (Check how often these are mentioned.)

Which phrases do these words appear in most often? (Which words go before and after the important word?) For example, we talk about 

A major crisis, a major decline 

but 

A grand event, the Grand Canal.

When you start to use words yourself, rather than just understand them when others use them, you come across another problem. Your dictionary may tell you that several words have the same meaning:

big, major, grand…

When you start to use them, though, you find that they don't all go with the same words.

In English many words are always followed by particular adverbs, such as to, by, from, with. See if you can find four examples in this paragraph.

Compared with many other languages, English is inclined to use more word groups. Certain words are grouped with other words in order to make a slightly different meaning from the meaning ….

You will learn these gradually as you read more. When you are writing essays a good dictionary will help you with these words. However, the essay marker should not have too much trouble understanding your meaning if you do make mistakes with some of these smaller words.

Starting to use the new words

As you learn a new word start using it in your writing (assignments and reports) and saying it (in tutorials or in laboratory work). This is one way of helping yourself remember the word and, of course, it's a way of writing a good assignment.

Some students are afraid to start talking. They think "Maybe I'll make a pronunciation mistake." Try not to worry about this too much. Many students make a mistake in saying new words even in their own language. If you say them, someone else can correct you. If you are not sure, ask someone, “How do you pronounce that word? I’ve never heard it said.”

For further advice, see Chapter 8 of Study Skills for Speakers of English as a Second Language, by Marilyn Lewis and Hayo Reinders. Top

Useful resources

Recommended reading

Lewis, M. Study Skills for Speakers of English as a Second Language (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

Useful websites

Sites for students whose first language is not English

Below you will find some examples of websites that can help you to improve your English. We start with a site that gives tips on how to learn English effectively, especially by yourself, called Antimoon.com.

  • English Daily
    This site has information about various aspects of the English language.
  • English Club 
    This site is a "web club" for anyone learning or teaching English as a second or foreign language.
  • Learn English
    British Council site - activities and advice on improving English for students whose first language is not English.
  • Prepare for Success
    Learning materials for international students to prepare yourself for academic life and improve your English language skills.

Language courses around the world

  • www.esldirectory.com
    On this site you can search for language courses by country.
  • LanguageCourse.Net offers a free comparison of more than 1.600 accredited language courses for 11 languages in 31 countries.
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language
    A very common test is the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). On this site you can read about it and also order materials to prepare for the test such as CD Rooms, sample tests etc. You can download sample questions and writing topics for free.
  • International English Language Test
    Another common test is IELTS (International English Language Test). You can find information about the test as well as some practice materials on this site. 

Dictionaries

There are many dictionaries online, and most of them are free!

  • Cambridge Dictionaries Online
  • Macmillan English Dictionary
    The Macmillan English Dictionary has been written for learners of English who are at good intermediate to advanced level. It gives the most up-to-date information about the English language as it is being used at the present time.Macmillan has but together a few important questions that you must ask before deciding what dictionary to buy.
  • Dictionary.com 
    This is a multi-source dictionary search service produced by Lexico Publishing Group. To use the dictionary, simply type a word in the blue search box that appears at the top of every page and then click the 'Look it up' button.
  • Babylon
    This dictionary is a special one. You can download different dictionaries, such as English-English or English-Japanese. Then, when you are using your word processor or even when you are reading any other text on your computer (such as a website), you can click on the word and get a translation. There is a free trial version that will work forever, and there is also a more advanced version, but for that you have to pay.
  • Chinese Languages 
    If your first language is Chinese, Japanese or Korean and you know pinyin (pinyin is a way of writing these languages in Roman script, such as you are reading now), then you can use this online dictionary to find the translation in English.
  • Wordsmyth
    This is a dictionary of American English. It also includes a thesaurus.
  • dictionary.net 
    Returns word, and phrase definitions from a variety of English dictionary resources

Specialist dictionaries

Below you will find a number of very specific dictionaries and glossaries. These contain words and definitions from various academic and professional fields. There are many more. You can find them by using a search engine like Google or Yahoo.

Grammar sites

Proofreading and language editing

  • Scribbr proofreading and editing services
    Our Partner, Scribbr, offers proofreading and language editing services to ensure you will submit your work with confidence. Once you upload your paper, you will be assigned an Editor with knowledge in your subject area, who will provide guidance on improving the language in your work, highlight spelling issues or typos and identify amends to your sentence structure and word choice. You’ll receive personalised feedback to help you recognise and correct your most frequent mistakes, and improve the quality of your academic work. ​
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