Academic Vocabulary List

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

For many years, the Academic Word List helped teachers and researchers determine which words were academic in nature (Coxhead, 2000).  Coxhead’s research resulted in the Academic Word List which comprises words roughly equivalent to Beck, McKeown, and Kucan’s (2002) notion of tier two words; that is, words that are used in academic English but not specific to any one discipline.  Coxhead created her list from a corpus, or collection, of academic texts from four disciplines at the university level mainly from New Zealand.  The corpus included 3,500,000 words in total. Academic words were determined by eliminating the 2000 most common words in English and then eliminating words which were found only in a limited range of disciplines.

Now, a new Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) is available online, and it is based on 120 million words derived from a corpus of texts in American English.  Linguists at Brigham Young University, Mark Davies and Dee Gardner, have made their work available as downloads you can use in your own research, or through an online interface. The online interface allows the user to search detailed information about any word in the AVL, and it also permits users to input an entire academic text to determine how it compares the words in the corpus.

This research directly informs instructional practices. An excellent article by Larson, Dixon, and Townsend in Voices from the Middle is a good place to start, and it is free on the National Council of English Teachers website (find the article How Can Teachers Increase Classroom Use of Academic Vocabulary? here and then scroll down the page :

Learn more about AVL on the List’s website at or visit the online interface by clicking the picture, above, or navigating to


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002).  Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213-238.

Gardner, D., & Davies, M. (2013). A new academic vocabulary list. Applied Linguistics, 1. Available:

Larson, L, Dixon, T., & Townsend, D. (2013). How can teachers increase classroom use of academic vocabulary? Voices from the Middle, 20(4), 16-21.


2 Responses

  1. My first thought as I saw the title of the post was, “I’m probably going to be introduced to a few dozen new words”; I was wrong. Are there really that many academic vocabulary words? 3.5 millions seems excessive.I understand the list was created at an collegiate level, but I find it hard to grasp such a number as a secondary education teacher. If I were told a list of millions of words or thousands of words that are considered academic in a workshop, I might faint of morpheme overload.
    I have a fear that if this post were to be presented to the wrong person, that person might go back to their school and start an initiative to add this pressure to already overloaded teachers. Reasonable fear or not, episodes like that do happen(sadly).
    I appreciate the link to other articles to further clarify the creation of a 3.5 million word list. Also, I like the software to upload a document to assess the amount of academic words are use in a piece of writing. That is a great tool for a teachers to use to show students differences in writing.

    • Hi Lequone, I’m glad you brought up the total number of words issue. The academic word list is much smaller, and it is organized to be more manageable through the use of sublists. Each sublist includes 60 items except for the last organized by how frequently the words appeared in the original corpus of 3.5 million words. It would be unfortunate, indeed, if someone tried to teach all 3.5 million words, so thanks for pointing that out!

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