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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Referential question

A referential question is a question a teacher or student asks because they genuinely want to find out the answer to the question. Referential questions are often contrasted with display questions (See Display Questions), which are asked so as to give the student an opportunity to ‘display’ their knowledge or ability. In language teaching, referential questions are often associated with the warm-up stage of a lesson or with free practice activities. They often lead to a use of language that the teacher cannot predict, and tend to involve use of higher order thinking skills (See HOTS).


In the dialogue below, the teacher’s first question is a display question, asked to check whether the student knows the word ‘architect’. The teacher knows the answer to this question. The teacher’s second question is referential. The teacher is unlikely to know the answer to it, and answering it involves the student in using their own ideas and unpredictable language.

Teacher: What’s the name of the person who draws plans for designing and building houses?

Student: architect.

Teacher. That’s right. Do you think that’s an interesting job? Why?

Student: I’d love to be an architect. To create new buildings must be wonderful.

Further reading

Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2010). Harlow: Pearson.

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

Tsui, A.B.M. (1995). Introducing Classroom Interaction. London: Penguin




Reflection grid

This is a grid or table often containing columns with these headings:  name, description, aims, comments. It can be used by learners or teachers to record and comment on points in a lesson. It is designed to aid reflection and evaluation on learning / teaching, with a view to possibly introducing changes.


"The teacher gave us a reflection grid and during the lesson we jotted down our feelings and opinions on the different things we had done. Then at the end of the lesson we discussed what we had written. It was a good way of getting solid feedback and thinking about what helps you to learn best."

Further reading

Murray, D. and Christison, M.A. (2011). What English Language Teachers Need to Know, Volume 11. Abingdon: Oxon: Routledge.

Richards, J. and Lockhart, C. (1994). Reflective Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





See Pronoun


Register has two meanings. It is sometimes used to refer to the type of language (particular vocabulary, grammar or discourse features) that characterises particular fields of language use e.g. nuclear physics, hip hop music, football.

It is also used to refer to the degree of formality of language use, with language generally classified as formal, neutral or informal. The study of register is part of sociolinguistics.


"One of the hardest things to learn in a foreign language is using register i.e. what language it is appropriate to use in what context."

Further Reading

Bachman, L. (1990). Fundamental considerations in language testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ghadessy, M. (1994) Key concepts in ELT. ELTJ 48/3 http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/eltj/keyconcepts.html

Halliday, M.A.K., McIntosh, A., Strevens, P. (1964). The linguistic sciences and language teaching. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

Howatt, A.P.R. with Widdowson H.G. (2004). A history of English language teaching. Oxford:Oxford University Press.




See Pronoun

Review circles (n.)

An activity type in which the class stands in two concentric circles of equal numbers of learners. The inner circle face outwards and the outer circle face inwards so that each learner is facing one of their colleagues. The teacher or teacher trainer remains outside the circles and gives the class a topic or word to discuss or define with their partner. At a signal the inner circle members move one place to the right so that everybody has a new partner. The teacher decides if they will discuss or define the same topic or word, or a new one.

Tim frequently gets his classes to revise the vocabulary from the last lesson by means of a 10-minute review circles activity.



The regular beat at which a language is spoken, and which in English is achieved through the use of stress and weak or no stress.


Try saying these sentences, following the stress marks* given

(ˈ = primary stress; ˌ = secondary stress)

This should help you feel their rhythm:


He had |breakfast

The |news |paper

He |read the |news |paper

|After he had |breakfast he |read the |news |paper

Further reading

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. and Goodwin, J. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Couper-Kuhlen, E. (1993). English Speech Rhythm:Form and Function in Everyday Verbal Interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

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

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


Roach, P. English Phonetics and Phonology. Glossary: https://www.peterroach.net/glossary.html

Role play

This is an activity in which learners take on roles (characters) and act them out in a situation. It is used to practise language, often as a free practice activity. It is also used to help students to explore ideas and issues. A role play is different from a simulation. In a simulation, learners are put in a situation in which there is some problem to resolve. They are not given specific roles.

In role plays, learners are often given role cards to guide what they need to say, do or discuss. An example of a role play would be putting students into groups of four with one of them each as head teacher, parent, local shopkeeper or student representative, and then to hold a group discussion in their roles on design plans for rebuilding the school. Role plays can also be used to prompt writing, reading and listening, for example, when learners are given different roles in which to receive and react to information from a text.


"Some of my students really enjoy doing role plays – they like the freedom that comes with pretending to be someone else, but others just get shy and embarrassed, so I have to think carefully about how often I do role plays and whether they can be done as pair work rather than in front of lots of other students."

Further reading

Crookall, D. & Oxford, R.L. (Eds.) (1990).  Simulation, Gaming, and Language Learning. New York: Newbury House.

Ladousse, G. P. (1987). Role Play. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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

Skehan, P. (1998b). Task based instruction. In Grahe, W. (Ed.), Annual review of applied linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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






This stands for Received Pronunciation. It refers to the standard pronunciation of British English that shows no regional features. RP is sometimes known as BBC English. Although RP is subject to change and is spoken by a small minority of British people, it is widely used in recording for ELT materials.


There is not full agreement on what RP is. Some say it is ‘educated English’, some that it is ‘upper class English’. Is the Queen’s accent RP or not, for example?

Further reading

Crystal, D. (2005). The Stories of English. London:  Penguin.

McArthur, T. (2002). The Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roach, P. (2004), "British English: Received Pronunciation", Journal of the International Phonetic Association 34/2.

Trudgill, Peter (1999). The Dialects of England. Oxford: Blackwell.

Whatever happened to Received Pronunciation? J.C. Wells: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/rphappened.htm

Academic English – Professor David Crystal on standard vs. non-standard English




Running dictation

In a running dictation the teacher divides the class into groups of e.g. 3-5 students, then places on the wall copies of a text. Members of each group then take it in turns to go (run) to the text and memorise a piece of it, then run back to their group and dictate it to them. Group members must write it down correctly. The activity continues until one group shouts ‘Stop’ after all the text has been dictated and written down. The winning group will have written down the text more quickly and more correctly than the others. Running dictation is believed to encourage speed reading, clear enunciation, careful listening and a focus on spelling and accuracy in writing.


You may need to convince some learners of the value of running dictation. Some see it as just a game with no obvious learning purpose. Others love it, of course!

Further reading

Davis, P. & Rinvolucri, M. (1988). Dictation: New methods, new possibilities. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.







Scaffolding refers to techniques the teacher can use to support learners in their learning of new language or skills. The techniques include breaking tasks down into small steps, providing demonstrations, providing visuals to support texts and talk, providing learners with dictionaries, guiding learners with teacher talk. The term 'scaffolding' was put forward by Bruner and colleagues (1976), who developed the idea after reading Vygotsky ("What learners can do today with support, they can do alone tomorrow" (Bentley, 2010, p.69)).  Scaffolding is also used to refer to the support speakers give one another to keep their communication going e.g. making eye contact, nodding, asking relevant questions.


"Driving instructors usually gradually scale down the amount of scaffolding they give learner drivers. At first they may use a second steering wheel, tell them when and how to change gear etc, then bit by bit they tell them and show them less and less till they are ‘on their own’."

Further reading

Bentley, K. (2010). The TKT Course CLIL Module. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Foley, J. (1993). Key concepts in ELT in ELT: scaffolding ELT Journal 48/ 1. Oxford University Press.

Gibbons, P. (2008). Challenging pedagogies: More than just good practice?’ in NALDIC Quarterly

vol. 6 no. 2. https://www.naldic.org.uk/Resources/NALDIC/Professional%20Development/Documents/NQ6.2.3.pdf

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

Wood, D. Bruner, J.S. & Ross, G. (1976) The role of tutoring and problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17/2, pp. 89-100.

Scaffolding children’s learning: https://www.carolread.com/download/scaffolding-childrens-learning-through-story-and-drama-cats-autumn-2008/

Schema theory

Schema theory maintains that we develop frameworks in our heads for making sense of and organising information about different concepts, topics and phenomena in the world, and that these frameworks influence how we understand new information. If we can find a link between our schemata and new information, it helps us to process it. For this reason, many lessons include a warmer activity on the lesson’s topic that aims to activate and bring to mind learners’ knowledge, attitudes towards, and experience of the topic.


"We had to do some comprehension work on a text about Charles Darwin. So, I did a warmer activity to help activate my learners’ schemata about him. But what I found was that no one had ever heard of him or what he did. That made the comprehension work much more difficult as the students couldn’t really relate to or see the relevance of what we were reading."

Further reading

Carrell, P.L., Devine, J. and Eskey, D.E. (eds) (1988). Interactive Approaches to Second Language Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cook, G. (1997). Key concepts in ELT: schemas. ELT Journal 51/1. Oxford University Press.

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

Widdowson, H.G. (1983). Learning Purpose and Language Use. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Schema/schemata (n. sing/pl)

The organisation of experience and/or knowledge into conceptual frameworks in the mind or brain. Schemata allow the brain to reference and integrate new knowledge or situations through making connections with what is already known.

Different readers bring different schemata to a text and these are also often culture-specific.



This is an English vowel sound, represented in the phonemic script as /ə/. It is the most common vowel in spoken English as many other vowels are shortened to schwa in connected speech (See Connected Speech). Schwa plays an important role in maintaining regular rhythm in spoken English.


Do you think there would be 5, 6 or 7 schwa sounds in this sentence if it was spoken?

What do you reckon happened when they arrived at the station?

I think the answer could be 5, 6 or 7 depending on how quickly the speaker spoke. This is where the schwas could occur:

/wɒt du ju rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdæt θə steɪʃən/

/wɒdʒə rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdæt θə steɪʃən/

/wɒt du ju rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdət θə steɪʃən/

/wɒdʒə rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdət θə steɪʃən/

Further reading

Dalton, C. and Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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

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





Segmental and Suprasegmental

These terms refer to features of pronunciation. The segmental features are the phonemes or individual sounds whereas the super-segmental are rhythm, stress and intonation.


I have a student whose pronunciation of individual phonemes is really quite good, but he has real problems with stress, rhythm and intonation. I’d read that learners usually have problems with segmentals and not with suprasegmentals, but he’s the other way round and I don’t quite know how to help him.

Further reading

Brazil, D., Couthard, M. and Johns, C. (1980). Discourse Intonation and Language Teaching: Harlow: Longman.

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. and Goodwin, J. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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





This is when the learner assesses their own performance, the strategies they have employed to do something or their attitudes.  Self-assessment is often a part of formative assessment and is used to enable the learner to become more autonomous in their learning. Self-assessment is often guided by checklists to help learners know what criteria to use for their evaluation.


"Students don’t always like doing self-assessment at the beginning., but in my experience they get used to it bit by bit and come to see the value of it."

Further reading

Harris, M. (1997). Self-assessment of language learning in formal settings. ELT Journal 51/1. Oxford University Press.

Scharle, Á., and A. Szabó. 2000. Learner Autonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tudor, I. 1996. Learner-Centredness as Language Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

British Council. Peer and Self Assessment https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/peer-self-assessment


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.




A sentence is a group of words which in English contains at least a subject and a verb and which is independent as it does not need completion to make sense. A sentence contains a main clause and possibly subordinate clauses, too. In writing, sentences start with a capital letter and end with a full stop.


These phrases don’t make sense by themselves so they’re not sentences: in the park, arriving late, while they were waiting, whose glasses are black, she put her…

These are sentences: They played in the park. Tthe bell rang while they were waiting. The woman whose glasses are black never speaks. She put her hand up.

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.




Sentence stem lecture or reading (n.)

A way of encouraging participants to listen or read carefully and of checking their retention of input. In this technique participants are required to complete sentence beginnings (stems) with selected parts of the input contents. 

Mariella was a skilled lecturer who often gave her students a sentence stem lecture to ensure they stayed awake throughout the hour.   

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.





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