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Academic vocabulary and academic word lists (AWL)

Improving academic vocabulary skills is an important aspect of any language study at university level. Academic vocabulary can be seen everywhere: in textbooks, journals, lecture handouts, exam papers, essays, assignments, etc. However, vocabulary skills do not improve simply through a natural, effortless process; one has to be as 'active' as possible in dealing with vocabulary, right from the start.

The harder you work on your vocabulary, and the more actively you study, the better your assignments will be, and the more efficient your reading will be too. So the rewards from studying vocabulary are considerable.

Key advice

1. What is academic vocabulary? Are there any academic word lists?

2. How can I learn vocabulary quickly?

    What is academic vocabulary? Are there any academic word lists?

    There have been many attempts to define what exactly academic vocabulary is. Many people think that academic vocabulary is more 'difficult' than general English vocabulary. However, academic vocabulary is not necessarily 'difficult vocabulary'; using academic words is more a question of finding appropriate language, in a suitable style, than anything else.

    As this web page is essentially a practical one, designed for students rather than researchers, we will indicate only one piece of research that is likely to be particularly useful. This is the AWL (Academic Word List); a list of academic words devised by Averil Coxhead, a researcher based in New Zealand.

    In order to build up this word list, Coxhead spent some time placing on computer several hundred written academic texts (that is, about 3.5 million words in total). She then analysed them to see which ones were used most frequently.

    The 570 words on the Academic Word List are all thought to be important for students preparing for academic study. If you study these words, and try to use them actively, it will help you to use English vocabulary more successfully, regardless of your study discipline.

    The AWL can be accessed at the following website: http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/

    There are some exercises on the sub-lists here.

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    How can I learn vocabulary quickly?

    It can be very difficult to learn new words or phrases. Academic language can often seem very abstract and the more abstract it is, the less memorable it is. In order to improve one's use of academic vocabulary, it is useful to bear in mind some of the principles of what may be termed 'accelerated learning'.

    There are six generally agreed 'stages' of accelerated learning; these are as follows :

    • Getting into a suitable state of mind.
    • Using the senses to acquire information.
    • Understanding what you are trying to learn.
    • Memorising what you are trying to learn.
    • Using what you are trying to learn actively.
    • Providing feedback on what you have learned.

    Most of us are very familiar with the first four of these procedures, but in fact, very few of us may manage to use actively the language that we have learned (or think we have learned), as in Stage 5. This is a big part of the problem; the words we come across very often stay at a 'receptive' level, and do not quite reach our active vocabulary.

    So - what can we do to actively use what we are trying to learn? Some suggestions that have been made by our students in the past are as follows :

    • Use mind maps to draw relationships between different words.
    • Put word families/groups on one page in your vocabulary book.
    • Listen to classical music (Mozart is best) before you work.
    • Use mnemonic devices (that is, a word whose first letters give you the key to other important words).
    • Put key words into a short story.
    • Talk to someone else about what you have learned.
    • Imagine the most absurd scenario to make the information more memorable.
    • Write words and vocabulary notes using different colours.
    • Walk around as you are trying to remember; movement helps. I did most of my revision for my RSA teaching diploma examinations by walking along the beach at Westgate carrying cue cards (true story!), not sitting at my desk.
    • In short, never just do nothing - always do something!

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      Recommended books for developing academic vocabulary

      We especially recommend:

      Check your Vocabulary for Academic EnglishDavid Porter, Check your Vocabulary for Academic English. 2007. Bloomsbury Publishing.

      This book is based on research by I.S.P. Nation (1990), who drew up a well-known vocabulary list of 800 items ranked according to their frequency, across a range of academic texts.

      David Porter uses this academic word list as the basis for a range of useful exercises: filling in the gaps, choosing the right word, word substitution, collocations and sentence completion.

      This book is ideal for self-study.

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      Ten best tips for improving one's use of academic vocabulary

      Learning vocabulary effectively is linked to one's preferred learning style, and so is a very personal matter; what works for one student may not work for another. Some students like to stick Post-it notes on their door to remind them of the words; others prefer to learn lists of unconnected words, out of context. One student I remember tried to learn the dictionary from A to Z, highlighting words that he didn't know. This may seem a very bizarre strategy to some, but at least it worked, in a sense, for the student concerned. The important thing to remember is that there is no 'do nothing' option - whatever you do to learn vocabulary is always better than doing nothing at all and hoping that vocabulary will be acquired 'naturally'. 

      Here are some further tips:

      • Read actively with paper and pencil to hand and make a note of academic words and phrases that seem to be particularly useful and try and learn them.
      • Note how experienced writers use vocabulary, and try to imitate their use of it if you can (without copying ideas, of course).
      • Explore relationships between words. For most people, learning vocabulary remains at a surface level and simply involves memorising the word or phrase in translation, however, try to look at relationships between words (e.g. word families) and word formation (e.g. prefixes, suffixes, etc).
      • Use Latin-based words in favour of phrasal verbs where you have a choice e.g. 'to get on with' could be replaced by 'to have a good relationship with'. This is referred to as a 'lexical shift', and is important in academic writing .
      • Use a dictionary and thesaurus where appropriate; do not just assume that a word exists without checking it first.
      • Make sure you write the word you are using in the correct part of speech; do you need the noun form, the verb form or the adjective?
      • Avoid the use of 'boring' words such as 'advantage', 'problem', 'good', 'bad', 'interesting' and replace these with something more descriptive.
      • Do not use the same word twice in a sentence or close together in a paragraph or text.
      • Aim to express your meaning very precisely. For example, note the difference between apparently similar verbs such as 'suggest', 'indicate', 'emphasise', 'point out'.

      And perhaps most importantly of all:

      • Try to keep good vocabulary records; your records should include, as a minimum, the word or phrase, a translation, information about how to pronounce the word (word stress, phonetics, etc), an example of the word or phrase in a sentence, etc. Make a conscious decision as to whether you want to use the words actively (active vocabulary) or whether you just want to be able to recognise them (passive vocabulary).

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