English for University: How to read and listen well

In this week’s post I’ll be looking at some of the differences between how you use your English skills in general English and how you use them in academic English. This post covers how to read and listen well in academic English.


Lucy Tollman, a former London School of English trainer who went on to teach university pre-sessional courses atSoas, gives the following advice on reading and listening:

'In general English classes we often read and listen just to develop our reading and listening skills, or to look at a particular grammar or vocabulary point from the reading or listening text.  In contrast, in an academic context, reading and listening are part of a much wider process of learning which uses all the communication skills.  In fact, listening and reading at university are usually preparation for speaking and writing – much of which will be assessed'.

So if you're taking one of our English for University courses for the first time you may find that reading and listening are different to what you're used to.  Here's Lucy's advice for effective reading for academic purposes:

How to read well

  • Read the title and look at any pictures or sub-headings.
  • Read the introduction and the conclusion and perhaps the first line of each paragraph. Turn over the text, and ask yourself (or a partner if you are studying together) ‘What is it about?’
  • Read the text again. Make notes in the margin beside each section or paragraph – one sentence / phrase to summarise what that section is about.  You can also note down questions to ask your teacher / lecturer.

So you can see that your first step is to understand the text rather than look up unknown vocabulary.  Don’t worry if you have to read it two or three times to understand it - native speakers also have to do this when they read academic texts!

Here’s how to deal with unknown vocabulary: Underline no more than three unknown words per page of text. Then ask yourself these two questions:

Question 1: Do I NEED this word to understand the main sense of the text? If yes, Question 2: Can I guess the meaning from the context? If no, check in a dictionary.

Here’s a link to an interestingacademic text about education websites.  See if you can use these techniques when you're reading it!

How to listen well

Lucy explains:'In an academic context most of your listening will be to lectures.  At university you will know what the topic of the lecture is, so you will be able to read around the topic.' 

So in our English for University classes we discuss the topic together to find out what we already know and prepare ourselves for the listening by predicting what key words the lecturer will use and making sure we are familiar with them.  Don't underestimate the importance of PREPARATION before a lecture!

Here's what to do during a lecture:

1)  Listen carefully for signals from the lecturer, such as a) signposting language; b) pausing; c) emphasis on certain words; d) falling intonation at the end of a sentence (very important as lecturers often use long, complex sentences).

2)  Use symbols and abbreviations in your notes – any you feel comfortable with.

3)  DON’T worry about spelling and grammar – as long as YOU can understand your notes.

Your work doesn't stop there.  You will need to follow these stages after the lecture in order to make the most your learning:

1)  Read over your notes as soon as you can.

2)  Re-organise / neaten notes if necessary.  I’m always

3)  Read up on the topic as soon as you can if you plan to present / do an essay on it.

Great! Next week I’ll be giving you some advice on how to write well.

ByLaura, with many thanks to Lucy Tollman!

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