Top Tips for IELTS

Key essay vocabulary – 8 AWL exercises

A major need for IELTS candidates is a knowledge of the correct vocabulary for writing essays. In general terms, this can be broken down into 3 categories:

  1. the vocabulary relating to the topic
  2. the structural vocabulary
  3. the academic vocabulary

In this post, I focus on the academic vocabulary – the vocabulary that makes the essay look like something written for an academic supervisor.

Interactive IELTS essay exercises using the Academic word List

I have created 8 interactive exercises using some of my sample IELTS essays to show how important the AWL is. In each exercise, you will be able to read the essay first and then try to recreate it using words from the AWL.

They can also be found on my Interactive IELTS page with more exercises.

Why is this key vocabulary?

There are two fairly simple answers to that question. The first is that the essay you need to write is an “academic” essay and so clearly  you should try and use academic language and the best source of academic language is the Academic Word List (AWL). These are the words that all academic writers use. The second answer is very practical. The words from the AWL are words you can use in many different contexts and essays. You can guarantee that these words will be useful in any essay.

An example of how the AWL can improve your writing

Read through these two paragraphs. Which do you think contains the better vocabulary?

In contrast, there is only one major argument on the other side of the debate. This is that both museums and art galleries need to charge an entrance fee if they are to survive in the modern world. Governments do not have sufficient funds to subsidise all such institutions and there are other priorities for public money. Therefore these galleries and museums need to charge their customers not only to survive but to update their exhibitions and make new purchases. By way of illustration, the Tate Modern in London could not have been founded without revenue from admissions.

But there is only one good argument against. This is that both museums and art galleries need to charge for entrance if they are to live in the modern world. Governments do not have enough funds to give all such places and there are other needs for public money. Therefore these galleries and museums need to charge their customers not only to stay in business but to update what they show the public and buy new paintings. For example, the Tate Modern in London could not have been set up without money from admissions.

I hope you chose the first one – that one contains AWL words, the second doesn’t. Let’s analyse briefly how they are different:

  • In contrast = but
  • major = good
  • survive = live
  • sufficient = enough
  • subsidise = give
  • institutions = places
  • exhibitions = what they show the public
  • illustration = example
  • founded = set up

None of these changes are particularly difficult, you just need to know what language you should be using. That’s where the AWL comes in.

An exercise

If this interests you, I have a suggestion. Go to the AWL highlighter from Nottingham University and paste in one of your essays. You should get at least 7/8 words from the AWL highlighted. If you don’t, I’d suggest you may be learning the wrong vocabulary.

How to use the AWL and my essays

A word of warning. The AWL is a beautiful tool but it does have its dangers. This is partly because it contains not 570 words, but 570 word families and this means is that you need to learn “economy” “economic” and “economical”. Another danger is that you need to know how to use these words in context: by which I mean you need to know what word comes next. It is no good learning the word ‘levy” for example if you do not know that it is normally followed the “a charge”. Here is where the exercises from my essays come in useful. In order to complete them you will need to read the context and look at the words that come before and after.

Learning the AWL – a word a day

If this form of learning interests you, you can always check out my Daily Word exercise on the Home page: I believe that it is 2 minutes well spent.

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6 Responses to Key essay vocabulary – 8 AWL exercises

  1. Name November 29, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    not so bad

  2. school grants December 1, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

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    • Dominic Cole December 1, 2010 at 8:48 pm #

      The link to my Facebook page is on the right hand bar – is that a Fan page?


  3. siufu September 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Dear Dominic,
    I love your website which is comprehensive with good coverage and linkage. Please kindly forward the dictionary that you’ve been mention in your website that I lost track of it. Thank you very much for your kind help!


  1. How to learn IELTS vocabulary – 10 top tips | Dominic Coles IELTS Blog - November 18, 2010

    […] A particularly interesting exercise for IELTS candidates here is to copy/paste one of their own essays into the AWL highlighter. I would suggest that you should be using around 10 academic words per essay. If you are not, you are probably using the wrong sort of language. For more on this check out my post: IELTS writing – key essay vocabulary – 8 exercises from the AWL […]

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