My 4-Step System to Increase Your Academic Vocabulary

IMAGINE that you are preparing for a trip. You are going to visit a country where you don't know the language. You will probably want to learn that language so you can navigate your way around that country. "Hi." "Thank you." "It's nice to meet you." "I'm looking for _____ , could you please help me."

It's the same with academic language. If you're planning to study in a country where the language will be new to you, then increasing your command of that language used in academic settings is necessary. Vocabulary is key for academic success.

3 tiers of vocabulary

Vocabulary can be categorized into 3 tiers. Tier 1 words are common, everyday words ("desk," "bicycle," "mountain"). Tier 2 words are academic words that are found across academic disciplines. Tier 3 words are words that are found in a specific academic discipline.

Focus on learning Tier 2 words

Because Tier 2 words are used across academic domains, focusing on learning these words is very beneficial for your academic studies. Studying Tier 2 words will help you become a better reader and a better writer. You will be better prepared for the TOEFL, IELTS, GRE, and other tests. You will be better prepared for the demands of academic work at an English-language university.

Develop a system to learn vocabulary

Because Tier 2 vocabulary is so important for academic success, I recommend you have a systematic way of working on it.

  1. Every week, choose 5-10 words from the AWL (Academic Word List), which you can find here.
  2. Do a Google search for each word. Find 5 examples of how the word is used by other writers.This will help you see how the word is used in context. This is a very important step.
  3. Practice using each word in a new sentence. Ask someone who is a native speaker to review your sentences to see if they sound natural to him/her. Keep in mind that you might not need to utilize each word you're learning right away in your academic work. But, your academic reading comprehension will get better and better. And, when it is time to use a new word from your growing list of academic vocabulary, you will know it's the best word, the appropriate word to use in your sentence, because you have studied how other writers use that word in context.
  4. Review the words from previous weeks.

Related: 10 Tips to Improve Your Vocabulary


By following these steps to increase your vocabulary, you will be better prepared to understand and use academic English.

Your turn

What do you do to work on your English vocabulary? Have you developed a system to keep increasing your vocabulary? Do you have any tips or suggestions to share? Please share in the comments below!

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