Academic word list

Welcome to the University's website for learning academic vocabulary 

Academic vocabulary is the vocabulary you really need to learn in order to succeed in your studies.

The purpose of this website is to help you to learn academic vocabulary. Vocabulary learning requires a lot of time and effort, and requires you to work consistently (see our advice on learning vocabulary). We provide advice, information and exercises for you to practise.

This website is designed by teachers and is structured to support your learning. It is not a user controlled site like Facebook or Flickr. You can think of it as being like a book, only more interactive.

We assume that you already know certain things. What we expect you to know are:

  • Basic English grammar and vocabulary
  • Grammatical terms in English: noun, verb, adverb, adjective

Some basic, suggested strategies for learning well, quickly and enjoyably:

  • A Work with a friend - you can support each other.
  • c Study little and often.
  • x Try out new ways of learning.
  • . Use a note-book and write down new words and expressions.
  • b Revise what you have learnt.

How will learning the words on the Academic Word List help me?

Once you have a basic vocabulary in English, it is difficult to make much progress without learning a great number of words. A native speaker student has a very large vocabulary, perhaps 20,000+ words, compared to the average international student who may have a vocabulary of between 4,000 and 5,000 words (Coxhead, 2006). The good news is that it is not really necessary to learn all the words a native speaker knows - however, it is necessary to learn the words you will need for your studies.

You need to know three kinds of words:

  • The most common words in English, which occur frequently in all texts
  • The specialist vocabulary of your subject (e.g. the language of mathematics, business, architecture etc.)
  • Common academic vocabulary (i.e. the Academic Word List)

If you are studying at an English speaking university you probably already know the most common words in English. You can see what these are by going to Introduction then to the General Service List on the Using English for Academic Purposes website. If there are words on this list you do not know, you should study them.

You will naturally learn the specialised vocabulary of your subject while you are studying.

So, it is left for you to learn the academic vocabulary common to all subjects. If you do this, you should be able to understand most texts easily and express yourself clearly.

For an interesting and detailed explanation of how knowing the three areas of vocabulary listed above can help you, read an article by Tom Cobb at www.lextutor.ca/research.

20 ways to learn new words:

  • - 1 Underlining or highlighting words in a text
  • b 2 Using a dictionary to find the meaning of a word
  • V 3 Using pictures or diagrams in the text to help you understand some unknown words
  • C 4 Keeping word lists and reading through them regularly
  • H 5 Using a vocabulary workbook to do exercises
  • ; 6 Using an interactive vocabulary quiz on the computer
  • . 7 Drawing pictures or using colours to make words more memorable
  • , 8 Organising new vocabulary in mind maps or tables
  • = 9 Collecting and displaying examples of words in adverts, letters, packets, texts, etc.
  • A 10 Carrying cards with new words on them in your pocket
  • F 11 Recording new vocabulary and listening to it
  • ) 12 Repeating new words to yourself many times
  • ? 13 Learning a song with new vocabulary in it
  • x 14 Making up a song with the vocabulary you are learning in it
  • Ä 15 Asking someone to explain a word to you
  • G 16 Working out the meaning of a word for yourself before checking in the dictionary
  • b 17 Using a dictionary or thesaurus to find new words on a topic you are interested in
  • Ç 18 Asking a friend to test you on the new words you are learning
  • . 19 Writing sentences or paragraphs using the new vocabulary
  • Ä 20 Explaining the vocabulary you have learnt to someone else

Ms Ricky Lowes

Lecturer in English as a Foreign Language 

I am an English teacher here at the University of Plymouth. I love languages and have a degree in English, and diplomas in French and Spanish. I once learnt a little Chinese (a long time ago!) and I am currently learning Sorani Kurdish, so I understand that language learning can be quite difficult at times!

I became a teacher in 1981 and in addition to my teaching diploma, I have an MA in TESOL from the University of London. However, I still haven’t found time to do a PhD. This is because I have been so busy working teaching languages and training teachers, in Spain, China and Sweden, in addition to working in colleges and universities in the UK, and bringing up my two children! I was also an oral examiner for the Cambridge exams for many years. I have been working at the University of Plymouth since 2004.

My professional interests are Learner Autonomy; Learning/Cognitive Styles; Computer Assisted Learning; Phonology & Pronunciation, and materials writing. I am also very interested in child language development and bilingualism.

I have published a number of books, including:

  • Lowes, R. & Target, F. (1998). Helping Your Students to Learn: A Guide to Developing Student Autonomy. Richmond Publishing.
  • Lowes, R. & Target, F. (2003). Study Skills Unit for ESOL. Basic Skills Agency.
  • Lowes, R., Peters, H. & Turner, M. (2004). The International Student’s Guide: Studying in English at University. Sage Publishing.
I am very interested in how students learn vocabulary, and in helping them to learn the words on the Academic Word List, which is why I developed this site.

We would like to extend our thanks to Macmillan ELT for granting us permission to use definitions and examples from the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners in the creation of exercises for this site.