Academic vocabulary is a game-changer in all of your writing.

Why should you learn academic vocabulary?  Will it really improve your academic writing?  Absolutely!

When you write clearly and formally about the content in your field your academic paper will impress your professors.  The best way to make the content of your essays and papers clear is by using words specific to your field and common academic words.

So, what vocabulary words do you need to know so that your writing is specific and formal?

There are two types of vocabulary you need to use in your writing: subject area vocabulary and common academic vocabulary. 

Subject area vocabulary-– words you use in your field of study and other college courses.  These could be words in the fields of technology, physics, chemistry, economics, math, psychology, sociology, and anything you study in your classes.

You find these words in your textbooks, academic journal articles, books on your subject, blogs about your subject and anywhere else you read something related to the courses you take.

Common academic vocabulary–words you find in all the reading and writing you do in college.  Some examples of these words are:  analyze, aspects and evidence.

You can find this vocabulary on the Academic Word List(AWL).  This list was created by Dr. Averil Coxhead (Senior Lecturer, School of Linguistics and Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington).   It is a list of the most common words used in college and professional settings.  There are 570 word families on the AWL and you can find all the words online:

The AWL is divided into sublists and the most common words are on Sublist 1.  Each word lists the root word and different forms of that root word.  These are called word families.

Here is a word family from Sublist 1:  source, sourced, sources.

Yes, there are a lot of words to learn.  But, when you know these words you will elevate your academic writing.  So, focus on learning 5-7 words at a time.

Don’t try to learn too many words too fast.  It makes it hard to remember all the words!

5 Great Ways to Increase Academic Vocabulary. 

1. Keep a word journal.   A word journal is one place (a notebook, a computer document, etc.) where you write down words you don’t know.   Then you want to:

  • Look up the definition of the word, and think of your own definition.
  • Write a definition in your own words.
  • Copy the exact sentence where you found the word.
  • Write your own example of that word.

What makes this method great is that you can always look up the words you’ve learned if you can’t remember them. You could create a vocabulary journal for each of your classes. Then you have a place to find words related to the readings you do in class.

2. Write vocabulary definitions in the margins. Read academic texts, articles, blogs, in your field, classes etc. and highlight or underline the words you don’t know.  Re-read the sentence or paragraph again, look the words up and write your own definition in the margins of what you’re reading.

You can find many ways to do this with online reading too.  Adobe Acrobat Reader has a highlighting and comment feature you can use to take notes on vocabulary.  You can do the same thing with e-books on Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers.

Writing (or typing) definitions in the margins help you remember the words, and it’s useful when you must refer to that article or study it for a test!

3. Create a vocabulary mind map. A vocabulary mind map is where you write a word in a circle in the middle of your paper (or in a computer document) and have other words or ideas connected to that word in circles connected to the main word.  Some words or concepts you could include in your map could be:

  • Synonyms
  • Antonyms
  • Examples of the word
  • Definition of the word (dictionary)
  • Your own definition

There are many different types of vocabulary maps online.  Search for the phrase academic vocabulary map in Pinterest or Google Images and you will see many results.  Find the type of vocabulary map you like best or make your own!

Here are some free mapping tools that you can use to create vocabulary mind maps:

If you are a visual learner, vocabulary maps are a great way to study words and remember them. If you want to learn more about creating a vocabulary mind map check out my this post

4. Make vocabulary flashcards.  This is like the vocabulary word journal, but instead of writing the words in a journal you create flashcards for each word.   I recommend using 5 X 8 index cards.  For each flashcard:

  • Write the main word on the top of your flashcard.
  • Look up the definition in the dictionary and write your own definition of that word.
  • Write a sentence using that word.
  • If the word is part of a word family, write those words underneath, and define them in your own words.

Flashcards are a great way to practice vocabulary from the Academic Word List (AWL) because it’s easy to flip through your cards and practice 5-7 words a day.

5. Practice writing academic vocabulary.  Use these words in your essays and papers.

A great place to do is when you write the first draft of your academic paper. When you revise your paper ask the person reading it to check and see if the academic words are used correctly.  When your teacher, tutor or other students read your paper they will know to check the words you used.

The most important thing about learning academic vocabulary is that using it in your essays and research papers will elevate your academic writing.  So, decide what method/s above you like to boost your academic vocabulary.

Now Take the Academic Vocabulary Challenge:

Select a word below and try to use 2 or more different ways of learning vocabulary.  These 5 words are from the Academic Word List (AWL), and they are extremely common in academic writing.

  • Analyze (American English spelling) / Analyse (British English spelling).
  • Derive
  • Evidence
  • Source
  • Theory

When you’re done, comment below and tell me which technique you like the best.