Preparing Students for College: The Academic Word List (AWL)

By Justin Lim on December 13, 2009

For students who intend to pursue academic studies at the secondary and post-secondary levels, there is a very specialized vocabulary list that you may not be aware of. The reason why you're not aware of it is because, as a professional, you're likely to be so adept at welding this vocabulary that you do so unconsciously. While this may be the case for us, it certainly is not for our students. Thus, if we truly want to give our students every educational advantage possible, then it's paramount for us to explicitly teach high-usage academic words.

The AWL, or Academic Word List, compiled by Averil Coxhead is a list of 570 words that occur frequently over a wide range of academic texts, but do not appear in the most frequent 2,000 words of the English language. In sum, they're the words that our students do not use in casual speech, but will see again and again in textbooks and in a professional environment.

You can find the list here:

http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/most-frequent.aspx

The list is composed of 10 sub-lists, where words from sublist 1 occur the most frequently, words from sublist 2 the second most frequently, and so on. If you look through the list, you'll quickly notice that the words are not content specific, but rather "functional" words. For instance, they're words like: analyze, respond, context, distribute, function, process, etc. These are precisely the types of words that we would expect to see on a test or in a textbook, but would not expect a student to use in casual everyday speech.

In addition to explicitly teaching words from the AWL, I'm sure to always provide a word bank for any writing assignment. I also keep an ongoing word bank on my whiteboard to encourage students to use academic words during structured class discussions.

Regardless of how you decide to utilize the AWL, here are a few things to remember:

  • Start with sublist 1, which contains the most frequently occurring words.
  • Even though the words are listed alphabetically, do not teach words with similar spelling at the same time to prevent interference during the learning process.
  • Think of the context of the unit you are teaching and pick out words that you know can easily be used by students in their responses.
  • Explicitly praise a student who uses an academic word in a verbal response.

Lastly, here is a useful website that contains vocabulary routines that you can use to teach words from the AWL: http://www.academicvocabularyexercises.com/

As teachers, we have a responsibility to help our students to be successful now, but also to help them to stay successful in the future!

Warm regards,

Justin Lim
Rosemead High School
El Monte Union High School District

 

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