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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Intonation and intonation contour

Intonation is the movement we introduce into our voices in order to convey meaning. We move our voices up or down or some combination of the two over a tone unit, with our intonation forming an intonation pattern or intonation contour over that unit. We use intonation to indicate attitude, grammatical functions or the organisation of discourse.


Try saying these three sentences in the way indicated in brackets and following the intonation contour given in the lines. Notice how the intonation is different in each sentence and how your voice moves across each contour.


He gave you the ticket (said as a statement)


He gave you the ticket (said as a question)


He gave you the ticket (said to show surprise)



Further reading

Brazil, D. (1997). The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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

Halliday, M.A.K., and Greaves, W.S., (2008). Intonation in the Grammar of English.  London:Equinox.

Hirst, D.J. & Di Cristo, A. (eds) 1998. Intonation Systems. A Survey of Twenty Languages. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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

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

Wells, J.C. (2006) English Intonation: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.






Entry link: Intonation and intonation contour

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




Entry link: Foot (stress / rhythm)


Pitch is usually defined as “the rate of vibration of the vocal folds”, which is responsible for sounds being produced at higher or lower frequencies, or higher or lower pitch. Pitch can vary across a word or a whole utterance. Varying our pitch in conventionally agreed ways makes it possible for meaning to be expressed through intonation. For example, in English, in Wh- questions the pitch of the voice starts higher then falls.


In English we change the direction of the pitch of our voices on the most important syllable in a word or tone unit. We can see this from the contour line in this example:



Take the train, not the bus – it’s much quicker.

Further reading

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

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

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

Roach, P. English Phonetics and Phonology. Glossary: http://www.cambridge.org/servlet/file/EPP_PED_Glossary.pdf?ITEM_ENT_ID=2491706&ITEM_VERSION=1&COLLSPEC_ENT_ID=7


Entry link: Pitch


This is an English vowel sound, represented in the phonemic script as /ə/. It is the most common vowel in spoken English as many other vowels are shortened to schwa in connected speech (See Connected Speech). Schwa plays an important role in maintaining regular rhythm in spoken English.


Do you think there would be 5, 6 or 7 schwa sounds in this sentence if it was spoken?

What do you reckon happened when they arrived at the station?

I think the answer could be 5, 6 or 7 depending on how quickly the speaker spoke. This is where the schwas could occur:

/wɒt du ju rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdæt θə steɪʃən/

/wɒdʒə rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdæt θə steɪʃən/

/wɒt du ju rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdət θə steɪʃən/

/wɒdʒə rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdət θə steɪʃən/

Further reading

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

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

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

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





Entry link: Schwa

Strong/Stressed and Weak/Unstressed Syllables

A syllable is a unit of speech which in English consists of a vowel sound or of a vowel sound and one or more consonants. A syllable can be divided into three parts: onset, nucleus and coda/final. Word stress operates on the different syllables in a word. In terms of pronunciation, syllables can be stressed, weakly stressed or unstressed. A stressed syllable carries the main or secondary stress in a word and is pronounced with greater loudness and length and higher pitch. A weakly stressed syllable has little sound prominence and an unstressed syllable receives no prominence. The amount of stress given to a word and the syllables within it depends on how important it is in conveying essential information.


Here are some words showing typical English syllable patterns:

a (indefinite article) – a syllable consisting just of a vowel sound

am – a syllable consisting of a vowel + a consonant sound

jam – a syllable consisting of consonant + vowel + consonant sounds

tram – a syllable consisting of consonant + consonant + vowel + consonant sounds

And here are some words showing different degrees of stress on different syllables:

|on|ly – main stress on ‘on’ and weak stress on ‘ly’

|phone – one main stress

|station – main stress on ‘sta’ with weak or no stress on ‘tion’

|Un|nec|es|sari|ly – main stress on 'sar', weak stress on 'un', 'nec', 'ess', 'ly'; weak or no stress on 'ri'

Further reading

Richards, J. and Schmidt, R. (2010). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, 4th edition. Harlow: Pearson.

Stirling, J. (2011). Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners. Lulu.com

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








Entry link: Strong/Stressed and Weak/Unstressed Syllables

Tones and tone groups

A tone group is a word or group of words belonging together in sense and across which one tone operates. A tone group is sometimes known as a tone unit or as an intonation contour.

A tone is a movement in pitch across a tone group and which indicates meaning. In English there are four main tones: rise, fall, fall-rise and rise-fall. A tone has different parts which occur in a fixed sequence: head →nucleus →tail


Can you say these tone groups following the tones given in the intonation contours?





Last night



Only last night



Just a few minutes ago


Further reading

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

De Lacy, P. (Ed.) (2012). The Cambridge Handbook of Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gussenhoven, C. (2004). The Phonology of Tone and Intonation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roach, Peter (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology, 4th edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Underhill, A. (2005) Sound Foundations. Oxford: MacMillan.

Wells, J.C. (2006) English Intonation: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Roach, P. English Phonetics and Phonology.




Entry link: Tones and tone groups

Vocal tract

This is how The Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics defines vocal tract: ‘the air passages which are above the VOCAL CHORDS and which are involved in the production of speech sounds. The vocal tract can be divided into the nasal cavity…. and the oral cavity’ (Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics, p.629).


In this diagram we can see the vocal tract:                                                 

                                                        Vocal chords



Further reading

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

Richards, J. and Schmidt, R. ( 2010). Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Harlow: Pearson.

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

Roach, P. English Phonetics and Phonology. Glossary: http://www.cambridge.org/servlet/file/EPP_PED_Glossary.pdf?ITEM_ENT_ID=2491706&ITEM_VERSION=1&COLLSPEC_ENT_ID=7



Entry link: Vocal tract


See Segmental and Suprasegmental

Entry link: Suprasegmental


See Error/Mistake/Slip

Entry link: Mistake


See Error/Mistake/Slip

Entry link: Slip


See Top-down and Bottom-up

Entry link: Bottom-up

Linguistic landscape

The linguistic landscape, sometimes known as 'environmental print', is the text and accompanying images which can be seen in (usually) urban environments on the streets, shops, vehicles, and people (e.g. t-shirt slogans; tattoos). It is a rich source of contemporary language use, and can have a multitude of functional purposes, e.g. to advertise, to warn, to entertain, to inform. Several studies (e.g. Sayer, 2010; Chern & Dooley, 2013), have related the use of English in non-English-speaking environments to cultural and socio-economic factors. Drawing students' attention to how language(s) can be used in the linguistic landscape can promote 'noticing' and lead to discussion and debate.


"I always ask my students to take photos of the linguistic landscape which surrounds them as they walk to and from the language school."

Further reading

Check out the NILE Norwich Linguistic Landscape blog (coming soon)

Chern, C. & Dooley, K. (2013). Learn English by walking down the street. ELTJ 68 / 2 pp. 113-123

Gorter, D. (ed). (2006). Linguistic Landscape. A New Approach to Multilingualism. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Lopriori, L. (2011). Buzzword of the day: Linguistic Landscapes. TESOL Italy Newsletter Vol XXI, No. 5, p.3

Sayer, P. (2010). Using the linguistic landscape as a pedagogical resource. ELTJ 64 / 2 pp. 143-154



Entry link: Linguistic landscape

Comprehensible input

See Input hypothesis

Entry link: Comprehensible input


See Affixation

Entry link: Prefix


See Affixation

Entry link: Suffix

Definite article

See Articles

Entry link: Definite article

Indefinite article

See Articles

Entry link: Indefinite article

Zero article

See Articles

Entry link: Zero article

Progressive aspect

See Aspect

Entry link: Progressive aspect

Continuous aspect

See Aspect

Entry link: Continuous aspect

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