What are the features of academic vocabulary?
The words we use to communicate information and ideas in academic texts are different from words we use in everyday conversations, newspapers or novels. Some of the words that are used in academic texts, like "hypothesis" and "predict", come from Greek or Latin, and they often express abstract ideas that we cannot see or touch.
In English, a relatively small number of words constantly appear in academic texts. These words were identified by Coxhead and appear on her Academic Word List (AWL). Words on this list are called high-frequency academic words and they are essential to understanding the content and core meaning of any academic text. These general academic terms and concepts usually make up between 10% to 15% of words in academic texts in many academic disciplines.
A further 10% to 15% of words in academic texts usually consist of discipline-related or subject-specific terms that appear in a limited number of academic disciplines as well as other infrequently used words, names, places etc.
The remaining 70% to 80% of words in academic texts consist of the 2000 most common words in English.
See Prof. Nation's website for more information on how Coxhead used computerized analyses of academic texts to build the AWL.
Why should I learn high-frequency academic words?
Research on vocabulary shows that academic vocabulary can act as a barrier that you need to cross in order to move successfully from everyday spoken English to understanding the language of academic textbooks and articles.
Knowing the words that often appear in academic texts helps you move ahead faster and frees up more time for focusing on the text's content.
Is knowing high-frequency academic words enough?
Knowing individual words or phrases is only the first step – they do not guarantee you will understand the whole text. Remember that learning vocabulary is only one of the roads that lead to more effective academic reading: additional roads include reading comprehension strategies and extensive reading.