ELT terms - defined and referenced!

Welcome to the NILE ELT Glossary


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We hope this is useful for you and your NILE Online course.

(Definitions written by Mary Spratt, edited by Alan Pulverness)

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Perfect aspect

See Aspect


This is a teaching technique which involves the teacher using materials or teacher talk that makes a clear link to students’ own lives, interests or attitudes. The idea behind personalisation is that students will become more motivated and learn better when they can see that language has relevance to themselves.


"We read a text about space travel then had a discussion about who amongst would like to do space travel, why and why not. This personalised the topic and made it real for us."

Further reading

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

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





This is the smallest unit of meaningful sound in a language. A phoneme can distinguish one word from another e.g. /bæd/ vs /bed/. In English Received Pronunciation (RP) there are forty-four phonemes, twenty-four are consonants and twenty are vowels.


Learning the phonetic script and understanding the phonemic chart can really help you teach individual phonemes to students. Often there are just a few phonemes that students have trouble pronouncing - usually because they don’t exist in their L1.

Further reading

English Pronunciation in Use, Elementary/ Intermediate/ Advanced. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Underhill, A. (2005). Sound Foundations. Oxford: MacMillan.







Phonemic chart

A chart showing the phonemic symbols for a particular language arranged according to whether they are vowels or consonants and their place and manner of articulation.


The British Council’s Sounds Right phonemic chart can be downloaded for the iPad from https://itunes.apple.com/app/sounds-right/id387588128?mt=8 and for the PC from http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/TEphonemic.zip

There are different ways in which the phonemic chart can be used to help learners with their pronunciation.

Further reading

Kelly, G. (2000). How to Teach Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.

Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.

Underhill, A. (2005) Sound Foundations. Oxford: MacMillan.





Macmillan Pronunciation Skills videos with Adrian Underhill


The Phonemic Chart, Part 1:

The Phonemic Chart, Part 2:



Phonetics and phonemics

Phonetics is the study of all the speech sounds used in all human languages. The IPA chart (See IPA) represents these sounds. Unlike phonemics (also known as phonology - see Phonology), phonetics is not concerned with the sounds of individual languages. It studies the production, transmission and reception of speech sounds in all languages. Phonemics studies those sounds which are meaningful (i.e. which may distinguish between one word and another) within one language.


We learn from phonetics that there is a sound called a glottal stop. But we learn from phonemics, not phonetics, that the glottal stop does not change meaning in standard English and that it is therefore not a phoneme in standard English, but an allophone (See Allophone) of /t/.

Further reading

Carr, Philip (2003).English Phonetics and Phonology: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ladefoged, Peter. (1982).A Course in Phonetics (2nd ed.). London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Roach, Peter (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology, 4th edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



This term has various meanings. The Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics defines it as follows:

1     another term for PHONEMICS

2     (for some linguists) a cover term for both PHONETICS and PHONEMICS

3      The establishment and description of the distinctive sound units of a language (PHONEMES) by means of DISTINCTIVE FEATURES

(The Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics, p.435)


As a teacher of English I found it very useful to study phonology. It helped me to understand what sounds there are in English and where and how they are pronounced. This helped me develop ideas for how to help my learners with their pronunciation.

Further reading

Carr, Philip (2003).English Phonetics and Phonology: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ladefoged, Peter. (1982) A Course in Phonetics (2nd ed.). London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Richards, J. and Schmidt, R. (2010). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, 4th edition. Harlow: Pearson.

Roach, Peter (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology, 4th edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://linkingphonetics.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/cambridge_p_roach_english_phonetics_and_phonology_nopw.pdf

Underhill, A. (2005) Sound Foundations. Oxford: MacMillan.




Phrasal verb

Phrasal verbs are items made up of a verb and one or more particles (adverbs or prepositions). You cannot always work out the meaning of phrasal verbs by looking at the individual words e.g. look after, hang in. In English some phrasal verbs are informal or neutral in register. They may have more formal equivalents often coming from Latin e.g. get off/alight, make up/compose, look at/regard.


"Learners often think phrasal verbs are difficult to learn, but if they learn them as lexical items rather than as grammatical items they’re not so hard."

Further reading

Carter, R. and McCarthy, M. (2006). Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M. and O’Dell, F. (2004-2007). English Phrasal Verbs in Use (Elementary/Intermediate/Advanced). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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





A phrase is a group of words making up a meaningful unit in a clause. There are different kinds of phrases such as a verb phrase, a prepositional phrase, an adverbial phrase, a noun phrase. A phrase may or may not contain a verb.


In this sentence there are four phrases all marked in different colours: Nobody wearing sandals will be allowed into the restaurant after 8 o’clock.

Further reading

Batstone, R. (1994) Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carter, R. and McCarthy, M. (2006). Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parrott, M. (2010). Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Thornbury, S. (1997).  About Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




Pinboard plenary (n.)

An activity type that allows task results to be shared amongst the whole class in visual form. Each working pair or group puts their points on to a small card, one card for each point. The cards are then stuck up on a pinboard and read aloud. The whole class decides which points are similar and those cards are moved so that they are close to each other. Points can also be evaluated in plenary.  

Sandra decided to get her trainee teachers to work in pairs and write what they knew about giving good instructions as a series of tips on small cards. Then all the small cards would be put up in a pinboard plenary.



Pitch is usually defined as “the rate of vibration of the vocal folds”, which is responsible for sounds being produced at higher or lower frequencies, or higher or lower pitch. Pitch can vary across a word or a whole utterance. Varying our pitch in conventionally agreed ways makes it possible for meaning to be expressed through intonation. For example, in English, in Wh- questions the pitch of the voice starts higher then falls.


In English we change the direction of the pitch of our voices on the most important syllable in a word or tone unit. We can see this from the contour line in this example:



Take the train, not the bus – it’s much quicker.

Further reading

Roach, Peter (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology, 4th edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Underhill, A. (2005) Sound Foundations. Oxford: MacMillan.

Roach, P. English Phonetics and Phonology. Glossary: http://www.cambridge.org/servlet/file/EPP_PED_Glossary.pdf?ITEM_ENT_ID=2491706&ITEM_VERSION=1&COLLSPEC_ENT_ID=7



This term is often used to refer to a meeting or conference in which all members are present. In English language teaching it is sometimes used instead of whole class to mean those moments in a lesson during which the teacher gets all students to focus on her/him so he/she can give the same input to everyone at the same time. This is sometimes called teacher-fronted plenary.


"The danger of using too much plenary teaching is that it puts learners in a passive role of listeners only, while the teacher talks or inputs in some way."

Further reading

Andrews, S. (2007). Teacher language awareness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. Nunan, D. (1989) Understanding Language Classrooms: A Guide for Teacher-Initiated Action. Prentice Hall Publishers.

Schwab, G. (2011) From dialogue to multilogue: a different view on participation in the English foreign‐language classroom. Classroom Discourse Volume 2Issue 1.

Scrivener, J. (2012) Classroom management techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walsh, S. (2011) Exploring Classroom Discourse: Language in Action. Abingdon: Routledge.



Plenary (n./adj.)

Part of the lesson in which the whole class works together, led by the teacher.

After the group work the teacher brought the whole class together for plenary feedback.



A plosive is a type of sound produced by air popping on one of the speech organs as it is released (See Speech Organ). The plosive sounds in English are /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/.


In my experience learners of English rarely have problems producing the plosive sounds. Is that what you have found with your students, too?

Further reading

Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.

Marks, J. (2012). Delta Teacher Development: Pronunciation Book. Peaslake, Surrey: Delta.

Underhill, A. (2005) Sound Foundations. Oxford: MacMillan.






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: http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/9780415602679/dc-glossary.asp





A portfolio is a collection of a learner’s work submitted as a whole and sometimes organised with an index, agreed assignment components and reflection sheets. In ELT, portfolios can contain written work such as essays, emails, reports or video and audio recordings, project work and PowerPoint slides. Portfolios are mainly used for assessment. They are also sometimes used in teacher development. A teacher portfolio might contain a CV, some lesson plans, a statement of beliefs about teaching, an action plan, reflections.


"An advantage of portfolios is that they allow the learner to express themselves more fully and the teacher to get a fuller idea of a learner’s performance than tests can reveal.  A disadvantage is that they can take a long time to mark."

Further reading

European Language Portfolio http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/elp/

Nunan, D. (2004). Task-based Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.






Portfolio assessment

Portfolio assessment involves the assessment of a portfolio of work submitted by a learner. The portfolio may contain compulsory components or be decided on by the learner. The components may include both oral and written work as well as reflections on that work. Assessment criteria are usually used to guide the marking of portfolios so as to stop the marking becoming too subjective.


"For my Spanish course we had to submit a portfolio – I put in it all the reports I’d written as well as corrected versions of them, videos I’d shot as part of my project, and all my project work – questionnaires, tables of findings, photos I’d taken, recordings of interviews. I felt it gave a really rounded view of what my Spanish is like."

Further reading

Hamp-Lyons, L. and Condon, W. (2000). Assessing the Portfolio. New York:  Hampton Press.

Hughes, A. (2003). Testing for Language Teachers, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Malley, J. M. and Valdez Pierce, L. (1996). Authentic Assessment for English Language Learners: Practical approaches for teachers. Boston, MASS.: Addison-Wesley.





See Pronoun


This acronym stands for Presentation-Practice-Production. PPP is an approach to language teaching that was very popular in the 1980s. The approach involves first the teacher presenting the form and meaning of new target language to students in a meaningful context (presentation), then giving learners the opportunity to do controlled practice of the target language (practice), then finally letting students use the target language in freer, less controlled activities (production). The rationale for PPP is that learners need an accuracy-focussed stage in which to practise the language in relatively error-free conditions before using it in less guided conditions. This is so as to give them the opportunity to build up good habits and avoid errors, a platform from which they can then engage in more fluency-based activities. The approach has been criticised for being too restrictive and rather artificial, but attempts have been made to respond to these criticisms by making its activities more meaningful and communicative. It currently survives in more subtle forms in many ELT classrooms and materials.


"Some of my students really like PPP-type lessons – I think they like to be guided before jumping into using the language without support. Other students I have clearly find it limiting and a bit meaningless. It depends on their learning styles, so I try to vary the approaches I use across my lessons."

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. Oxford: Macmillan.

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




This is the study of the meaning of language in context. It looks at how language is interpreted in particular situations. Its focus is not semantic meaning but contextual meaning, as contained in e.g. setting, the relationship between speakers, and knowledge of the world.


In this dialogue, the response ‘Excellent news’ seems to indicate that the woman is pleased that Helen is sick. Another possible interpretation is that in fact the woman is pleased for another reason – that Helen has finally decided to take days off when she’s ill. Pragmatics would study the situation in which this dialogue took place to explore possible interpretations.

Man: Helen’s sick. She’s having the day off.

Woman: Excellent news – about time too.

Further reading

Bahtia, V., Flowerdew, J., Jones, R. (2007).  Advances in Discourse Studies, Oxford: Routledge.

Grundy, P. (2008). Doing Pragmatics. Oxford: Routledge.

Houck, N.R. and Tatsuki, D.H. (eds.) (2011). Pragmatics: Teaching Natural Conversation. Virginia: TESOL.

Rose K.R. and Kasper, G. (2001) Pragmatics in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tan, P. (1994). Key concepts in ELT: pragmatics. ELT Journal 48/1.

Thornbury, S., Slade, D. (2006). Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.




This is when we express approval or admiration of something, for example, This meal is absolutely delicious. Well done, cook! Teachers are often encouraged to praise their students but there is quite a lot of debate about what is the most productive and effective type of praise.


"My teacher always used to praise us, saying things like Very good or Well done, even to students who gave the wrong answer – I found it rather confusing."

Further reading

Chaudron, C. (1988) Second Language Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gebhard, J. and Oprandy, R. (1999). Language Teaching Awareness.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scrivener, J. (2012). Classroom Management Techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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




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