ELT terms - defined and referenced!

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

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This term from phonology refers to the place, i.e. the two lips, where certain sounds are produced. In English the bilabial sounds are /p/, /b/, /m/, /w/.


Bilabial sounds, such as /m/ and /b/ are usually among the speech sounds that babies first produce.

Further reading

Kelly, G. (2000). How To Teach Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.

Ladefoged, P., Maddieson, I.(1996).The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell.

Marks, J. (2012). Delta Teacher Development: Pronunciation Book. Peaslake, Surrey: Delta.

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





Entry link: Bilabial


This acronym stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. The IPA provides one symbol for each sound produced across the different human languages. The IPA chart shows these sounds in relation to one another. Any one language will only use a subset of all the sounds on the IPA chart. To see the IPA chart, click here:



Most language teachers don’t know all the symbols used on the IPA chart. It’s often simpler and more useful for them just to know those used in the language they teach.

Further reading

International Phonetic Association (1999). Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A guide to the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Jones, D. (1988).English Pronouncing Dictionary, 14th ed. London: Dent.

Ladefoged, P. (1990). "The Revised International Phonetic Alphabet". Language 66/ 3.

Laver, J. (1994). Principles of Phonetics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pullum, G. K., Ladusaw, W.A. (1986).Phonetic Symbol Guide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



Entry link: IPA


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.






Entry link: Diphthong

Phonemic chart

A chart showing the phonemic symbols for a particular language arranged according to whether they are vowels or consonants and their place and manner of articulation.


The British Council’s Sounds Right phonemic chart can be downloaded for the iPad from https://itunes.apple.com/app/sounds-right/id387588128?mt=8 and for the PC from http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/TEphonemic.zip

There are different ways in which the phonemic chart can be used to help learners with their pronunciation.

Further reading

Kelly, G. (2000). How to Teach Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.

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

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





Macmillan Pronunciation Skills videos with Adrian Underhill


The Phonemic Chart, Part 1:

The Phonemic Chart, Part 2:



Entry link: Phonemic chart


A plosive is a type of sound produced by air popping on one of the speech organs as it is released (See Speech Organ). The plosive sounds in English are /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/.


In my experience learners of English rarely have problems producing the plosive sounds. Is that what you have found with your students, too?

Further reading

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

Marks, J. (2012). Delta Teacher Development: Pronunciation Book. Peaslake, Surrey: Delta.

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





Entry link: Plosive


This stands for Received Pronunciation. It refers to the standard pronunciation of British English that shows no regional features. RP is sometimes known as BBC English. Although RP is subject to change and is spoken by a small minority of British people, it is widely used in recording for ELT materials.


There is not full agreement on what RP is. Some say it is ‘educated English’, some that it is ‘upper class English’. Is the Queen’s accent RP or not, for example?

Further reading

Crystal, D. (2005). The Stories of English. London:  Penguin.

McArthur, T. (2002). The Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roach, P. (2004), "British English: Received Pronunciation", Journal of the International Phonetic Association 34/2.

Trudgill, Peter (1999). The Dialects of England. Oxford: Blackwell.

Whatever happened to Received Pronunciation? J.C. Wells: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/rphappened.htm

Academic English – Professor David Crystal on standard vs. non-standard English




Entry link: RP

Segmental and Suprasegmental

These terms refer to features of pronunciation. The segmental features are the phonemes or individual sounds whereas the super-segmental are rhythm, stress and intonation.


I have a student whose pronunciation of individual phonemes is really quite good, but he has real problems with stress, rhythm and intonation. I’d read that learners usually have problems with segmentals and not with suprasegmentals, but he’s the other way round and I don’t quite know how to help him.

Further reading

Brazil, D., Couthard, M. and Johns, C. (1980). Discourse Intonation and Language Teaching: Harlow: Longman.

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. and Goodwin, J. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Roach, Peter (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology, 4th edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




Entry link: Segmental and Suprasegmental

Voiced, voiceless/unvoiced

These terms refer to whether or not sounds are produced by vibrating our vocal cords. Voiced sounds in English are all the vowels and some consonants e.g. /b/, /d/, /g/, /v/.  Unvoiced, or voiceless sounds are produced without vibration of the vocal cords e.g. /f/, /k/, /t/.


To hear and feel the effect of using or not using the voice we can say pairs of consonants, the only difference between which is use or non-use of the voice, i.e. whether they are voiced or voiceless. Try saying these pairs and feel what is happening to your voice by placing your fingers on your throat to feel the vibration or lack of it.

/f/     /v/

/t/     /d/

/k/    /g/

/s/    /z/

/ʃ/    /ʒ/

/tʃ/  /dʒ/


Further reading

Baker, A. (2006). Ship and Sheep. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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





Entry link: Voiced, voiceless/unvoiced


One meaning of this term is its use in phonology to refer to one of two types of speech sound: vowels and consonants (See Consonant). Unlike consonants, vowels are produced without the speech organs (See Articulators/ Speech Organs) blocking the outgoing air. There are 20 vowels in RP English including both single vowels and diphthongs. In this meaning, vowel is sometimes called vowel sound.

Another meaning is the written symbol used to represent a vowel. In English these are: a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y.


I think it is very useful to use the phonemic chart to teach English vowel sounds bit by bit. I think it really helps learners, particularly older ones, to hear the difference between the vowel sounds and get a feel for where and how to pronounce them.

Further reading

Dalton, C. and Seidlhofer, B. (2004) Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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

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



Entry link: Vowel


See Error/Mistake/Slip

Entry link: Mistake


See Error/Mistake/Slip

Entry link: Slip


See Segmental and Suprasegmental

Entry link: Suprasegmental


See Top-down and Bottom-up

Entry link: Bottom-up


Accuracy describes the ability to write or speak a foreign language without making grammatical, vocabulary, spelling or pronunciation mistakes. It is often contrasted with fluency. Classroom activities are sometimes categorised into those that promote fluency and those that promote accuracy.


"She makes lots of grammar and pronunciation mistakes – her speech isn’t very accurate; but she speaks so fluently and expressively that everyone understands her."

Further reading

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

Ellis, R. (2001). Grammar teaching – Practice or consciousness-raising? In Richards, J. C., & Renandya, W. A. (Eds.), Methodology in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (2001). Does type of instruction make a difference? Substantive findings from a meta-analytic review. Language Learning, 51, Supplement 1.

Spada, N. (1997). Form-focussed instruction and second language acquisition: A review of classroom and laboratory research. Language Teaching 30.

Swan, M. (1985) A critical look at the Communicative Approach, ELT Journal, 39/ 1and 39/ 2. Oxford University Press.

Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning, 46.

Widdowson, H.G. (1985) Against dogma: A reply to Michael Swan,  ELT Journal, 39/ 3. Oxford University Press.

Accuracy and correcting mistakes (CUP) www.cambridge.org.br/upload/news/00000855.doc



Entry link: Accuracy

Comprehensible input

See Input hypothesis

Entry link: Comprehensible input


This term refers to the addition of a morpheme at the beginning or end of a word (prefixes and suffixes). This additional morpheme changes the meaning of the word. Affixes can also change the part of speech of a word e.g. happy→ happiness, they can make opposites e.g. happy→ unhappy or they can have a grammatical function e.g. the regular past tense suffix-ed.


A game I sometimes play with my students in class is to give them a word e.g. ‘real’, set them a time limit, and ask them to see how many new words they can make from that word by adding affixes, both prefixes and suffixes.

Further reading

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




Entry link: Affixation


See Affixation

Entry link: Prefix


See Affixation

Entry link: Suffix


The learning potential of a text, a context or a situation which provides the learner with the opportunity acquire – or learn – new language. The term often occurs in its plural form. The classroom, too, can provide the learner with affordances for learning e.g. when learners gradually pick up and identify moments for use of classroom language such as ‘I don’t understand’, ‘I have a question’, ‘Please, can you help me’.


"With the spread of English as a global language, a learner these days can be presented with many affordances to acquire English in everyday life. Similarly, in the classroom, children with English as an L1 can provide the others with many affordances for learning English in group work and general chit chat."

Further reading

Gibson, J.J. (1977). In R. Shaw and J. Bransford (ed.s). Perceiving, Acting and Knowing, Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Singleton, D. and Aronin, L. (2007). Multiple Language Learning in the Light of the Theory of Affordances. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1/1.

Van Lier, L. (2000). From input to affordance: Social-interactive learning from an ecological perspective. In Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Entry link: Affordance/affordances


This is a phonological term which refers to a sound which can replace another sound in a word without changing its meaning, for example, in the word ‘bath’ the ‘a’ sound can be pronounced either as /æ/ or as /ɑː/ without the meaning being changed. So, in this word, these two sounds are allophones. The phoneme /ɜː/ in /bɜːθ/ is not an allophone in this instance as it changes the meaning of the word.


When people learn foreign languages they sometimes get confused because phonemes which would not be allophones in their language are allophones in the target language or vice versa, for example, /b/ and /v/ are two distinct phonemes in English but they are sometimes allophones in Spanish.

Further reading

Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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


Entry link: Allophone

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