What is academic vocabulary?

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Academic vocabulary can be difficult to define. One broad definition is the vocabulary which can be used in academic contexts. The problem here though is what do we mean by 'academic contexts'? Does this mean spoken contexts (e.g. lectures, seminars, presentations), written contexts (e.g. essays, articles, reports), or both? Writers on academic vocabulary tend to focus on the latter, and often overlook the former. It also depends on what subject we are talking about. The academic vocabulary necessary for writing a science laboratory report (e.g. apparatus, procedure, errors) has some differences from the academic vocabulary which might be used in social science research (e.g. survey, population, sample), though of course they would also have much in common.

In general, academic vocabulary can be considered to consist of three types of vocabulary:

  1. general words which are acceptable for academic use;
  2. non-general 'academic' words;
  3. technical words specific to an individual subject area.

The Academic Word List (AWL)

The Academic Word List (AWL), developed by Averil Coxhead at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, contains 570 word families which frequently appear in academic texts. The words in the AWL are not connected with any particular subject, meaning they are useful for all students. The 570 word families of the AWL are divided into 10 lists (called sublists) according to how frequent they are. Sublist 1 has the most frequent word families, sublist 2 the next most frequent word families, up to sublist 10, which has the least frequent. Each sublist contains 60 word families, except for sublist 10, which only has 30.

You may access to the AWL here: https://www.eapfoundation.com/vocab/academic/awllists/

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