As a follow-up to our last issue, here we provide an overview of some of the issues surrounding academic language for G&T learners, as it is readily apparent that formal English can be considered to be an additional language for many learners and perhaps even most disadvantaged learners

In the secondary phase of education in particular, classroom coverage of language is understandably driven by the requirements of subject. But without a focus on language development, learners will fail to secure the command of language that they require for high achievement. EAL-focused initiatives like A Language in Common could have made the difference, but largely have not.

Building on international research into language and frequency of word use in English language texts, we have explored ways in which classroom teachers can support learners in engaging with the demands of language acquisition.

The 1,000 highest frequency words in English language texts account for between 70 and 75% of words found. Tests to measure familiarity with these words are part of the REAL initial assessment framework that we created for international new arrivals.

The most frequently used 2,000 words, known as the common core, cover between 75 and 79% of most if not all texts that learners are going to encounter. Hence the second 1,000 words occur much less frequently.

Learning words for their own sake brings little benefit; language needs to be understood and learned in the context in which it is used. The common core does not include much of the formal language required for high achievement. Research has identified an Academic Word List (AWL), which relates to words needed by students to access and understand academic texts. It comprises 570 word families that are not in the most frequent 2,000 words of English but which occur reasonably frequently.

The words are useful for learners studying any curriculum subject and consist of formal vocabulary such as access, authority, define, environment, assume, criteria, imply.

Each of the 570 headwords has a family of words attached to it (eg access – accessed, accessibility, accessing, accessible, inaccessible). When added to the 2,000 word-level list, this provides access to approximately 90% of most texts.

These words are commonly used in the language of the classroom, and often as command words in questions, but often pass learners by. How can we be sure that all learners will know what we mean by the use of formal language unless we are explicit in our teaching of it?

Secure knowledge of this group of words is an important indicator of proficiency, a powerful asset in accessing the higher levels of academic tasks at each key stage. In fact if a learner masters the AWL words, then the subject teacher really is free to concentrate on the development of subject-specific language and can be far more confident that learners have a base on which to build this specialised knowledge.

Measuring academic vocabulary
A quick measure of a learner’s grasp of this key vocabulary can be gained using a simple online test. This requires learners to match words from a list with a definition. 

The test can be completed at A mark and feedback on the words correctly and incorrectly matched is provided through this tool.

Highlighting and developing academic language
Familiarity with the Academic Word List can be developed using a profiling tool within the REAL Project Toolkit. Text can simply be pasted into a web page that will return the same text with the AWL words highlighted. This tool allows teachers and learners to highlight formal vocabulary in a text. The tool uses the define function in Google™ so that when a word is highlighted its meaning and use can be checked in several different contexts.

We have found that this simple tool can have dramatic benefits when used by learners themselves with minimal input from a teacher.

To download a copy of the AWL headwords click on the link below. To use the AWL tools visit

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Ian Warwick is Senior Director of London Gifted & Talented, a branch of London Challenge. Matt Dickenson is Equalities and Achievement Director with London Gifted & Talented, leading the REAL Project (Realising Equality and Achievement for Learners).