Academic Vocabulary: For teachers

This page has information for teachers on the resources is this General Academic Vocabulary section of the website.


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:

  • specific to a particular discipline (photosynthesis, putsch, polygon, etc.)
  • not specific to a particular discipline and likely to be met in every academic context (produce, proportion, purpose, etc.).

The 1000+ academic words I have chosen for this part of the website are from the latter category. I call these words general academic vocabulary, but see the Addendum below for a discussion of the appropriateness of this term.

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:

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.

Multiple meanings

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.

Similar meanings

Frequently the multiple meanings of academic words are broadly similar rather than very 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.

Word class criterion

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 - as explained below.

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).


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:

  • by consulting a good monolingual dictionary such as the Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary, which has superior, full-sentence definitions 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.
  • by finding the equivalent word in their own language
  • by using Google or Yahoo restricted to the .edu domain to collect more examples of the word in authentic academic contexts


Each headword has a minimum of four 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. For example, by excising parts of overlengthy hits, replacing a less common word with a more common synonym, and so on.


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.

Further information

On this page you can read more about the frequency ranking criteria of the words in the list.

There is more about academic vocabulary on the Teachers information and advice section of the website.


Shortly after the creation of this part of the website 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+ general academic vocabulary 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 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.

There are more examples of general academic vocabulary (in a passage from a history textbook) on the page Which words are an ESL student unlikely to know.


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

The academic vocabulary can be viewed in ascending or descending order of frequency. The ranking is based on the number of hits returned by Yahoo† on a September 2008 search restricted to sites in the educational domain (.edu). The number shown is in millions, so the word add, for example, got 269 x 1,000,000 = 269,000,000 hits.

It is important to note that the search was done on the keyword only; the frequency ranking, however, results from multiplying the search hits number by a factor* representing the alternative forms of the keyword.

Furthermore, no attempt was made to filter out hits that did not correspond to the meaning of the word chosen for this list. Thus, the million+ hits for the word stable include not only those with the chosen meaning not changing; not easy to change (adjective) but also many with the meaning of the dwelling of a horse (noun).

For these reasons the ranking numbers themselves are not particularly significant and contain some anomalies. They do, however, give a reasonable indication of the relative importance to learners of the words listed. All other things being equal, it is preferable to learn more common words such as available and access before less common ones such as distort and expel.

† Yahoo has been found to provide more consistently reliable results for large numbers of hits than Google. [See the research by French linguist Jean Véronis.]

* The Yahoo hit count has been multiplied by a factor according to the class (part of speech) of the word. The factor for verbs is 3.0 to account for the additional verb forms (add: adds, added, adding). The factor for nouns is 2.0 to account for the plural form; and the factor for adjectives/adverbs is 1.5.

† Nation, P. (1990). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Massachusetts. Newbury House. 1990.

Note 1

* Many English academic words have several meanings that can be very different. This website lists the meaning that is, in the opinion of the webmaster, the most useful for ESL students learning and taking exams in English.

For example, the adjective complex meaning difficult, complicated is considered more useful than the noun complex meaning having some kind of personality disorder. The definition given, therefore, is that of complex as an adjective. [Some words are listed with two or more meanings - if those meanings are broadly similar.]

Each word is shown with one or more related meanings or definitions*, together with at least four sentences exemplifying its use.