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#IATEFL – What exactly is ‘academic vocabulary’?

Student reading book in libraryDiana Lea is editor of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), published in January this year. In this article, she looks at what academic vocabulary is and how it differs from general English vocabulary. Diana will be speaking about the OLDAE at IATEFL 2014 on Wednesday 2nd April.

Is academic vocabulary fundamentally different from general English vocabulary? In creating the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), we were compelled to think very carefully about this question in order to decide what should and should not be covered in such a dictionary. Fortunately, other researchers had already put in a lot of work in this area. Our starting point was the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000), which will be familiar to most teachers of EAP: 570 word families that will account for roughly 10% of most written academic texts. But these words are all included – and marked – in learners’ dictionaries already. What more is needed?

A word list is a useful tool for setting targets and monitoring progress, as students can tick off words that they ‘know’ – but it does not actually teach. What does it mean to ‘know’ a word?

In the first instance, obviously, you need to know what it means. For some words this will be relatively easy, because they carry roughly the same meaning in most contexts, for example achieve. Other words have a number of different meanings; many of these may be related to each other, but used in slightly different ways (e.g. capital). Yet other words have a quite specific meaning in a particular area of study: consider the use of the words variable and significant in the context of statistics. It is fair to say that academic writing generally takes a more precise and nuanced approach to meaning than much of the speech and writing that we encounter day to day. To understand academic vocabulary in context, students will benefit from an account of these words that is based on genuine academic usage, not general usage. That means a corpus of academic English.

The 85-million-word Oxford Corpus of Academic English contains undergraduate textbooks and academic journals drawn from a range of disciplines across the four main subject areas of physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Analysis of this corpus enabled lexicographers to give a precise and nuanced account of the meaning and use of words in academic writing. For there is more to knowing a word than just knowing what it means: if students are to use a word correctly and effectively in their writing, they need to know how it behaves in context and how it combines with other words. As one teacher we interviewed said of her own students, ‘They know many words in isolation, but usage they find difficult.

A complete account of a word in a learner’s dictionary of academic English needs to cover its meaning – or meanings – its grammar, any prepositions or grammatical structures it commonly combines with, any peculiarities of usage in particular disciplines, useful synonyms, and – for the most important words – lists of collocations in different grammatical relations. And all these points need to be supported by example sentences that are clear, illustrate the points well, and are based on authentic academic texts.

Cycle dictionary entryThe entry for cycle only includes the meanings that are important in academic writing. This enables the academic meanings to be treated in more detail.

A more precise meaning that is particular to biology is identified in a ‘HELP’ note.

Cross-references indicate entries for compound words with their own precise definitions.

The example sentences show genuine academic usage, based on the texts in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English.

Complementation patterns with prepositions or other words are clearly signposted before the examples that illustrate them.

Collocations and common phrases are shown and exemplified in a special section of the entry.

Academic vocabulary is the vocabulary needed to write clear, appropriate academic texts. It includes, on the one hand, a lot of ordinary general vocabulary – but transposed to an academic context. At the other extreme, there is specialist subject vocabulary. This differs between different academic disciplines and can be highly technical; typically, students will need to learn these words as part of their subject studies, whether or not they are also learners of English. In between these two extremes is the ‘general academic’ or ‘subtechnical’ vocabulary represented by the AWL. The OLDAE covers the AWL, plus all the general vocabulary needed for defining it, plus the synonyms, opposites and collocates of all these words.

A word list is a useful starting point but a dictionary sets the words in context and enables students to use them effectively in their own writing.


Coxhead, A. (2000). ‘A New Academic Word List’, TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213–238. See also http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/

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The Sounds of Silence – silent letters in English words

Silence sign

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the presence of silent letters in English words and the problems they cause for spelling.

Learning to speak another language is hard enough, but students of English have to deal with further issues when they come to the written form of the language, and they soon find that English words do not always look exactly how they sound. In a previous post I looked at the presence of double letters in some words as one of the causes of spelling difficulty. In this post I will look at another: the presence of ‘silent’ letters in some words.

Why should knot be spelt with a ‘k’ when it is pronounced the same as not? And when we come to words such as knight and yacht we might begin to suspect that some letters are being entered for no other reason than to make it more difficult for non-native speakers to write the language.

Just as we found when looked at double letters, the explanation for these silent letters usually lies in the history of a word. In words such as answer and walk, the silent letters were sounded in early forms of English, but as the language developed over many centuries it became easier to pronounce the word without sounding a particular letter. The sound changed but the silent letters remained as a ghostly (note the silent ‘h’) reminder of the original sound.

Other words were borrowed from languages that use sound patterns that seem unnatural to English speakers, and so the sound of the word was changed to something they found easier to say. This is why we don’t pronounce the first letter of pneumonia (which was borrowed from Greek) or the last letter of sheikh (which was borrowed from Arabic).

Silent letters can certainly be awkward, but I can offer a few tips for dealing with them.

Firstly, note that some silent letters are actually not silent in related words. So it will help learners to remember the silent ‘g’ in sign if they can relate it to signature or the silent ‘n’ in condemn if they know condemnation. Secondly, some silent letters reveal themselves when you break down a word into its basic parts. The silent ‘p’ in cupboard (and the entire spelling of the word) can be seen if you think that this piece of furniture was originally a ‘cup board’. Similar cases include extraordinary (extra + ordinary) and shepherd (she(e)p + herd).

Thirdly, note that if one word contains a silent letter, related words will have the same silent letter. So the silent ‘c’ that appears in ascend is also found in the related words ascent, descend, and descent.

As a last resort, for words that learners find especially difficult, you can make up a memory aid or mnemonic (note the silent opening letter!) to spell out the word. One of my favourites is that you spell rhythm from the initial letters of the sentence ‘rhythm helps you to hear music’.

Know any more?


5 ways to use a dictionary for academic writing

Oxford Learner's Dictionary of Academic English book coverJulie Moore, a lexicographer for the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, shares her top 5 ways to use a dictionary to teach academic writing skills.

With my background in lexicography, I’m a big fan of encouraging dictionary skills in the classroom. And as a teacher of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), I’m really looking forward to using the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English with my students.

Rather than teach planned dictionary skills lessons, I tend to slip in dictionary usage at every possible opportunity. In particular, I’ll often send students to the dictionary in a writing skills lesson. Here are my top five areas of academic vocabulary to focus on:


One thing that can make student writing sound awkward is an odd choice of collocation. Sometimes a choice that would be fine in everyday English or spoken academic contexts, such as do research stands out as too informal in academic writing, where conduct or undertake research might fit better. Checking a key word in the dictionary will provide students with a number of appropriate academic collocations, not just for the most common meanings of a word, but also sometimes more specialist uses too, e.g. a power = an influential country: a colonial/imperial/sovereign/global etc. power.

Dependent prepositions

A wrong choice of preposition may seem like a trivial error, and in speech it will usually be overlooked. But in academic discourse, where precision is highly valued, frequent minor errors can give the impression of intellectual sloppiness and inaccuracy. Next time your students are handing in a piece of writing, try this quick self-editing activity. Before they give you their texts, get them to go through and underline all the prepositions they’ve used, then identify those that depend on a content word (a noun, verb, or adjective) either just before (on impact, under the influence of) or just after (reliant on, consistent with). Next, they choose a handful (3 to 5) that they’re least confident about and look up the content words in the dictionary. Point out that typical prepositions are shown in bold before examples. They can then correct any errors they find before handing in their work.

Following constructions

You can do a similar thing with the constructions that typically follow particular words (focus on doing, demonstrate how/what …). I tend to highlight examples like this when they come up in class, just taking a couple of minutes to raise students’ awareness of how this type of information is shown in the dictionary, again in bold before examples. Students can then use it as a reference source themselves when they’re hesitating over a construction in their writing.

Parts of speech

EAP students need to develop a particular dexterity in swapping between parts of speech, whether they’re trying to find an appropriate paraphrase or construct a complex noun phrase. As different parts of speech typically start with the same combination of letters, they’re generally together in the dictionary, making for a quick and easy look-up. And to help further, the different parts of speech of many key words are even grouped together in word family boxes, allowing learners to see the options at a glance, including non-adjacent words such as antonyms too, e.g. conclude, conclusion, conclusive, conclusively, inconclusive.


For students writing longer academic texts, repetition of key words can become an issue. Finding a few appropriate synonyms can help to improve the flow and style of their writing enormously. With a class of students preparing for a writing task on a particular topic, you might pick out a few key topic words and get students to look them up in the dictionary to search for possible synonyms. These are shown after each definition, e.g. at practicable you’ll find SYN feasible, workable. Of course, synonyms rarely have identical meanings and usage, so get students to look up the synonyms too and decide which might be substitutable and what adjustments they might need to make grammatically (e.g. vary from x to y, but range between x and y).

By incorporating regular dictionary usage into classroom practice, you raise students’ awareness of the type of information they can find in the dictionary, how they can use it to improve their academic writing and become more autonomous learners. What’s more, by proactively doing something with a word (looking it up, thinking about it, then using it), they’ll also broaden and deepen their vocabulary knowledge.


Same words, new meanings. What’s really changed in the last 65 years?

OALD CoverJudith Willis worked as Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press before retiring in 2008. Here she looks back at how the meaning of some words has changed over the history of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

The latest edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is still fresh and new but this year marks the 65th anniversary of the publication by Oxford University Press of its esteemed forerunner, A.S. Hornby’s Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. So it may be a good time to undertake some lexico-archaeology and look at the changes that have occurred over the 8 editions of the dictionary.

There are several factors influencing these changes. Dictionary users, their knowledge, their learning styles and their expectations are very different now from then ; lexicographic techniques have evolved, with the corpus revolution of the 1980s and 1990s being possibly the most significant development in these 65 years; and, of course, the language has moved on. New words are coined, new meanings attached to old words, and even when the strict meaning remains the same, words are used differently. For instance, Hornby already used the word ‘problem’ to define issue in the first edition, but the examples in the current edition, such as If you have any issues, please call this number, reflect a 21st Century form of expression.

This text is a blog post. The word post has many senses and uses (the current edition lists ten meanings for the noun and nine for the verb) and this sense of ‘a piece of writing that forms part of a blog’ is the latest addition. Just a few more examples of the ‘new meanings for old words’ phenomenon are tag = a symbol or name used by a graffiti artist, hybrid = a car using two different types of power, and the informal use of the adjective random.

As well as new senses we see shifts in frequency, with earlier uses becoming more formal (e.g. attitude, whose original first sense of ‘position of the body’ is now labelled formal and demoted to last sense, ousted by the newer sense of ‘confident, sometimes aggressive behaviour’); meanings dropping out of the language (tag as a metal tip on a shoelace); usage becoming more restricted; words crossing the part-of-speech boundary (the noun-generated verbs text as in SMS messages and trend as in be trending on Twitter); literal or concrete meanings becoming figurative or abstract; and changes of register and region, typically, American English terms becoming part of British English and informal words becoming standard.

Let’s look at a single entry – the noun wrap. This is a good example of an old word being used for new things. In the 1stedition, it is described as usually plural and defined solely as an ‘outer garment or covering, e.g. a shawl, scarf, fur, cloak or rug’. By the 3rd edition the word has acquired a ‘trade use’ with the phrases keep sth under wraps and take off the wraps. Hornby obviously sees these as commercial terms, but now the idiom under wraps is widely used in informal language.

The 5th edition redefines the garment sense as ‘a loose scarf or shawl’ and includes paper/plastic wrap. The sense of the end of filming – That’s/It’s a wrap – is in the 6th edition, and the current edition still gives the garment sense first, but now it’s even more specific – ‘a piece of cloth that a woman wears around her shoulders’. Bubble wrap sits alongside gift wrap in the paper/plastic sense, and is followed by the food sense, originally from the US, of tortilla wrap. Do a Google image search and you will see which one everyone’s talking about – or wanting you to buy! Will future editions of the dictionary see the clothing sense lose importance (it is already marked old-fashioned in the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary) and new senses appear, for example the seaweed wrap that has nothing to do with either clothing or food?

All words in the dictionary have their own stories – and histories: the noun wrap has been in the language since the 15th Century and many of the other words mentioned here have been around even longer than that. New phenomena, tangible or conceptual, appear and lead to the creation of new words like blog or else attach themselves to existing words like tweet. Listen out for yourselves and see how many genuinely new words you hear compared to venerable old words clad in new meanings.


Homophones: Some Sound Advice

Woman's earIan Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at homophones: words that sound the same as other words, but have a different meaning.

Born or borne? Discreet or discrete? Site or sight? Sink or sync? Homophones are one of the bugbears of learning a language, especially a language such as English, which can represent similar sounds in a number of different ways.

A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word, but has a different meaning. Often two homophones are spelt the same (as in the case of a ring on the telephone and a diamond ring), but homophones can sometimes have different spellings (as in the case of their and there), which makes life even more difficult.

Homophones can create a particular problem when one of the spellings is not very commonly used. For example, the word but is so much more common than its homophone butt that when you hear a word with this sound you are likely to think that you are hearing the conjunction. However, it is worth remembering the less common homophone can crop up from time to time in phrases such as the butt of a joke.

The verbs pour and pore present a similar issue: pour is much more common, but the phrasal verb pore over involves quite a different meaning. When you pore over a piece of writing you don’t cause it to flow but you study it intently.

When the rarer of two homophones is used in an idiom or phrase, such expressions can be impossible to decipher if you are not aware that a homophone is being used. Take the example of the word bated. This is not the past participle of the verb bait. Pretty much the only time you will come across it is in the phrase with bated breath: if you wait for something with bated breath you wait for it eagerly. The phrase has nothing to do with your breath being prepared to catch a fish, but it makes use of an old variation of the verb abate, and so the idiom describes a person who is so excited that they hold their breath until a particular thing happens.

The idiom give somebody a wide berth is another where the less common of two homophones is used. When you hear it for the first time it may be tempting to interpret this as having something to do with birth. However, the term in fact comes (like many English idioms) from seafaring. A berth is the space allowed for a ship to move about when it is tied up or swinging on its anchor, and so when a troublesome person or thing is given a wide berth they are avoided and given plenty of room to go about their business.

My final example is the phrase learn by rote. When you hear this it may sound as though the last word is wrote. But this phrase has nothing to do with writing; it means to learn things by repeating them over and over rather than by understanding their underlying meaning. What makes this harder to know is that you will never come across the word rote in any other context.

So homophones can not only create problems with spelling, but they can also be quite misleading when it comes to grasping the meaning of a phrase. If you find them tricky then you can take some comfort from the fact that native English speakers often get these confused as well!


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