The Academic Word List: IELTS, academic writing, and more

The Academic Word List: IELTS, academic writing, and more

We often get questions like this:

academic word list university students
academic word list ielts

Our answer is always the same:  the Academic Word List.

In this post we’re going to look at what academic words are, check out at an example of an academic word list sublist, review the academic word list, ielts, and more!

When we’re done, you should definitely check out our Academic Writing course  where we look at a wide range of very useful skills for both IELTS and university/college students.  Or, if you prefer, click “Start Learning” and improve your academic English TODAY!

Master Academic Writing Skills today

Academic success is just a click away

Also worth having a look at is our Instagram page where we share a word a day from the academic word list complete with definitions, example sentences, and pronunciation – they look a bit like this:

If you’re still here, let’s start with what the academic word list is:

Academic Words: a definition

“Academic words” could mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.  We here at HS – link to homepage understand this very simply:

The most useful academic words come from the Academic Word List.

You might be wondering why we think that.  Let’s start with how the academic word list was made. 

Do you know how many words there are in the English language?  The number varies (and is the subject of some debate) but the Oxford English Dictionary has entries for over 170,000 words in use.

Now, if you’re feeling a bit like this

woman panicked at how many academic words there are


No-one knows all the words in English – there are just too many.  Typical native speakers will speak around 15,000-20,000 word families and even a university-educated native speaker only knows around 40,000 words.  But then this raises the question – which words should students (especially second-language students) learn for university study?

An academic at the University of Wellington, NZ by the name of Dr Averil Coxhead wanted to answer this question.  She wanted to create a high-impact vocabulary list that would help students (especially second-language students) be more successful in their studies at English-language universities.

To do this, she used a large corpus (basically a very big computer database of journals, books, etc.) to find words that would be useful for this list.

In making the academic word list, she had three criteria:

  • The words had to be outside of the first 2000 most frequently occurring words in English;
  • The words had to be useful for a wide range of different subjects (e.g., science, law, business, and medicine); and
  • The words had to occur very frequently within the corpus. (see Coxhead, 2000, p221 if you’re interested)

This systematic approach meants that, taken together, the first 2,000 words in West’s (1953) GSL and the word families in the AWL account for approximately 86% of the Academic Corpus 
(ibid, p222) .

That means if you’re an IELTS 5-6 and you know the academic word list, statistically you should be able to understand almost 90% of all academic texts*.  

So let’s look at an example of the academic word list now

Academic word list sublist 1

The academic word list is broken up into 10 sublists – with the more common words being in the earlier lists and less common ones coming later on.  In the table below, you’ll see the words from the first sublist (derived from here).





























































So you might well recognise quite a few of these – which is great – it makes learning the rest of them easy!  Now you might have your own systems for learning vocabulary, in which case, you can download all of the academic word list here.  Or, if you want to try something new, check out the Memrise academic word list set.  Memrise is an awesome website/app combination that we thoroughly recommend for learning new vocabulary.

Once we’re done though, we should talk about the academic word list IELTS and more.

The academic word list and IELTS

Do you know what this is?

academic word list ielts rubric

Maybe.  If not, no problem – we do (after all, we’ve used it a lot).

These are the descriptors that IELTS writing examiners will use to decide what grade to give an IELTS candidate.  We might go into how you can use the descriptors to get amazing IELTS marks in a future post (drop us an email if that’s the kind of thing you might be interested in) but for today, let’s focus on the Vocabulary part of the descriptor.  

Now – see what it says about “a sufficient range of vocabulary to allow some flexibility and precision … uses less common lexical items with some awareness of style and collocation” (IELTS 7)?  What do you think that means IELTS examiners are looking for here?

academic word list sublist 1

Bingo.  That’s how easy it is – master a handful of these words and use them appropriately in your IELTS writing, and you are virtually guaranteed to get a higher mark for this task.  After all, that’s what IELTS examiners are looking for…

I’ve heard there’s a 1000 academic word list?

Well, we can’t help you with that because the AWL is only 570 words long

Or more accurately, it’s a list of 570 word families.  For example – check out the word family for the AWL keyword “analysis” below.

All of these words have the same root meaning but they’re different types of words – “analyse” is a verb, “analysis” a noun and so on. 

Being able to recognise these as being related in this way is key to students enhancing their academic reading skills and making the most of the AWL.  We look into how this can be done as part of our Generating meaning from context vocabulary lesson – which you can find in our Academic Language course.

But you might ask – well why is the word “analysis” in italics?  Firstly – good spotting.  This was one last piece of amazingly useful work by Dr Coxhead.  She identified which member of each word family was the most commonly used in academic writing. 

So the words in italics  are the words that you want to learn from each word family – then, when you come across related words,  you can use generating meaning from context skills to help you understand it without using a dictionary.   You can find a (much shorter) list of the most common AWL words here.

Academic word list tools

Like we said above, if you’re interested in getting daily updates on the Academic Word List, make sure to check out our Instagram page where we’ll be publishing just – a word a day for the working week. 

Otherwise,  we’re developing a range of useful tools to help you make the most of learning and using the Academic Word List so keep checking back for those.  Probably the best way to stay in the loop on that is by joining our email list.

Or, if you want to start your journey to academic success right now – hit Start Learning and get started on improving your Academic Writing Skills TODAY.  

Master Academic Writing Skills today

Academic success is just a click away

Academic writing, language, and study skills: where can I find more resources?

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