Do you feel overwhelmed by academic vocabulary?

Do you read articles and books filled with academic vocabulary?  Sometimes all those words can be confusing.  But understanding academic words and using them in your writing is essential.  If you have a strong command of academic vocabulary, it’s easy to find the right words that are specific to your field and words that suit formal writing.  And it’s easier to write essays and papers that impress your professors and other academic readers.

So, how can you best learn new academic vocabulary and add it to your writing?  Well, there are 5 great ways to practice and increase your academic vocabulary.  Each strategy for studying new words helps you learn any kind of academic vocabulary.

Types of Academic Vocabulary

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

Subject–area vocabulary— represents the words you use in a specific field of study. These could be words in the fields of technology, physics, chemistry, economics, math, psychology, sociology, and any other discipline.

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--represents words and phrases you find in essays, academic papers, textbooks and articles across all fields. Some examples of these words are: analyze, constitute, derive, source, theorize and evidence.

You can find this type of 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 educational 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 word. These are called word families.

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

Yes, there are a lot of academic words.  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 Unique Ways to Study Academic Vocabulary

There are 5 creative and unique ways to learn new academic vocabulary.  Each approach works for both subject-area words and common academic words.  They are geared toward different types of learners, so try 1 or more methods that suit you. 5 Unique Ways to Boost Your 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. This is the process for keeping a word journal:

  • 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 or draw 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 word journal for each of your classes. Then you have a place to find vocabulary words and phrases related to the readings you do in class.

If you are a visual learner you may prefer drawing examples of your words.  In this case, use a physical journal, so you have room to be creative.

2. Highlight or Underline and Define Words in a Text

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 highlight 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 will help you remember the words. Those notes are also useful when you refer back to that article or study it for a test!

A tip for learning words is that when you write something by hand you remember it better than when you type something.  Compare writing with typing and see which works best for you.

3. Create a Vocabulary Map

A vocabulary 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.  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
  • Related words

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.   There are also great free mapping tools that you can use to create vocabulary maps:

If you are a visual learner, vocabulary maps are a great way to study words and remember them. To see more about how to use vocabulary maps, check out my blog post, “Vocabulary Maps 101: How to Rapidly Increase Your Academic Vocabulary”

And watch the video to see the vocabulary map I created with Mind Mup 2.

4. Make Vocabulary Flashcards

This is like a 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. Use Academic Vocabulary in Your Essays

Use academic words in your essays and papers!  A great time to do this 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.

Adding common and subject-area academic vocabulary to essays and research papers elevates your academic writing.  It shows your readers you have a thorough understanding of your content.  Also, these words give you a chance to be clear and specific about what you mean. The right blend of vocabulary in your writing ups the level of your essays and papers. But beware of using too many academic words or using words you don’t understand. The best way to avoid that is by having someone else read your writing–someone who will tell you when your ideas and words are confusing.

Boost your academic vocabulary

Academic vocabulary is crucial to your success as a student.  It helps you with reading comprehension and it helps you write impressive academic essays and papers. These 5 methods are great for learning academic vocabulary, but the best way to master new words is by using them every chance you get.

So, decide what technique/s above you like to boost your academic vocabulary, and start using academic vocabulary in your writing.  Over time it will raise the quality of your essays and academic papers making them more persuasive and effective.

What way of learning academic vocabulary is your favorite?  Please comment below with your ideas.