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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Continuous aspect

See Aspect

Controlled/restricted practice

Controlled/restricted practice is the second stage in Presentation, Practice, Production (PPP). This kind of practice involves students in using target language in a guided and restricted way in which they have little choice over what language to use. Examples of controlled practice activities are repetition and substitution drills. This kind of practice is aimed at providing learners with strongly guided support in their use of newly or poorly learnt language items.


"Sometimes I try to disguise controlled practice in guided role plays or pair work. I give students prompts so they can’t make mistakes. It’s more interesting like that rather than just doing choral drills."

Further reading

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

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

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




Conversion is a linguistic term that describes a word’s change from one grammatical category to another. An example of this in English is ‘to big something up’ where the adjective ‘big’ is nowadays often combined with ‘up’ to make a phrasal verb meaning ‘to recognise the importance of something’ or ‘to praise’ it.

The term ‘conversion’ is often used interchangeably with ‘functional shift’, though some people say that conversion refers to a change in lexical meaning while functional shift refers to a change in syntactic meaning.


English is full of words that are the result of conversion, for example the verb to hand from the noun hand, using a colour adjective as a noun e.g. the Reds, the Greens, the Blacks, or using up as a verb in e.g. after the meal, they just upped and went home.

Further reading

Crystal, D. (2004). The Stories of English. New York: The Overlook Press.

Fowler, H.W. (2000). Fowler's Modern English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Huddleston, R. & Pullam, G. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

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




Corpora are collections of spoken and/ or written language that are stored and processed electronically. Corpora are used in corpus linguistics to find patterns in language use e.g. the collocations of words, grammatical structures in spoken language, word frequencies, types of error. Corpora in ELT can contain a range of different types of texts or be based on particular genres e.g. ESP texts, or on proficient speaker or learner English.  Examples of English language corpora are the British National Corpus (BNA), Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), Cambridge English Corpus (CEC), the Louvain Corpus of Native English Essays (Locness).


"The corpus shows this word collocates more frequently with slightly than with a little."

Further reading

International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, John Benjamin Publishing.

Carter, Ronald & McCarthy, Michael (1995): Grammar and the spoken language. Applied Linguistics 16:2, 141-158.

Cheng, W., Warren, M. & Xu X.F. (2003). The language learner as language researcher: putting corpus linguistics on the timetable. System 31:2, 173-186.

Granger, S.; Hung, J. & Petch-Tyson, S. (eds) (2002). Computer Learner Corpora, Second Language Acquisition and Foreign Language Teaching. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

O’Keefe, A.,  McCarthy, M., Carter, R.  (2007.) From Corpus to classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sinclair, J. ed. (2004) How to Use Corpora in Language Teaching, John Benjamins Publishing.



Course of study

This term is used in two different ways. It refers to a set of lessons or workshops making up a whole. In this sense it is synonymous with ‘course’.

It is also used to refer to a programme of study into which different courses are integrated.


In this example course is used in both its meanings, which makes the example potentially a little confusing!

The course I took in Italian at university was made up of lots of different courses e.g. medieval literature, philology, etymology, 19th century history.

Further reading

No further reading is provided for this general word.




This term is used to refer to syllabus (See syllabus), learning objectives, methods of assessment, teaching methods and materials.

The term is also sometimes used synonymously with syllabus.


Writing a curriculum for a particular learning situation involves understanding a lot about the context in which the teaching and learning will take place.

Further reading

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

Volume 3.  New York and London: Routledge.

Graves, K. (1996). Teachers as Course Developers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I.S.P. and  Macalister, J.(2010). Language Curriculum Design. Oxford: Routledge.

Nunan D. 1994. The Learner-Centered Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan D. 1996. Syllabus Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J. (2013). Curriculum Approaches in Language Teaching: Forward, Central, and

Backward Design. RELC Journal 44/1

Richards, J. (2001).  Curriculum Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

http://www.professorjackrichards.com/wp-content/uploads/Curriculum-Approaches-in Language-Teaching.pdf.

Tomlinson B. (2012). Language Curriculum Design. ELT Journal 66/2.

White, R. (1998). The ELT Curriculum: Design, Innovation and Management. Hoboken, NJ.:Wiley.





A debate is an activity in which students are placed in two groups arguing for or against an issue. Debates can be informal or formal. Formal debates may follow rules, for instance, on how long to speak, how to interrupt, who speaks after who, obeying the chairperson and voting on the issue at the end of the debate. In ELT, debates are used to develop fluency, focus on register and explore issues. Students are usually given preparation time to prepare and possibly script their arguments.


"Last week in class we had a formal debate about the advantages and disadvantages of wearing school uniform. It was interesting but I think it might have better as an informal discussion instead – in that my way students would have felt freer and said what they really thought."

Further reading

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

Harmer, J.(2012). Essential Teacher Knowledge. Harlow: Pearson.



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: http://www.kdictionaries.com/newsletter/kdn8-1.html

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).



Definite article

See Articles

Delexical verb

These are verbs that when used with their common collocations have little meaning of their own, the meaning coming from the collocation as a whole e.g. to have a shower, to take a bath, to make a mistake.


Delexical verbs in collocations are a good example of the importance of learning chunks of language rather than trying to work out the meaning of each single word.

Further reading

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

Hill, J. (1999) Collocational Competence. ETP/11.

Willis, J. and Willis, D. (1996). Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Oxford:

Macmillan Heinemann English Language Teaching.




See Pronoun


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.




See Prescriptive


See Grammar dictation


When teachers recognise the different needs of their learners and try to meet them by catering for different abilities, interests or learning styles. This is done through use of a range of different tasks, inputs and outputs. Differentiation has a big influence on lesson planning and the choice of materials and tasks.


"It has become more important for teachers to bring differentiation into their classrooms as they have increasingly acknowledged the range of abilities, interests and backgrounds of learners."

Further reading

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

Prodromou, L. (1992) Mixed Ability Classes. Oxford: Macmillan

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

Tice, J. (1997) The Mixed Ability Class. London:Richmond Publishing.




A diphthong is a sound in which one vowel sound glides towards another, as in /bɔɪ/, /seɪ/, hɪə/. In RP English there are 8 diphthongs.


You can see the RP English diphthongs in the top right hand corner of the phonemic chart, which you can find (with audio) at http://www.englishclub.com/pronunciation/phonemic-chart-ia.htm

Further reading

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

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






Direct method

A method of language teaching popular until the early 1950s. The method advocated the use of only the target language in the classroom, and the use of student-teacher dialogue supported by visuals such as gestures or photos.


When I learnt Russian my teacher used the Direct Method. She would do things round the classroom or talk about objects or pictures she showed us, describing her actions or the pictures and then asking us questions about them. In some ways it was quite similar to the way in which a parent teaches a child language.

Further reading

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

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

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





This refers to stretches of connected written or spoken language that are usually more than one sentence or utterance long. Seeing stretches of language as discourse rather than sets of grammatical patterns allows us to analyse it for both the internal linguistic links it contains and the external links it makes to our knowledge of the world.


"When I learnt English at school we rarely used language as discourse. The teacher limited our language use mainly to short sentences. We certainly never looked at things like coherence and cohesion."

Further reading

McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Thornbury, S. (2005). Beyond the Sentence: Introducing Discourse Analysis. Oxford: MacMillan.





Discourse analysis

The study of how sentences and utterances join together to make ‘wholes’, i.e. study of the various ways in which sentences or utterances achieve coherence and cohesion.


"Discourse analysis has made us aware of all the different cohesive devices there are in writing, for example, conjunctions, backward and forward referencing, substitution.  Knowing about these things helps us to teach learners to write better."

Further reading

Celce-Murcia, M,. & Olshtain, E. (2000).Discourse and Context in Language Teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hatch, E. (1992).Discourse and Language Education. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, K. (1995).Understanding Communication in Second Language Classrooms.New York: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M. (1992). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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




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