Academic Word List

The Academic Word List (AWL) was compiled by Avril Coxhead at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. (1)(2) The AWL contains 570 of the most frequently identified word families across a broad range of academic disciplines and is divided into 10 sets of words according to their frequency of use. The list does not include words that are in the most frequent 2000 words of English (see the General Service List below) and therefore provides learners a specific vocabulary for use in academic settings (3). The AWL provides an important vocabulary needed for students to have a critical ability to read and write at colleges and universities.

      • Background
      • Building Student Vocabulary
      • Activities for AWL
      • Other Word Lists
      • References
      • External Links


The General Service List (GSL), a list of nearly 2,300 basic vocabulary of English used in order of frequency. The list was first created by Michael West in 1953 (4) and has been recognized and used extensively by second language learners of English for their work and study. The GSL used subsequently adapted by John Baumann and Brent Culligan in 1995 to make current the extensiveness of the list. The GSL is divided into sublists, each containing sets of 500 words according to frequency of use. See (5) for the complete list.

The AWL was created by Averil Coxhead, currently a Senior Lecturer in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Victoria University in New Zealand. As part of her MA thesis Coxhead built a corpus of over 400 written academic texts selected from 28 different subject areas across 4 disciplines (arts, commerce, law and science). (6) She conducted a frequency analysis to identify those words which appeared “at least 100 times in the corpus as a whole and at least ten times in each of the four disciplines.” (7) The result was a core vocabulary of 570 word families that are divided into 10 sublists. Sublist 1 consists of the 60 most common words in the AWL. Each subsequent Sublist contains the next 60 most frequently used word families, except for sublist 10, which contains 30 words. (8) The 570 word families result in about 3000 of the most frequently used words in academic journals, textbooks, course workbooks and lab manuals. See Coxhead's university site for the list and other resources,

Building Student Vocabulary

Marzano and Pickering (2005) developed a six step process for teaching Academic Vocabulary for elementary and secondary school students. Suggesting the importance of teaching academic vocabulary in a systematic approach, they recommend a systematic strategy for enriching student vocabulary that includes providing descriptions of new words in use rather than strict definitions, allowing students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic of new terms, and incorporating games that allow them to play with the terms. (9)

Activities for AWL

Many websites include exercises and activities that allow learners to practise usage of the various word lists. For example, AWL Gapmaker replaces words from the AWL with a gap and users try to fill the gaps (see example below).(10) Gap-fill exercises expose learners to the different contexts and range of meaning for vocabulary. (11) Other sites offer ways to expand a student's core academic vocabulary. See these sites for helpful exercises to enrich one's vocabulary range,


Hong Kong Polytechnical University's Center for Independent Language Learning provides a useful table of the complete AWL for Chinese learners. (12) Each word includes a definition, words in use, pronunciation and Chinese translation, allowing students to improve their vocabulary for academic reading and writing.

Other Word lists

In 1936 Edward William Dolch compiled a list of frequently used words based on children's books of his era. The Dolch Word List was originally published in his book Problems in Reading in 1948.(13) The list contains 220 "service words" that are necessary to achieve reading fluency in English. Many of the Dolch words words cannot be “sounded out” using common sound-to-letter phonics and must therefore be learned by sight (hence, they are also called "sight words"). A General Service List of English Words was complied by Michael West in 1953 that contained about 2000 headwords of highest frequency in spoken and written English (see Backgroundabove). A word frequency list based on the British National Corpus was compiled by Geoffrey Leech, Paul Rayson and Andrew Wilson in 2001. The publish book,
Word Frequencies in Written and Spoken English, has a companion website that includes subcategories classified by parts of speech, alphabetic frequency and rank frequencies. (14)
Many word lists have been compiled, some organized by subject and others organized by school grade. Examples include
Academic Vocabulary Word lists for Kindergarten thru Sr. High
Words are divided by subject (e.g. Math, Science, Geography) and include games and exercises.
Compiled by grade, K through Senior High, to help students meet the Illinois State Standards.

Numerous other word lists exist, including frequency word lists for nearly every subject from poetry to business. An extensive list of links to thes3 vocabulary lists can be found at


(9) Marzano, R. and Pickering, D. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher’s manual. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

External Links
Avril Coxhead site, which includes the AWL, details of the Corpus, principles of selection and an extensive list of links to other resources associated with AWL. for Chinese learners, the Table of AWL headwords includes a Chinese translation. An extensive collection of resources related to 'English for Academic Purposes' is also provided.
The AWL 570 headwords and related family of words, with definitions provided by the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary (contains additional links to other word lists.