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The TESOL Quarterly publishes brief commentaries on aspects of English language teaching. Edited by DANA FERRIS University of California, Davis
The Academic Word List 10 Years On: Research and Teaching Implications
AVERIL COXHEAD Victoria University of Wellington Wellington, New Zealand doi: 10.5054/tq.2011.254528
& It is 10 years since TESOL Quarterly published, ‘‘A New Academic Word
List’’ (Coxhead, 2000; reprinted in Teubert & Krishnamurthy, 2007). The AWL is now widely used in English for academic purposes (EAP) classrooms in many countries, in a wide range of materials, in vocabulary tests, and as a major resource for researchers. In this article I reflect on the impact of the Academic Word List (AWL) by looking at commonly asked questions about the list: What is the AWL? Is the AWL useful/ adequate for a range of learners’ needs? How can I help students learn academic vocabulary? What materials using the AWL are available? And finally, When are you going to update the AWL?
WHAT IS THE AWL?
The AWL is a list of 570 word families. An example of a word family is benefit, beneficial, beneficiary, beneficiaries, benefited, benefiting, and benefits. The word families in the AWL included stems plus all affixes up to and including Level Six of Bauer and Nation’s (1993) scale. The list was developed using a written academic corpus of 3.5 million running words. The corpus was divided into four discipline areas, arts, commerce, law, and science, each with approximately 875,000 running words. The corpus contained 414 texts which were balanced for length as much as
TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 45, No. 2, June 2011
written by professional and student writers Chen & Ge (2007) Medical research articles Konstantakis (2007) Business Coxhead & Hirsh Science (2007) Ward (2009) Engineering Martınez.possible.51 8.3 million 279. & ´ Agricultural sciences Panza (2009) research articles Vongpumivitch.000 most frequent word families of West’s (1953) General Service List of English Words (GSL) would not be included in the count. engineering.d.6 Study Corpus Coxhead (2000a.600 Percent coverage of the AWL 1. and uniformity. articles. the reading of first-year students at a university (Coxhead. Stevens. and social sciences.5 million 6.05 356 TESOL QUARTERLY . & Pathway series of secondTinkle (2010) ary science textbooks 190.46 7. the 2.) has the headwords and sublists of the AWL. Coxhead (n.17 10.96 11. The first sublist contains the 60 most frequent word families in the AWL. because the GSL has been criticized for its age. Four key principles guided the selection of words for the AWL. & Chang research papers (2009) Li & Qian (2010) Finance Coxhead.5 million 1 million 14.3 9. book chapters.733 10. as much as possible.292. and so on. TABLE 1 Studies Investigating AWL Distribution in Texts Number of running words 3. Fiction 2000b) Coxhead (unreported) Newspapers Cobb & Horst (2004) Learned section of the Brown corpus (Francis & Kucera.4 4.5 11. The AWL is divided into 10 sublists.073 11. First.06 11. range. The GSL is yet to be replaced. the second sublist contains the next 60 most frequent word families. The three other selection principles were frequency.425 1 million 1.416 1. It was a controversial decision. and laboratory manuals. Applied linguistics Huang. in 15 or more of the subject areas (range). Beck. 283 3. 2000). 1998.000 826. 1979) Hyland & Tse (2007) Sciences. It contained textbooks. The main aim was that these materials should represent. This decision was made because the purpose of the AWL was not general English but specifically academic vocabulary.60 10. The word families had to occur 100 times or more in each of the four disciplines of the corpus (frequency).5 million 271. and over 10 times in the four disciplines (uniformity).
g. is one of the most common words in both Wang et al.. Coxhead & Hirsh. In these studies.’s (2008) medical word list and Coxhead and Hirsh’s (2007) science list for EAP. 17 January 2011)? A study by Coxhead (2011) illustrates how secondary teachers show keen awareness of everyday words occurring in everyday texts as well in more specialized texts and raise awareness for their students of a specialized meaning of an everyday word in their subject area (such as weight in physics). most. For example. in terms of whether there really is a general academic vocabulary. A number of subject-specific vocabulary lists have been developed recently to address the needs of particular learners (e. Future research needs to be based on more balanced corpora that represent a wider range of subjects within a university. The AWL has been the subject of some discussion in the literature recently. 2007. Hyland and Tse (2007) suggest that some of the words in the AWL have different meanings depending on the subject area. Chung. More work is also needed to establish whether words really are very different across different subject areas. IS THE AWL USEFUL/ADEQUATE FOR A RANGE OF LEARNERS’ NEEDS? The purpose of the AWL was to help teachers of EAP classes to set goals for their students’ vocabulary learning.On average. Note that the coverage figures of AWL over the various university-level corpora are consistently around 10%. 2008. is theory in biology not related at all to theory in psychology (Nation. It is good to see such research throw light on the behavior of AWL words in context. Liang. Table 1 illustrates how the nature of a corpus can impact the coverage of the AWL. Table 1 documents the coverage of the AWL in a number of corpus-based studies over the last 10 years. 2009). Ward. TEACHING ISSUES 357 . as Ward (2009) does with his basic list of engineering words. Pre-university EAP classes in New Zealand are typically made up of learners from different language backgrounds and various subject areas. & Ge. for example. Another approach is to start from scratch. if not all. They argue that teachers need to help students deepen their understanding of the nature and behavior of words in specific academic disciplines. Coxhead & Hirsh. the AWL word families appear. One is to use the GSL and AWL as base lists and build subject-specific lists from there (e. the AWL covers 10% of the vocabulary in the written academic corpus it was based on. 2007).. Wang. Cell. Teachers need to take these different starting points into account because the same words could occur in different lists. personal communication.g. This research tends to approach specialised vocabulary in different ways. 2009.
& Clapham. meaning. and commit. commission. Schmitt. comment. language-focused learning (e. One of the problems with developing a word list is that some learners and some teachers focus solely on working with the list alphabetically. it is important that any teaching and learning of vocabulary from lists (and in general) needs to be done in a principled way. learners might focus only on the spelling and meaning of words.g. 358 TESOL QUARTERLY . HOW CAN I HELP STUDENTS LEARN ACADEMIC VOCABULARY? Just as the AWL was compiled in a principled way. Other more pedagogically oriented work. These four strands are meaning-focused input (that is. Nation’s (2007) four strands create a balanced vocabulary program. based on the language that learners themselves produce. Coxhead (2006) contains a discussion on acquiring new words and working with the AWL using a principled approach. The question of the AWL and lower-level EAP students has become more frequent in the last few years as universities in countries such as New Zealand. See Hirsh and Coxhead (2009) for more on working with the four strands and vocabulary lists.. Schmitt. The Vocabulary Levels Test contains a section using the AWL (see Schmitt. Along the way. Any teaching activity should actively engage learners in working with target vocabulary that matches one of these strands. Nation. deliberate study of pronunciation. and grammar). such as Murphy and Kandil (2004).Another use for the AWL is in testing. 2010). personal communication. we see a call from Paquot (2007) for an AWL that is more productively oriented. Australia. and help on how to avoid these difficulties. 7 January 2011). 2001. see Nation and Webb (2010) and Schmitt (2010). for instance. starting at abandon and ending at widespread. spelling. such as commence. Another problem is that students might never find the words in context in materials they are reading. There should be equal opportunities for learning vocabulary across all of these strands. For example. 2006. looks at the AWL and pronunciation. they meet strings of words that look similar. See Nation (2000) on the dangers of learning words that look similar. meaning-focused output (learning through writing and speaking). and fluency development. For more on the AWL in the context of other vocabulary research. and Great Britain receive applications from language learners with lower levels of proficiency than in previous decades (Neil Harris. but not on using the words themselves in speaking and writing. learning through reading and listening). In learner corpora research. 2001. They also might never practice the words in any meaningful way. Coxhead.
A great deal more research needs to be carried out with different corpora. First. and Nuttall (n.d. English for Academic Success Series (Houghton Mifflin). the majority of research using the AWL has been carried out using university-level texts. Coxhead. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. AWL Highlighter (n. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.Secondary school teachers also often report AWL words occurring frequently in secondary school textbooks.). Despite this level of high-frequency words. and Academic Vocabulary in Use (Cambridge University Press). Schmitt and Schmitt’s (2005) well-principled Focus on Vocabulary: Mastering the Academic Word List (Longman).d.d. Stevens. the question of what would replace the GSL as a general vocabulary list needs to be addressed in a careful and principled way.d. Examples include Longman Exams Dictionary.-b). for the AWL to be reworked. see Gillett (n. Improve Your English Vocabulary (Dee Publications). WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO UPDATE THE AWL? The answer to this question is not as simple as it appears.). One major area of development is dictionaries that highlight AWL words. Read This! (Cambridge University Press). and Tinkle (2010) suggested that secondary school science texts contain more high-frequency words and are therefore more reader friendly than university-level texts. Academic Word Power series (Heinle ELT). Textbooks using the AWL include Contemporary Topics (Longman). as we saw in Table 1. TEACHING ISSUES 359 . Luton (n. Many of these publications now have accompanying websites.).) outstanding Compleat Lexical Tutor website includes tools to find out which words from the AWL are in texts. Other websites featuring the AWL include Haywood’s (n. students need a very large vocabulary to read secondary school science texts. Neungyule– Longman English–Korean Dictionary. and AWL exercises. and Oxford Student’s Dictionary of English.d.-a) AWL Gapmaker. For vocabulary exercises using the list. Cobb’s (n.d. WHAT MATERIALS USING THE AWL ARE AVAILABLE? A wide range of paper-based and online materials and activities using the AWL are now available. Second. Coxhead and Byrd (2007) outline ways to use this website to focus on teaching and learning vocabulary for writing teachers. So far. Essential Academic Vocabulary: Mastering the Complete Academic Word List (Houghton Mifflin). the question of whether written academic language really changes a great deal in a decade is an interesting one. Inside Reading (Oxford University Press).
(2004).jslw. Wellington. Amsterdam. classroom tasks. Bogaards & B. & Nation. JALT Journal. Coxhead. P. T. Boston. D. ´ 360 TESOL QUARTERLY . the Netherlands: John Benjamins.253.). A. London. 31(2). 253–279. (2007). and pedagogical approaches to lexis. Krishnamurthy. 15–38). (2002b). Retrieved from http://www. (2006).ac. doi:10. (1998). In B..1016/j. Coxhead. She is interested in many aspects of second language lexical studies. C. Coxhead.victoria. S. in Corpus linguistics by W. Specialised vocabulary in secondary classrooms: Teachers’ perspectives. Essentials of teaching academic vocabulary. Coxhead. In M. vocabulary teaching and learning in secondary schools. Victoria University of Wellington. 123–149. pp. Cobb. Eds.04. 16.aspx.d. Marks (Eds. Is there room for an AWL in French? In P. Cobb. Academic writing help pages. GA: Rodopi. A. 26. Rundell (Ed.4. doi:10.003. A. 10 years on. 2007. Coxhead. Victoria University. LA4 – A7). acquisition. and the collocations and phraseology of the AWL in written texts. vocabulary list development and evaluation. I. A. (Unpublished MA thesis). A. nz/lals/staff/averil-coxhead. 502–514. English for Specific Purposes.. as we see with the AWL. 129–147.1093/ijl/6. (n. The academic word list: A corpus-based word list for academic purposes. 6. Atlanta.. Laufer (Eds. doi:10. L. Coxhead.1016/j. England: Macmillan. & Hirsh. A. To conclude. The academic word list. (2007). A. P. I can honestly say that the AWL has had a far greater and more international impact that I ever imagined back in 1998.. & Ge. (2007). Ketteman and G. (2009). THE AUTHOR Averil Coxhead is a senior lecturer in applied linguistics in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies. (n. Macmillan English dictionary (pp. Teaching and language corpora (TALC) 2000 conference proceedings.d. TESOL Quarterly. Oxford. International Journal of Lexicography. & Horst. in New Zealand.. has an impact on other lists that are based on it.). Australia Coxhead. The compleat lexical tutor.. Vocabulary in a second language: Selection. XII (2) 65–78.). & Byrd.). Chen. Q. Manuscript submitted for publication. (2011). (2002a). A pilot science word list for EAP. The development and evaluation of an academic word list. 213– 238(Reprinted: Critical concepts in linguistics. A corpus-based lexical study on frequency and distribution of Coxhead’s AWL word families in medical research articles.ca/ on 22 September 2010.002. Journal of Second Language Writing.). The newspaper word list: A specialised vocabulary for reading newspapers. Retrieved from http://www. 159–182.lextutor.07.esp. Chung. Word families.The creation of one list. phraseology. M. REFERENCES Bauer. A new academic word list. including corpus linguistics and EAP. Her current research projects include vocabulary size measurements. T. T.2007. Teubert and R. England: Routledge) Coxhead. Coxhead. Preparing writing teachers to teach the vocabulary and grammar of academic prose. MA: Heinle Cengage. A. A. Revue Francaise de ¸ linguistique appliquee. (1993). vocabulary use in writing. 34(2). and testing (pp. (2000).2007.
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Ward. 1998). 2001). and perhaps 10. or roughly 70.04. A basic engineering English word list for less proficient foundation engineering undergraduates. 5.001. A general service list of English words. this lexical gap has prompted a number of useful studies addressing issues relevant to both learners and teachers. English for Specific Purposes. West. Within the last 15 years. including writing (Engber. 2000). doi:10.000 to read authentic texts.254529 & English language learners face a debilitating lexical gap between the words they know and the words they need to know. (2009). England: Longman. (Readers interested in research details should see the timeline of influential L2 vocabulary studies of vocabulary acquisition presented by Laufer .2010. (1953).lognostics..co. M. Ferris. Applying L2 Lexical Research Findings in ESL Teaching KEITH FOLSE University of Central Florida Orlando. 2001). listening (Chang.000 words.esp. The purpose of this short article is to present several teaching applications from the current body of L2 vocabulary research. United States doi: 10.000 word families (Nation. 1994). Florida. 2007).uk/varga/. 170–182. London.5054/tq. 1995.000 words to maintain conversations. one estimate of ELLs’ lexical needs is approximately 2. Unfortunately.) PEDAGOGICAL QUESTIONS ABOUT L2 VOCABULARY RESEARCH 1. even well-educated ELLs may know less than a quarter of their native counterparts’ vocabulary (Laufer & Yano. Why Should Teachers Teach Vocabulary? Native speakers do not learn most of their vocabulary through explicit instruction. 28. This information focuses on four key pedagogical questions. Although educated native speakers of English know approximately 20.g.1016/j. 2008).000 to comprehend challenging academic materials (Schmitt. J. Though much of this work has investigated reading (e. so common wisdom in TESOL pedagogy has favored a 362 TESOL QUARTERLY . and speaking (Joe. Cobb.2009. and the extensive vocabulary bibliography by year or topic at the Vocabulary Acquisition Research Group Archive  at http://www. the review of extant research on vocabulary instruction by Schmitt . lexical knowledge impacts all skill areas. Green.
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