Students will need to know the Academic Word List (AWL) if they hope to study in an English-speaking university environment. In fact, because some of these words are very common, they are even useful to those who do not have academic goals of this kind.

Many of these words are frequently encountered in newspapers, magazines, and novels, and can be heard on television, radio, and movies or in everyday conversation. Exposure to all of these media helps you to learn these AWL words.

The following words are examples of the vocabulary contained within the AWL. You can see that the vocabulary ranges from everyday language to words of a more academic nature.

Example:

areaissuecapacityqualitative
energysimilarvaryhierarchy
functionenvironmentintrinsicequate

It has been found that if students know the 2,000 most commonly used words and then learn the AWL, understanding of academic texts increases by 10%. If instead of learning the AWL, however, the student studies the next 1,000 most frequent words, understanding will only increase by 4.3%.

Choosing words to learn

New words can be learnt by studying the AWL list (570 words divided into 10 sublists) and also by doing the online exercises available here. This site contains many gap-fill exercises to review and recycle the general word families contained within the AWL.

AWL online exercises

  • Start with Sublist 1.which contains the most common words in the AWL.  If these words are known, move on to Sublist 2 (the next most common words) and work all the way down to Sublist 10.
  • Don’t start with the headwords starting with the letter ‘A’ and work down the list in alphabetical order, but choose words that do not look like each other and are not related in meaning.
  • Check the list for words you find in texts. If the words are in the AWL, you should learn them. If they are not in the list, then check the 2,000 most frequent words. If the words are not in the most frequent 2000 words of English or the AWL, then think carefully about whether or not you need to learn them.

How to learn new words

  • Focus on retrieving the words rather than recognising them. Every time you retrieve a word the connection between the form of the word and its meaning is made stronger. Using word cards with the word to be learned on one side and the translations on the other forces you to retrieve the word.
  • Space the number of repetitions of the words you are learning because spacing repetitions results in longer lasting memory. The best spacing is to review the words a few minutes after first looking at them, then an hour or so later, then the next day, then a week later and then a couple of weeks after that.
  • Process the words thoughtfully so that the depth of learning is better. Use techniques which encourage you to make a lot of associations with the words you are learning. For example, think of language contexts and situational contexts in which you could use the words.
  • Avoid interference between the words you are learning by choosing words which are spelled differently and start with different letters. Don’t learn words with similar meanings at the same time. Words which look the same or share similar meanings are easy to confuse and make your learning less effective.

Many thanks to the following for text contributions:

Victoria University – School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies

Gerry’s Vocabulary Teacher

Nation, P. (2001). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press