I wrote last week about building up your “core vocabulary” when preparing to take the TOEFL. When studying vocabulary for the TOEFL, you should devote most of your time to mastering the core English vocabulary. Most ESL students can focus only on those words. However, students preparing for the TOEFL must also be familiar with academic, subject-specific vocabulary.

What is “subject-specific” vocabulary? That’s vocabulary related to the academic subjects that are referenced in the listening and reading portions of the test. In those two sections, students are required to read a passage from a university-level textbook, or listen to a university-level lecture. The reading passages and lectures are all on typical university subjects, from both the arts and sciences.

So what are the subjects? For an overview of the subjects you might have to deal with on the TOEFL, I refer to McGraw Hill’s wonderful 400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL. That’s a book that I highly recommend purchasing. It focuses only on subject vocabulary. It includes NO core vocabulary. If you don’t have the book, here’s the subjects it covers (with sub-categories listed in parenthesis):

  1. Nature (food crops, disaster, evolution and migration, petroleum alternatives
  2. Science (time efficiency, ancient life, computers, energy
  3. Mind and Body (memory, religion, illness, surgery, ghosts)
  4. Society (anthropology, social inequality, expertise, military, war and conquest, history)
  5. Money (financial systems, wealth and social class, personal property, employment, international trade)
  6. Government and Justice (politics, police, government corruption, the war on drugs)
  7. Relationships (family relationships, friendships, passion, negative emotions)
  8. Culture (social rebels, painting and sculpture, the written word, fashion)

If you followed my advice last week you’ve already starting building a deck of “core vocabulary” flashcards. Now you should start adding some words related to the above subjects to your deck. But don’t over-emphasize the above – subject-specific words should make up only ten percent of your deck.

Want to know where to find words to add? You can purchase the textbook I recommended above. Or you can find them using real articles online. I have a two step method to finding good subject-specific words to add to my flashcard deck.

Step one: Locate a related article on Wikipedia. Here’s a good article about anthropology.

Step two: Copy the text of the whole document (omit footnotes) and paste it into the WordCounter frequency tool. Select “200 Words.” Run the tool.

Now you’ll have a list of the words used most frequently in the article (minus very short words). View the list to pick out a dozen words that are unfamiliar to you and add them to your flashcard collection. From the above article, I found:

    • anthropological
    • sociocultural
    • linguistic
    • ethnographic
    • kinship
    • evolutionary
    • cognitive
    • nutritional
    • forensic
    • theorist
    • interdisciplinary
    • archaeological
    • cross-cultural
    • discipline

If you want to find more words, consider adding the text of some of the sub-articles that Wikipedia links to.

These are not the sort of words that you will use in the speaking and writing sections of the test. But familiarity with these words may help your comprehension when confronted with academic texts and lectures in the listening and reading sections of the text.

Check back next time for part three of this article, which will discuss transitional words that you should be familiar with on test day.