ELT terms - defined and referenced!

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

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These are terms used in relation to the language skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. The first two are said to be receptive as they involve absorbing language while the latter two are known as productive as they involve producing language. Receptive skills are sometimes thought of as being passive while productive skills are thought of as active. In fact, this categorisation is rather misleading, as a reader or listener can be very active in their comprehension and interpretation of language while reading or listening, and of course, much reading and listening takes place interactively with writing and speaking.


I think it’s rather unhelpful to talk of listening or reading lessons. I prefer to think of integrated skills lessons where a focus on a receptive skill often leads into and supports the learning of productive skill.

Further reading

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

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

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



Entry link: Receptive/Productive


This is a stage in a lesson in which the teacher introduces vocabulary that the learners will need in following stages of the lesson. This stage is often associated with reading, listening or integrated skills lessons but can also occur before speaking or writing activities. The teacher generally sets up the context of the following activities then introduces the new vocabulary within that context. The idea behind pre-teaching vocabulary is to lessen the load of unknown words the learner has to deal with later on in the lesson.


For many years teachers were recommended to pre-teach vocabulary before working on texts. Nowadays though, some question this, suggesting that the contexts that teachers are able to set up for pre-teaching are rarely meaningful and that pre-teaching in fact prevents learners from developing the attack strategies they need for dealing with challenging texts.

Further reading

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

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






Entry link: Pre-teaching


Polysemy is a lexical term referring to the many meanings that some words can have. These meanings usually derive from one (possibly remote) core meaning  e.g. table as in the piece of furniture, a grid, a group of people sitting round a table and the verb meaning to present something at a meeting.


I’m not sure if polysemy makes words easier or harder to learn. You could argue that it confuses learners e.g. left as an adjective, noun, adverb v left as a past participle. But maybe it actually helps learners because they’re already familiar with the sound of the word. I’m not sure and I don’t know of any research telling us about this.

Further reading

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



David Crystal’s Introduction to Language: http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/9780415602679/dc-glossary.asp




Entry link: Polysemy


A lemma is the dictionary or citation form of a word. Spoke, speaking, spoken, speaks are all forms of the lemma speak, for example


When students start using a dictionary they sometimes can’t find the word they want because they don’t realise they need to look for the citation form of the word, its lemma. They need training in helping them to do this.

Further reading

Knowles, G. and Don, Z. M. (2004). The Notion of a Lemma: Headwords, Roots and Lexical Sets in International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 9/1.

Macaro, E. (2003). Teaching and Learning a Second Language. New York:Continuum.

N. Schmitt, and M. McCarthy, eds. (1997). Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Entry link: Lemma

Inferring meaning

When we infer meaning we work out from linguistic and contextual clues what a word, group of words or sentence might mean. We do this for different types of meaning e.g. denotation, connotation, attitude.


She said the food was great but it was very easy to infer from the look on her face that she really meant it was horrible!

Further reading

Clarke, D.F., & Nation, I.S. P. (1980). Guessing the Meanings of Words from Context:Strategy and Techniques. System/ 8.

Coady, J. and Huckin, T. (eds.), (1997). Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macaro, E., (2003). Teaching and Learning a Second Language. New York: Continuum.

Schmitt, N., (1997). Vocabulary learning strategies. In N. Schmitt, and M. McCarthy, eds. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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




Entry link: Inferring meaning


A hypernym is another word for the more common term superordinate. It is a word which is the name of a category for other words e.g. Gadget is a hypernym for mobile phone, pen drive, mouse, tablet, hand-help device.


Something I sometimes do with my class is ask them to go through their vocabulary records and find hypernyms (I don’t use that term with them!) for as many words as they can, or I give them some hypernyms and ask them to find words belonging to them. It seems to help them remember the words and consolidate their meaning.

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: Hypernym


This is a term related to word building. It refers to the formation of new words, in English by adding a morpheme to a base word. This sometimes makes the new word a different part of speech from the base word.


Base word











Further reading

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach. Boston, Mass.: Thomson Heinle.

Schmitt, M.and McCarthy, M. (ed.s) (1997). Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Entry link: Derivation


This term refers to the core or central meaning of a word, i.e. its direct or literal meaning rather than its meaning by association (See Connotation).


The denotation of ‘Facebook’ is a social media site on which you post things and contact people. Its connotations depend a lot on your opinions. For some it is fun, essential; for others it is intrusive and dangerous; for yet others old-fashioned etc.

Further reading

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

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

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




Entry link: Denotation

Defining vocabulary

This is vocabulary used by people writing dictionaries to write definitions and examples. Defining vocabulary is high frequency vocabulary which is thought to be easily and widely understood. 


Monolingual learner dictionaries make use of a very high frequency defining vocabulary to try to ensure that learners of all levels can understand the definitions and examples.

Further reading

Cowie, A. P. (2000). The EFL Dictionary Pioneers and their Legacy: http://www.kdictionaries.com/newsletter/kdn8-1.html

Fox, G. (1989) A vocabulary for writing dictionaries. In M.L. Tickoo (1989). Learners’ Dictionaries: State of the Art.

Tickoo, M. L. (1989). Introduction.  In Tickoo M. L. (ed.): Learners’ Dictionaries: State of the Art. Seameo (Singapore).



Entry link: Defining vocabulary

Word form

A word form is a lexical term referring to the different forms that derive from a base word (lemma) e.g. take, takes, taking, took, taken from the base word ‘take’. Word form refers to form and not to meaning.


If you were trying to work out how many vocabulary items a student knows, would you count just the base word or would you count all the different word forms?

Further reading

Crystal, D (ed.). (1995).The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Hirsh, D.; Nation, P. (1992), ‘What Vocabulary Size is Needed to Read Unsimplified Texts for Pleasure?’ in Reading in a Foreign Language 8/2.

McCarthy, M. (1996). Vocabulary. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Nation, P. and Waring, R. Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists:



Entry link: Word form

Word cloud

A word cloud is a jumble of words from a text produced by computer by calculating the words’ frequency in the text. Teachers can make their own word clouds by entering texts into a word cloud programme. Word clouds can be used in class to, for example, aid vocabulary learning, revise texts, warm up to reading, listening or discussion lessons, generate ideas for writing lessons etc.


Here is a word cloud created from the above definition of ‘Word Cloud’:

Further reading








Entry link: Word cloud


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


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

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

Sentence stems

A sentence stem is a term used in the design of tests or classroom practice materials to indicate the first part of a sentence which students are then given to complete. The stem scaffolds the student’s ideas and language production in writing or speaking.

Another use of the term is to describe chunks that act as discourse markers to introduce what will be said next. Some examples are ‘I would just like to say…..’, ‘What I’d like to discuss now is ……..’, ‘In this paragraph I will……’. The stems need completing to make sentences.

Sentence stems form the basis of language frames in CLIL, where they are sometimes called sentence starters.


When I’m teaching essay writing to my intermediate or advanced classes I often give them sentence stems to help them structure their writing and adopt the right style. I usually include chunks like: In this essay I will discuss, moving on to my next point…., to sum up, I would like to conclude by …….

Further reading

Lewis, M. (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach. Stamford: Cengage.





Entry link: Sentence stems

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 pronoun is a word that is used instead of a noun to represent that noun. In English, pronouns are a word class/ part of speech and there are several kinds: subject (e.g. he, they), object (e.g. him, us), relative (e.g. that, which), reflexive (e.g. ourselves, itself), indefinite (e.g. no one, none), possessive (e.g. our, their), interrogative (e.g. which, what), demonstrative (e.g. this, those), reciprocal (each other, one another), quantifiers (e.g. all, one).


Students often don’t realise how important pronouns are to understanding spoken or written language or to expressing themselves clearly, particularly in writing. Pronouns are really important in establishing the cohesion of a text.

Further reading

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

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

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

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





Entry link: Pronoun


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


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


This is the smallest unit of meaningful sound in a language. A phoneme can distinguish one word from another e.g. /bæd/ vs /bed/. In English Received Pronunciation (RP) there are forty-four phonemes, twenty-four are consonants and twenty are vowels.


Learning the phonetic script and understanding the phonemic chart can really help you teach individual phonemes to students. Often there are just a few phonemes that students have trouble pronouncing - usually because they don’t exist in their L1.

Further reading

English Pronunciation in Use, Elementary/ Intermediate/ Advanced. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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






Entry link: Phoneme

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