What is academic vocabulary?

time to complete: 10 minutes

So, you might be wondering: if the majority of a text’s words are core vocabulary, does this mean the rest of the words academic? Well, the answer is no. Some of this core vocabulary is frequent in academic contexts and relevant to students who need to write in academic English.

Academic Vocabulary?

By academic vocabulary, we mean vocabulary that is frequent and relevant in various academic disciplines, not just one. In a way, we are talking about vocabulary that is useful for university students from different disciplines, words such as:

  • apply
  • significant
  • reveal
  • data
  • level
  • process
  • complex
  • absence
  • reduce
  • theory

Task: Have another look at the text and try to identify academic vocabulary. Then, complete the task that follows.

The migratory pathways of refugee contexts are extremely difficult circumstances to navigate. Refugees face geographic change, social isolation, and linguistic and cultural shifts associated with their forced migration. By definition, refugees flee across international borders owing to a well-founded fear of persecution (UNHCR 2010), altering their national and transnational support and communication structures. When settling in camps, refugees can be segregated from national populations and have little financial, legal, or educational support. While some refugees are permanently resettled to countries such as the United States, Canada, and Norway, 86% live in developing countries neighbouring their countries of origin (UNHCR 2014). Refugees hope that this displacement is temporary and most international aid, including education, is designed based on this assumption.

Text adapted from Dahya & Dryden-Peterson (2017)

Were you able to identify some of this academic vocabulary that is relevant and useful for all students?

33% of the words in this text belong to a list of important words to know in English for Academic Purposes. The list is called Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon (OPAL).



As you can see the majority of the academic words are content words (actions, things, qualities or ideas) e.g. migration, financial, altering, difficult, but there are a few grammar words too! You might be thinking there’s nothing academic about can, most and such, but the truth is that these words are very frequent in academic writing and carry important functions i.e. can (possibility, ability, suggestions, etc.), such (emphasis, examples), most (expressing caution).

To find out more about the Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon (OPAL), you can visit the links below: