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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This is the way in which we express our attitude to what we are saying. We often associate modality with verbs (obligation, possibility, ability, necessity etc) but modality can also be expressed through adjectives, adverbs and nouns. This latter is called lexical modality.


In the sentence He may come tomorrow we see modality expressed in the modal verb may. We can use lexical modality to express this too e.g. Perhaps he will come tomorrow (modal adverb), there’s a chance he will come tomorrow (modal noun), it’s possible he’ll come tomorrow (modal adjective).

Further reading

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

Fachinetti, R., Krug, M.G/ Palmer, F.R. (2003) Modality in Contemporary English. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

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




This term has two distinct meanings in ELT. The first comes from one of the five hypotheses that make up Krashen’s input hypothesis, a theory of language acquisition in which he maintained that when a learner is monitoring their use of language, they are focusing on accuracy and inhibiting acquisition. In this use monitoring means the learner checking and evaluating their own language output, as they produce it, whether it be speaking or writing.

The other meaning of monitoring refers to the teacher observing and assessing learners in class.


"I find that when I monitor my own language use as I speak, it really slows me down and makes me hesitate and make mistakes."

Further reading

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

Krashen, S.D. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.

O’Malley and Chamot, A. (1990). Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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



Monolingual learner dictionary

This is a learner dictionary (a dictionary that is graded to suit the learners’ language level and needs) in which the dictionary entries, explanations and examples are all in the target language.


I have tried hard to encourage my students to use monolingual learner dictionaries so that they just think in the target language, but they keep using bilingual dictionaries instead. They say they find them more helpful.

Further reading

Chan, A. (2008).Why do learners prefer bilingualized dictionaries to monolingual dictionaries, or vice versa? Oxford University Research Archive.

Cowie, A.P. (2013). English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmitt, N. (Ed.) (2010). An Introduction to Applied Linguistics, 2nd edition. Abingdon: Routledge.





Morphemes are the smallest meaningful and grammatical units in a word.  A morpheme ‘cannot be divided without altering or destroying its meaning’ (Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics, p.375). For example, phones contains two morphemes – phone and s; helpless contains two morphemes – help and less; table contains only one morpheme. Many morphemes are suffixes or prefixes, but there are also grammatical morphemes in English such as 3rd person singular s,  past tense –ed, and –ing in a gerund or present participle.


In many vocabulary books you can find activities on word formation that in fact are based on morphemes e.g. deciding on the right prefix, matching parts of compound words, making opposites by adding the correct suffix.

Further reading

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

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





This is the study of the use of morphemes (See Morpheme)  to form words. Morphology shows us how different kinds of morphemes combine or operate singly to form words.


Here are a few things we learn from morphology:

-          words can contain just one morpheme e.g. dictate, book, compare, persuade

-          words can contain more than one morpheme e.g. dictation, books, comparison, persuaded

-          morphemes may or may not be able to stand alone e.g. these morphemes can stand alone: on, net, can; these morphemes can’t stand alone : im-, -tion, -ed

Further reading

Carstairs McCarthy, A. (2001) An Introduction to English Morphology: Words and Their Structure. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Carter, R. and McCarthy, M. (1988). Vocabulary and Language Teaching. London and New York: Longman.

Nation, I.S.P. (2001). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, N. (2000). Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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



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Multi-word unit

A group of words (e.g. a verb + adverb particle or preposition) which has a meaning as a whole and for which the meaning of the whole group of words is different from the meaning of each individual word. Multi-word units are often phrasal verbs, idioms, compounds. Examples of multi-word units are fall in love, a hand-set, once in a blue moon, to look after. It is useful for learners to learn these units as chunks rather than piecing them together from individual words. Multi-word units are sometimes referred to as polywords.


"Learners seem to learn phrasal verbs more easily if they see each one as a multi-word unit which is a complete lexical item in itself, rather than as a verb + an adverb or preposition."

Further reading

Laufer, B. (1997). What’s in a word that makes it hard or easy: some interlexical factors that affect

the learning of words. In N. Schmitt and M. McCarthy (ed.s) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lindstromberg, S. and Boers, F. (2008). Teaching Chunks of Language. Helbling Languages.

Nattinger, J.R. and DeCarrico, J.(1992) Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





Needs analysis



Needs analysis is primarily a process of investigating the specific linguistic needs of learners in order to design or adapt a course specifically for them. Needs analysis can also be used to find out other information about your learners including motivation, preferences, and learner styles which can help design or tailor the course to the profile of the learner. Data collection can be done through formal and informal interviews, questionnaires and questions will often relate what kind of things the learner will ultimately do with the language which can help formulate learning objectives


I used the results of my needs analysis to create my speaking and listening course from scratch

Further reading 

Harding K (2007) English for specific purposes; Oxford 

Jordan R.R (1997) English for academic purposes; Cambridge University Press 

Evans T and St John M (1998) Developments in English for Specific Purposes; Cambridge University Press 




Negotiating Meaning

This refers to the process readers, writers, speakers and interlocutors engage in in order to make sense of and clarify what is being said/ written. It can involve asking for clarification, repeating, paraphrasing, checking understanding.


Information gap activities help learners to learn and practise negotiating meaning, as they often find themselves not fully understanding what their partner has said or not being able to express themselves clearly. As a result the listener may ask for clarification or question what was said, and the speaker may paraphrase or repeat to get their message across more successfully.

Further reading

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

Philp, J., Oliver, R. , Mackey, A.  (2008). Second Language Acquisition and the Younger Learner. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

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

Young, R. (1983). The negotiation of meaning in children's foreign language acquisition. ELT Journal 37/3.





This is a term which refers to the process in which a learner, consciously or unconsciously, notices or becomes aware of an item or aspect of language in the language input that surrounds them. This may involve noticing spelling, word stress, meaning, grammar, collocation or other language features. Noticing is believed to be the first stage in language learning, sometimes but not always triggering further stages of acquisition.


"She’s a visual learner and when we went to Russia together she was always looking at Russian script on signs, notices, advertising etc, trying to work out what each letter was. I didn’t even see the script myself, I just didn’t notice it – it didn’t register."

Further reading

Batstone, R. (1996) Key concepts in ELT: Noticing. ELT Journal 50/3. Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, P.-M. and Spada, N.(2006). How Languages are Learned, 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, R. (1990). 'The role of consciousness in second language learning'. Applied Linguistics 11.

Van Patten, B. (1990). Attending to form and content in the input. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12.




Notional syllabus

A syllabus that is organised according to the grammatical notions (concepts) that a learner might need to express (e.g. cause and effect, frequency, pastness, agency, duration, quantity) rather than according to structural or task progression. Notional syllabuses were particularly influential in the 1970s and were often linked with functional syllabuses, making for notional-functional syllabuses, in which the language needed to express particular functions was focussed on.


"Because of its focus on abstract categories like pastness, uncertainty, comparison, it is quite hard to make a notional syllabus seem real, achievable and motivating to students."

Further reading

Abbs, B. and  Freebairn, I. (1979). Building Strategies. Harlow: Longman.

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

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

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



Noun phrase

See Phrase



This term has two main meanings in ELT, one related to assessment and the other to lesson planning. In relation to assessment it refers to types of assessment for which there is only one correct answer and for which the assessor doesn’t therefore need to use their judgment to decide on the value of the answer. Examples of objective test formats are True/ False, multiple choice, matching, gap-fill.

In relation to lesson planning, an objective is a specification of what a teacher intends the learners to have learnt, or be able to do better, by the end of the lesson. It is sometimes used interchangeably with learning outcome in this meaning.


"The advantage of objective tests is that each item is short and clearly targeted, but their disadvantage is that they don’t really test use of the language." 

Further reading

Davies, A. Brown, A. et al. (1999). Dictionary of Language Testing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Richards, J. (2013) Curriculum approaches in language teaching: forward, central and  backward design. RELC Journal, 44/1.

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





Open pairs

This term is used to refer to a classroom interaction pattern in which two students talk to one another across the class so that other students can listen to what they are saying. This pattern is used particularly to demonstrate how to carry out an activity or task, or to act as feedback on an activity or task just completed.


"I often use open pairs in my class before the learners start an activity. I ask two students to carry out the activity in front of everyone else. In that way the others see what to do and also hear what language they could use."

Further reading

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

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






This is an acronym for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms and Pork. It refers to the common practice amongst publishers and exam boards of excluding sensitive or taboo topics from the content of their products so as not to give offence and to facilitate the sale of these products.  Some people believe that this practice is one factor contributing to the lack of real meaning and relevance that is sometimes noted in ELT materials.


When you get to know a class, you become aware of their sensitivities and interests. You’re then in a good position to judge how much or what parts of PARSNIP to adopt or ignore when choosing materials or topics to use in class.

Further reading

Gray, J. (2002). ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’. In Block, D., and Cameron, D. (Eds.) Globalization and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.

Block, D. and Cameron, D. (2002) . Globalization and Language Teaching. London:Routledge.

Harwood, N. (2010).  English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Meddings. L. (2006). "Embrace the Parsnip" http://www.theguardian.com/education/2006/jan/20/tefl4




Part of speech

A part of speech is the grammatical function a word or phrase has in a sentence or utterance. Parts of speech have distinctive grammatical or morphological features.  In English, common parts of speech are: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, exclamation, pronoun, conjunction. Words can function as more than one part of speech e.g. a record, to record. Another term for part of speech is word class.


"You have to work out the parts of speech of ‘that’ in this sentence before you can understand the sentence: That that that that man used was right." (E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.)

Further reading

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

Parrott, M. (2010). Grammar for English Language Teachers, second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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




This is a grammatical term that refers in English to two parts of a verb: the present participle(e.g. studying) and the past participle (e.g. studied). Participles are non-finite parts of a verb, meaning that they don’t in themselves indicate time.


Here’s an example of a mistake my students often make with the grammatical meaning of the present participle: Walking along the beach, the sun was bright and hot.

With the past participle their main problems seem to be remembering irregular forms, and their pronunciation and spelling too.

Further reading

Parrott, M. (2010). Grammar for English Language Teachers, second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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





This is a grammatical term for a word which has little meaning attached to it and does not obviously belong to any of the parts of speech but performs a grammatical or formal function. Examples of these in English are not and the prepositions or adverbs that are in phrasal verbs e.g. look up, look after.  We can see that in this context they don’t perform their usual grammatical function or retain their usual meaning.


"In Chinese there are particles that show that a sentence is in the past or is a question."

Further reading

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




Patterns of interaction

This term refers to the patterns of who interacts with who in a classroom. The main patterns are: student(s) to teacher, teacher to student(s), student(s) to student(s), student alone. A teacher can choose which is the most appropriate pattern to use in order to achieve the learning aims of different activities.


I started the class with a teacher to students interaction pattern as I gave all the students some information. The students then did some pair work followed by some individual work, and then the lesson ended with them doing some group work. So across the lesson we used four different kinds of interaction pattern.

Further reading

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

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

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


Seedhouse, P. (1995). Classroom interaction: possibilities and impossibilities. ELT Journal


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

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tsui, A.B.M.(1995). Introducing Classroom Interaction. London: Penguin.




Pedagogical theory (n.)

This can be summed up as the philosophical, sociological and psychological considerations that provide teachers with a sound basis for their classroom activities.

Well, Sue is OK in the classroom but I don’t think we can make her Head of Department as she has no real understanding of the thinking behind our policies and syllabus.  

Peer correction

In ELT this refers to when one learner corrects another learner, maybe spontaneously or at the prompting of the teacher. The correction may relate to the language used or to ideas expressed. When the term refers to giving feedback on writing this is sometimes called peer review.


"Some teachers are a bit wary about using pair peer correction as they’re not sure if the feedback the students give one another is correct or not."

Further reading

Bartram, M. and Walton, R. (1991). Correction. Brighton, UK: Language Teaching Publications.

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

Shaofeng Li (2013). Key concepts in ELT: oral corrective feedback. ELT Journal 67/4. Oxford University Press.





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