ELT terms - defined and referenced!

Welcome to the NILE ELT Glossary


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(Definitions written by Mary Spratt, edited by Alan Pulverness)

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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.




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.





A genre refers to texts (spoken or written) that share the same conventions e.g. structure, vocabulary, register, grammar. Students often need to be aware of the characteristics of particular genres in order to produce them well.


Genres can be very different from one another. In speaking, for example, lectures and conversation are two quite different genres with different structures and registers. And in writing the genre of emails is quite different from that of essays.

Further reading

Allison, D. (1999) Key Concepts in ELT: Genre. ELT Journal, 53/2.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford:

Oxford University Press.

Martin, J. (1989) Factual Writing: Exploring and challenging social reality (2nd ed.), Oxford:

Oxford University Press.

McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (1994) Language as Discourse: Perspectives for Language

Teaching, London: Longman.

Paltridge, B. (2001). Genre and the Language Learning Classroom. Ann Arbor: University of

Michigan Press.

Swales, J.M. (1990)Genre Analysis: English in academic and research settings, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

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






This is a grammatical term referring in English to a verb + -ing form which acts as a noun. Because it is a noun it is not the same as the –ing form used in the present participle. Some grammars use the term ‘-ing form’ to refer to both gerunds and present participles and do not distinguish between the two.


You often find gerunds as subjects on notices e.g. Running in the playground is forbidden, Talking after lights go out is forbidden, Driving over the speed limit carries a £60 fine.

Further reading

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

Fowler, H.W. (1926). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.

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



Graded reader

A graded reader is a book in which the language has been graded or adapted to match a particular level of proficiency e.g. A2, B2. Graded readers may be newly written or adaptations of existing books. They can include any genre of writing. They sometimes include a glossary and activities on the text. The purpose of graded readers is to provide learners with additional exposure to language, often out of class, and develop their reading skills.


When I was learning English, my teacher used to feed me with graded readers as she knew I loved reading. I used to read at least one graded reader a week and was soon able to move on to ‘real books’.

Further reading

Cambridge English Readers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacMillan Readers. Oxford: MacMillan.

Oxford Bookworms Collection: Oxford: Oxford University Press.


http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/extensive-reading- Extensive reading. by Graham Stanley

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/reading-out-loud - Reading aloud, by James Houltby.

http://www.onestopenglish.com/section.asp?docid=146513 Using Readers in the ESL, EFL Classroom, by Lindsay Clandfield with Jo Budden



Grammar dictation

The terms grammar dictation and dictogloss are used interchangeably to refer to a technique for developing students’ grammatical competence.  The technique involves dictating a text to students at normal speed while students copy down what they can of what they hear, leaving gaps for the parts they have not been able to write down for whatever reason. Then the students in pairs or groups compare what they have written and  try and complete their version of the text. The teacher may choose to then repeat this process. At the end students are given a copy of the original text to compare with their text and discuss the differences. The thinking behind grammar dictation is that it encourages students to think about both meaning and grammar, and make grammatical choices based on working out intended meanings.


In my experience students are always discouraged when you do grammar dictation for the first time. They find it hard. But over time, they come to like it and appreciate how much they learn from it.

Further reading

Wainryb, R. (1990). Grammar Dictation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





Grammar translation

A method of language teaching in which students study rules of language, then test out their understanding of these rules through doing exercises on them. Students also translate texts in the L2 into their L1. This method was very popular in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, being gradually replaced by methods which focussed more on use of the language.


"I learnt Latin at school – I spent my time learning rules, doing grammar exercises, then translating passages by Caesar, Virgil and others. I now know this was called the grammar-translation method. I loved it!"

Further reading

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

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




This is a teaching technique, also known as grammaticization, in which students are given key words, e.g. from a dialogue or text that have just read or are about to read, and asked to add ‘grammar’ words to these key words to produce a text that makes sense. Behind this technique is Diana Larsen-Freeman’s idea of ‘grammaring’, the skill of relating form and structure to meaningful units.


I like doing grammatisation with my students and they like it too. I just give them key words in the correct orderfrom very short texts and they have to fill in the ‘grammar’ words. They find it quite intriguing how many meaningful combinations you can get from a few key words. Sometimes they get really involved in defending the meaning of their sentences.

Further reading

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003). Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Thornbury, S. (1995). Uncovering Grammar. Oxford: MacMillan.

Thornbury, S. (1998). The Lexical Approach: a journey without maps? Modern English Teacher 7/4.

Batstone, R. (1994). Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Guided discovery

Guided discovery is an approach to teaching language in which learners are presented with examples of language (e.g. adjectives starting with the prefixes in- or un- or ir-) and prompted or asked leading questions in order to work out what the rule of use is, or what grammatical patterning underlies the examples. Guided discovery is said to encourage learners to become more autonomous and to be based on the way language is learnt naturally outside the classroom.


"Teacher: Look at these examples on the board, then complete the rule about how to form the present perfect."


The present perfect

I have been to China.

He has travelled all over the world.

They have bought tickets for a boat trip to Cyprus.

The form of the present perfect:

Subject + ………………… + …………………


Further reading

Ellis, R. (2002) Methodological options in grammar teaching materials. In Hinkel, E., & Fotos, S. (eds.) New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms.  Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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

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

Thornbury, S. and Watkins, P. (2007) The CELTA Course. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





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