What is discipline-specific vocabulary?

time to complete: 10-15 minutes

So far, we have seen that the majority of the words in an academic text are core words that learners of English should know and that some of its words are academic in a sense that they are useful for various academic disciplines. So, what’s left?


Well, the rest of the words in academic texts are usually words that are…

  • words typical of a discipline (discipline-specific vocabulary)
  • words typical of a topic
  • proper nouns (names of people, places, organisations, etc.) or
  • some other general English vocabulary that is not frequent

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)

And here are some words from the other texts you looked at earlier. Students from these disciplines or those students familiar with the topics are most likely to know this vocabulary.

Text from

Discipline- & topic-specific vocabulary


banner, advocacy, civic hackers, portal, normative, activist


bids, lenders, borrowers, baseline


trafficking, prosecuted, legislative, code


velocity, vector, spectrum, integer, gamma, Gaussian

To sum up

We have seen that academic texts contain:

  • general English words (the Oxford 3000 list)
  • academic words (the Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon)
  • discipline- or topic-specific words

Generally speaking, the majority of the words in these texts are core and academic English words, while discipline- or topic-specific words are only a small fraction.

Of course, that depends on the type of text (genre). Some texts can be really technical and therefore have a few more discipline-specific words, but core/academic vocabulary tends to account for the majority of words in an academic text.

It is also worth noting that there are words from general English that might have a technical meaning in a discipline, as shown in the example below:

  • wall = a long, solid structure that rises straight up from the ground, made of stone, brick or concrete, that surrounds, divides or protects an area of land


  • wall (anatomy) = the outer layer of something hollow such as an organ of the body or a cell of an animal or a plant e.g. the wall of an artery, the abdominal wall, etc.


Adapted from Oxford Learner’s Dictionary (2020)

Task: To check whether you’ve understood what we covered so far, answer the following questions.