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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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.




Entry link: Use / Usage


A word or group of words, normally in speech, that make sense by themselves but do not necessarily contain the grammatical requirements of sentences found in more formal written language. The Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2010) says of an utterance: ‘a unit of analysis in speech which has been defined in various ways but most commonly as a sequence of words within a single person’s turn at talk that falls under a single intonation contour. Utterances may sometimes consist of more than one sentence, but more commonly consist of stretches of speech shorter than sentences’. The term utterance is often used in contrast to sentence in written language. 


"This little dialogue contains two utterances:

A: He didn’t really understand what was going on.

B: Right."

Further reading

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

Coady, J.,Huckin, T. (ed.s) (1997). Second language vocabulary acquisition: a rationale for pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kissine, M (2013). From utterances to speech acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. (2010). The lexical approach. Andover, Hampshire: Cengage Learning.

Prodromou, L. (2008). English as a lingua franca: a corpus - based analysis. London: Continuum.

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



Entry link: Utterance


Verb phrase

See Phrase

Entry link: Verb phrase

Visual literacy

Visual literacy is the ability to interpret and make sense of information presented in graphic or pictorial form e.g. through diagrams, charts, images. Visual literacy can act as an aim in a language course or a means through which language is learnt. Visual literacy is also important is CLIL where visual organisers play an important part in scaffolding learning.


In a world in which we are surrounded by images, teachers often think it is important to include work on visual literacy in their classroom to help learners interpret and evaluate these images.

Further reading

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

Golstein, B. (2008). Working with Images. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.







Entry link: Visual literacy

Vocal tract

This is how The Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics defines vocal tract: ‘the air passages which are above the VOCAL CHORDS and which are involved in the production of speech sounds. The vocal tract can be divided into the nasal cavity…. and the oral cavity’ (Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics, p.629).


In this diagram we can see the vocal tract:                                                 

                                                        Vocal chords



Further reading

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

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

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



Entry link: Vocal tract

Voiced, voiceless/unvoiced

These terms refer to whether or not sounds are produced by vibrating our vocal cords. Voiced sounds in English are all the vowels and some consonants e.g. /b/, /d/, /g/, /v/.  Unvoiced, or voiceless sounds are produced without vibration of the vocal cords e.g. /f/, /k/, /t/.


To hear and feel the effect of using or not using the voice we can say pairs of consonants, the only difference between which is use or non-use of the voice, i.e. whether they are voiced or voiceless. Try saying these pairs and feel what is happening to your voice by placing your fingers on your throat to feel the vibration or lack of it.

/f/     /v/

/t/     /d/

/k/    /g/

/s/    /z/

/ʃ/    /ʒ/

/tʃ/  /dʒ/


Further reading

Baker, A. (2006). Ship and Sheep. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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





Entry link: Voiced, voiceless/unvoiced


One meaning of this term is its use in phonology to refer to one of two types of speech sound: vowels and consonants (See Consonant). Unlike consonants, vowels are produced without the speech organs (See Articulators/ Speech Organs) blocking the outgoing air. There are 20 vowels in RP English including both single vowels and diphthongs. In this meaning, vowel is sometimes called vowel sound.

Another meaning is the written symbol used to represent a vowel. In English these are: a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y.


I think it is very useful to use the phonemic chart to teach English vowel sounds bit by bit. I think it really helps learners, particularly older ones, to hear the difference between the vowel sounds and get a feel for where and how to pronounce them.

Further reading

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

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

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

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



Entry link: Vowel


Wait time

This is the amount of time teachers give students to answer questions. Research indicates that leaving more time leads to more students wanting to answer, fuller answers and more questions from other students, too.


I don’t think I give my students enough wait time when I ask questions. I’m going to record myself in class to check how much time I leave on average, then leave more time and see what difference, if any, it makes to the students’ answering.

Further reading

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

Nunan, D. 1991. Language Teaching Methodology. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.

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




Entry link: Wait time


A warmer, or warm-up activity, is an activity which takes place at the beginning of a lesson and aims to ‘warm the learners up’ i.e. to get them focussed on and energised for a lesson in general or its specific content.

Further reading

Malderez, A., Bodsczky, C. (1999) Mentor Courses: A Resource Book for Trainer-Trainers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Ur, P. (1992). 5 minute Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





Entry link: Warmer


This is a term (in the US more commonly referred to as Backwash) used in testing and assessment to describe the effect on the classroom of tests that the learners will take. Washback may affect e.g. the syllabus, methodology, interaction patterns, attitudes to learning etc., and can be positive or negative.


In some countries education authorities deliberately introduce new elements into tests so that they will be used in the classroom. In other words they are relying on the washback effect of a test to bring about change in the classroom. Examples of this might be the introduction of speaking tests or the use of tasks in speaking tests. Washback is sometimes known as ‘Backwash’ and is contrasted with ‘Impact’.

Further Reading

Bachman, L and Palmer, A (1996) Language Testing in Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hamp-Lyons, L (1997) Washback, impact and validity: ethical concerns, Language Testing,14/3.

Hughes, A. (1989) Testing for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Messick, S. (1996). Validity and washback in language testing. Language Testing 13/4.

Taylor, L. (2005) Key Concepts in ELT: Washback and Impact. ELT Journal 59/2.



Entry link: Washback

Word class

See Parts of speech

Entry link: Word class

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








Entry link: Word cloud

Word family

This word is used in two different ways. It can refer to words which all derive from the same base word e.g. produce, productive, production, product. Many test items are designed round changing a word in a word family to another in the same family.

It also refers to words that share a form in pronunciation, such as the words in many nursery rhymes.


Here is an example of a test item focussing on changes to base words in word families:

Word family elt.oup



Here is an example of a nursery rhyme based on words with shared pronunciations:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again

Further reading




Bauer, L. and Nation, P. (1993). Word Families. International Journal of Lexicography 6/4: https://www.pdffiller.com/jsfiller-desk16/?projectId=333956463&expId=5487&expBranch=2#c9a5d00684dd7c93147fd63eaaa3e449

Nation, P. and Waring, R. Vocabulary Size, Text Coverage and Word Lists in in Schmitt; N.and  McCarthy, M. , (1997). Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 




Entry link: Word family

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:



Entry link: Word form


A piece of paper, or electronic material, which contains tasks, exercises or problems for the learner to complete or solve. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with the term handout, but for some there is a difference as a handout provides materials for reference only rather than activities.


"The teacher always gave us worksheets for us to try and apply in practice what she had just told us about before."

Further Reading

Harmer, J. (2012). Teacher knowledge, 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.




Entry link: Worksheet


Zero article

See Articles

Entry link: Zero article

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