The AWL is one of my favourite tools for teaching vocabulary. Here I outline briefly why it can work, some drawbacks and sketch out some different ways of teaching IELTS with the academic word list.

Why use the AWL.

Students sometimes learn the wrong type of words – very low incidence words that they will rarely use – the AWL focuses learning on words that are used.

The words are all common words (but see below) – i.e. words that any student aiming for university entrance should at least recognise.

It comes in neat lists – lists can be convenient for teaching from no?

Potential problems with the AWL

Not all the words in it are equal. It comes with 570 headwords and words derived from those headwords – some of these are less than useful. Socontext is an important word we can all agree, but do we really want uncontextualised? I suspect not, but that leaves you with a tough decision on where to draw the line between presenting the headwords and the word families.

There’s quite a lot of it! 570 words may seem manageable but you will never get all the way through teaching them. This leaves you with choices about what words to present and when. In list 10 you find colleagueencounter and reluctant. Go through the lists systematically and you will never ever reach them.

The ultimate AWL resource

This is one of the resources I recommend most. It isn’t perfect, but it is jolly good. It’s the AWL page from Nottingham University which comes with a neat gap maker tool – used to make the exercises below – check it out.

Nottingham University – gap-maker and highlighter

Ideas for AWL exercises

1. The simple gap-fill – and a variation

It’s possible to overcomplicate so let’s start with the simple one. You copy paste an essay into the highlighter and hey presto you have a cloze exercise.

If you have computer lab access then one quite intuitive exercise is to get the students to use their own essays. This works as an awareness raising activity to check/see whether they are using at least a fair percentage of the appropriate vocabulary.

2. A vocabulary learning awareness activity

This is another favourite of mine. Often too much time is spent learning low incidence words. The AWL is comprised (mostly) of high incidence words – the words students want to be able to use productively.

Again, this works best with a computer lab, or at least some variant of IWB, you show a text and ask the students which words they think are most worth learning – make a list etc. Almost invariably, many of their words will be less than useful. Then you explain quickly the AWL and show them which words are used most and hence most useful.

One way to supplement this is to add in exercises on word families and/or word combinations.

3. A spot the mistake – error correction activity

The problem with the simple cloze (and most online exercises you find on the AWL) is that it mostly tests word recognition/understanding of meaning. The point of the AWL words is that they are active words and the students need to be able to use them and not just recognise them – see my daily word activities. An error correction exercise works because it gets the students looking at how the words are used and not what they mean.

When I run this activity I almost invariably run it on a sentence or paragraph level and very often focus on one type of error. The exercise below for example looks only at word forms. This is of course a matter of choice but for me this makes for more focused learning. [That the exercise below is simply spot the mistake and not correct it is partly down to technological deficiencies. That said, I do believe the first step is always to see the mistake!].

This exercise is adapted slightly from this essay on modern agriculture. I have many more essays that can be adapted in this way on my sample essays page.

4. Complete the word family

This is dead simple. You give the students the word and then ask which other words can be made from it. Then the extension is of course to try and get them to use the words.

5. Focus on collocations and word combinations

Here I am not just thinking of adjective noun combinations but also prepositions etc – hence word combinations. An excellent tool here – one I use (among others) for my daily word is this concordance.

It’s not perfect but it does show you how frequent certain combinations are. There are loads of possible exercises to be made here but a simple start is to give the word and 7/8 possible combinations around 5 of which are correct. Ask which work and which don’t. Then you can present model sentences and get students to make theirs.