ELT terms - defined and referenced!

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

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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

Wait time

This is the amount of time teachers give students to answer questions. Research indicates that leaving more time leads to more students wanting to answer, fuller answers and more questions from other students, too.


I don’t think I give my students enough wait time when I ask questions. I’m going to record myself in class to check how much time I leave on average, then leave more time and see what difference, if any, it makes to the students’ answering.

Further reading

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

Nunan, D. 1991. Language Teaching Methodology. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.

Thornbury, S. (1996). Teachers research teacher talk. ELT Journal 50/4.




Entry link: Wait time


A turn is a term used to describe each contribution a speaker makes to a conversation or other spoken genre. A turn is bounded by the contributions of other speakers i.e. a turn begins when one speaker begins to talk and ends when another speaker takes over. In terms of grammar and meaning a turn may or may not be complete and may consist of one or many utterances (See Utterance). The rules for turn taking can vary between languages and cultures. Students may need to be made aware of those that operate in the language they are learning. Intonation and body language play an important part in marking turns.


Scientists have discovered that some kinds of monkeys include turns in their communications, waiting for one another to respond before communicating again themselves.

Further reading

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

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

Wong, J. and Waring, H. (2010). Conversation Analysis and Second Language Pedagogy. New York: Routledge.






Entry link: Turn

Transitive / Intransitive

These are grammatical terms used about verbs to indicate whether or not they can take an object when used in the active voice.

Transitive verbs can take an object, and some can take more than one e.g. call, give. They can also be used in the passive.

An intransitive verb cannot take an object, nor can it be used in the passive.

In English some verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively e.g. to enter, to run, to win.


In the following sentence, the transitive verbs are in bold and the intransitive ones are underlined. She got up early, put on her slippers and dressing gown, then went downstairs to the dining room where breakfast had already been placed on the table.

Further reading

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





Entry link: Transitive / Intransitive

Test Teach Test (TTT)

This is a way of teaching language which stands on its head the classic approach of presenting students with new language then asking them to practise it. In TTT the teacher first of all puts students in a situation where they need to use the target language so he/she can judge whether they know it or not, to what degree they know it and to make the students aware of their need for it. The teacher then presents the target language and gives the students activities in which they are encouraged to use it. The thinking behind TTT is that students shouldn’t be spoon-fed with language they may not really need or want, and that creating a need leads to greater motivation to learn and better language learning.


I gave my students a role play the other day in which they took on roles as environmental inspectors. They then went round the school and surveyed its ‘green practices’. At the end they got into groups to decide on what measures needed to be taken and in what order. I just listened and took notes. After, I asked my students if there was any language they thought they’d needed for the activity and didn’t have. What they said agreed with my notes. They were having real problems with the language of suggestions and recommendations, and also with some more technical vocabulary. So, next lesson, I presented that language to them, and then asked them to do their group work on ‘green practices’ again. A colleague of mine had suggested I try this TTT approach. I was nervous beforehand but in fact it worked well as the students were keen to learn the new language.

Further reading

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

Lindsay, C. and Knight, P. (2006). Learning and Teaching EnglishA Course for Teachers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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




Entry link: Test Teach Test (TTT)

Teacher Talking Time (TTT)

This is the class time the teacher takes up talking to the class, rather than allowing the students to talk or do activities. For many years it was recommended to teachers that they reduce their TTT so as to make their classes more learner-centred. Recently, however, it has been recognised that teacher talk can provide learners with a valuable source of exposure to language, listening practice and feedback.


I know I used to talk ‘at’ my students too much. I have recorded myself teaching and realise from doing so that I used to almost ‘lecture’ my students. When they begin to get that ‘glassy-eyed look’ you know there has been too much TTT. I’ve tried to reduce those moments and my students now participate much more.

Further reading

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1993). Maximizing learning potential in the communicative classroom. ELT Journal 47/1.

Nunan, D. (1987). Communicative language teaching: making it work. ELTJournal 41/2.

Scrivener, J. (2012). Classroom Management Techniques. Oxford: Macmillan.

Thornbury, S. (1996). Teachers research teacher talk. ELT Journal 50/4.

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

van Lier, L. (1996)  Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy and Authenticity. Harlow: Longman




Entry link: Teacher Talking Time (TTT)

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


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

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.




Entry link: Monolingual learner dictionary

Metacognitive strategies

These are the learning and thinking strategies we use in order to choose which lower level strategies to use to achieve something. A visual learner might, for example, decide that they would learn much better from looking at a diagram about a process rather than by reading the accompanying text about the process. In this example, looking at the diagram is a comprehension strategy, whereas choosing to look at the diagram is a metacognitive strategy, i.e. thinking about the best way to learn. The main metacognitive strategies are planning, prioritising, setting goals, and self-management.


When teachers teach metacognitive strategies they need to be aware that learners have different learning styles, so what is the best strategy for one student to learn may not be best for another.

Further reading

Cohen, A. D. (1998).Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language. Harlow, England:Longman.

Hismanoglu, M. (2000) Language Learning Strategies in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching. http://iteslj.org/Articles/Hismanoglu-Strategies.html

Oxford, R. L. (1990).Language Learning Strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Oxford, R. (2003). Language Learning Styles and Strategies: An Overview.


Swan, M. (2008).Talking sense about learning strategies. RELC Journal,39 (2). 



Entry link: Metacognitive strategies

Input hypothesis

The input hypothesis is the idea, developed particularly by Stephen Krashen, that language is acquired by exposure to language that is of interest to the learner and that is made up of a level of lexis and grammar slightly above that of the learner’s. This is called comprehensible input.  Krashen has recently refined his idea of comprehensible input to say that ‘It may be the case that input needs to be not just interesting but compelling. Compelling means that the input is so interesting you forget that it is in another language’ (Krashen, S., 2011).


When we go to a foreign country as a family we seem to learn different things even though we’re all in the same environment. My son, an enormous eater, seems to learn all the words for food, my husband, an avid football fan, notices and learns words to do with sport, and I tend to pick up social formulae. We all have the same input but we notice and acquire different things from it. This seems to me to be evidence of the input hypothesis and of the need for compelling input.

Further reading

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

Lightbown, P. and Spada, N. (2013).  How Languages are Learned, 4th edition. Oxford:Oxford University Press.

Stephen Krashen in http://www.koreatesol.org/sites/default/files/pdf_publications/TECv15n3-11Autumn.pdf



Entry link: Input hypothesis

Graded reader

A graded reader is a book in which the language has been graded or adapted to match a particular level of proficiency e.g. A2, B2. Graded readers may be newly written or adaptations of existing books. They can include any genre of writing. They sometimes include a glossary and activities on the text. The purpose of graded readers is to provide learners with additional exposure to language, often out of class, and develop their reading skills.


When I was learning English, my teacher used to feed me with graded readers as she knew I loved reading. I used to read at least one graded reader a week and was soon able to move on to ‘real books’.

Further reading

Cambridge English Readers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacMillan Readers. Oxford: MacMillan.

Oxford Bookworms Collection: Oxford: Oxford University Press.


http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/extensive-reading- Extensive reading. by Graham Stanley

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/reading-out-loud - Reading aloud, by James Houltby.

http://www.onestopenglish.com/section.asp?docid=146513 Using Readers in the ESL, EFL Classroom, by Lindsay Clandfield with Jo Budden



Entry link: Graded reader


This is a grammatical term referring in English to a verb + -ing form which acts as a noun. Because it is a noun it is not the same as the –ing form used in the present participle. Some grammars use the term ‘-ing form’ to refer to both gerunds and present participles and do not distinguish between the two.


You often find gerunds as subjects on notices e.g. Running in the playground is forbidden, Talking after lights go out is forbidden, Driving over the speed limit carries a £60 fine.

Further reading

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

Fowler, H.W. (1926). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.

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



Entry link: Gerund

Focus on form

This approach to teaching language was first defined by Michael Long as follows: ‘focus on form…overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication’ (Long 1991) and ‘focus on form often consists of an occasional shift of attention to linguistic code features – by the teacher and/or one or more of the students – triggered by perceived problems with comprehension or production' (Long and Robertson in Doughty and Williams, 1998). Focus on form (See Form), in which form is focussed on in the classroom as the need arises in the context of communication, is sometimes contrasted with ‘focus on formS’ in which forms are the primary focus in the classroom.


I observed a class yesterday that was having a discussion about ‘good newspapers’. In the middle of the discussion one of the students asked the teacher why you could say ‘papers’ (newspapers) if ‘paper’ is an uncountable noun. The teacher told him, then they all got back to the discussion. A few weeks ago I observed another class in which the teacher had been teaching countable and uncountable nouns. She gave the learners a short text containing both kinds of noun, then asked the learners to do a guided discovery activity to work out the difference between the two, then the students did exercises. In the first class there was an example of focus on form; the second class was an example of focus on formS.

Further reading

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

Gass, Susan; Selinker, Larry (2008).Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course. New York, NY: Routledge.

Long, M.H. (1991). Focus on form: a design feature in language teaching methodology. In K.de Bot, R. Ginsberg, and C. Kramsch (Ed.s), Foreign Language Research in Cross-cultural Perspective. Amsterdam: John Betjamins.

Sheen, R. (2002). Key concepts in ELT: Focus on ‘form’ v ‘Focus on Forms’. ELT Journal 48/1.



Entry link: Focus on form

Display question

This is a question that a teacher asks in the classroom in order to get the student to ‘display’ or show their learning rather than because the teacher is interested in the information content of the reply. In fact, the teacher often knows the answer to a display question before it is given. Display questions are sometimes criticised for being rather meaningless and non-communicative but they can in fact be useful in checking learning. Display questions are often contrasted with referential questions (See Referential Questions).


In this exchange the teacher’s first question is a display question whereas the second is not.

Teacher: Maria, what’s the past of ‘tell’?

Maria: told

Teacher: Can you tell us what you think about using YouTube in the classroom?

Maria: It’s great – it really makes us interested in the lesson.

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: Display question


Conversion is a linguistic term that describes a word’s change from one grammatical category to another. An example of this in English is ‘to big something up’ where the adjective ‘big’ is nowadays often combined with ‘up’ to make a phrasal verb meaning ‘to recognise the importance of something’ or ‘to praise’ it.

The term ‘conversion’ is often used interchangeably with ‘functional shift’, though some people say that conversion refers to a change in lexical meaning while functional shift refers to a change in syntactic meaning.


English is full of words that are the result of conversion, for example the verb to hand from the noun hand, using a colour adjective as a noun e.g. the Reds, the Greens, the Blacks, or using up as a verb in e.g. after the meal, they just upped and went home.

Further reading

Crystal, D. (2004). The Stories of English. New York: The Overlook Press.

Fowler, H.W. (2000). Fowler's Modern English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Huddleston, R. & Pullam, G. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

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



Entry link: Conversion

Communicative competence

Communicative competence refers to an ability to communicate that depends not just on linguistic ability but also sociolinguistic ability, including appropriate use of language, management of discourse and recognising cultural practices in communication e.g. who makes eye contact with who. The growing awareness of communicative as opposed to linguistic competence had a big impact on language teaching and was behind the development of the communicative approach.


The use of video in the classroom has made it easier for teachers to focus on communicative competence, as they can show clips in which communication becomes problematic, for example, because the participants don’t follow cultural norms for turn taking, or use the wrong register and give offence. Video shows language in context and can lead to awareness and discussion of appropriacy.

Further reading

Bachman, Lyle (1990).Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Canale, M., Swain, M (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics (1).

Hymes, D. H. (1972). On Communicative Competence. In Pride, J. B., & Holmes, J. (Eds.),Sociolinguistics, Baltimore, USA: Penguin Education.

Richards, J. and Rodgers, T.S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Savignon, Sandra (1997).Communicative Competence: theory and classroom practice: texts and contexts in second language learning (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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




Entry link: Communicative competence


TPR stands for Total Physical Response, and is a way of teaching language developed by James Asher. It involves learners in responding physically to instructions spoken or stories told by the teacher. Learners are not expected to speak until they feel ready to do so. TPR is often used for teaching younger children.


Last lesson I told my class the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. As I told it they acted out what they heard as I was telling it. They loved it, and so did I!

Further reading

Asher, J. J., "What is TPR?" in TPR-World. https://www.tpr-world.com/

Cook, V. (2008). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Hodder Education.

Larsen-Freeman, Diane (2000).Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Richards, J. and Rodgers, T.S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




Entry link: TPR

Top down/bottom up

These terms are used to refer to strategies we use when listening and reading in order to get meaning from a text. Top down skills involve using our knowledge of the world, such as topic knowledge, familiarity with the speaker, familiarity with the genre, to make sense of what we are hearing or reading. Bottom up skills involve using the language in the text, such as the meaning of words or the grammar of a sentence, to make sense of what we are hearing or reading. Good readers or listeners are believed to make use of the two strategies interactively.


When we read a text in class I always do a warmer to find out what the learners know about the topic and get them to predict its content. In that way they make use of their top down strategies. Then I often do reading for detail as well, as this kind of reading really requires them to read the language in the text to suck out its meaning. This gives them practice in using their bottom up strategies.

Further reading

Brown, S. (2006). Teaching Listening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Field, J. (1999). Key concepts in ELT: ‘Bottom up’ and ‘top down’.  ELTJournal 53/4.

Hedge, Tricia. (2003): Teaching & Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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






Entry link: Top down/bottom up


Tense is the grammatical form used in a verb to show the time of occurrence of an event or action.


There are only two tenses in English, present and past. In They study English, study is an example of the present simple tense. In They studied English last year, studied  is an example of the past simple tense.

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: Tense

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