Master Academic Vocabulary
By Svetlana Bogolepova, Ph.D. in Linguistics, Associate Professor and Programme Academic Supervisor at HSE University. She completed the School of Trainers and ran a workshop at the Academic Writing Center.
Have you ever got rejections for not using appropriate vocabulary and style in your article?
Have you ever looked for a word to use in a phrase or sentence?
Have you ever doubted if you used a vocabulary unit appropriately in a context?
Then, this entry is for you.
Vocabulary knowledge is an indispensable element of language proficiency. The width and depth of vocabulary knowledge determine success in all language skills. You cannot read effectively unless you understand 95% of vocabulary in a text. You cannot write persuasive texts in a foreign language, let alone write academic articles, unless you have a rich repertoire of words and phrases at your disposal.
Vocabulary learning is not as straightforward as it may seem. There is a lot to know about a word. You need to know its form, that is, how it sounds, how it is written, what parts it consists of, what grammatical changes it may undergo. You need to be aware of its meaning (or more often — multiple meanings), you need to understand if this word has a positive or negative connotation, what it is usually associated with, what synonyms and opposites it has. You have to know how the word is used, in what contexts, what other words it usually comes with, how frequent in a language it is. This knowledge is accumulated with time. Sometimes, it takes months or years. If you want to speed up vocabulary acquisition, you need to invest time and effort into mastering it.
What is academic vocabulary?
Some words and phrases are more frequent in academic texts but rather rare in everyday speech. This is academic vocabulary. The term “academic vocabulary” is viewed in two ways: as content-specific vocabulary, and as general academic vocabulary (Baumann & Graves, 2010, p. 6). We will focus on the latter, defined by Coxhead (2000) as “lexical items [that] occur frequently and uniformly across a wide range of academic material” (p. 218).
So how do we differentiate between academic and everyday vocabulary? Academic vocabulary has certain unique features. It is usually less frequent vocabulary with a specific meaning performing such functions as reporting, hedging, describing research, describing causal relationships, interpreting, etc. For example, if we compare the words to say and to contend, we will see that to contend is less frequent and more formal with a narrow meaning “to say that something is true or is a fact.” It can be used to report your own or somebody else’s ideas.
Academic vocabulary lists contain vocabulary units specific to academic discourse, and these lists are easily found online. For example, here you can find both such a list and exercises to practice academic vocabulary in context.
As already mentioned, academic vocabulary tends to be less frequent than its everyday counterpart. You can use this tool to look for less frequent and more formal equivalents of familiar words. However, keep it in mind that 100% synonyms do not exist. Check the examples of use to make sure the words are used in contexts in a similar way.
How do linguists know what words are frequent in academic contexts?
Researchers use language corpora, which are collections of academic texts, both oral and written. Language corpora can be used quite successfully by language learners, too. For instance, Cambridge Academic English Corpus (available through HSE access) or British Academic Written Corpus (free access) provides its users with a wealth of useful information. A significant portion of academic vocabulary are collocations and set phrases, not just singular words. Using corpora, you can find collocations and useful word combinations, and you can study how a particular word can be used in a context. Read more on the use of corpora in our blog.
How can you boost your academic vocabulary?
As vocabulary learning, and language learning in general, is incremental, it is necessary to expose yourself to as much academic discourse as possible. For example, you can listen to academic lectures and presentations online. To learn more about effective listening strategies and resources, read our blogs.
It is also advisable to read professional literature in your specialisation. When you listen or read, you encounter words common for academic language, which strengthens the memory of these words. Besides, your brain creates an understanding of how these units are used in a context. Highlighting and copying phrases used in different parts of articles in your specialisation for different communicative purposes will provide you with chunks you can use in your writing.
Finally, you can check if your writing is academic enough using online tools such as vocabulary checkers. The presence of academic vocabulary will ensure face validity of your text, its perceived suitability for academic discourse. You should keep in mind that academic vocabulary mostly includes infrequent and high-level (B2-C2) words, so you can also use such tools as Text Inspector to check the level of vocabulary units in your text. However, clarity of the message and appropriacy of linguistic means should not be sacrificed for the sake of the number of academic vocabulary units used in your texts.
To summarise, to master academic vocabulary you can follow a number of steps and use technology to aid you:
- Use www.thesaurus.com to look for less frequent and more formal equivalents of familiar words.
- Check the examples of use to make sure the words are used in contexts in a similar way.
- Check online lists of academic vocabulary and practice.
- Use corpora to find out how academic words are used in context.
- Expose yourself to as much academic discourse as possible by reading and listening extensively.
- Use vocabulary checkers to make sure your text is academic enough.
Baumann, J. & Graves, M. (2010). What is academic vocabulary? Journal Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(1), 2010.
Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213–238.
Nation, P. (2011). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.