ELT terms - defined and referenced!

Welcome to the NILE ELT Glossary


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We hope this is useful for you and your NILE Online course.

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

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An idiom is a formulaic expression with one overall meaning. It is often not possible to work out the meaning of an idiom just by looking at its individual words, as idioms often carry a lot of cultural meaning, for example she made a real dog’s breakfast of her homework; a little birdie told me you’ve had some very good news. There are several different kinds of idioms such as phrasal verbs, similes, metaphors, proverbs and euphemisms.


"My English is pretty fluent but I still have problems understanding idioms. What does ‘let’s go for a whirl’ mean, for example, or ‘I really like chilling out with friends’?  It’s not easy to learn this kind of English at school."

Further reading

Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd edition. (2006). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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

McCarthy, M. and O’Dell, F. (2002) English Idioms in Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




Entry link: Idiom


The part of the verb used to give orders or instructions. In English the positive form of the imperative  is the base form without ‘to’ e.g. brush your teeth, keep quiet, drive carefully. Its negative form is don’t/ do not + base form e.g. don’t worry about that, don’t forget your keys, don’t lose it.


It’s quite important to teach the register of the imperative in English. Learners sometimes think it’s the same as a polite imperative in their own language and don’t realise that in English it can be quite direct and abrupt.

Further reading

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

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

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




Entry link: Imperative


This term is used to refer to a way of teaching language skills and to types of syllabus. A lesson which extends work on one skill into another is called an integrated skills lesson. For example, learners could do work on a listening text on a particular topic then do a speaking activity that picks up on the language of the same topic, or they could do work on a reading text then develop their ideas and language by writing about the topic of the reading text.

An integrated syllabus is one which tries to ensure that the different syllabus components support one another e.g. the vocabulary enables the grammar, the grammar enables the functions.


"I like using integrated skills in class. I think this approach gives learners an opportunity to consolidate and extend their language in a different context or skill."

Further reading

McDonough, J. and Shaw, C. (2003). Materials and Methods in ELT, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Nunan, D. and Carter, R. (2001). Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Selinker, L. and Russell, S. (1986). An empirical look at the integration and separation of skills in ELT. ELT Journal 40/3. Oxford University Press.




Entry link: Integrated

Learning aim

A learning aim is something that the teacher intends her students will learn during a lesson, and that she designs her lesson around in order for that learning to take place. It may also refer to the learning goals of a course or syllabus. The term is often used interchangeably with the term objective.


"My aims in my last lesson were:

- To present and practise new adjectives for describing people

- To give students oral fluency practice in describing one another

- To give students written practice in describing their families"

Further reading

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

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

Thornbury, S. and Watkins, P. (2007) The CELTA Course. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Watkins, P. 2005. Learning to Teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.





Entry link: Learning aim

Lexical cohesion

Lexical cohesion refers to the lexical devices used in spoken or written discourse to help join texts together. These devices include lexical chains, lexical sets, repetition of words, substitution and ellipsis.


"The lexical cohesion in this sentence is in italics: I went to Paris as a child. I remember it as a very lovely city. Cities though are full of problems these days so I imagine the capital of France is too now."

Further reading

Flowerdew, J. and Mahlberg, M. (2009). Lexical Cohesion and Corpus Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Halliday, M.A.K; and Ruqayia Hasan (1976). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.

Hoey, Michael (1991): Patterns of Lexis in Text. Oxford: OUP.

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




Entry link: Lexical cohesion

Lexical item

A lexical item is a word or group of words with a single meaning.  Here, for example, are five lexical items: look after, quick as a flash, potato, at, waste paper basket.  A lexical item may have more than one form e.g. child and children are one lexical item as are sleep, sleeping, slept. Thornbury (2006) defines a lexical item as ‘any item that functions as a single meaning unit, regardless of its different derived forms, or the number of words that make it up’. Estimates of proficient or learner speaker vocabulary size are normally based on lexical items rather than words.


"You recognise a lexical item through the unit of meaning it conveys."

Further reading

Aitchison, J. 1987. Words in the Mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon. Oxford:Blackwell.

Lewis, M (1997). Implementing the lexical approach. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Nation, I.S.P. 1990. Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Schmidt, N. (2000).  Vocabulary in language teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nation, Paul, and Robert Waring. "Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists”


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




Entry link: Lexical item


A lexicon is the set of vocabulary that makes up a language. The grammar of a  language and its lexicon are often considered its key components. Different professions and subjects are also said to have their own lexicon, as are individual children and language learners. Some experts only include individual words in a lexicon, others include chunks and collocations.


"A young child’s lexicon will be very different from that of an adult language learner."

Further reading

Fitzpatrick, T. and Barfield, A. (2009) Lexical Processing in Second Language Learners: Papers and Perspectives in Honour of Paul Meara (Second Language Acquisition. Multilingual Matters.

Nation, P. (2001). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





Entry link: Lexicon

Loop input

A method of carrying out teacher training / development sessions in which the trainer carries out activities for training that have the same design and focus as activities for use in the language learning classroom. For example, a training course could start off with a Find Someone Who activity about teachers’ use of ice-breakers and mingling in class. The trainer would then go on to refer to this activity when discussing the use of icebreakers / mingling activities / communicative activities. Loop input mirrors the activity in focus and allows participants to experience it and reflect on that experience.


"On my training course the teacher once made us do an activity in which we had to put cards into two different categories: advantages and disadvantages of doing categorising activities.  She then suggested how we could use categorising activities in class and asked us what our opinion of doing them had been. I later found out that this was called a loop input approach to training – it’s a method that really helps you understand and evaluate different techniques."

Further reading

Woodward, T. (1991). Models and Metaphors in Language Teacher Training: Loop Input and Other Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodward, T. (2003). Key concepts in ELT: loop Input. ELT Journal 57/3.





Entry link: Loop input

Lower Order Thinking Skills (LOTS)

Thinking skills are often divided into higher order thinking skills (HOTS) and lower order thinking skills (LOTS). Lower order thinking skills include remembering, understanding and applying. Generally speaking, LOTS involve focussing on and absorbing information, and less manipulation of information than HOTS do. (See Higher Order Thinking Skills). The division of thinking skills into HOTS and LOTS was made initially in the late 1940s by a committee of educators in Boston, Mass. chaired by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues. This taxonomy (known as Bloom’s Taxonomy) has been revised several times.


"‘Tell me what you did in the holidays’ or ‘Describe your family’ are typical ELT LOTS questions. An example of a HOTS question might be ‘What do you think of that film’?’ or ‘Compare your town with London’. You don’t need to think so hard for LOTS answers and the language you need to use is often simpler."

Further reading

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., Raths, J., Wittrock, M. C. (2000). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

Biggs, J. B. and Collis, K. (1982). Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy. New York, Academic Press.

Bloom B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Dale, L. and Tanner, R. (2012). CLIL Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





Entry link: Lower Order Thinking Skills (LOTS)


The language and terms that we use to talk abstractly about language and language learning. This covers terms for grammar, vocabulary, phonetics, discourse and learning strategies. Teachers may use some metalanguage to talk to their learners about language or language learning e.g. ‘This is an indefinite pronoun’, ‘Try to work out what the best vocabulary learning strategies are for you’. Some learners, though not all, appreciate learning some metalanguage as they think it helps them to learn better.

The NILE Glossary contains many terms which make up the metalanguage of English language teaching, as does Scott Thornbury’s A-Z of ELT.


"His lessons were full of so much metalanguage that I really didn’t have a clue what he was talking about."

Further reading

Allford, D. (2013). Vygotsky, metalanguage and language learning. The Language Learning Journal, 41/1.

Andrews, S. (2007). Teacher Language Awareness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.t

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




Entry link: Metalanguage


The typical practices, procedures and techniques that a teacher uses in the classroom, and that may or may not be based on a particular method. Methodology can also refer to the study of these practices, procedures and techniques and of the beliefs and principles on which they are based.


"The methodology of the Structural Approach consisted mainly in listening to and repeating strictly graded grammatical structures."

Further reading

Kramsch, C. and Sullivan,  P. (1996) Appropriate pedagogy. ELT Journal 50/3.

Holliday, A. (2005). The struggle to teach English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M. A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1). ELT J (1985) 39 (1): 2-12.

Waters, A. (2012) Trends and issues in ELT methods and methodology. ELTJ  66 (4): 440-449.

Widdowson, H.G. (1985) Against dogma: A reply to Michael Swan. ELT J  39 (3): 158-161.



Entry link: Methodology


This is the way in which we express our attitude to what we are saying. We often associate modality with verbs (obligation, possibility, ability, necessity etc) but modality can also be expressed through adjectives, adverbs and nouns. This latter is called lexical modality.


In the sentence He may come tomorrow we see modality expressed in the modal verb may. We can use lexical modality to express this too e.g. Perhaps he will come tomorrow (modal adverb), there’s a chance he will come tomorrow (modal noun), it’s possible he’ll come tomorrow (modal adjective).

Further reading

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

Fachinetti, R., Krug, M.G/ Palmer, F.R. (2003) Modality in Contemporary English. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

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



Entry link: Modality

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


Morphemes are the smallest meaningful and grammatical units in a word.  A morpheme ‘cannot be divided without altering or destroying its meaning’ (Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics, p.375). For example, phones contains two morphemes – phone and s; helpless contains two morphemes – help and less; table contains only one morpheme. Many morphemes are suffixes or prefixes, but there are also grammatical morphemes in English such as 3rd person singular s,  past tense –ed, and –ing in a gerund or present participle.


In many vocabulary books you can find activities on word formation that in fact are based on morphemes e.g. deciding on the right prefix, matching parts of compound words, making opposites by adding the correct suffix.

Further reading

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

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




Entry link: Morpheme

Multi-word unit

A group of words (e.g. a verb + adverb particle or preposition) which has a meaning as a whole and for which the meaning of the whole group of words is different from the meaning of each individual word. Multi-word units are often phrasal verbs, idioms, compounds. Examples of multi-word units are fall in love, a hand-set, once in a blue moon, to look after. It is useful for learners to learn these units as chunks rather than piecing them together from individual words. Multi-word units are sometimes referred to as polywords.


"Learners seem to learn phrasal verbs more easily if they see each one as a multi-word unit which is a complete lexical item in itself, rather than as a verb + an adverb or preposition."

Further reading

Laufer, B. (1997). What’s in a word that makes it hard or easy: some interlexical factors that affect

the learning of words. In N. Schmitt and M. McCarthy (ed.s) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lindstromberg, S. and Boers, F. (2008). Teaching Chunks of Language. Helbling Languages.

Nattinger, J.R. and DeCarrico, J.(1992) Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Entry link: Multi-word unit

Open pairs

This term is used to refer to a classroom interaction pattern in which two students talk to one another across the class so that other students can listen to what they are saying. This pattern is used particularly to demonstrate how to carry out an activity or task, or to act as feedback on an activity or task just completed.


"I often use open pairs in my class before the learners start an activity. I ask two students to carry out the activity in front of everyone else. In that way the others see what to do and also hear what language they could use."

Further reading

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

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




Entry link: Open pairs

Part of speech

A part of speech is the grammatical function a word or phrase has in a sentence or utterance. Parts of speech have distinctive grammatical or morphological features.  In English, common parts of speech are: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, exclamation, pronoun, conjunction. Words can function as more than one part of speech e.g. a record, to record. Another term for part of speech is word class.


"You have to work out the parts of speech of ‘that’ in this sentence before you can understand the sentence: That that that that man used was right." (E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.)

Further reading

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

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

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



Entry link: Part of speech


This is a grammatical term that refers in English to two parts of a verb: the present participle(e.g. studying) and the past participle (e.g. studied). Participles are non-finite parts of a verb, meaning that they don’t in themselves indicate time.


Here’s an example of a mistake my students often make with the grammatical meaning of the present participle: Walking along the beach, the sun was bright and hot.

With the past participle their main problems seem to be remembering irregular forms, and their pronunciation and spelling too.

Further reading

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: Participles


This is a grammatical term for a word which has little meaning attached to it and does not obviously belong to any of the parts of speech but performs a grammatical or formal function. Examples of these in English are not and the prepositions or adverbs that are in phrasal verbs e.g. look up, look after.  We can see that in this context they don’t perform their usual grammatical function or retain their usual meaning.


"In Chinese there are particles that show that a sentence is in the past or is a question."

Further reading

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




Entry link: Particle


This is a teaching technique which involves the teacher using materials or teacher talk that makes a clear link to students’ own lives, interests or attitudes. The idea behind personalisation is that students will become more motivated and learn better when they can see that language has relevance to themselves.


"We read a text about space travel then had a discussion about who amongst would like to do space travel, why and why not. This personalised the topic and made it real for us."

Further reading

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

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




Entry link: Personalisation

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