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It's All About the Right Words

Learning a discipline isn’t easy—how do students overcome the language barrier when seeking to understand the language used in a specialized field such as Applied Linguistics?

Photo by Nate Edwards BYU Photos

“Proficiency,” “cognate,” “procedural,” and “metacognitive” are just some of the words students should know before walking into an Applied Linguistics class on a campus university. In other fields of study different words are used, for example; “bailiwick” or “amicus brief” are words used in law classes and in the medical field the words like “median sternotomy” and “syncope” are used. Every field of study has specialized words that are not used in the 2000 most common words learned in elementary school classrooms and everyday conversations. In reality, only about 85% of this vocabulary is used in specific fields of study at a university, but to understand textbooks and field specific classes an average of 95% comprehension is required. In a study done in 2011 it noted that students with a vocabulary coverage of 95% would have a 60% comprehension, students with a 98-99% vocabulary coverage would have a 70% comprehension, and students with a 100% vocabulary coverage would only have a 75% comprehension.1 This study emphasized the importance of knowing vocabulary in a classroom.

Many specialized fields such as agriculture, economics, and medicine have successfully created effective need-to-know vocabulary academic word lists for their specific areas but noticing the absence of an effective Applied Linguistics list, Ana K. Barraza, Grant Eckstein, Zachary M. Lambert, Carolee Rogers, and Jesse Vincent got together to create an Applied English Linguistics Academic Word List (ALAWL) to better prepare students for their Applied Linguistics university classes. In the article “The Applied Linguistics Academic Word List (ALAWL): The creation of a domain-specific word list for applied linguistics,” Eckstein and his co-researchers shared their experiences and findings while making the ALAWL.


The GSL was one of the first widely accepted English lists, developed in 1953. It consists of the 2,000+ most common headwords and connecting word families, words that share similar qualities or meanings that connect to the headword. By linking together word families, the list developers hoped to create a more efficient learning connection to other words in the same word family. But because of the subjectiveness of choosing word families, some of the words in the GSL are grouped in families with questionable ties to each other. Further, the GSL inadequately covers the words needed in a university classroom. These challenges resulted in researchers and teachers creating more accurate and specialized vocabulary lists including the New General Service in 2013.

Some additional vocabulary lists, like the Academic Vocabulary List (developed at BYU) were word lists focusing on words in university courses and in specialized fields. These lists more accurately home in on the vocabulary used in academic texts and university reading assignments, and they help students learn vocabulary specific to the core of their field of study.


Eckstein and his co-researchers noted the effectiveness of previously made field-specific academic vocabulary lists and worked to create an overall descriptive list for an Applied English Linguistics major. They collected words from a large selection of field-specific journals reflecting the kind of advanced reading materials students in Applied Linguistics courses might encounter. The researchers sorted through and selected the most frequent words that would specifically benefit anyone studying Applied Linguistics. The result? The Applied Linguistics Academic Word List (ALAWL).

Dr. Grant Eckstein BYU Professor
Dr. Grant Eckstein BYU Professor


The researchers hope the ALAWL will help undergraduates and graduates studying Applied Linguistics to learn the field’s vocabulary. In turn, as they master the vocabulary, students will better comprehend the material they study and be able to unlock the knowledge of their field.

Besides being a resource for all students studying Applied English Linguistics, this Linguistics-specific academic word list joins other field-specific lists to further help students in various disciplines in their studies. Ultimately, such lists enable students to arrive in a university classroom prepared with the terminology that prepares them to learn their field of study.

Read the Original Article:

Barraza, Ana K.; Eckstein, Grant; Lambert, Zachary M. and Rogers, Carolee (2024). The Applied Linguistics Academic Word List (ALAWL): The creation of a domain-specific word list for applied linguistics. Journal of Academic Language & Learning. 18, no. 1 (2024): 21-48.

1Schmitt, Norbert, Jiang, Xiangying, & Grabe, William (2011). The Percentage of Words Known in a Text and Reading Comprehension. The Modern Language Journal. pg 26-43, para. 41.