How To Teach the Academic Word List

By Alex Case
What to teach about the most used academic vocabulary, and how to do so – vital for IELTS, EAP, pre-sessional, study abroad and Academic Writing classes.

The Academic Word List is a collection of 570 word families (such as “academic”, “academically”, “academia” and “academy”) that commonly occur in academic writing such as journal papers but are not in the list of the 2000 most common words in the English language. Although students can also benefit from more subject-specific vocabulary, this general academic list is useful for reading (e.g. of textbooks and the IELTS Reading paper), writing (e.g. dissertations), speaking (e.g. academic presentations) and listening (e.g. lectures). There are many paper and online self-study resources specific to academic vocabulary and the Academic Word List, for example:

  • Sections of the newest editions of the textbook Focus on IELTS
  • Academic Vocabulary in Use
  • The Academic Word List section on

The AWL is also worth some class time, be it to do things that students can’t do on their own at home or to introduce them to extra practice that they can do elsewhere. There are plenty of general vocabulary games that are suitable for words from the AWL (e.g. random pelmanism, Call My Bluff, Taboo and the definitions game) and with careful selection it might even be possible to do more fun vocabulary games like miming. However, before you set off on trying to teach the whole list this way it is worth thinking about which kinds of words on the list you most need to teach and what students need to know about them.

Things you can teach and practise about the Academic Word list include:

  • Meanings, including different meanings of words (e.g. in different academic areas or academic and everyday meanings with words like “appreciate”)
  • Synonyms (including less academic synonyms)
  • Antonyms
  • Different parts of speech (including word formation, mainly meaning prefixes and suffixes)
  • What prefixes and suffixes in the list mean
  • Countable and uncountable nouns
  • Positive and negative connotations (including words that have the same meaning but different connotations, opposite words that don’t have opposite connotations, and words with negative prefixes that have positive connotations)
  • Pronunciation (e.g. shifting stress) and spelling (including typical spelling problems)
  • Irregular plurals (e.g. appendix/ appendices, medium/ media)
  • British and American differences
  • Words from the AWL which show doubt and certainty
  • Words from the AWL that can be used for describing trends
  • Words from the AWL that express largeness and smallness
  • Words from the AWL that can be used as or in linking phrases
  • Collocations with words from the AWL (including dependant prepositions and fixed phrases)
  • Determiners that commonly go with words from the AWL (e.g. in fixed phrases)
  • Typical confusions (e.g. false friends, words which have similar but different meanings and minimal pairs)
  • Greek, Latin and French roots of the words

Which of those you want to focus on will mainly depend on their levels and needs, e.g. missing out pronunciation entirely in an Academic Writing course.

You could easily and usefully do a whole lesson on just one of the points in the list above, especially as they illustrate more generally useful things to know about vocabulary and can easily be extended into useful words that are not on the AWL. I could write, and have written, whole articles on how to teach and practise each of the things above, e.g. collocations games and countable and uncountable nouns, and most of those general activities work fine with EAP (English for Academic Purposes) and Academic Writing courses such as preparation for study abroad courses too – including the games! I therefore haven’t attempted to explain how to teach each of those things into this article.

As well as general vocabulary games and activities for each of the points above, you can also get students using AWL vocabulary while teaching other academic language such as typical phrases – and this has become perhaps my favourite of the three approaches. For example, as well as AWL words which can be used to explain trends (e.g. “diminish” and “collapse”), there are plenty more that you can put in phrases to ask students to explain the trends of (e.g. “abandoned pets” and “academic funding”).

Other academic language that you can put the AWL into the practice of includes:

  • Cause and effect (e.g. explain a good reason why you chose to do something like “support totally unlimited immigration” or the unintended positive consequences of doing something like “mocking your lecturer’s hypothesis”)
  • Comparing and contrasting (e.g. comparing things like “infrastructure” in different places and/ or times; trying to find similarities between random words from the AWL; or explaining how similar or different pairs of words which are synonyms, near synonyms and common confusions are)
  • Talking about advantages and disadvantages (e.g. looking at both sides of things like “how difficult it is to get published in paper journals”, trying to find negative aspects of positive things like “interaction between children from different countries” or trying to find positive aspects of negative things like “injuries to children in parks”)
  • Hedging language/ The language of generalisation (e.g. students making statements about things like “physical labour in your country nowadays” and seeing if other groups agree with the level of certainty and generalisation that is used)
  • Phrases for explaining and clarifying meanings (e.g. asking students to explain things like “one ideology” with their partner asking for more and more clarification)
  • Phrases for giving examples (e.g. giving more and more examples of things like “abstract nouns” until their partner guesses what is being described)

You can also obviously put the AWL vocabulary into example sentences used during the presentation and written practice stages of lessons on such typical academic phrases.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet February 2013
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Teflnet

One Comment

  • Hestiyana says:

    These informations are extramely usefull and help us to understand about Academic Word List. Thank you.

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