The Importance of the Academic Word List

The Importance of the Academic Word List

“One forgets words as one forgets names. One’s vocabulary needs constant fertilizing or it will die.”

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), British author and journalist


What is the Academic Word List? Why does it matter? How can it help English language learners get a higher TOEFL Score? How can it help them learn and participate more in your college classes?

Essential to Academic Success

Let’s start with what many students hoping to go to college or study abroad already know. TOEFL and IELTS scores count, and standardized tests reward a rich vocabulary, often explicitly testing vocabulary skills. Nuance and precision are also exhibited by identifying appropriate words. Therefore, a strong academic vocabulary is seen as essential by many English language learners for a successful college or university career. Additionally, many English teachers naturally notice and appreciate this skillset, since academic writing requires a more formal register than casual oral speech.


Yet what are the key words that a college student needs for academic success in English? Professor Averil Coxhead at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand studied a wide range of academic texts across disciplines in the late 1990s. She culled 570 word families that she deemed vital for college preparation and created the Academic Word List. The list was further divided into 10 sub-lists, from the most frequent to the least frequent.

Due to the need for a systematic, focused vocabulary list, the AWL quickly established itself within academic high schools around the world. Many intensive English programs also adopted the AWL for their college prep programs, aiding ambitious, college-bound international English students and creating a niche within the ESL/EFL world. Although a heated controversy has arisen over the extensive focus of this vocabulary list, it’s safe to say that studying the AWL ultimately helps create more compelling conversations!

How We Use the AWL

The following is a list of AWL words reviewed on the Vocabulary Lists in our most recent textbook, Compelling Conversations Vietnam:

Academic Achieve Advocate Assist
Accurate Adapt Appreciate Assume
Available Ethnic Label Recover
Bond External Lecture Region
Conduct Fee Media Rely
Consumer Flexible Medical Resolve
Controversy Fund Participate Rigid
Conversation Generation Positive Role
Cooperate Goal Potential Schedule
Criteria Hierarchy Publication Section
Culture Interact Purchase

You can find the entire Academic Word List (AWL) in 10 subsections online. Additionally, I also recommend students familiarize themselves with the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). This remarkable reference site documents how English words and phrases actually appear in spoken and written English.

Do you cover the Academic Word List in your English classroom? Would you consider it an effective tool for expanding student vocabulary? Why or why not?

This blog post features content from the second edition of Compelling Conversations – Vietnam, released in November and available now on Amazon! Check out our featured sample chapter, Delicious Choices, here. For more sample chapters from this and our other titles, click here.


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About the Author

Eric H. Roth teaches international graduate students the pleasures and perils of academic writing and public speaking in English at the University of Southern California (USC). He also consults English language schools on communicative methods to effectively teach English. Roth co-authored Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics in 2006 to help English language learners increase their English fluency. Recommended by English Teaching Professional magazine, the advanced ESL textbook has been used in over 50 countries in English classrooms and conversation clubs. Easy English Times, an adult literacy newspaper, has published a monthly column, “Instant Conversation Activities,” based on the book since 2008. The first specific version for a particular country, Vietnam, was published in 2011. Compelling American Conversations came out in 2012, and Compelling Conversations – Japan arrived in 2015. Eric enjoys sharing reflections, resources, and teaching tips on this #ESL #EFL #ELT blog.

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