Improving Academic Writing with the COBUILD Advanced Learners' Dictionary by Susan Iannuzzi

Improving Academic Writing with the COBUILD Advanced Learners' Dictionary by Susan Iannuzzi


Students of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) can use the COBUILD Advanced Learners’ Dictionary to polish their English skills and become more adept at writing. Whether working independently or participating in a class or, EAP students will find the dictionary is an invaluable tool for developing academic proficiency.

Here are some ways the COBUILD Advanced Learners’ Dictionary and the accompanying worksheets can help independent and classroom learners.


One of the distinctions between academic and informal writing is the level of vocabulary. Academic writing demands a more formal tone, which can be achieved with a more elevated vocabulary. For example, we can write about a person’s nature, but upon reviewing our work for an academic tone, we may check the word nature in the dictionary. The COBUILD Advanced Learner’s Dictionary indicates that nature is a fairly common word. However, its definition provides synonyms, and the word temperament is one of these. As the dictionary indicates, temperament is of lower frequency than nature. The definitions of the words also indicate that they are a close match. Although the dictionary cannot decide for us, the frequency indicators suggest that temperament may be a more suitable word for academic writing.  

The worksheets on frequency provide an opportunity for further investigation and practice on frequency of synonyms in addition to nature and temperament. Consider the words capable and adept. Many learners may feel comfortable using the word capable, but for academic writing, the less frequent word adept adds a layer of nuance and formality that may be useful in conveying a richer meaning. The COBUILD Advanced Learners’ Dictionary worksheets on frequency enable students to practice this and other word pairs to improve their academic writing skills.


Although frequency indicators can be a useful tool in identifying academic vocabulary, they should be used with caution. Not all synonyms may be used interchangeably. It is important to examine the entries for each word because there may be collocation considerations.

Collocation refers to words that are commonly used together. A well-known example of this is the difference between make and do in English. For example, in English, people do homework, but in other languages, it is common to say people make homework. Therefore, we say that do collocates with homework in English. Although collocation errors may not hinder meaning, they may distract the reader and give the impression of a lesser command of the language. Attention should be on the message the writer is trying to convey, not on the way they are saying it.

Therefore, when considering word choice, collocation is essential. The COBUILD Advanced Learners’ Dictionary can help students to avoid collocation errors. For example, a student may find that the word weighty is a less frequent synonym for heavy and decide to use weighty in an academic paper. However, the context is very important. If the sentence is about the illnesses caused by smoking, then the synonym weighty is not appropriate because it does not collocate with smoking in the way that heavy does. In English, the words heavy and smoking collocate frequently, so the phrases heavy smoking and heavy smoker are quite common, even in academic writing. The COBUILD Advanced Learners’ Dictionary worksheets on collocation provide practice on how to become comfortable using the dictionary to determine collocations. The worksheets’ activities address common collocations, including some which are useful for more academic English.

Usage Error Correction

In addition to collocation errors, usage mistakes are also potential difficulties of trying to write in a more academic tone. Sometimes, students view vocabulary and grammar as different aspects of language that should be learned separately. However, when more advanced students are producing academic writing, the overall sentence may be fine, and a grammar error may be confined to use of a particular word.

Many usage errors stem from different grammatical requirements of synonymous words. Many students often overlook these usage issues when trying to elevate their vocabulary, simply substituting one word for another. For example, accept and agree can be synonyms, but only the sentence using agree is correct. Do you know why?

She agreed to negotiate the terms of the contract.

She accepted to negotiate the terms of the contract.

The infinitive form (to + negotiate) should not follow the verb accept, but the verb agree requires this infinitive form in the construction of the sentence above. The COBUILD Advanced Learners’ Dictionary indicates this important information so that students’ word usage is accurate.

Word usage errors are not limited to verb forms but extends to all parts of speech. Another common usage error involves countable and uncountable nouns. For example, a writer may want to find a substitute for the word tools. They may decide on the word equipment and subsequently use a plural form (equipments) in an attempt to maintain subject-verb agreement. Even proficient English students may forget that nouns like equipment and advice are uncountable in English.

The COBUILD Advanced Learners’ Dictionary worksheets on usage error correction include many opportunities to practice these finer points grammar associated with chosen vocabulary. Used in conjunction with the worksheets on frequency and collocation, students can refine their academic writing by elevating their vocabulary while being mindful of, and avoiding, any pitfalls that could arise while doing so.

As with all of the worksheets accompanying COBUILD Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, those that practice frequency, collocations and word usage errors include a lesson plan with step-by-step guidance on how to set up and conduct the activities. The worksheets for each topic also include useful additional activities that enable students to develop skills to continue improving their academic English independently. For example, students identify three errors they commonly make and write their own usage boxes to help them avoid making the same error in the future.


Susan Iannuzzi has been writing ELT materials for multilingual students of all ages and abilities for over 25 years. She has been working with HarperCollins since 2017.

Find out more about the Collins COBUILD range here.