Learning Academic Vocabulary

Vocabulary learning has been an essential aspect of language learning for a long time. New vocabulary can be acquired subconsciously by reading widely, for example. In most second language and foreign language classes, new vocabulary is explicitly taught by teachers. This blog focuses on academic vocabulary and discusses the following questions: 

  • What types of academic vocabulary are there?
  • What is the Academic Word List?
  • Why is academic vocabulary used in an academic context?
  • How do I assess my academic vocabulary knowledge?
  • What are some strategies to learn academic vocabulary?  

Types of academic vocabulary 

In general, academic vocabulary refers to words that are commonly used when studying in universities. There are three categories of academic vocabulary: general words, non-general academic words and technical terms. 

General words refer to those that are used in non-academic contexts but are also used in the academic context. These words include disagreesuggest and possible. 

Non-general academic words refer to words that are not commonly used in informal situations. These words are used in the academic contexts across disciplines. In other words, they are not restricted to any one field of study. They are words like analysishypothesis and sample (size). These words can be found in medicine, sociology and economics. 

Technical terms are words that are used in a particular discipline, and are related to concepts in that field of study. Consider these words: cadencecrotchet and syncopation. These are technical terms in the study of music. It is almost impossible to find them in any other disciplines, such as engineering and geography. In some cases, technical terms do cross over in related subjects. For example, genome, DNA and mutation are technical words in medicine and botany (the study of plants). 

The Academic Word List (AWL) 

The field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) has been interested in helping their students improve their academic writing skills by teaching academic vocabulary. One of the resources that teachers of EAP use is the Academic Word List. The aim of this list is to provide students a list of words that are used across disciplines. 

The Academic Word List, or AWL, was developed by AProf Averil Coxhead at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She lectures in the area of vocabulary teaching and learning.  

The AWL consists of 570 words selected from a collection of academic texts. These texts include journal articles, book chapters, course workbooks, laboratory manuals and course notes. The texts are selected from 28 subject areas, including biology, history, mathematics and marketing.

Academic Vocabulary as a Communication Tool

Academic vocabulary can be viewed as a tool that allows members of the academic community to communicate their ideas effectively. An aspect of effectiveness in academic communications is to express ideas accurately and concisely; in other words, to express oneself in the most unambiguous way possible.  

Consider the following examples. 

Example 1: Our results were consistent with initial hypotheses 

Example 2: What we have found was pretty much the same as what we guessed. 

Example 1 is from the finding section of a Psychology research article. Example 2 is an informal conversational version of Example 1. In the first example, academic vocabulary (i.e., results, consistent, hypotheses) is used. This example shows that the word results can be used in a concise manner to refer to what we have found 

Referring to the same examples, let’s consider how academic vocabulary is used to express an idea accurately. Let’s compare the words hypotheses and guesses. Aren’t hypotheses a form of academic guesses? The short answer is no. The two words are different. Hypotheses are informed speculations. They are formulated based on existing research findings. The word guessed, in general, suggests randomness and chance. In Example 1, the word hypotheses is used because it is what the writers of the article are referring to – initial informed speculations instead of wild guesses. 

How Do I Assess My Academic Vocabulary Knowledge? 

According to Paul Nation, a Professor in applied linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, there are many aspects of vocabulary knowledge. Use the following questions to test your knowledge of your academic vocabulary. 

  1. Can I spell the word correctly?
  2. Can I pronounce the word appropriately?
  3. Do I know the meaning of the word?
  4. Do I know how to use the word in a sentence?
  5. Do I know the grammatical function (e.g., noun, verb, adjective) of the word?
  6. Do I know some collocations of the word? 

Knowledge of a word, in summary, involves knowing the meaning of a word, both the spoken and written forms of the word, and the ability to pronounce and write it. 

How to Learn Academic Vocabulary effectively

There are many ways to learn academic vocabulary effectively. Consider the following suggestions: 

1. Read academic texts widely 

One of the ways to improve vocabulary in general is reading widely. In the context of academic vocabulary learning, it is important to be exposed to a wide variety of academic texts. These may include reading textbooks, journal articles and semi-academic blogs. For students who are preparing for academic studies, reading journal articles may be an intimidating experience. Why? It is because specialist knowledge is required to understand these articles. For these students, semi-academic blogs and abstracts of research article may serve as a transition. To ensure that the reading experience is sustainable, it is important for students to select topics that they enjoy reading. 

2. Listen to academic lectures 

Another way to improve academic vocabulary is by listening to academic lectures. These may include podcasts and Ted Talks. Students may a select a topic of interest and watch a related lecture on the internet. For students to select topics they enjoy, or are interested in, is important, because a familiar topic can to support listening comprehension. 

3. Flashcards 

Flashcards are a useful tool to help students review what they have learned. Typically, one side of the card has with a word that students would like to learn, and the other has the definition of the word in English or a translation. These words could be from the AWL, or words that the students have identified from academic texts themselves. 

4. Vocabulary exercises 

Vocabulary exercises include selecting an appropriate word to complete a sentence, and matching an academic word with the correct definition. These exercises are commercially available in print, or on the internet, on sites such as My Academic Vocab. Effective activities do not only practice words in isolation but also help students to learn how the words are used in context. 

5. Spelling activities  

Another useful activity is spelling. In a typical spelling activity, dictation, a teacher reads a word and the students write the word in their notebooks and then check the spelling. These words are usually selected by the teacher. However, teachers can encourage their students to be more independent by asking them to suggest words that they would like to spell.  

6. Use the dictionary 

Students can use a dictionary to find out the meaning of an unfamiliar word. The question is should students look up all unfamiliar words that they encounter? Probably not. It is important for students to identify unfamiliar words that would affect comprehension, and those that will not. To minimise interruption in their reading experience, students should use a dictionary when the unfamiliar word is necessary to understand the text. When encountering an unfamiliar word, students can usefully attempt to guess the meaning of the word before using a dictionary. 

7. Use words that you have learned 

Perhaps the most neglected way of learning academic vocabulary is to use it. Students may use words that they have learned in their essays and presentations. In the context of essay writing, students can re-read their essay, or their peer’s essay, and replace informal words with academic words. 


In summary, academic vocabulary refers to words that are used in academic contexts. These words consist of words that are used in neutral contexts, words that are used across disciplines (as compiled in the Academic Word List), and technical terms. This blog post has also discussed the role of academic vocabulary in communication within academic environments. It has also presented a list of questions to help students assess their knowledge of academic vocabulary. Finally, seven strategies are provided to help students learn academic vocabulary.