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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The study of the origins of words and how their meaning, use and form have evolved over time.


I studied the etymology of Italian when I was learning Italian at university – it was all about the patterns of change that words and sounds had followed across the centuries. At the time I found it incredibly dry and boring, but now it helps me to work out the meaning or pronunciation of some words I don’t know.

Further reading

Crystal, D. (2007). Words Words Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hogg, R. and Denison, D. (2006). A History of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.







This is the process of assessing the value of something by collecting data. Evaluation often leads to decision-making. Evaluation can be of teaching, learning, curricula, methods, exam impact, materials or other areas related to teaching and learning.


When evaluating materials it is useful to collect not just teachers’ opinions but those of learners, too.

Further reading

Alderson, C. and Clapham, C. (1995).Language Test Construction and Evaluation. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Cunningsworth, A. (1984). Evaluating and Selecting ELT Materials. Heineman.

Cunningsworth, A. (1995). Choosing your Coursebook. Macmillan Heineman.

Kiely, R. N. &Rea-Dickins, P. M.(2005). Programme Evaluation in Language Education. Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan.

McDonough, J. and Shaw, C. (1993). Materials and Methods in ELT. Oxford: Blackwell.

Murphy. D (2000). Key Concepts in ELT: Evaluation. ELT Journal 54/2.

Sheldon, L. (1988). Evaluating ELT textbooks and materials.  ELT Journal 37/3.

Weir, C. and Roberts, J. (1994). Evaluation in ELT. NJ: Wiley

Williams, M and Burden, R. (1993) The role of evaluation in ELT project design. ELT Journal 48/1.





Experiential learning (n.)

Learning which involves active participation by the learner.

Reflection is an important part of the experiential learning process.


Experiential training (n.)

Direct, practical training that involves teachers in making meaning through experiencing approaches, techniques or procedures that the trainer wishes to introduce. It is a form of ‘learning-by-doing’ but requires additionally a stage in which teachers reflect on the experience and how it might apply to their own classrooms.

Let’s make the new methodology course more experiential; the students could try out some of the techniques we usually lecture about. 


This term refers to the words used to express different functions of language. Exponents are one way to begin looking at functional approaches to language teaching.


Here are just some examples of the exponents of suggesting:

What about …..?

How about…..?
What if we …..?
Why don’t we…..?

We could……

Further reading

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

Halliday, M.A.K. 1975.Learning How to Mean. London: Edward Arnold.

Ur, P. (1996) A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilkins, D.A. (1976) Notional Syllabuses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





This refers to the beneficial effect of being surrounded by spoken and/or written language. A child growing up in a monolingual environment normally has a large amount of exposure to their native language. Many language learning experts believe that learners must be exposed to adequate amounts of language used naturally and in context for acquisition to take place.


She lived in Russia for a long time but actually learnt very little Russian, as she spent most of her time with people from her own country, so she had very little exposure to Russian.

Further reading

Doughty, C. (2001). Cognitive Underpinnings of Focus on Form. In P. Robinson. (ed.),

Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Doughty, C. & J. Williams (eds) (1998). Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language

Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. (1994). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. (ed.) (2001).Form-Focused Instruction and Second Language Learning. Malden, MA:


Gass, S. (1997) Input, interaction and the second language learner. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence


Krashen, S. (1985).The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. Harlow: Longman.

Skehan, P. (1998).A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University







This term has two meanings in ELT. It refers to the responses that we, as listeners, give to a speaker e.g. eye contact, exclamations, interruptions, in order to encourage or discourage them from continuing.

Feedback also refers to the comments a teacher or other students make in class on a learner’s / learners’ performance. This feedback can be positive or negative.


"I found him quite difficult to talk to because he never reacted to what you said – he kept his eyes down, never nodded, showed surprise or anything – you just got no feedback from him."

Further reading

Rinvolucri, M. (1994) Key concepts in ELT: feedback. ELT Journal 48/3. Oxford University Press.

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

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





Finite verb/non-finite verb

A finite verb is the part(s) of a verb that in English shows time, number or person. A non-finite verb shows none of these. An independent sentence or main clause must contain a finite verb.


Here are some examples of both kinds of verb:



She takes

They take

We took

To take


Having taken


Further reading

Parrott, M. (2010). Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2ndedition. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

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




A state in which someone is totally involved in, focussed on and motivated by what they are doing. This state is considered to be an optimum one for learning, and said to be encouraged by meaningful challenges this notion was popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


Sometimes, usually when you’re doing something you enjoy, you manage to focus just on that, nothing else distracts you and you feel completely absorbed in what you’re doing. It’s a very rewarding and satisfying feeling that is sometimes called ‘flow’.

Further reading

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1998) Finding Flow. New York: Basic Books.

Egbert, J. 2003. A study of Flow Theory in the foreign language classroom’. The Modern

Language Journal, 87/4.

van Lier, L. 1996.Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy &

Authenticity.Harlow: Longman.





Fluency is the ability to speak over stretches of language smoothly, naturally and without too much hesitation or pausing. Fluency is sometimes also used to refer to writing. In this case it means writing with ease – coherently and with flow.


"He was a native speaker but he spoke so slowly – he was always searching for words, hesitating and pausing. His lack of fluency made him a bit difficult to pay attention to and understand."

Further reading

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

Ellis, R. (ed.)  (2005). Planning and Task Performance in a Second Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hedge, T. (1993) Key concepts in ELT: Fluency. ELT Journal 47/3. Oxford University Press.

Skehan, P. (1998). A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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




Focus on form

This approach to teaching language was first defined by Michael Long as follows: ‘focus on form…overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication’ (Long 1991) and ‘focus on form often consists of an occasional shift of attention to linguistic code features – by the teacher and/or one or more of the students – triggered by perceived problems with comprehension or production' (Long and Robertson in Doughty and Williams, 1998). Focus on form (See Form), in which form is focussed on in the classroom as the need arises in the context of communication, is sometimes contrasted with ‘focus on formS’ in which forms are the primary focus in the classroom.


I observed a class yesterday that was having a discussion about ‘good newspapers’. In the middle of the discussion one of the students asked the teacher why you could say ‘papers’ (newspapers) if ‘paper’ is an uncountable noun. The teacher told him, then they all got back to the discussion. A few weeks ago I observed another class in which the teacher had been teaching countable and uncountable nouns. She gave the learners a short text containing both kinds of noun, then asked the learners to do a guided discovery activity to work out the difference between the two, then the students did exercises. In the first class there was an example of focus on form; the second class was an example of focus on formS.

Further reading

Doughty, C. and Williams, J. (1998). Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gass, Susan; Selinker, Larry (2008).Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course. New York, NY: Routledge.

Long, M.H. (1991). Focus on form: a design feature in language teaching methodology. In K.de Bot, R. Ginsberg, and C. Kramsch (Ed.s), Foreign Language Research in Cross-cultural Perspective. Amsterdam: John Betjamins.

Sheen, R. (2002). Key concepts in ELT: Focus on ‘form’ v ‘Focus on Forms’. ELT Journal 48/1.



Foot (stress / rhythm)

A foot is a rhythmic unit that forms part of a tone unit. It consists of one or more syllables, one of which is stronger than the other (weak) syllables. In natural English speech there is a tendency for the foot to begin with a strong syllable, i.e. it is stressed. (Thus in terms of its rhythmic structure English is sometimes described as a left-dominant language.) So within a foot we can distinguish between strong and weak syllables, and across feet within a word, between syllables that carry primary or secondary stress, or are weak (unstressed).


If they have studied poetry, students might be familiar with the concept of feet in regular metrical  patterns, like Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, for example:

If mu¦ sic be¦ the food ¦ of love, ¦ play on

The foot functions in a similar way in natural speech, but with much more variation in the number of syllables per foot:

If you be ¦ lieve that ¦ mu sic is the ¦ food of ¦ love, then ¦ go on playing

Further reading





These are the ways through which language is expressed, for example, in grammar they refer to grammatical patterns, in pronunciation to sounds, stress and intonation and in writing to handwriting and spelling. Learners learning a language need to learn both the forms of language and the meanings they convey. Form in language learning is related particularly to accuracy.


"Some people find languages like French, Spanish and Italian quite difficult to learn as each verb tense and person has a distinct form. Remembering all of them can be a headache."

Further reading

Doughty, C., & Williams, J. (Eds.) (1998). Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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




Formative assessment

Making judgments about the success of learning while it is taking place rather than once it is over. The purpose of formative assessment is to help the teacher (or learners) decide what should be taught next, and possibly how, based on analysis of the needs of the learners as revealed by the assessment. Formative assessment is often informal, with the teacher listening to or looking at learners’ performance and possibly taking notes. Learners may be unaware that it is taking place.


"Formative assessment really helps me see how well my learners, and individual learners in particular, have learnt something. To help me focus and remember I often use a checklist to monitor them while they are doing groupwork."

Further reading

Bachman, L. (1990). Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boyle, B. & Charles, M. (2013) Formative Assessment for Teaching and Learning) London: Sage

Cummins, J. and Davison, C. (2007). International Handbook of English Language Teaching, Part 1. New York: Springer.

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

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




Formative assessment (n.)

Teacher assessment that is carried out during a training course. Its purpose is to see how well the teachers are doing and to give information on extra work or help that may be needed. 

We’ll need to take in their learning journals halfway through the course for some formative assessment.

Formative evaluation (n.)

Evaluation of a training course during the course or during development of the course. Its purpose is to allow for any necessary improvements before it is too late (e.g. when the course has ended).

You’d better do a mid-course feedback questionnaire to check they’re all reasonably happy. And anyway we’re supposed to do formative evaluation of these courses.


Formulaic subjunctive

See Mandative subjunctive


This refers to those parts of learners’ language which are used incorrectly but which do not seem responsive to correction or open to improvement. Many learner errors correct themselves automatically over time, but some seem resistant to change. These latter are called fossilized errors.


Many advanced learners will be very fluent and accurate but have some recurrent errors which refuse to disappear. This phenomenon is known as fossilization.

Further reading

Candlin, C. and Mercer, N. (2001). English Language Teaching in its Social Context. Abingdon, Oxon.: Psychology Press.

Doughty ,C.J. and Long, M.H. (2008). The Handbook of Second Language. Hoboken, N.J.:

John Wiley & Sons.

Han, Z. (2004) Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition. Bristol, UK: Multilingual


Thornbury, S. The de-fossilization diaries:  http://scottthornburyblog.com/2013/08/18/the-de-fozzilization-diaries/




Functional language

This is language which is an exponent (expression) of a particular language function. For example, if you consider language from a grammatical perspective, Why don’t you get a haircut? is, of course, an example of a negative question form. But it is also a functional exponent of suggesting. The function of a piece of language is the communicative purpose for which it was produced e.g. to invite, to hypothesise, to describe, to greet.


"When I learnt French at school I was taught loads of grammar and vocabulary but very little functional language that would help me get things done through the language."

Further reading

Green, A. (2012). Language Functions Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1994) An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold.

Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching. 4th edition. Harlow: Pearson.

Wilkins, D. (1976). Notional Syllabuses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Functions are the communicative reasons for which we use language. For example, we say hello to greet someone, we say because I was tired to give an explanation, and Go on – you can do it! to encourage someone. Seeing language as a set of functions or reasons for communicating rather than as a set of grammatical items allows a teacher or materials writer to focus on the learner’s communicative needs. This way of seeing language was important in the development of the communicative approach.


"I took Russian lessons a few years ago. We spent our time learning and using the language for functions such as apologising, expressing cause and effect, describing, giving opinions, disagreeing. You could see immediately the reason why you were learning these things." 

Further reading

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

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

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

Widdowson, H. G. (1992). ELT and EL Teachers. ELT Journal 46/4. Oxford University Press.



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