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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Role play

This is an activity in which learners take on roles (characters) and act them out in a situation. It is used to practise language, often as a free practice activity. It is also used to help students to explore ideas and issues. A role play is different from a simulation. In a simulation, learners are put in a situation in which there is some problem to resolve. They are not given specific roles.

In role plays, learners are often given role cards to guide what they need to say, do or discuss. An example of a role play would be putting students into groups of four with one of them each as head teacher, parent, local shopkeeper or student representative, and then to hold a group discussion in their roles on design plans for rebuilding the school. Role plays can also be used to prompt writing, reading and listening, for example, when learners are given different roles in which to receive and react to information from a text.


"Some of my students really enjoy doing role plays – they like the freedom that comes with pretending to be someone else, but others just get shy and embarrassed, so I have to think carefully about how often I do role plays and whether they can be done as pair work rather than in front of lots of other students."

Further reading

Crookall, D. & Oxford, R.L. (Eds.) (1990).  Simulation, Gaming, and Language Learning. New York: Newbury House.

Ladousse, G. P. (1987). Role Play. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Scrivener, J. (2012). Classroom Management Techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skehan, P. (1998b). Task based instruction. In Grahe, W. (Ed.), Annual review of applied linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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





Entry link: Role play


Scaffolding refers to techniques the teacher can use to support learners in their learning of new language or skills. The techniques include breaking tasks down into small steps, providing demonstrations, providing visuals to support texts and talk, providing learners with dictionaries, guiding learners with teacher talk. The term 'scaffolding' was put forward by Bruner and colleagues (1976), who developed the idea after reading Vygotsky ("What learners can do today with support, they can do alone tomorrow" (Bentley, 2010, p.69)).  Scaffolding is also used to refer to the support speakers give one another to keep their communication going e.g. making eye contact, nodding, asking relevant questions.


"Driving instructors usually gradually scale down the amount of scaffolding they give learner drivers. At first they may use a second steering wheel, tell them when and how to change gear etc, then bit by bit they tell them and show them less and less till they are ‘on their own’."

Further reading

Bentley, K. (2010). The TKT Course CLIL Module. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Foley, J. (1993). Key concepts in ELT in ELT: scaffolding ELT Journal 48/ 1. Oxford University Press.

Gibbons, P. (2008). Challenging pedagogies: More than just good practice?’ in NALDIC Quarterly

vol. 6 no. 2. https://www.naldic.org.uk/Resources/NALDIC/Professional%20Development/Documents/NQ6.2.3.pdf

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

Wood, D. Bruner, J.S. & Ross, G. (1976) The role of tutoring and problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17/2, pp. 89-100.

Scaffolding children’s learning: https://www.carolread.com/download/scaffolding-childrens-learning-through-story-and-drama-cats-autumn-2008/

Entry link: Scaffolding


This is when the learner assesses their own performance, the strategies they have employed to do something or their attitudes.  Self-assessment is often a part of formative assessment and is used to enable the learner to become more autonomous in their learning. Self-assessment is often guided by checklists to help learners know what criteria to use for their evaluation.


"Students don’t always like doing self-assessment at the beginning., but in my experience they get used to it bit by bit and come to see the value of it."

Further reading

Harris, M. (1997). Self-assessment of language learning in formal settings. ELT Journal 51/1. Oxford University Press.

Scharle, Á., and A. Szabó. 2000. Learner Autonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tudor, I. 1996. Learner-Centredness as Language Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

British Council. Peer and Self Assessment https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/peer-self-assessment


Entry link: Self-assessment

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


This acronym stands for Special Interest Group. These groups, often set up by participants, are formal or informal and interact to focus on a mutual interest. There are many SIG groups for teachers of EFL. They allow teachers to pursue their interests and engage in continuous professional development.


IATEFL (See IATEFL) has a list of SIGs here: https://www.iatefl.org/special-interest-groups/sig-list


Further reading









Entry link: SIG

Visual literacy

Visual literacy is the ability to interpret and make sense of information presented in graphic or pictorial form e.g. through diagrams, charts, images. Visual literacy can act as an aim in a language course or a means through which language is learnt. Visual literacy is also important is CLIL where visual organisers play an important part in scaffolding learning.


In a world in which we are surrounded by images, teachers often think it is important to include work on visual literacy in their classroom to help learners interpret and evaluate these images.

Further reading

Bentley, K. (2010). The TKT Course CLIL Module. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Golstein, B. (2008). Working with Images. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.







Entry link: Visual literacy

Word family

This word is used in two different ways. It can refer to words which all derive from the same base word e.g. produce, productive, production, product. Many test items are designed round changing a word in a word family to another in the same family.

It also refers to words that share a form in pronunciation, such as the words in many nursery rhymes.


Here is an example of a test item focussing on changes to base words in word families:

Word family elt.oup



Here is an example of a nursery rhyme based on words with shared pronunciations:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again

Further reading




Bauer, L. and Nation, P. (1993). Word Families. International Journal of Lexicography 6/4: https://www.pdffiller.com/jsfiller-desk16/?projectId=333956463&expId=5487&expBranch=2#c9a5d00684dd7c93147fd63eaaa3e449

Nation, P. and Waring, R. Vocabulary Size, Text Coverage and Word Lists in in Schmitt; N.and  McCarthy, M. , (1997). Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 




Entry link: Word family


These words – error and mistake in particular – are often used interchangeably. When given distinct meanings, a slip refers to the kind of mistake we can all (including proficient speakers) make due to pressure of time, anxiety etc. i.e. this is not a mistake due to lack of proficiency but due to the temporary effect on the speaker of particular circumstances .

An error refers to a systematic mistake made by a language learner that is due to lack of mastery of that part of the language system [see also interlanguage]. Mistake is a non-technical word that refers to both a slip and an error.


"He’s a proficient English speaker – there are no errors in his language, but when he gave that talk the other night he was so nervous that he made loads of slips."

Further reading

Ellis, R. and Barkhuizen, G.P.  (2005). Analysing Learner Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learners' errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics 5.

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




Entry link: Error/Mistake/Slip

Target language

This term is used in two different ways. One use is to identify the language, e.g. Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, English etc that a learner is trying to learn.

Another use is to refer to the particular item(s) of language that a teacher selects for learners to learn in a particular lesson and which the activities and materials in a lesson aim to teach.


Some target language for a lesson for elementary learners might be:

the irregular past tenses went, took, came, sold, bought, saw, said, found in affirmative, negative and interrogative forms


exponents for suggesting: why don’t we../ how about +gerund/ we could…./ what about + gerund


vocabulary from the lexical set of clothes: jeans, top, shoes, sandals, sweat-shirt, jacket, scarf, coat.

Further reading

Bolton, K. and Kachru, B. (2006). World Englishes, Critical Concepts in Linguistics, Volume 5.

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








Entry link: Target language


A thesaurus is a reference book of words organised according to their similarity of meaning or belonging to the same lexical set. The purpose of a thesaurus is to help us find the word that best expresses what we want to say. A thesaurus can provide a very rich resource for drawing a mind map. This is why there are several visual thesaurus computer programmes.


Click here to see an example from a thesaurus for the word ‘Money’.

Further reading

Davidson, G. (2002). Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. London: Penguin.

Information about Roget's Thesaurus on Wikipedia


Visual mind maps: http://www.visuwords.com/



Entry link: Thesaurus

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

Transformation drill

A transformation drill is one in which the teacher provides the students with a base sentence to repeat, then gives them a prompt to incorporate into the sentence. Using the prompt requires learners to change the grammar of the initial sentence. Transformation drills were thought to help students learn new structures by providing controlled practice of a target structure and understanding of the linguistic context in which it operates.


Here is an example of a transformation drill:

Teacher: Repeat this sentence after me: They bought an apple

Students: They bought an apple

Teacher: eat

Students: They ate an apple

Teacher: sell

Students: They sold an apple

Teacher: lose

Students: They lost an apple


Further reading

Baker, J. and Westrup, H. (2003). Essential Speaking Skills. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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

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





Entry link: Transformation drill

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


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

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

Learner training

Learner training involves teaching learners how to carry out the strategies that enable them to become better learners, and often more autonomous learners. Examples of these strategies are: writing down new words on vocabulary cards, taking advantage of all opportunities to use the target language, repeating new words to yourself, listening out for specific grammatical features.


"I once had a student who needed no learner training - she already kept beautifully organised files, noted down new words, asked questions when she didn’t understand, listened to all available radio and TV programmes, had an English study buddy etc etc. She was remarkable and made very rapid progress."

Further reading

Ellis, G. and Sinclair, B. (1989). Learning to Learn English. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Griffiths, G. (2007). Language learning strategies: students' and teachers' perceptions. ELT Journal 61/2. Oxford University Press.

O’Malley, J. and Chamot, A.(1990).  Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





Entry link: Learner training

Emergent language

This is language which is a fruit of the learning process rather than taught language. It occurs as learners, in an effort to express themselves, experiment with language they haven't as yet fully mastered. Many experts suggest that teachers would do better to support learners’ emergent language rather than presenting them with language they have not yet shown a need for.


Dogme is an approach to teaching that recommends teachers work with learners’ emerging language by providing opportunities for use and giving feedback, rather than working with a pre-set syllabus.

Further reading

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003). Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Boston:Heinle & Heinle.

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Guildford: Delta Publishing.

Thornbury, S. (2005) Uncovering Grammar. Oxford: MacMillan.





Entry link: Emergent language


This is the process of assessing the value of something by collecting data. Evaluation often leads to decision-making. Evaluation can be of teaching, learning, curricula, methods, exam impact, materials or other areas related to teaching and learning.


When evaluating materials it is useful to collect not just teachers’ opinions but those of learners, too.

Further reading

Alderson, C. and Clapham, C. (1995).Language Test Construction and Evaluation. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Cunningsworth, A. (1984). Evaluating and Selecting ELT Materials. Heineman.

Cunningsworth, A. (1995). Choosing your Coursebook. Macmillan Heineman.

Kiely, R. N. &Rea-Dickins, P. M.(2005). Programme Evaluation in Language Education. Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan.

McDonough, J. and Shaw, C. (1993). Materials and Methods in ELT. Oxford: Blackwell.

Murphy. D (2000). Key Concepts in ELT: Evaluation. ELT Journal 54/2.

Sheldon, L. (1988). Evaluating ELT textbooks and materials.  ELT Journal 37/3.

Weir, C. and Roberts, J. (1994). Evaluation in ELT. NJ: Wiley

Williams, M and Burden, R. (1993) The role of evaluation in ELT project design. ELT Journal 48/1.





Entry link: Evaluation


This term has two meanings in ELT. It refers to the responses that we, as listeners, give to a speaker e.g. eye contact, exclamations, interruptions, in order to encourage or discourage them from continuing.

Feedback also refers to the comments a teacher or other students make in class on a learner’s / learners’ performance. This feedback can be positive or negative.


"I found him quite difficult to talk to because he never reacted to what you said – he kept his eyes down, never nodded, showed surprise or anything – you just got no feedback from him."

Further reading

Rinvolucri, M. (1994) Key concepts in ELT: feedback. ELT Journal 48/3. Oxford University Press.

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

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





Entry link: Feedback

Grammar dictation

The terms grammar dictation and dictogloss are used interchangeably to refer to a technique for developing students’ grammatical competence.  The technique involves dictating a text to students at normal speed while students copy down what they can of what they hear, leaving gaps for the parts they have not been able to write down for whatever reason. Then the students in pairs or groups compare what they have written and  try and complete their version of the text. The teacher may choose to then repeat this process. At the end students are given a copy of the original text to compare with their text and discuss the differences. The thinking behind grammar dictation is that it encourages students to think about both meaning and grammar, and make grammatical choices based on working out intended meanings.


In my experience students are always discouraged when you do grammar dictation for the first time. They find it hard. But over time, they come to like it and appreciate how much they learn from it.

Further reading

Wainryb, R. (1990). Grammar Dictation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





Entry link: Grammar dictation

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