How to teach the academic word list

Understanding the Academic Word List, or AWL, will help you in your university studies, in passing academic tests, and in participating in the intellectual life of the English-speaking world. Many students of English likely already know many of the words on the first few levels of the AWL, because words like ‘area,’ ‘job,’ and ‘require’ are common in daily use, not just academic texts. However, the last five levels of the Academic Word List are also important to understanding textbooks, lectures, and professional discussions, even though you will not learn most from everyday conversation. Learning the Academic Word List can seem like a daunting task for non-native English speakers. With nearly six-hundred vocabulary words ranging in the frequency in which they are incorporated into everyday conversation, simply memorizing the words and their definitions is not only time-consuming, but relatively ineffective.

The words included in the list are meant to enhance one’s comprehension of academic criteria, while also expanding one’s conversational abilities within an English-speaking context. Any teacher or scholar will tell you that memorization is not a practical means of learning – you may be able to recall things memorized in the short-term, but, with time, such information is bound to diminish. Therefore, as with other academic and/or recreational pursuits, a truly effectie strategy for learning and comprehension is simply to practice.

The Academic Word List is conveniently divided into subcategories based on the word’s frequency within daily life, so educators recommend learning the list chronologically. This makes sense because, as a non-native English speaker, you will have more opportunities to put the words to use. For some of the more contextually-dependent vocabulary, knowing how and when to use them appropriately in daily life could be much trickier.
With my students, learning vocabulary requires context, at least when such words are introduced. This can be done in various ways, but most commonly through reading and speaking activities. I try to find a variety of reading material, both academic and more informal in nature, which not only piques their interests but also is relatable for them. In this way, they are more engaged in the text and are far more eager to discuss it with myself and their peers. At the same time, I have them identify new vocabulary words, or I elicit the meanings of words that are often included in the AWL. In this way, the word is immediately given a definition and context, which will make it easier to conjure up in a more informal and/or conversational situation.

Now, it is also important that the student knows that such vocabulary can be used in numerous scenarios, instead of simply the context in which is was identified. Therefore, I always make note of the words that have been introduced to them, and, when we have topical conversations in later classes, I have them try to incorporate such words into our discussion. Often they have difficulties doing this initially, but that is what practice is for. When my students are assigned a writing exercise, I always give them several of these words for them to include as well.

As I mentioned before, simply trying to memorize a list of words and their definitions, out of context, is difficult, boring– and usually ineffective. It’s far better to learn words in context– seeing examples of the way they are used and other words often used with them. Memory strategies like flash cards or word lists are okay as a supplement, once you have already been introduced to the words. They are a poor first step. Studying example sentences and practicing the words in context (with gap-fills or questions) seems to produce far better results.

Another good way to practice is to play with them or their related word forms: classify them, match them, make up silly stories about them, draw pictures or sing about them– anything that helps you deepen the connections between the words and their uses and meanings. Such can be done within the classroom, as well as in one’s free time. There is a plethora of online resources to help any English student expand their vocabulary, some of which are free or inexpensive, while others could cost more than desired.

There is no singular method by which every language student is able to understand and learn academic vocabulary. However, studies have identified effective methods of comprehension and memory-development, which suggests associating, retrieving, and, of course, practicing vocabulary greatly increases one’s ability to effectively learn such language. Though it may seem challenging at first, especially for non-native speakers, the knowledge gained inexplicably rewarding. Not only for one’s academic or professional endeavours, but for one’s own growth and development as an educated individual.

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