A question I get asked a lot from teachers and school leaders is ‘what is the word list that best helps pupils grasp the academic language of school?’

The regular – perhaps unsatisfactory – answer I offer is that word lists don’t quite do the job we’d hope. There is no silver-bullet word list that secures academic success. That said, they can offer a useful starting point to hold up to our curriculum plans, consider what we want pupils to use in their talk and writing, and more. 

Everyone loves a good list. Whether it is subject specific vocabulary lists, general academic vocabulary lists, or even spelling lists, they can offer handy starting points to reflect on the language we use in the classroom and beyond. 

Academic Word Lists

Perhaps the most popular word list is Coxhead’s ‘Academic Word List’ (AWL). It has collated 570-word families (e.g. ‘analysis’ represents the wider family of ‘analyse’, ‘analyses’, ‘analysed’ and analyst) derived from over 3.5 million words from a range of university texts. Coxhead excludes the 2000 most common words in English, and she includes only word families that appear at least 100 times. 

If you explore the 60 top words in the AWL (such as analyseapproacharea and assess), it offers a handy proxy for the type of academic language that becomes the norm in reading and writing in secondary school. 

There are a range of other word lists – some general and some more subject specific: 

  • The Oxford 3000 – 5000. A core list for learning the English language. See HERE
  • The Academic Vocabulary List (AVL). A US alternative to the AWL. See HERE
  • The Secondary Vocabulary List (SVL). Originating from Singapore, it collates vocabulary from secondary school textbooks published in UK and Singapore. See HERE
  • The Discourse Connector List (DCL). A comprehensive list of discourse markers, such as first, second, although, and more. See HERE.
  • The Science Word List (SWL). Words commonly found in a range of written science texts. See HERE
  • The Chemistry Academic Word List (CAWL). Words that appear commonly in chemistry research articles. See HERE.
  • The Computer Science Academic Vocabulary List (CSAVL). Words that appear frequently in CS textbooks and journal articles. See HERE
  • The Economics Academic Word List (EAWL). These words appear frequently in economics texts. See HERE

The obvious issue with most of these word lists is that they are long and not created or adapted for teaching. Mostly, they are not sensitive to the curriculum needs of teachers. They can offer general trends around academic language and offer a steer for the types of words pupils should be comprehending when they read and using in their writing (and spelling accurately) as they progress through school. 

I reckon these lists are handy touchstones when developing the curriculum, but they feature alongside useful ways to organise lists of words into more cohesive units of meaning – such as thematic, topic-based, and word root-based patterns (see my last blog on ‘Mighty Morphology – 5 Resources’ – HERE).

The rich, connected knowledge for a topic in school can never be encapsulated by a word list, but it might be a handy tool all the same. Teachers routinely work in subject or phase teams to consider what words to teach. For instance, in English literature, it is useful to identity literary terms and rhetorical devices, where they will feature in teaching and when they’ll be revisited/retrieved.

Tiers for Teaching 

Perhaps more popular than any singular list is Isabel Beck and McKeown’s three tiers of vocabulary. Instead of a pre-made list, it offers a way of thinking about academic vocabulary for teachers (they can prove useful to pupils and even parents too).

The new EEF ‘Improving Primary Science’ guidance report (see HERE) offers a really helpful nuance for teaching science using the tiered model – adding in ‘polysemous words’ (words with multiple meanings) to ensure a fuller understanding of science. 

[Image from page 6 of the aforementioned guidance report]

Though teachers and textbooks typically foreground Tier 3 vocabulary, it can be the Tier 2 vocabulary that makes sense of the specialist Tier 3 words. It is important then that if we are selecting texts of our own to use in the classroom that we pay careful attention to the Tier 2 and Tier 3 words that pupils must negotiate and understand to crack the academic code. 

We shouldn’t expect pupils learn easily from a list, but they can be a useful tool for teachers who are considering their instruction. What should we do with word lists? Weave them carefully into curriculum planning and use them as a touchstone for a shared language for learning. 

If you want a book devoted to everything vocabulary, teaching and learning, then ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap‘ is the book for you! Find it on Amazon HERE and Routledge HERE