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The University Word List (UWL)Precursor to the AWL

The University Word List (UWL) is a list of 836 word families, created by Xue and Nation in 1984. It was one of the first widely used lists of academic vocabulary.

The list was created initially by combining two other words lists: one by Campion and Elley (1971), developed for the vocabulary section of the Language Achievement Test of Overseas Students, and the American University Word List compiled by Praninskas (1972). Words from the General Service List (GSL) were excluded, and the list was expanded by using two further lists, those of Lynn (1973) and Ghadessy (1979), to add high-frequency vocabulary items which learners had difficulty with.

The resulting list of 836 headwords had a coverage of approximately 8.5% of texts in the Learned and Scientific sections of the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen Corpus (LOB) corpus of written British English.

One of the main criticisms of the list is that it used four pre-existing word lists for its creation. This combination meant it lacked consistent principles for the selection of words. In addition, the four lists were derived from small corpora which did not contain a balanced range and variety of topics.

As a result, the UWL is no longer considered relevant, and has been replaced by the more recent Academic Word List (AWL), which was developed by Averil Coxhead in 2000. Like the UWL, the AWL excludes words from the GSL. However, it uses a fewer number of headwords, 570 compared to 836, with similar coverage in the corpus used to derive the AWL (10% for AWL compared to 9.8% for UWL). A total of 435 word families from the UWL overlap with the AWL, while 401 word families do not (and conversely, 135 word families in the AWL do not appear in the UWL).

Since the list is mainly of historical interest rather than practical use, it is not included here.


Coxhead, A. (2000), 'A New Academic Word List', TESOL QUARTERLY, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer 2000C., pp.213-238.

Lessard-Clouston, M. (2013), 'Word Lists for Vocabulary Learning and Teaching', The CATESOL Journal, 24.1, pp.287-304.

Therova, D. (2020), 'Review of Academic Word Lists', The Electronic Journal for English as a Second Language, Volume 24, Number 1.


Like the website? Try the books. This extract from Unlock the Academic Wordlist: Sublists 1-3 contains all sublist 1 words, plus exercises, answers and more!



Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 07 October 2021.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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