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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See Segmental and Suprasegmental

Entry link: Suprasegmental


See Strong/Stressed and Weak/Unstressed Syllables

Entry link: Syllable


This term is used in two different ways in English language teaching. Sometimes it refers just to a list of the items/areas which students are meant to learn and the teacher to teach over a course of study e.g. particular language skills or subskills, particular lexis or topics, particular tasks or grammatical structures. This list is presented in the order in which the items/areas are intended to be taught and is usually incorporated into an official school or ministry document and often forms the basis of course books.

The term is sometimes also used synonymously with ‘curriculum’ (See curriculum), where it includes not just the items/areas to be learnt but also learning outcomes, general educational objectives, assessment aims and methods and teaching approaches.


The map of the book at the beginning of a coursebook contains the syllabus for that coursebook.

Further reading

Christison, M and Murray, D. (2014). What English Language Teachers Need to Know,

Volume 3.  New York and London: Routledge.

Knapp, K., Seidlhofer, B. H. G. Widdowson, H.G.. (ed.s), 2009. Handbook of Foreign

Language Communication and Learning. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Nunan, D. (1988). Syllabus Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

CEFR 2001 http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/source/framework_en.pdf





Entry link: Syllabus


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.




Entry link: Synonym/Antonym


This is the way in which parts of speech are arranged in fixed sequences in sentences in order to make grammatical structures and meaning. What is acceptable syntax varies from language to language. An example of syntax in English is the inversion of subject and verb in question forms, or the order in statements, the positioning of adverbs or adjectives.


"The grammar of some languages relies heavily on morphology to show meaning, whereas other languages make greater use of syntax to achieve this."

Further reading

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

Swan, M. (2005). Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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




Entry link: Syntax


Target language

This term is used in two different ways. One use is to identify the language, e.g. Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, English etc that a learner is trying to learn.

Another use is to refer to the particular item(s) of language that a teacher selects for learners to learn in a particular lesson and which the activities and materials in a lesson aim to teach.


Some target language for a lesson for elementary learners might be:

the irregular past tenses went, took, came, sold, bought, saw, said, found in affirmative, negative and interrogative forms


exponents for suggesting: why don’t we../ how about +gerund/ we could…./ what about + gerund


vocabulary from the lexical set of clothes: jeans, top, shoes, sandals, sweat-shirt, jacket, scarf, coat.

Further reading

Bolton, K. and Kachru, B. (2006). World Englishes, Critical Concepts in Linguistics, Volume 5.

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








Entry link: Target language


A task is a classroom activity that has a ‘real-world’ outcome e.g. a problem is solved, genuinely wanted information is exchanged. Tasks provide a purpose for the learning and use of language other than simply learning language items for their own sake (Rubdy 1998). Generally, a task is completed by using language freely to communicate in speech or writing. Some believe that tasks should not focus on practising any one specific piece of language, but rather be open-ended.

In the ELT literature the term task is sometimes used to refer to activity, sometimes to tasks with a specific language aim. There is considerable debate over what a task is, as there is over Task-Based Learning, in which tasks are the main drivers for learning.


"He always liked to give his students tasks to do as he thought they appreciated the sense of achievement tasks produce and their relevance to getting things done outside the classroom."

Further reading

B. Kumaravadivelu (1991). Language-learning tasks: teacher intention and learner interpretation. ELT J 45 (2): 98-107.

Nunan, D. (1989) Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J. and Schmidt, R. (2010) Longman dictionary of language and applied linguistics. Harlow: Pearson.

Rubdy, R. (1998). Key concepts in ELT.  ELTJ 52/3 http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/eltj/keyconcepts.html

Willis, D. and Willis, J.( 2007). Doing Task-based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Entry link: Task

Task-Based Learning

A way of learning and a method of syllabus or course design which is based on learners completing tasks. There is much debate over what constitutes Task-Based Learning, and particularly over what role a focus on language should play, if any. Some e.g. N.S. Prabhu, maintain that there should be no focus on language in Task-Based Learning i.e. that language should be learnt purely through exposure, acquisition and use. Others prefer to see some language input or focus on form, either at the pre-task stage or post-task or both.


"Our classes were task-based – we did one task followed by another e.g. comparing, problem-solving, classifying, sorting, surveying. I enjoyed them as we always used language to do something real."

Further reading

Foster, P. (1999). Key concepts in ELT.  ELTJ 53/1 http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/eltj/keyconcepts.html

Hawkes, M.L. (2012). Using task repetition to direct learner attention and focus on form. ELT J  66 (3): 327-336.

Littlewood, W. (2004). The task-based approach: some questions and suggestions. ELTJ 58/4.Oxford University Press.

Nunan, D. (2004). Task-based language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Samuda. V. and Bygate, M. (2008) Tasks in Second Language Learning, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Skehan, P. (1996). A framework for the implementation of task-based instruction. Applied Linguistics, 17/1, 38-62.

Willis, J. (1996) A framework for task-based learning. Harlow: Longman.



Entry link: Task-Based Learning

Teacher Talking Time (TTT)

This is the class time the teacher takes up talking to the class, rather than allowing the students to talk or do activities. For many years it was recommended to teachers that they reduce their TTT so as to make their classes more learner-centred. Recently, however, it has been recognised that teacher talk can provide learners with a valuable source of exposure to language, listening practice and feedback.


I know I used to talk ‘at’ my students too much. I have recorded myself teaching and realise from doing so that I used to almost ‘lecture’ my students. When they begin to get that ‘glassy-eyed look’ you know there has been too much TTT. I’ve tried to reduce those moments and my students now participate much more.

Further reading

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1993). Maximizing learning potential in the communicative classroom. ELT Journal 47/1.

Nunan, D. (1987). Communicative language teaching: making it work. ELTJournal 41/2.

Scrivener, J. (2012). Classroom Management Techniques. Oxford: Macmillan.

Thornbury, S. (1996). Teachers research teacher talk. ELT Journal 50/4.

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

van Lier, L. (1996)  Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy and Authenticity. Harlow: Longman




Entry link: Teacher Talking Time (TTT)


Tense is the grammatical form used in a verb to show the time of occurrence of an event or action.


There are only two tenses in English, present and past. In They study English, study is an example of the present simple tense. In They studied English last year, studied  is an example of the past simple tense.

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.



Entry link: Tense

Test Teach Test (TTT)

This is a way of teaching language which stands on its head the classic approach of presenting students with new language then asking them to practise it. In TTT the teacher first of all puts students in a situation where they need to use the target language so he/she can judge whether they know it or not, to what degree they know it and to make the students aware of their need for it. The teacher then presents the target language and gives the students activities in which they are encouraged to use it. The thinking behind TTT is that students shouldn’t be spoon-fed with language they may not really need or want, and that creating a need leads to greater motivation to learn and better language learning.


I gave my students a role play the other day in which they took on roles as environmental inspectors. They then went round the school and surveyed its ‘green practices’. At the end they got into groups to decide on what measures needed to be taken and in what order. I just listened and took notes. After, I asked my students if there was any language they thought they’d needed for the activity and didn’t have. What they said agreed with my notes. They were having real problems with the language of suggestions and recommendations, and also with some more technical vocabulary. So, next lesson, I presented that language to them, and then asked them to do their group work on ‘green practices’ again. A colleague of mine had suggested I try this TTT approach. I was nervous beforehand but in fact it worked well as the students were keen to learn the new language.

Further reading

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

Lindsay, C. and Knight, P. (2006). Learning and Teaching EnglishA Course for Teachers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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




Entry link: Test Teach Test (TTT)


A text is a collection of spoken or written sentences or utterances that form a cohesive and coherent whole, which have the features of a particular genre and perform a specific communicative function. Examples of text types are narratives, descriptions, processes.


"Much language teaching used to focus on helping learners produce sentences. Nowadays, though, there is greater focus on the features of texts such as their functions and the grammar needed to express those functions. Narratives for example often follow chronological order and make extensive use of past tenses."

Further reading

Cook, G. (1989). Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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

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



Entry link: Text


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: http://www.visuwords.com/



Entry link: Thesaurus

Threshold level

This term is used with two principal meanings in ELT. The first is to refer to the work by J.K. Van Ek and John Trim ‘The Threshold Level’ which was first published by the Council of Europe in 1989. This publication was amongst the first to specify per learning level the situations in which learners need to use English, and what grammar, vocabulary and functions they require to do so. The focus of the Threshold Level was mainly on survival language and it was very influential in syllabus and course book design in the 1980s and 1990s. The Threshold Level was considered to be the minimal level at which learners achieved functional ability in the language.

The other meaning for threshold level is the minimal level that learners need to be at in order to do something e.g. An IELTS band 5.5 is often given as the threshold level for university study through the medium of English.


"Some people say that to start learning through CLIL learners must have reached threshold level in their own language first."

Further reading

Bialystok, E. (2001. Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cummins, J. (1984) Bilingualism and Special Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Cummins, J. (2000) Language, Power and Pegagogy. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Rampton, B. (1990) Displacing the "native speaker": Expertise, affiliation and inheritance in ELT Journal 44/2.

Van Ek, J.K. and Trim J. (1998) Threshold 1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




Entry link: Threshold level

Tones and tone groups

A tone group is a word or group of words belonging together in sense and across which one tone operates. A tone group is sometimes known as a tone unit or as an intonation contour.

A tone is a movement in pitch across a tone group and which indicates meaning. In English there are four main tones: rise, fall, fall-rise and rise-fall. A tone has different parts which occur in a fixed sequence: head →nucleus →tail


Can you say these tone groups following the tones given in the intonation contours?





Last night



Only last night



Just a few minutes ago


Further reading

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

De Lacy, P. (Ed.) (2012). The Cambridge Handbook of Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gussenhoven, C. (2004). The Phonology of Tone and Intonation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roach, Peter (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology, 4th edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Underhill, A. (2005) Sound Foundations. Oxford: MacMillan.

Wells, J.C. (2006) English Intonation: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Roach, P. English Phonetics and Phonology.




Entry link: Tones and tone groups

Top down/bottom up

These terms are used to refer to strategies we use when listening and reading in order to get meaning from a text. Top down skills involve using our knowledge of the world, such as topic knowledge, familiarity with the speaker, familiarity with the genre, to make sense of what we are hearing or reading. Bottom up skills involve using the language in the text, such as the meaning of words or the grammar of a sentence, to make sense of what we are hearing or reading. Good readers or listeners are believed to make use of the two strategies interactively.


When we read a text in class I always do a warmer to find out what the learners know about the topic and get them to predict its content. In that way they make use of their top down strategies. Then I often do reading for detail as well, as this kind of reading really requires them to read the language in the text to suck out its meaning. This gives them practice in using their bottom up strategies.

Further reading

Brown, S. (2006). Teaching Listening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Field, J. (1999). Key concepts in ELT: ‘Bottom up’ and ‘top down’.  ELTJournal 53/4.

Hedge, Tricia. (2003): Teaching & Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDonough J. and Shaw, C. (2003). Materials and Methods in ELT. Oxford: Blackwell.

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






Entry link: Top down/bottom up


TPR stands for Total Physical Response, and is a way of teaching language developed by James Asher. It involves learners in responding physically to instructions spoken or stories told by the teacher. Learners are not expected to speak until they feel ready to do so. TPR is often used for teaching younger children.


Last lesson I told my class the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. As I told it they acted out what they heard as I was telling it. They loved it, and so did I!

Further reading

Asher, J. J., "What is TPR?" in TPR-World. https://www.tpr-world.com/

Cook, V. (2008). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Hodder Education.

Larsen-Freeman, Diane (2000).Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Richards, J. and Rodgers, T.S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




Entry link: TPR

Transformation drill

A transformation drill is one in which the teacher provides the students with a base sentence to repeat, then gives them a prompt to incorporate into the sentence. Using the prompt requires learners to change the grammar of the initial sentence. Transformation drills were thought to help students learn new structures by providing controlled practice of a target structure and understanding of the linguistic context in which it operates.


Here is an example of a transformation drill:

Teacher: Repeat this sentence after me: They bought an apple

Students: They bought an apple

Teacher: eat

Students: They ate an apple

Teacher: sell

Students: They sold an apple

Teacher: lose

Students: They lost an apple


Further reading

Baker, J. and Westrup, H. (2003). Essential Speaking Skills. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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

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





Entry link: Transformation drill

Transitive / Intransitive

These are grammatical terms used about verbs to indicate whether or not they can take an object when used in the active voice.

Transitive verbs can take an object, and some can take more than one e.g. call, give. They can also be used in the passive.

An intransitive verb cannot take an object, nor can it be used in the passive.

In English some verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively e.g. to enter, to run, to win.


In the following sentence, the transitive verbs are in bold and the intransitive ones are underlined. She got up early, put on her slippers and dressing gown, then went downstairs to the dining room where breakfast had already been placed on the table.

Further reading

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





Entry link: Transitive / Intransitive


A turn is a term used to describe each contribution a speaker makes to a conversation or other spoken genre. A turn is bounded by the contributions of other speakers i.e. a turn begins when one speaker begins to talk and ends when another speaker takes over. In terms of grammar and meaning a turn may or may not be complete and may consist of one or many utterances (See Utterance). The rules for turn taking can vary between languages and cultures. Students may need to be made aware of those that operate in the language they are learning. Intonation and body language play an important part in marking turns.


Scientists have discovered that some kinds of monkeys include turns in their communications, waiting for one another to respond before communicating again themselves.

Further reading

Bygate, M. (1987). Speaking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Wong, J. and Waring, H. (2010). Conversation Analysis and Second Language Pedagogy. New York: Routledge.






Entry link: Turn

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