English Language Learner Resources


Purdue Owl

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Purdue Owl (https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/purdue_owl.html) is one of the best writing resources available on the internet. It’s loaded with excellent information regarding the nuances of English grammar, the writing process, citation protocols, and much, much else. The thing is, Purdue Owl is almost too big to efficiently navigate. Below are a series of carefully curated links to advice from the Owl that we, at the WC, find particularly relevant to the challenges ELL face when writing.

Online Dictionaries

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Learner Dictionaries
The following online dictionaries are designed for English Language Learners:

Visual Dictionaries
Image-based entries. If you can’t think of the word you want, this visual dictionary may help:

  • The Visual Dictionary— Explains objects through images, breaking each down into its component parts. Lists in English, Spanish, and French.

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 as Wordnik, this site provides 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). 

Dictionaries of Idioms, Colloquialisms, and Phrasal Verbs
For idioms (“six in one hand and half a dozen in the other”), Colloquialisms “pop”/“soda”/soft-drink”) and phrasal verbs (e.g., “to look after” someone), use the following free resources:

Language Dictionaries

  • WordReference.com 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.

Websites for Native-like Word Choice

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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:

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!

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.


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The deluge of exercises that pop up after a quick Google search can be a bit discombobulating. How are we to know what a good grammar exercise looks like? How do we sift through the chaff? For our money, Purdue Owl provides some of the best, FREE, grammar exercises available to English Language Learners. But it too is far too big to effectively navigate in a reasonable period of time. Look below for a curated list of some of the best ELL exercises Purdue Owl offers and a link to additional grammar exercises by Compleat Lexical Tutor.

Purdue Owl Exercises

  • This link will take you to an index of “basic-level” and “introductory” exercises and answers that attend to problems ESL/ELL students commonly face with regard to PARAPHRASING AND SUMMARIZING a text.


  • Here too you will find ESL/ELL exercises that help you navigate SUBJECT POSITIONS and employ NOMINALIZATIONS—nouns (persons, places, and things) created from adjectives (words that describe nouns) or verbs (action words). For example, “rationalization” is a nominalization of “rationalize,” and “argument” is a nominalization of “argue.” Subject (the doer or agent of an action) Positions (the subject’s location in a sentence) change based on the kind of sentence you write. For example, often, in declarative statements, the subject comes before the verb. In questions, the subject often comes after the auxiliary or modal verb and before the main verb.


  • Below you’ll find a series of links to Purdue Owl’s General Grammar Exercise Guide that we’ve curated to address issues we, at the WC, often find in our ELL students’ writing.
  • For Exercises on ARTICLES (a/an/the)


  • For Exercises on PREPOSITIONS OF DIRECTION (to, on, in)


  • For Exercises on TENSE CONSISTENCY—this is an excellent series of exercises!


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.


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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.


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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.

Special thanks to UCLA’s Graduate Writing Center, whose excellent ESL Resources page provided the text and links to many of the “Online Dictionaries,” “Websites For Native-like Word Choice,” “Books,” and “Miscellaneous” information listed on this site.