Wednesday, 5 August 2020, 11:38 PM
Site: NILE
Course: NILE ELT Glossary (NILE-ELT Glossary)
Glossary: ELT terms - defined and referenced!

Semantic field

A semantic field, also called a lexical field, is a set of words all related to the same subject or topic area. These words need not necessarily all be the same part of speech.


We read a text in class the other day about food banks. After we’d done comprehension work on the text I asked the students to find in the text all the words related to the semantic field of materials. They found: tin, paper, polythene, wrapped, waste, cardboard, plastic, tray, light, water-proof, unwrap, a kilo, run out, use up, a load of….they found lots of them.

Further reading

Lewis, M.  (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

McCarthy, M. (1990). Vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Sentence stems

A sentence stem is a term used in the design of tests or classroom practice materials to indicate the first part of a sentence which students are then given to complete. The stem scaffolds the student’s ideas and language production in writing or speaking.

Another use of the term is to describe chunks that act as discourse markers to introduce what will be said next. Some examples are ‘I would just like to say…..’, ‘What I’d like to discuss now is ……..’, ‘In this paragraph I will……’. The stems need completing to make sentences.

Sentence stems form the basis of language frames in CLIL, where they are sometimes called sentence starters.


When I’m teaching essay writing to my intermediate or advanced classes I often give them sentence stems to help them structure their writing and adopt the right style. I usually include chunks like: In this essay I will discuss, moving on to my next point…., to sum up, I would like to conclude by …….

Further reading

Lewis, M. (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach. Stamford: Cengage.



Skewed input

This  is a characteristic of input language to which learners are exposed. Skewed input refers to particular language features occurring regularly or unusually often in the input rather than the input being varied in the language features it contains. Research is trying to establish whether skewed or more balanced input is more beneficial to language acquisition.


In materials following the structural approach to language teaching, you see inauthentic  texts in which many examples of a particular structure have been deliberately included so as to provide students with multiple exposure to that structure. This kind of repetition of a structure can occur in authentic texts but is less common. Some researchers are trying to find out whether multiple exposure to the same structure, i.e. skewed input, helps learners to acquire language.

Further reading

DeKeyser, R. (2003). Implicit and explicit learning. In J. and Doughty & M. Long (Eds.),

Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, MA: Blackwell.

Goldberg 2006 Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalisation in Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, P. and Ellis, N. (2008). Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. London: Routledge.




Skills are the way in which language is used. There are four language skills: reading, listening, writing and speaking, the first two of these being known as productive skills and the latter two as receptive skills. To use these skills we employ a number of microskills. These are sometimes called subskills or strategies. They include for example, reading for gist, speaking intelligibly, writing coherently, listening for specific information.


Some people argue these days that we don’t need to teach learners the subskills of language skills as they already use them in their own language and can just transfer them across. I’m not sure how true this is.

Further reading

Johnson, K. (2002). Key concepts in ELT: Language as Skill. ELT Journal 56/2.

Juan, E.U. and Flor, A.M. (2006). Current Trends in the Development and Teaching of the Four Language Skills. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching.Harlow: Pearson.

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning Teaching, 2nd edition. Oxford: MacMillan.

Thornbury, S. and Watkins, P. (2007). The CELTA Course. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




A superordinate is a lexical term. It refers to a word which is the name of a category, for example, fruit is the superordinate for oranges, apples, bananas, melon, strawberries etc. The things which make up the category are called hyponyms (See hyponym)


Lots of games you play in class are based on superordinates. There is one called categories for example, where you give students a grid with a list of superordinates, then call out a letter of the alphabet. The first person to complete the grid with words beginning with that letter is the winner. Here’s an example of the grid:


























You can see the superordinates at the top of the columns. Mind maps are often based on superordinates too.

Further reading

Berry, R.(2010). Terminology in English Language Teaching: Nature and Use. Bern: Peter Lang.

Cook, V. (2013). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.



Word cloud

A word cloud is a jumble of words from a text produced by computer by calculating the words’ frequency in the text. Teachers can make their own word clouds by entering texts into a word cloud programme. Word clouds can be used in class to, for example, aid vocabulary learning, revise texts, warm up to reading, listening or discussion lessons, generate ideas for writing lessons etc.


Here is a word cloud created from the above definition of ‘Word Cloud’:

Further reading



Word form

A word form is a lexical term referring to the different forms that derive from a base word (lemma) e.g. take, takes, taking, took, taken from the base word ‘take’. Word form refers to form and not to meaning.


If you were trying to work out how many vocabulary items a student knows, would you count just the base word or would you count all the different word forms?

Further reading

Crystal, D (ed.). (1995).The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Hirsh, D.; Nation, P. (1992), ‘What Vocabulary Size is Needed to Read Unsimplified Texts for Pleasure?’ in Reading in a Foreign Language 8/2.

McCarthy, M. (1996). Vocabulary. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Nation, P. and Waring, R. Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists:



Defining vocabulary

This is vocabulary used by people writing dictionaries to write definitions and examples. Defining vocabulary is high frequency vocabulary which is thought to be easily and widely understood. 


Monolingual learner dictionaries make use of a very high frequency defining vocabulary to try to ensure that learners of all levels can understand the definitions and examples.

Further reading

Cowie, A. P. (2000). The EFL Dictionary Pioneers and their Legacy:

Fox, G. (1989) A vocabulary for writing dictionaries. In M.L. Tickoo (1989). Learners’ Dictionaries: State of the Art.

Tickoo, M. L. (1989). Introduction.  In Tickoo M. L. (ed.): Learners’ Dictionaries: State of the Art. Seameo (Singapore).




This term refers to the core or central meaning of a word, i.e. its direct or literal meaning rather than its meaning by association (See Connotation).


The denotation of ‘Facebook’ is a social media site on which you post things and contact people. Its connotations depend a lot on your opinions. For some it is fun, essential; for others it is intrusive and dangerous; for yet others old-fashioned etc.

Further reading

Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Harlow: Pearson.

Spratt, M., Pulverness, A., Williams, M. (2011). The TKT Course Modules 1, 2 and 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P.  (1999). A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




This is a term related to word building. It refers to the formation of new words, in English by adding a morpheme to a base word. This sometimes makes the new word a different part of speech from the base word.


Base word











Further reading

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach. Boston, Mass.: Thomson Heinle.

Schmitt, M.and McCarthy, M. (ed.s) (1997). Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




A hypernym is another word for the more common term superordinate. It is a word which is the name of a category for other words e.g. Gadget is a hypernym for mobile phone, pen drive, mouse, tablet, hand-help device.


Something I sometimes do with my class is ask them to go through their vocabulary records and find hypernyms (I don’t use that term with them!) for as many words as they can, or I give them some hypernyms and ask them to find words belonging to them. It seems to help them remember the words and consolidate their meaning.

Further reading

Berry, R. (2010). Terminology in English Language Teaching: Nature and Use. Bern: Peter Lang.

Cook, V. (2013). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.



Inferring meaning

When we infer meaning we work out from linguistic and contextual clues what a word, group of words or sentence might mean. We do this for different types of meaning e.g. denotation, connotation, attitude.


She said the food was great but it was very easy to infer from the look on her face that she really meant it was horrible!

Further reading

Clarke, D.F., & Nation, I.S. P. (1980). Guessing the Meanings of Words from Context:Strategy and Techniques. System/ 8.

Coady, J. and Huckin, T. (eds.), (1997). Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macaro, E., (2003). Teaching and Learning a Second Language. New York: Continuum.

Schmitt, N., (1997). Vocabulary learning strategies. In N. Schmitt, and M. McCarthy, eds. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Takač, V. P. (2008). Vocabulary Learning Strategies and Foreign Language Acquisition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.





A lemma is the dictionary or citation form of a word. Spoke, speaking, spoken, speaks are all forms of the lemma speak, for example


When students start using a dictionary they sometimes can’t find the word they want because they don’t realise they need to look for the citation form of the word, its lemma. They need training in helping them to do this.

Further reading

Knowles, G. and Don, Z. M. (2004). The Notion of a Lemma: Headwords, Roots and Lexical Sets in International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 9/1.

Macaro, E. (2003). Teaching and Learning a Second Language. New York:Continuum.

N. Schmitt, and M. McCarthy, eds. (1997). Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 



Polysemy is a lexical term referring to the many meanings that some words can have. These meanings usually derive from one (possibly remote) core meaning  e.g. table as in the piece of furniture, a grid, a group of people sitting round a table and the verb meaning to present something at a meeting.


I’m not sure if polysemy makes words easier or harder to learn. You could argue that it confuses learners e.g. left as an adjective, noun, adverb v left as a past participle. But maybe it actually helps learners because they’re already familiar with the sound of the word. I’m not sure and I don’t know of any research telling us about this.

Further reading

Thornbury, S. (2006). An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

David Crystal’s Introduction to Language:





This is a stage in a lesson in which the teacher introduces vocabulary that the learners will need in following stages of the lesson. This stage is often associated with reading, listening or integrated skills lessons but can also occur before speaking or writing activities. The teacher generally sets up the context of the following activities then introduces the new vocabulary within that context. The idea behind pre-teaching vocabulary is to lessen the load of unknown words the learner has to deal with later on in the lesson.


For many years teachers were recommended to pre-teach vocabulary before working on texts. Nowadays though, some question this, suggesting that the contexts that teachers are able to set up for pre-teaching are rarely meaningful and that pre-teaching in fact prevents learners from developing the attack strategies they need for dealing with challenging texts.

Further reading

Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Harlow: Pearson.

Scrivener, J. (2011). Learning Teaching, 3rd edition. London: Macmillan.




These are terms used in relation to the language skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. The first two are said to be receptive as they involve absorbing language while the latter two are known as productive as they involve producing language. Receptive skills are sometimes thought of as being passive while productive skills are thought of as active. In fact, this categorisation is rather misleading, as a reader or listener can be very active in their comprehension and interpretation of language while reading or listening, and of course, much reading and listening takes place interactively with writing and speaking.


I think it’s rather unhelpful to talk of listening or reading lessons. I prefer to think of integrated skills lessons where a focus on a receptive skill often leads into and supports the learning of productive skill.

Further reading

Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Harlow: Pearson.

Scrivener, J. (2011). Learning Teaching, 3rd edition. London: Macmillan.

Ur, P.  (1999). A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




The stem of a word is the part that never changes and to which any inflections or affixes are added. A word stem may or may not have the same form as a word’s lemma. (See Lemma). A lemma is the citation form of a word so it always looks like a word, whereas a stem is the part of the word that is added to. For example, take is a lemma, but tak- is the stem for this word, but for the word run both the lemma and the stem are run.


To have an idea of what a word’s stem is can be useful for producing correct spelling. You add –ing to tak, for example, not to take to make the –ing form of take.

Further reading

Carstairs McCarthy, A. (2002). An Introduction to English Morphology: Words and Their Structures. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Matthews, P. (1991). Morphology 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

You Tube Video:




A synonym is a word with the same or very similar meaning to another word e.g. simple / easy; quickly / fast. Words are rarely complete synonyms of one another, differing in style or collocation e.g. to spend time with v to hang out with. An antonym is a word which is the opposite in meaning to another word e.g. rude / considerate; get off / get on, but, once again, there are not many complete antonyms because often they cannot be used as alternatives in all contexts.


There are lots of games, puzzles and exercises in ELT based around synonyms and antonyms. Learning a word’s synonyms or antonyms does give you the impression that you know that word better, in my opinion.

Further reading

Burns, A. and Richards, J. (2012). Pedagogy and Practice in Second Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Harlow: Pearson.

Scrivener, J. (2011). Learning Teaching, 3rd edition. London: Macmillan.




A thesaurus is a reference book of words organised according to their similarity of meaning or belonging to the same lexical set. The purpose of a thesaurus is to help us find the word that best expresses what we want to say. A thesaurus can provide a very rich resource for drawing a mind map. This is why there are several visual thesaurus computer programmes.


Click here to see an example from a thesaurus for the word ‘Money’.

Further reading

Davidson, G. (2002). Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. London: Penguin.

Information about Roget's Thesaurus on Wikipedia

Visual mind maps:



Use / Usage

These terms are used in linguistics in contrast to one another to describe ways in which a person knows language. In usage a person knows about language or items in language abstractly as a component in a language system. In use, a person knows how to use language for communication. This distinction which focuses on the difference between knowing about language (usage) and knowing how to use language (use) was critical in the development of language teaching, away from grammar translation and towards a communicative approach. Henry Widdowson introduced and developed this distinction in 1978.


Some people used to criticize grammar translation, saying that it was too usage-oriented. Nowadays some people criticise communicative language teaching saying it is too use- oriented.

Further reading

Carter, R. and Nunan, D. (2001). Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Widdowson, H.G. (1978). Teaching Language as Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Howatt, A. P. R. and Widdowson, H.G. (2004). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.