So you’ve decided to study at a university in an English-speaking country. You’ve got your IELTS score, your university acceptance, your student visa. Maybe you’ve enrolled on a pre-sessional EAP (English for Academic Purposes) course to help you get to grips with academic culture and language before you start. Is there anything else that can help you with studying in your second (or third, or fourth) language? Well, yes. There are several things, but in this article I’m going to discuss word lists.
From an EAP perspective, there are four lists to consider: the General Service List (GSL); the Academic Word List (AWL); the New General Service List (NGSL); and the New Academic Word List (NAWL). Each list groups words in families under a headword and lists those word families in order of frequency. The GSL is the oldest; it was created in 1953 by Michael West and consists of the 2000 most common headwords, which equates to about 80% of written English. While it contains some useful academic vocabulary, its focus is on the most common high-frequency words in English. The AWL was created by Professor Averil Coxhead in 2000; her aim was to list the word families that appeared most frequently in academic texts, excluding those already in the GSL. It contains 570 word families, divided by frequency into 10 sublists. Together, the GSL and AWL are reckoned to cover around 90% of written academic English.
These two lists have for years been the go-to for EAP students, for obvious reasons. Using them increases the range of your vocabulary, which is an important facet of academic English writing, and can also increase the range of grammatical structures that you use. Because they list not just headwords, but all the words in a family, the lists encourage students to make more use of different parts of speech. However, they are not without their issues. The GSL, since it was written in the Fifties, contains words that have fallen out of general usage and lacks others that have been coined or that have increased in frequency in the years since its publication. The AWL misses out many useful and common academic words because they already appear on the GSL, so students relying on that alone may inadvertently limit the development of their academic language range.
To solve the problems with the GSL, Dr Charles Browne, Dr Brent Culligan, and Joseph Phillips created the New General Service List in 2013. Headwords that had become archaic and dropped out of general usage were cut from the list, and newer high-frequency words were added. They also expanded the range of word families, which led to overlap with the AWL; they then developed to NAWL to avoid the repetition of headwords with the NGSL.
The question for EAP students then is which list or lists to use? The AWL, as mentioned above, is still the preferred option. It’s the basis for academic English and IELTS resources and is used by students and teachers around the world. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that there is plenty of valuable academic vocabulary omitted from this list since it doesn’t repeat any headwords in the GSL, so restricting yourself to one list is not that helpful. The NGSL is more appropriate than the GSL these days, being more up-to-date; using this with the AWL makes sense, though it should be remembered that the two lists share some words and so the NAWL exists to mitigate this. The AWL can be accessed here: https://www.wgtn.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist; the NGSL and NAWL here: http://www.newgeneralservicelist.org/
In future articles, I’ll look at how you can get the most out of whichever list(s) you choose to develop your academic language skills.
If you’re interested in studying at a UK University but you’re not sure where to start take a look at the Chaucer College University Pathways course in the video below.