ESL Resources

Graduate Student Resource Center

One-on-One Consultation/Tutoring

Graduate students who speak English as an additional language are welcome to meet with writing consultants to work on any current writing project. For graduate students who wish to improve their English writing skills, we recommend purchasing Academic Writing for Graduate Students and browsing its contents. After identifying particular skills and topics in need of improvement, make an appointment to meet with a graduate writing consultant and come to the appointment prepared to go over exercises. When making an appointment through our online appointment system, please indicate the topics and pages you would like to cover during the appointment.


The GWC offers a number of workshops for graduate students who speak English as an additional language—from writing in “academic English” to writing formal emails. View the current workshop schedule.


ESL/EFL graduate students are encouraged to take courses offered through Writing Programs. For a list of current courses, see the Department’s website.

Editing & Proofreading

The Graduate Writing Center is frequently asked how to find editing and proofreading services. Our writing consultants do not provide this type of service. If you need to hire someone to do proofreading or copyediting, write up a job description and contact the English or Applied Linguistics departments. If you email a job description to the departmental student affairs officer, s/he will forward it to graduate students who can then respond to your advertisement. For more information about copyediting issues, see Wendy Belcher's website.


Academic writing skills and strategies:

  • Swales, J.M., & Feak, C. (2012). Academic Writing for Graduate Students (3rd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2014). They Say, I Say (3rd ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
  • Swales, J.M., & Feak, C. (2000). English in Today's Research World: A Writing Guide. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Comprehensive books with grammar explanations and exercises:

  • Porter, P., & vanDommelen, D. (2004). Read, Write, Edit: Grammar for College Writers. Boston: Heinle.
  • Yule. G. (1998). Explaining English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A helpful guide for effectively using resources and avoiding plagiarism:

  • Harris, R.A. (2017). Using Sources Effectively (5th ed.). New York: Routledge .

Websites on Graduate-Level Writing

English Solutions to Engineering Research Writing: This free ebook, by Adam Turner at Hanyang University in Korea, is jam-packed with writing tips for not just engineers but grad students in all disciplines. Turner has chapters on formal email, how Google and Adobe Acrobat Reader can help you locate discipline-specific grammar and word choice, sentence structure basics, paragraph structure, and the structure and grammar of an (engineering) research article.

Literature Review: Part of a larger website for University of Hong Kong undergraduates in the Arts and Social Sciences, this section has interesting material on writing literature reviews, citation practices (and sentence structures for citing), and examples of model literature reviews with commentaries on the language. Note that this site has not been updated since 2001.

Online Dictionaries

Learner Dictionaries
The following online dictionaries are designed for English learners:

Visual Dictionaries
If you can’t think of the word you want, these visual dictionaries may help:

Dictionaries with Extra Features
These websites have dictionaries and extra features that are useful for building your vocabulary:

  • Wordnik —This site provides not only definitions, pronunciations, synonyms/antonyms, and etymologies, but also, to name a few features, real-time example sentences from Twitter, words that are used in the same context (e.g., searching for “corny” will retrieve “overblown” and “country-western” (!), and Flikr photos tagged with the word—so you can actually see what people find corny.
  • WordNet —Though not so user-friendly, this site will provide not only definitions, synonyms, and antonyms but also a bunch of other categories—such as hyponyms (related words that are more specific than your search term; e.g., governor is a hyponym of politician), derived forms, and coordinate terms (e.g., a politician is a leader engaged in civil administration, and a captain is someone who leads a group). Visuwords provides a graphic interface of WordNet. Lexical FreeNet has a similar function as WordNet, though less information is provided.

Dictionaries of Idioms and Phrasal Verbs
For idioms (“kick the bucket”) and phrasal verbs (e.g., “to look after” someone), use the following free resources:

Language Dictionaries has great bilingual dictionaries for many European and Asian languages, as well as Arabic, Czech, and Russian. The dictionaries include multiple synonyms, words used in sentences, and compound forms.

Other Dictionaries and Thesauri
Check the GWC's Dictionaries and Thesauri page for additional resources on general dictionaries and thesauri (which provide synonyms and antonyms).

Websites for Native-like Word Choice

Would you say “to a large extent” or “to a big extent”? “Large” and “big” are synonyms, but native speakers of English would say “large extent,” never “big extent.” In all languages, words like “large” and “extent” stick together, or “collocate” with one another. You have probably used Google to answer questions like these—for example, you could Google “large extent” and “big extent” and see which phrase gets more hits. But there are websites much more powerful than Google that can help you select the more common combination in English. We’ll focus on the best of these sites:

Just the Word
Word Neighbors
Check My Words Toolbar
Corpus of Contemporary American English
Compleat Lexical Tutor’s Corpus Grammar Exercises
OZDIC - English Collocation Dictionary

Just the Word

Just the Word lets you search a database of British English. Make sure to read the short Getting Started page before you start.

Example: Let’s say you are unsure about whether English speakers use “to a large extent,” “to a big extent,” or another kind of “extent.”

  • On the home page, type “extent” and click “Show Combinations.”
  • In the upper-left sidebar, click “ADJ N*,” which indicates that you are looking for adjectives that precede your search term, which is the noun “extent.”
  • Just the Word will give you the most common combinations in its database, clustered by meaning. The most common are “great extent” and “large extent.”
  • Clicking on a phrase will send you to actual sentences in which the phrase is used. It’s important to skim the sentences to ensure the phrase is being used in the context you want. (This isn’t necessary with “extent,” but it is with, say, the word “bow,” which has many meanings.)

If you go back to the home page, you can also type “large extent” or “big extent” and click “Suggest Alternatives” to see if this combination is indeed a common one. If this sounds confusing, read the More Help page.

Word Neighbors

Word Neighbors resembles Just the Word in many ways.

Example: Let’s say you are unsure about whether English speakers use “to a large extent,” “to a big extent,” or another kind of “extent.”

  • On the home page, type just the words “to a extent” (with the adjective missing) in the search field.
  • Adjust the drop-down menu below the search field to read “The phrase may span 4 word(s).” Click “Find it.”
  • Retrieved are a bunch of phrases—“to a large extent,” “to a lesser extent,” etc. Clicking on “to a large extent” leads you to the contexts in which the phrase is used.

Another way to find common adjectives that precede “extent”:

  • On the home page, type “extent” in the search field.
  • Adjust the drop-down menu on the left to read “Show 1 word(s) before.”
  • As in Just the Word, a bunch of grammatical patterns appear—Determiner + Noun, Adjective + Noun, etc. Select “show results” for the “Adjective + Noun” pattern.
  • Retrieved are the most common adjective + noun patterns.
  • For any given pattern, click on “see contexts” to make sure this adjective + noun combination is the one you want.

Check My Words Toolbar

The Check My Words Toolbar can be installed for free on PCs with Microsoft Word. Running the Grammar Checker will highlight potential common errors made by Chinese speakers of English, and the toolbar links to Just the Word, Word Neighbors, a Cambridge Dictionary, and other resources.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English

The Corpus of Contemporary American English is a huge database of different genres of contemporary American English. Because it’s designed for linguists, the “Brief tour (for non-linguists),” located in the “More Information” drop-down menu, is an essential place to start.

Example: Let’s say you are unsure about whether English speakers use “to a large extent,” “to a big extent,” or another kind of “extent”:

  • Click on “POS List,” which stands for part-of-speech list, and select “adj.ALL.” The symbol [j*] will appear in the “Word(s)” field.
  • Type “extent” after [j*] in the “Word(s)” field. The field should read as follows: [j*] extent
  • Click on “search.” The most common adjectives used with “extent” appear on the right-hand side. If you click on No. 2, “large extent,” you’ll see all of the sentences in which the phrase appears. Click on any of the source information for even more context.

If you want to compare “big extent” and “large extent” to see which is the most common, you can just type in “big extent,” see how many hits you get (0) and do the same for “large extent” (647).

A neat way of finding this information is to search for synonyms of “big” or “large.” In the “Word(s)” field, type [=big] extent or type [=large] extent. The former retrieves “large extent,” “great extent,” “considerable extent,” “significant extent,” and “vast extent.” The latter retrieves many of those plus “greater extent” and “larger extent.” As a result, searching for the most common combination of words that means “big extent” will show you that “big extent” is not actually used!

Compleat Lexical Tutor’s Corpus Grammar Exercises

Compleat Lexical Tutor’s Corpus Grammar Exercises: Developed by Tom Cobb, this page will show you how consulting a corpus can help you find and correct errors in collocations and lexical and grammatical structures. Read an error sentence—e.g., ‘He’s going to home”—and click on the “CONC” link to look up “home” in a corpus. See for yourself whether “go to home” is a common structure in English.

Additional English-language resources can be found on the GWC's Grammar, Punctuation, Style, and Usage page.

To suggest a resource or report a broken link, email the GWC at