Using the OPAL word lists for independent study

What is OPAL?

OPAL means Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon. It consists of four different academic word lists. Taken together, the four lists are an extremely useful tool that you can use to improve your academic speaking and writing. The four lists are:

  • Written words
  • Spoken words
  • Written phrases
  • Spoken phrases

These lists were created from a computer analysis of millions of words of English academic texts, both spoken and written. As a student of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), you will probably write essays, case studies, reports and other types of documents. You will also attend lectures, seminars, give presentations and have advisory sessions with tutors and supervisors. The OPAL lists will help you with the vocabulary you need for writing and speaking. Take a look at OPAL now at, then read more about it here and get some useful tips on how you can use it to improve your academic speaking and writing.

Why do I need four lists?

Academic English doesn’t just consist of lots of single words. There are also many common phrases which are used across different disciplines which help you to express your ideas coherently and logically, to structure your arguments and discussions in essays and presentations and to share facts and ideas with other people within your chosen field of study. Because you need both words and phrases, and because speaking is different from writing, there are four different lists.

Sublists for different levels: which level is right for me?

Because there are so many words and phrases in academic English, and because some are more common than others, the OPAL written and spoken words are divided into sublists. There are 12 sublists for writing, and six sublists for speaking, with the first sublists containing the most important words, then the second sublist with less common words, and so on, down to the least frequent words. So, when you access the lists, it is a good idea first to quickly scan the different levels to see where you fit best, that is, a level where you know some of the words but not all of them. That’s where you can focus your attention and do the most productive work.

The phrase lists are organised differently and are grouped by 15 functions for writing and 16 functions for speaking. For example, in writing, it is important to structure your topics or to refer to different parts of your text using phrases such as in the previous section, or as follows. In speaking, you will often hear lecturers using short-cut phrases to refer to a whole category of things, for example and things like that.

What can I do outside of class?

If you are following an EAP course, you will probably find that there just isn’t enough time in class to practise everything, and it is a good idea to set yourself a programme of things you can do independently. You can access the OPAL lists free of charge, any time you want.

Here are some practical tips on using OPAL:

  • Look at a piece of reading you have done recently and underline any word you are not sure of or which you have seen before but are not fully confident in using. Then check to see if the word is in the OPAL lists. Clicking on the word in OPAL will take you to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, where you can find a definition and example sentences. Which of the example sentences are relevant to your discipline? Make a separate note of them in a notebook or on your phone/tablet. Keeping a record of new vocabulary is very important.
  • Use the ‘filters’ function on the OPAL page for the written and spoken phrase lists to select a function you need to express in a piece of writing you are doing or in a presentation you are going to give. For example, selecting ‘compare’ will take you to useful phrases such as similar to, relative to, and compared with.
  • The example sentence(s) in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English may not be relevant to your discipline. Try rewriting the example sentence(s) to include a topic, argument or fact from your discipline.
  • Use the ‘collocation’ information in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English. Collocations are words which are used in combination with the word or phrase you are interested in. For example, if you want to explain a topic or an idea and you find the phrase concerned with in OPAL, going to the dictionary and then clicking + collocations, you will see that nouns such as issue, matter and question are often used with it, and adverbs such as primarily, largely, especially and particularly are often used to specify the topic more precisely. This is one way you can make your writing more sophisticated and more ‘academic’.
  • Because EAP isn’t just about writing, OPAL lets you hear the pronunciation of the words and phrases by clicking on the speaker icon. If you are not sure about the pronunciation of a word or phrase you are going to use in your presentation, listen to it a couple of times (you can hear it with different voices), then put it into the sentence you are preparing and practise saying it several times in the sentence before you give your presentation.
  • You may not always want to stop in the middle of your writing or preparation of a presentation, so a good time to use OPAL is at the editing stage, when you have your first draft but before you submit your writing for assessment or before you give an oral presentation.

OPAL: a resource for you

You will use a lot of different resources in your studies, including dictionaries and other reference materials. OPAL is a resource you can use without a teacher or a text book. OPAL gives you short-cuts to the words and phrases that really matter, the words and phrases you are most likely to read and hear and are most likely to need to use in your academic writing and speaking. Try OPAL now.

Michael McCarthy is Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham. He is author/co-author/editor of 53 books, including Touchstone, Viewpoint, the Cambridge Grammar of English, English Grammar Today, Academic Vocabulary in Use, From Corpus to Classroom, and titles in the English Vocabulary in Use series. He is author/co-author of 113 academic papers. He has co-directed major corpus projects in spoken English. He has lectured in English and English teaching in 46 countries

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies.

Leave a Reply