Academic Module 2: Grammar and Vocabulary in Context

15 Building Academic English Vocabulary and Conceptual Knowledge

In the first part of the ebook, tips and strategies relating to building academic English vocabulary were integrated into the content modules. This chapter now lists and describes those strategies briefly as a place of common reference.

Cognates: True and false

True cognates are words that have the same word root and are very similar or exactly the same in their meanings. Generally, languages with a shared history have true cognates, e.g. Latin languages (English, Spanish, French, Italian, etc.). However, sometimes two languages may have similar looking or similar sounding words, but the meanings or how those words are actually used may differ from one language to another, and one country to another. Such words are called false cognates. Students who pay attention to cognates across languages, both true and false, are able to build the target academic vocabulary more easily because they are more aware of the similarities and differences across more than one linguistic context.


When you come across a collocation–a group of two or more words that generally go together (co+location) and have a unique meaning when used together, it can be helpful to break the term down into its component parts and understand each part individually. Then, put the words back together and see what unique or special meaning arises from locating the words together in a specific order.


Dictionaries are extremely useful tools and can be used for many different purposes. For instance, some words and collocations may have more than one meaning. To figure out which meaning fits best in the sentence or the context where they are used, you can look up the terms in the dictionary and select the most appropriate option from there.


A useful strategy to improve your academic English vocabulary is to understand the history of the academic word. Try to find out about the origin of the word and how the original meaning evolved into the present meaning. An easy way to find out how a word evolved is to look up the ‘etymology’ of the word on a search engine, such as Google, on the Internet. Further, if you speak another language belonging the Latin family (also called Romance languages),  looking up the etymology of the academic word might also help you make a connection between your first language and the target English. Many words across the Romance languages have common word roots, and this can be a fun activity if you combine this with looking up true and false cognates as well across the languages you know, including English.

Prior Knowledge and lived experiences

A tip for making sense of academic concepts or new keywords is to pause and ask yourself what you may already know about the term. You can write down in your own words what you know from your prior knowledge. This will also help you identify what you don’t know and help create a sense of curiosity with the desire to learn more about the concept. Also, an effective reading comprehension strategy is to connect a concept that you read with your own life experiences. The more you can connect academic and abstract concepts to your own concrete knowledge and experiences, the easier it becomes to understand and master those concepts.


One way to understand important concepts is to see how the terms have been described in other places, for instance in an educational video created by a reliable and trustworthy source.

Word Families

When you come across similar terms, you can make sense of them by thinking of them as belonging to a ‘word family’. You can find out more about words in a word family by looking them up in a dictionary. The dictionary entries will tell you what parts of speech the words are, what they mean individually, and how they are used in different sentences.

Word roots, prefixes, and suffixes

One way to understand complex academic terms is to break them down into smaller parts–the word root, a prefix, a suffix, and so forth–by using a dictionary or online search tools.

For instance, the word ‘multilingual’ can be separated into two parts: ‘multi’ and ‘lingual’. The term ‘multi’ is a prefix. The word ‘multi’ comes from the Latin word ‘multus’, which means ‘many’. The word ‘lingual’ comes from the Latin word ‘lingua’, which means ‘language’. When you combine the two words, a unique meaning is derived, e.g. someone who speaks many languages.


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Demystifying Academic English Copyright © by Rashi Jain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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