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5 Qs for Averil Coxhead

Interviewed by Catherine Richards

April 2018 | 5 Questions for

You are the author of the Academic Word List (AWL) (though it may come as some surprise to our members that the AWL was your MA thesis!) How did the idea for the AWL come about?

There is a bit of a story about this thesis and I wrote about it in the introduction to my new book on vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes (Coxhead, 2018). The idea for the AWL came from sitting in post-graduate classroom on language testing in Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand in 1994. Professor John Read (University of Auckland) was lecturing on testing and vocabulary and mentioned the University Word List (UWL) which had been developed by Xue and Nation (1984) needed revising. He said that it would be a good research project. I talked to Professor Paul Nation (Victoria University of Wellington) about the possibility of doing this research project and he gave me articles to read as background for the study. I also talked with Jim Dickie (Victoria University of Wellington), another lecturer in the department, about doing a research project for my MA. He looked me in the eye and said something like, “You know what works, but you don’t know why”. I was also involved in teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) at the time, and it seemed to me that research on academic vocabulary would be really useful for language teachers and learners. I now always mention possible research projects in MA classes when I can, because you never know what those suggestions might spark.

The Academic Spoken Word List (ASWL) (Dang, Coxhead, & Webb, 2017) may be new to our members. Can you tell us a little more about this?

The ASWL is a new word list which was developed from a large-scale study of academic spoken texts. Yen Dang developed and evaluated this list as part of her excellent PhD research here at Victoria University of Wellington. There are 1,741 words in this list, and students are likely to come across them in many academic disciplines and in lectures and other academic speaking events. A key feature of the list is that it is designed for learners with different levels of proficiency. This list is important for many reasons, but one of the most important ones from my point of view is that most research up till now has been carried out on written academic texts, for example, the AWL and Gardener & Davies (2014) Academic Vocabulary List.

What do you see as the areas of particular interest in ESP vocabulary research today?

There is plenty going on in terms of research into medical vocabulary and medical communication. There’s a new word list for nursing (Yang, 2015) and there are several medical word lists (e.g. Liu & Lei, 2016). Cailing Lu, one of my current PhD students, is doing some fascinating research on Traditional Chinese Medicine. Amongst other things, she has identified technical vocabulary, for example, based on its language of origin (e.g. qi, yin, yang), everyday words in English with particular meanings in Chinese Medicine (wind, hot), and has identified multi-word units as well. Betsy Quero (Quero & Coxhead, 2018) and I looked into high frequency vocabulary in medical English, because these words are particularly important learners who are reading medical textbooks in English. Medical communication is fascinating too. In my 2018 book I discuss research into testing medical vocabulary, communication between patients and medical staff, and lexical items which are key to medical studies such as proper nouns, for example, Parkinson’s. Medical vocabulary is a great area of research and it is very important.

You’ve made much use of corpora in your research career and have recently written an article with Betsy Quero on using a corpus based approach to select medical vocabulary for an EMP course. Should all ESP teachers, including EMP teachers, be familiar with corpus-based techniques?

When I think about corpora and corpus-based techniques, I feel that the most important thing is that teachers need to know what a corpus is, first of all. I didn’t know about corpora when I first started teaching. I would have liked to have known about ideas such as frequency in vocabulary and how corpora can tell us about that back then. I also think it is important that when teachers are reading research (e.g on word lists), they can figure out how a corpus-based study has been done so that they can see the strengths and weaknesses of the approach and the robustness of the findings.

Recently, I’ve been involved in doing research on technical vocabulary in the trades (see Coxhead, 2018) and in the translation of technical word lists in the trades into Tongan (Coxhead, Parkinson & (2017). Without corpora, and without people to analyse and make sense of the data from the corpora, these projects would not be possible.

You were once an EFL teacher. How has that experience coloured or informed your research career?

Every day in my job, I call on the experience I gained teaching English as a Foreign Language in places like Romania, Hungary and Estonia in my teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I also think about and treasure the friendships and my own language learning journeys from those times. Lucky, lucky me.

Averil Coxhead is an Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics at the University of Wellington in Victoria, New Zealand. She is the author of the Academic Word List, one of the most useful language resources developed for university studies. She teaches courses on second language learning in the BEdTESOL and the MA in Applied Linguistics/TESOL programs. Averil has taught in New Zealand, England, Estonia, Hungary and Romania. Her current research includes specialised vocabulary in the trades, at university and secondary school.



Coxhead, A. (2018). Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes research: Quantitative and qualitative perspectives. London: Routledge.

Coxhead, A. Dang, Y. & Mukai, S. (2017). University Tutorials and Laboratories: Corpora, textbooks and vocabulary. English for Academic Purposes. 30, 66–78

Coxhead, A., Parkinson, J. & Tu’amoheloa, F. (2017). Using Talanoa to Develop Bilingual Word Lists of Technical Vocabulary in the Trades. First view:

Dang, Y., Coxhead, A. & S. Webb. (2017). The Academic Spoken Word List. Language Learning 67(3), 959–997.

Gardner, D. & Davies, M. (2014) A New Academic Vocabulary List. Applied Linguistics, 35(3), 305–327.

Greene, J. & Coxhead, A. (2015). Academic Vocabulary for Middle School Students: Research-based lists and strategies for key content areas. Baltimore: Brookes.

Lei, L. & Liu, D. (2016). A New Medical Academic Word List: A corpus-based study with enhanced methodology. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 22, 42–53.

Nation, I. S. P. (2016). Making and Using word Lists for Language Learning and Testing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Quero, B. & Coxhead, A. (2018). Using a Corpus-based Approach to Select Medical Vocabulary for an ESP Course: The case for high-frequency vocabulary. In Yasemin Kirkgöz & Kenan Dikilitaş (Eds.). Key issues in English for Specific Purposes in higher education, pp. 51–75. New York: Springer.

Xue, G. and Nation, I.S.P. (1984). A University Word List. Language Learning and Communication 3(2), 215–229.

Yang, M-N. (2015). A Nursing Academic Word List. English for Specific Purposes, 37, 27–38.