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By R. Michael Medley, Ph.D., Professor of English, Eastern Mennonite University

Two ways that I use the Academic Word List are as follows, the assumption being that this is some sort of English language development class for those who need English for academic purposes:

1. If the students are doing a reading which contains many unfamiliar words (but the reading is interesting to the students and helping them learn about something that they want to learn about), I might use the AWL to identify which words in the passage are more worth the students’ concentrated attention.  We all know that some words are of such low frequency that it is not worthwhile for learners to spend time working to incorporate those words into that active (or even passive) vocabulary.

But if some of the new words in the passage are on the AWL, then I can devise some kind of exercise or discussion that brings those words into focus and gives learners (a) additional multiple exposures to the words and (b) actual practice using them.

2. I am in the process of writing some ESOL materials based mainly on readings representing a unified content area.  I regularly use a vocabulary profiler, LexTutor,  to help me see the relative frequencies of the words that make up the passage.  This vocab profiler also identifies AWL words.  So if I am trying to simplify the text a little, I can simplify by changing the “off-list words” — that is those words of quite low frequency, which are not on the AWL.  I will certainly leave the AWL words in the text so that the students get exposed to them. Since most of the texts in my materials will be read by high intermediate or advanced students with instructor support (and not as extensive reading by the students independently) I feel that it is adequate if 90% of the vocabulary falls into the top 2000 words of English (usually that means about 80-85% of the words are in the top 1000).  The 10% of words not in the top 2000 will be AWL and low-frequency words.

A teacher who uses a lot of electronic texts with her/his learners, could easily use this vocabulary profiler to check on the presence of AWL words in the readings–in effect, guiding the choice of readings based on their vocabulary profiles and then guiding the teacher in choosing vocabulary to bring into focus either before or after the reading.

An interesting realization I’ve had in preparing these materials is that there is a lot of specialized vocabulary for the particular subject area with which I’m dealing. Now that I am working on chapter 12, it seems that the low-frequency vocabulary for one reading has grown very large. But when I look carefully at the words, I’ll see right away that many of these words have been introduced already and practiced many times through the previous 11 chapters.  This realization illustrates the value of doing extended reading (not exactly the same as extensive reading)–that is reading a lot in one subject area or becoming accustomed to the writing style (patterns of thought and expression) of one author.

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