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What is meant by academic vocabulary?

Academic vocabulary is more formal and stylised than general vocabulary.  It contains subject specific words, and there are generally more nouns than verbs.

Why is vocabulary important?

English is made up of 'layers of words' (Nation and Meara 2010 p47).  There is no single origin of words in English as there have been many influences on the English language over the years.  This can apply even to words that relate to a similar subject.  For example the word cow is of Anglo-Saxon origin, the word beef is Norman French, whilst the word bovine is a technical term.

What does this mean for you?

Learners struggle to understand if they have 80% or less understanding of a text (Schmitt 2008).  There is no escaping the fact that vocabulary is important and a large vocabulary is needed for academic English.

How can you improve your academic vocabulary?

There are a selection of resources linked on this page that will help you improve your general academic vocabulary.  Within Develop@Derby you can complete our quiz to see if you can match different words to their definitions, or check our guide to common University phrases, essay terms and library terms.  You may also find our grammar guide useful.

Resources to improve your general academic vocabulary

Academic Word List (Coxhead 2000) - this list brings together 570 high frequency academic word families that are not in the most frequent 2000 words of English, but which do occur frequently over a very wide range of academic texts.  They are grouped into ten sublists that reflect word frequency and range.

Vocabulary exercises for the Academic Word List.

Using English for Academic Purposes

Vocabulary in English for Academic Purposes

IPGCE Lecture 3 Academic Style PowerPoint Slides


Coxhead, A. (2000) Academic Word Lists [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 4th October 2019).

Nation, I.S.P and Meara, P. (2010) Vocabulary. In N.Schmitt (ed.) An Introduction to Applied Linguistics. Edward Arnold. Second edition: 34-52.

Schmitt, N. (2008) Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.