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Information for teachers

Introduction

There are various ways to classify vocabulary. One way is by the contexts in which words are most likely to be encountered or used. Using this classification principle, we can identify a category of words that are commonly found in academic contexts: teacher lectures, class discussion of subject content, subject textbooks, etc. The academic word group itself can further sub-divided into words that are:

The 1000+ academic words I have chosen for this part of the website are from the latter category and I have chosen to designate them general academic vocabulary. †

Selection criteria

For the most part the words I have chosen come from the subject textbooks of the upper school students at Frankfurt International School (FIS). They are supplemented by what I consider to be the most useful words from:

The words are those that, in my opinion as an experienced ESL teacher, will probably not yet have been acquired by ESL students in their second or third years in the ESL program at an upper school.

Clearly, many academic words have multiple meanings, so common can mean frequent - a common mistake or same - a common interest or low-born, coarse - Pip, a common boy! In such cases I have chosen the meaning that in my opinion is the most useful for intermediate to advanced ESL students.

Note: Frequently the multiple meanings of academic words are broadly similar rather than totally different, as in the case of common above. Such words are often distinguished by their usage features. The word familiar is a typical example: it can mean: have knowledge of or experience with (I'm not familiar with the German parliamentary system,) and: known, well-known, common (That sounds familiar. / The VW is a familiar car on German streets). In such circumstances the similar meanings are shown separated by a semi-colon. The learner will need to infer which of the alternative meanings, if any, apply in the four example sentences.

The same "most useful" selection principle applies to my decision regarding the word class (part of speech) of the headword. This may or may not correspond to the relative hit ratings in Yahoo. So, for example, acquire is listed as the headword although it gets slightly fewer hits than acquisition (probably because of the prevalence of the phrase language acquisition).

Definitions

Most of the entries in the list are abstract words for which it is difficult to write a clear and concise definition. The definitions given in these pages, therefore, are to be regarded as starting points in understanding the word in question. It is intended that learners will derive a better understanding from reading the example sentences. Ambitious students can consolidate this understanding in three ways:

* For example, Cobuild has this definition of the word compatible:

"Two things, systems of belief, ideas, etc. that are compatible can exist in the same place and at the same time without harming each other."

I have not attempted to adopt this definition model because a.) it would be too time-consuming (and I am no lexicographer) and b.) some quizzes will not work sensibly if the word being quizzed appears in the definition.

Exemplification

Each headword has a minimum of 4 examples. The first two have been concocted by me to help the student to a quick understanding of the word and its typical use. In order to allow the student to focus immediately on the word and, if desired, try to guess its meaning from the context, the contexts themselves are generally limited to school situations or references to government, medicine or business. These first two example sentences contain no further words that should cause students at this level undue difficulty. Their syntax is straightforward, consisting usually of a single clause with the subject fronted.

The remaining examples are authentic ones that have been found by searching Yahoo on sites in the .edu domain. They cover a wide range of fields, typically starting with an example from university life.

Note: A few of the authentic examples have been slightly altered to improve comprehensibility - mainly by excising parts of overlengthy hits and correcting spelling mistakes, etc. There may be some minor residual grammar or punctuation problems.

Organizational criteria

The words have been organized into groups of 20 nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. in decreasing order of frequency, according to searches in Yahoo (domain .edu). This means, for example, that words in the group Adjectives 5 are less common than the words in Adjectives 2. [More on frequency ranking]

Conclusion

Acquiring a large semi-technical vocabulary is rather tedious but a necessary condition for achieving academic success. Of course, learners will eventually acquire this vocabulary if they read non-fiction texts extensively over long periods of time, but it is my hope that this site can assist them to do so in a more direct way.

More advanced students who already know the vocabulary in the 1000+ word list are advised to work systematically through the Academic Word List, looking up and learning the new words. They can make their own quizzes on these words by using my vocabulary program.

Click for for more information about academic vocabulary.


Important

† Shortly after this part of the website was finished an article appeared in TESOL Quarterly 41/2 with the title Is there an "academic vocabulary"? The authors of the article dispute the usefulness of the notion of a 'general academic vocabulary'. They point out that many of the words that occur in the Academic Word List, (which shows a considerable overlap with the vocabulary in my 1000+ word collection), are in fact much more frequent in some disciplines than others. They claim, therefore, that students who set about learning all the words on such lists could be wasting much of their time. This is a serious criticism, and one which might seem to call into question the value of the academic word list on this website.

In response, it needs to be emphasized that the primary audience for the list are high school students studying for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years and Diploma programs. Such students are required to take a range of subjects including the arts, design technology, the sciences, humanities, mathematics and the Theory of Knowledge. For these students a list such as the one I have put together does, in my opinion, represent a body of vocabulary that is worth learning, since it should help to facilitate the reading they must do and will provide them with a strong vocabulary to draw on in their own academic writing. Moreover, the term general academic vocabulary seems the most suitable one as a description of the words on this list, which are not subject-specific (such as photosynthesis, quadrilateral) but which abound in academic contexts.

In the following example sentences, the academic words are shown in bold:

It is very clear to me that no student at an English-medium school or university can hope to achieve academic success (or read a serious English newspaper or magazine) unless he or she knows a considerable number of such words.

Reference

Hyland, K. & Tse, P. (2007). Is there an "academic vocabulary"? TESOL Quarterly, 42/1.


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)