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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A phrase is a group of words making up a meaningful unit in a clause. There are different kinds of phrases such as a verb phrase, a prepositional phrase, an adverbial phrase, a noun phrase. A phrase may or may not contain a verb.


In this sentence there are four phrases all marked in different colours: Nobody wearing sandals will be allowed into the restaurant after 8 o’clock.

Further reading

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

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

Parrott, M. (2010). Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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




Entry link: Phrase


This is the study of the meaning of language in context. It looks at how language is interpreted in particular situations. Its focus is not semantic meaning but contextual meaning, as contained in e.g. setting, the relationship between speakers, and knowledge of the world.


In this dialogue, the response ‘Excellent news’ seems to indicate that the woman is pleased that Helen is sick. Another possible interpretation is that in fact the woman is pleased for another reason – that Helen has finally decided to take days off when she’s ill. Pragmatics would study the situation in which this dialogue took place to explore possible interpretations.

Man: Helen’s sick. She’s having the day off.

Woman: Excellent news – about time too.

Further reading

Bahtia, V., Flowerdew, J., Jones, R. (2007).  Advances in Discourse Studies, Oxford: Routledge.

Grundy, P. (2008). Doing Pragmatics. Oxford: Routledge.

Houck, N.R. and Tatsuki, D.H. (eds.) (2011). Pragmatics: Teaching Natural Conversation. Virginia: TESOL.

Rose K.R. and Kasper, G. (2001) Pragmatics in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tan, P. (1994). Key concepts in ELT: pragmatics. ELT Journal 48/1.

Thornbury, S., Slade, D. (2006). Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.



Entry link: Pragmatics


Preposition is a grammatical term for a word that shows a relationship between events, people or things such as time, proximity, place. Prepositions represent a word class/ part of speech. In English they are numerous, usually come before nouns or pronouns and can be used literally or figuratively.


Prepositions can be easier to learn if they are taught as part of a chunk e,g, on time, at home, in pairs, look forward to, but unfortunately they are not all or always used in common chunks or collocations.

Further reading

Lindstromberg, S. (2010). English Prepositions Explained. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

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

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





Entry link: Preposition


Prescriptive is a word used to describe an attitude to grammar that says what grammar should be used. Prescriptive grammars are based on an idea of what grammar should be used rather than what grammar is actually used. ‘Prescriptive’ is often contrasted with ‘descriptive’. Descriptive grammars describe how grammar is actually used.


Prescriptive grammars of English used to tell us things like: you can’t use verbs of feeling in the present continuous, you can’t put a preposition at the end of a sentence, you can’t use that as a relative pronoun to refer to people. In fact, when you hear people talking they do things like that all the time e.g. I’m loving it, I don’t know which class she’s in, the student that I need to talk to is….….

Further reading

Cameron, D. (1995).Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Huddleston, R. (1984). Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Strevens, P. (1978).In Honour of A.S. Hornby. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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




Entry link: Prescriptive

Process writing

Process writing is an approach to writing that deliberately incorporates a focus on the stages in producing a piece of writing rather than focussing just on the product of the writing (product writing). The stages involved in writing are generating and developing ideas, planning and organising, drafting, editing, redrafting, proof-reading and publishing (i.e. making public). Many experts believe that by focussing learners on the stages of writing, process writing helps learners become aware of what writing demands of them, and what enables good writing.


"One of the big problems my students have with their writing is not planning properly and not editing or proof-reading. When I introduce them to process writing it really seems to help them write better."

Further reading

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

Hedge T. (1988). Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kroll B. (1990). Second Language Writing: Research insights for the classroom. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press

Raimes A. (1983). Techniques in Teaching Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

White, R. and Arndt, V. (1991). Process Writing. Harlow: Longman.




Entry link: Process writing


Range is a term used in assessment criteria and in syllabus design to refer to the breadth and variety of language (grammar or lexis) that is appropriate for use in a particular genre. For example, the range of language appropriate for use in a text message to a friend about when and where to meet up next is likely to be much narrower than the range needed in a tourist leaflet describing the attractions of an historic town. Teachers are also often encouraged in syllabuses to teach their students the features of an appropriate range of genres.

The semantic range of a word refers to its occurrence across several subsections of a corpus.


"I’ve just marked Pedro’s essay – his grammatical range was really quite impressive-he used all the tenses he needed to use, simple and complex sentences, and a variety of conjunctions and discourse markers - just what was needed in that kind of formal essay."

Further reading

Nation, P. & Waring, R. “Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists” http://www.fltr.ucl.ac.be/fltr/germ/etan/bibs/vocab/cup.html



Entry link: Range

Mandative subjunctive

This is the use of the subjunctive ‘in a subordinate clause that follows an expression of command, demand, or recommendation’ (http://grammar.about.com/od/mo/g/Mandative-Subjunctive.htm), for example: they recommended that he get some work experience /she suggested he dress more smartly. It is formal in use and contrasts with the formulaic subjunctive in which the subjunctive is used in a chunk as part of a fixed expression e.g. heaven forbid, so be it, come rain come shine.


The mandative subjunctive is rare in English, but not in some other languages. You really need to get a feel for when to use it – in romance languages it’s often used to express doubt, wishes or commands. Is it used in your language? When?

Further reading

Chalker, S. (1995).Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford University Press.

Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (2003). A Communicative Grammar of English, 3rd edition. Oxford:Routledge.





Entry link: Mandative subjunctive


To remember something, often with the help of prompts or clues.


"To recall new vocabulary I often try to use a clue – for example, the Italian for ‘bell’ is campana – if you say it slowly hanging on the ‘n’, to me it sounds just like a big bell ringing. When I hear a bell ringing now, the word campana often automatically comes into my mind."

Further reading

Bilborough, N. (2011).  Memory Activities for Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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

Takac, V.P. (2008). Vocabulary Learning Strategies and Foreign Language Acquisition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.



Entry link: Recall


Teachers recycle language when they deliberately bring items of language that have already been taught to learners’ attention or for learners’ use a second or further time. The purpose of recycling is to give learners further exposure to particular language items.  Coursebook designers often build recycling into their materials, as do syllabus writers who adopt a spiral approach, dealing with the same item again but in greater detail.


"That book is really good because it recycles the main language points, giving learners the chance to extend their understanding and use of what they’ve learnt 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.



Entry link: Recycle

Referential question

A referential question is a question a teacher or student asks because they genuinely want to find out the answer to the question. Referential questions are often contrasted with display questions (See Display Questions), which are asked so as to give the student an opportunity to ‘display’ their knowledge or ability. In language teaching, referential questions are often associated with the warm-up stage of a lesson or with free practice activities. They often lead to a use of language that the teacher cannot predict, and tend to involve use of higher order thinking skills (See HOTS).


In the dialogue below, the teacher’s first question is a display question, asked to check whether the student knows the word ‘architect’. The teacher knows the answer to this question. The teacher’s second question is referential. The teacher is unlikely to know the answer to it, and answering it involves the student in using their own ideas and unpredictable language.

Teacher: What’s the name of the person who draws plans for designing and building houses?

Student: architect.

Teacher. That’s right. Do you think that’s an interesting job? Why?

Student: I’d love to be an architect. To create new buildings must be wonderful.

Further reading

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

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

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




Entry link: Referential question

Reflection grid

This is a grid or table often containing columns with these headings:  name, description, aims, comments. It can be used by learners or teachers to record and comment on points in a lesson. It is designed to aid reflection and evaluation on learning / teaching, with a view to possibly introducing changes.


"The teacher gave us a reflection grid and during the lesson we jotted down our feelings and opinions on the different things we had done. Then at the end of the lesson we discussed what we had written. It was a good way of getting solid feedback and thinking about what helps you to learn best."

Further reading

Murray, D. and Christison, M.A. (2011). What English Language Teachers Need to Know, Volume 11. Abingdon: Oxon: Routledge.

Richards, J. and Lockhart, C. (1994). Reflective Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




Entry link: Reflection grid


Register has two meanings. It is sometimes used to refer to the type of language (particular vocabulary, grammar or discourse features) that characterises particular fields of language use e.g. nuclear physics, hip hop music, football.

It is also used to refer to the degree of formality of language use, with language generally classified as formal, neutral or informal. The study of register is part of sociolinguistics.


"One of the hardest things to learn in a foreign language is using register i.e. what language it is appropriate to use in what context."

Further Reading

Bachman, L. (1990). Fundamental considerations in language testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ghadessy, M. (1994) Key concepts in ELT. ELTJ 48/3 http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/eltj/keyconcepts.html

Halliday, M.A.K., McIntosh, A., Strevens, P. (1964). The linguistic sciences and language teaching. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

Howatt, A.P.R. with Widdowson H.G. (2004). A history of English language teaching. Oxford:Oxford University Press.



Entry link: Register

Schema theory

Schema theory maintains that we develop frameworks in our heads for making sense of and organising information about different concepts, topics and phenomena in the world, and that these frameworks influence how we understand new information. If we can find a link between our schemata and new information, it helps us to process it. For this reason, many lessons include a warmer activity on the lesson’s topic that aims to activate and bring to mind learners’ knowledge, attitudes towards, and experience of the topic.


"We had to do some comprehension work on a text about Charles Darwin. So, I did a warmer activity to help activate my learners’ schemata about him. But what I found was that no one had ever heard of him or what he did. That made the comprehension work much more difficult as the students couldn’t really relate to or see the relevance of what we were reading."

Further reading

Carrell, P.L., Devine, J. and Eskey, D.E. (eds) (1988). Interactive Approaches to Second Language Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cook, G. (1997). Key concepts in ELT: schemas. ELT Journal 51/1. Oxford University Press.

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

Widdowson, H.G. (1983). Learning Purpose and Language Use. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Entry link: Schema theory

Semantic field

A semantic field, also called a lexical field, is a set of words all related to the same subject or topic area. These words need not necessarily all be the same part of speech.


We read a text in class the other day about food banks. After we’d done comprehension work on the text I asked the students to find in the text all the words related to the semantic field of materials. They found: tin, paper, polythene, wrapped, waste, cardboard, plastic, tray, light, water-proof, unwrap, a kilo, run out, use up, a load of….they found lots of them.

Further reading

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

McCarthy, M. (1990). Vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Entry link: Semantic field


A sentence is a group of words which in English contains at least a subject and a verb and which is independent as it does not need completion to make sense. A sentence contains a main clause and possibly subordinate clauses, too. In writing, sentences start with a capital letter and end with a full stop.


These phrases don’t make sense by themselves so they’re not sentences: in the park, arriving late, while they were waiting, whose glasses are black, she put her…

These are sentences: They played in the park. Tthe bell rang while they were waiting. The woman whose glasses are black never speaks. She put her hand up.

Further reading

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

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

Parrott, M. (2010). Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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




Entry link: Sentence

Skewed input

This  is a characteristic of input language to which learners are exposed. Skewed input refers to particular language features occurring regularly or unusually often in the input rather than the input being varied in the language features it contains. Research is trying to establish whether skewed or more balanced input is more beneficial to language acquisition.


In materials following the structural approach to language teaching, you see inauthentic  texts in which many examples of a particular structure have been deliberately included so as to provide students with multiple exposure to that structure. This kind of repetition of a structure can occur in authentic texts but is less common. Some researchers are trying to find out whether multiple exposure to the same structure, i.e. skewed input, helps learners to acquire language.

Further reading

DeKeyser, R. (2003). Implicit and explicit learning. In J. and Doughty & M. Long (Eds.),

Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, MA: Blackwell.

Goldberg 2006 Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalisation in Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, P. and Ellis, N. (2008). Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. London: Routledge.



Entry link: Skewed input


Skills are the way in which language is used. There are four language skills: reading, listening, writing and speaking, the first two of these being known as productive skills and the latter two as receptive skills. To use these skills we employ a number of microskills. These are sometimes called subskills or strategies. They include for example, reading for gist, speaking intelligibly, writing coherently, listening for specific information.


Some people argue these days that we don’t need to teach learners the subskills of language skills as they already use them in their own language and can just transfer them across. I’m not sure how true this is.

Further reading

Johnson, K. (2002). Key concepts in ELT: Language as Skill. ELT Journal 56/2.

Juan, E.U. and Flor, A.M. (2006). Current Trends in the Development and Teaching of the Four Language Skills. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

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

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning Teaching, 2nd edition. Oxford: MacMillan.

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



Entry link: Skills


This term is used in ELT to refer to types of assessment in which the assessor needs to use their judgement as to how correct an answer is, because the answer is open-ended and can be evaluated according to various different criteria. Speaking tests and essays are examples of subjective assessment formats. Two people listening to the same student speaking might grade him/her differently because they are listening for different things or because they give importance to different aspects of speaking.


"I was worried about doing an interview as part of my test because I didn’t like my grade depending on the examiner’s judgment. But then they explained to me that the examiner had to work with specific defined criteria when grading, and that another examiner would be present to grade as well, so I realised my grade wouldn’t be subjective."

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.

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




Entry link: Subjective


A superordinate is a lexical term. It refers to a word which is the name of a category, for example, fruit is the superordinate for oranges, apples, bananas, melon, strawberries etc. The things which make up the category are called hyponyms (See hyponym)


Lots of games you play in class are based on superordinates. There is one called categories for example, where you give students a grid with a list of superordinates, then call out a letter of the alphabet. The first person to complete the grid with words beginning with that letter is the winner. Here’s an example of the grid:


























You can see the superordinates at the top of the columns. Mind maps are often based on superordinates too.

Further reading

Berry, R.(2010). Terminology in English Language Teaching: Nature and Use. Bern: Peter Lang.

Cook, V. (2013). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.




Entry link: Superordinate


This is the way in which parts of speech are arranged in fixed sequences in sentences in order to make grammatical structures and meaning. What is acceptable syntax varies from language to language. An example of syntax in English is the inversion of subject and verb in question forms, or the order in statements, the positioning of adverbs or adjectives.


"The grammar of some languages relies heavily on morphology to show meaning, whereas other languages make greater use of syntax to achieve this."

Further reading

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

Swan, M. (2005). Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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




Entry link: Syntax

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