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"Academic English" Lists


One trend I've noticed in the field of teaching English-language learners is that lots of educators are talking about how best to impart "academic English"—the language of school as opposed to social English—as efficiently as possible.

At TESOL's annual conference recently, Kaye Wiley Maggart, who has written books for ELLs published by Pearson Education, encouraged teachers to refer to word lists developed by linguists to make sure students are learning the vocabulary they need to do well in school and on standardized tests. She recommended an academic word list developed by Averil Coxhead from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

I see that Larry Ferlazzo, a teacher of ELLs at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, has also just recommended the same list on his blog, and has noted that the list comes with exercises.

Educators: What tools and strategies are you finding useful to make sure that your students acquire "academic English?" Has the laser-like focus on "academic English" in the field been fruitful, and if so, how? Or is it just the latest buzz phrase?


Mary Ann,

I think the growing awareness that there are such things as "academic word lists" have been helpful to students and teachers. It increases our awareness to integrate that kind of vocabulary learning into our classes, and it's easy to do so once you have the lists.


Mary Ann,

Vocabulary is indeed an essential part of academic English. However, it is a misconception that vocabulary is the only factor essential for ELLs' success in school. They also need to know and be able to use and comprehend the grammar, syntax, and organization of discourse that distinguish the language of classrooms and tests from everyday social English. Compare, for example:

"Rocks! There's all different types and sizes." (written by an advanced ELL)

"The mass of a rock is a measure of the amount of matter it is made of." (classroom lesson)

NCELA has a useful list of resources for teaching academic English:


You don't learn vocabulary from lists, just like you don't learn spelling from memorizing spelling lists or looking up vocabulary in the dictionary, memorizing them and taking a test on Fridays. It all part of a quick fix for something that takes a long while to learn and is a lot more complex. It's like those math vocabulary lists which are supposed to "clue" you into an algorithm to solve. Better to teach problem solving and what an algorithm really represents.

Mary Ann,

Coxhead's Academic Word List has definitely been helpful in providing a base for vocabulary instruction. I completely agree with Barbara and Lynn that poor vocabulary instruction or ignoring the rest of language instruction is a mistake. The problem is when teachers confuse knowledge about a language (like which words are more or less common in a given register) with pedagogy. This doesn't mean that frequency lists are bad for teaching, though.

On the contrary, a list like the AWL helps instructors and students focus their limited time on the langauge that will be most useful for them in a particular register. If a learner's end goal is to master the langauge of academic textbooks, then it makes sense for that learner to study the words that set academic language apart from non-academic language. Coxhead derived the AWL from a very painstaking study of a broad range of academic texts and I think people will better understand the usefulness of the list having read the actual article.

Coxhead, A. 2000. A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213-239.

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