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English language resources

English Vocabulary

Improving English vocabulary can help you as a student, especially if English is not your first language.

As a student, improving your vocabulary and understanding of advanced English expression is a key skill for success. A strong vocabulary can help you to:

  • Understand lectures and readings more easily. University lectures and readings are often complex and challenging, and they often use a wide range of specialised vocabulary. A strong vocabulary will help to understand the concepts and ideas that are being presented, even if some words are unfamiliar.
  • Write more clearly and effectively. Writing skills are critical for success at university, and are required to write essays, reports, and other assignments on a variety of topics. A strong vocabulary, will help to write more clearly and effectively, and to communicate ideas more persuasively, even if English is not your native language.
  • Participate in class discussions more confidently. Class discussions are an important part of the university learning experience, and they allow students to ask questions, share your ideas, and learn from classmates. A strong vocabulary and understanding of English techniques, supports confident and effective participation in class discussions and group collaborative work.

In addition to these specific benefits, improving English vocabulary can also help to:

  • Develop critical thinking skills. A strong vocabulary allows deeper thinking about the concepts and ideas. It also helps better understanding and evaluation of the arguments and perspectives of others, even if they are expressed in complex or nuanced language.
  • Expand your knowledge base. When learning new words,  the concepts or ideas that are represented are also addressed. This can help to develop a wider knowledge base and to become a more well-rounded thinker in English.

The following resources focus on aspects of advanced English language and vocabulary.

What are phrasal verbs?

  • Phrasal verbs are expressions like ‘give up’ and ‘put up with’, made up of a verb together with one or more preposition or adverb.

What is difficult about phrasal verbs?

  • The meaning of a phrasal verb is not always very clear if you look at the words that make it up. For example, if you give up smoking, you are not giving anything to anyone, and you are not putting anything ‘up’ either. It means ‘to stop smoking’.
  • It can sometimes also be tricky to know where to put the object of a phrasal verb. Many are separable, which means that words like ‘it’ go in the middle. For instance, you can say, ‘give up smoking’ or ‘give it up’. But some are inseparable. For instance, you can say, ‘Your tie goes with your shirt’ or ‘it goes with it’. 

Why should I learn and use more phrasal verbs?

  • There are thousands of phrasal verbs in English. You can even buy dictionaries made up entirely of them. Of these, a few hundred are very common in everyday English and are really essential to know and use if you want your English to be natural. 
  • You have probably picked up a lot of phrasal verbs already, but it may be that at school you focused on more formal English, so that you have some gaps. Also, if you speak another European language, you may be tempted to use a word like ‘confess’ or ‘return’ which has a direct equivalent in your language, rather than the more common phrasal verbs which English speakers use to express these meanings (‘own up’ and ‘get back’). 


Idioms are phrases that have a figurative meaning that is different from the literal meaning of the individual words. For example, the idiom "kick the bucket" means to die, even though the literal meaning of the phrase is to kick a bucket. They are an important part of the English language, and can be used to add colour, imagery, and humour to your writing and speech.

Learning idioms can be challenging for students of English, but it is important to do so in order to communicate effectively. When you understand the meaning of idioms, you can better understand what native speakers are saying, and you can also use them yourself to make your own speech more interesting and expressive.


Topic vocabulary

University-level texts and lectures often use specialised vocabulary. Understanding topic vocabulary is essential for communication at university. It helps to effectively comprehend and engage with course materials, participate in class discussions, and to write clear and concise essays and reports.

It is also important for communication with peers and teachers. Using the correct terminology to discuss ideas can lead to more productive collaborations with other students and more informative feedback. Proper use is key for writing clear and concise essays and submissions. 

These word lists provide examples of key subject-specific language for some areas of study at Notre Dame. Each includes a summary of key terms, examples of usage and some short activities. There is also a word list of key vocabulary related to Catholicism, which will help students to understand the culture of a Catholic university like Notre Dame and participate in Core courses.

English dictionaries

Health care language and vocabulary

Business writing and vocabulary