33Understanding Academic Language:
For Writing Tasks

by Danny K. Howard, EAP Associate Director

Questions on tests and assignments sometimes use special language that you may not understand. In a recent demonstration class at NIC, I asked a student to “describe an interesting place close to his hometown.” I suddenly realized that the student could not understand the question because he didn’t know the word describe. I realized that there are many words like this that students don’t understand. Therefore, I have made a list of some very common academic words to help you answer questions better in the future.

Academic Vocabulary that you will probably see...

  1. 1 Compare: to write about the similarities or differences between two or more things, people etc. 

    Sample question: Compare studying abroad in America to studying abroad in England.
    (When you compare, you usually show the similarities. Sometimes a question will use the word “contrast” and this means to just show the differences.)

  2. 2 Illustrate: to give examples of something

    Sample Question: Illustrate the good points of studying English in a foreign country.
    (Always make sure you give a lot of good examples for this. Teachers like examples in students’ writing.) 

  3. 3 Explain: to make the meaning of something very clear and easy to understand

    Sample Question: Explain how to learn a foreign language.
    (Explain is a kind of general word that can be used in many of the other situations on this page. However, the important thing here is to make your explanation clear. After you write, look at it and ask yourself, “Can someone read this and understand my point?”)

  4. 4 Summarize: to write about the main points of a longer writing in your own words

    Sample Question: Read this article and summarize it on the line below.
    (When you summarize something, always write in your own words and focus more on the main ideas—not the small details.)

  5. 5 Evaluate: to show if something is good or bad and to explain why

    Sample Question: Evaluate Bush’s decision to send military troops to Iraq.
    (The important thing here is to decide whether it is good or bad. Don’t be afraid to make a judgment. Moreover, make sure you choose only one side!! Don’t write about why the decision was both good AND bad.)

  6. 6 Describe: to write about the appearance of someone/something or to write about what it looks like

    Sample Question: Describe your favorite room in your house.
    (Whenever you describe something, always use a lot of good adjectives. This will make your writing better!)

  7. 7 Outline: to write about general events or about general ideas in order

    Sample Question: Outline the events that caused World War I.
    (Time order is very important here. If your writing is not in time order, the writing might lose points.)

  8. 8 Narrate: to tell about something that happened in time order

    Sample Question: Narrate your first day of high school.
    (When you narrate something, always choose good and interesting events to write about. And make sure that your writing has a purpose. If you narrate a story about your first day of high school, think about “why was this day important?” and make your story reach that important point.)

    NOTE: Outlining and Narrating are very similar, but narrating is telling a story. Outlining is simply putting important events or ideas in order.

  9. 9 Discuss: to explain why your opinion is right

    Sample Question: Discuss reasons why you decided to study abroad.
    (A lot of students think the word “discuss” is only used for speaking. However, it is often used for writing questions as well. In this case, instead of discussing with your mouth you are discussing your ideas in writing.)

Hopefully when you see these words in the future, you will be able to answer the questions with better support. At NIC, students get a lot of practice writing paragraphs and essays using this vocabulary and more. Writing is a v-e-r-y important skill at NIC, and teachers give you a lot of opportunities to improve over the year. Good writing is not impossible if you make a strong effort to improve.
Take care & Happy Holidays!