ELT terms - defined and referenced!

Welcome to the NILE ELT Glossary


scroll  books  digital

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

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

Browse the glossary using this index

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z | ALL



A debate is an activity in which students are placed in two groups arguing for or against an issue. Debates can be informal or formal. Formal debates may follow rules, for instance, on how long to speak, how to interrupt, who speaks after who, obeying the chairperson and voting on the issue at the end of the debate. In ELT, debates are used to develop fluency, focus on register and explore issues. Students are usually given preparation time to prepare and possibly script their arguments.


"Last week in class we had a formal debate about the advantages and disadvantages of wearing school uniform. It was interesting but I think it might have better as an informal discussion instead – in that my way students would have felt freer and said what they really thought."

Further reading

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

Harmer, J.(2012). Essential Teacher Knowledge. Harlow: Pearson.



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).



Definite article

See Articles

Delexical verb

These are verbs that when used with their common collocations have little meaning of their own, the meaning coming from the collocation as a whole e.g. to have a shower, to take a bath, to make a mistake.


Delexical verbs in collocations are a good example of the importance of learning chunks of language rather than trying to work out the meaning of each single word.

Further reading

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Brighton: Language Teaching Publications.

Hill, J. (1999) Collocational Competence. ETP/11.

Willis, J. and Willis, D. (1996). Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Oxford:

Macmillan Heinemann English Language Teaching.




See Pronoun


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.





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.




See Prescriptive


See Grammar dictation


When teachers recognise the different needs of their learners and try to meet them by catering for different abilities, interests or learning styles. This is done through use of a range of different tasks, inputs and outputs. Differentiation has a big influence on lesson planning and the choice of materials and tasks.


"It has become more important for teachers to bring differentiation into their classrooms as they have increasingly acknowledged the range of abilities, interests and backgrounds of learners."

Further reading

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

Prodromou, L. (1992) Mixed Ability Classes. Oxford: Macmillan

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

Tice, J. (1997) The Mixed Ability Class. London:Richmond Publishing.




A diphthong is a sound in which one vowel sound glides towards another, as in /bɔɪ/, /seɪ/, hɪə/. In RP English there are 8 diphthongs.


You can see the RP English diphthongs in the top right hand corner of the phonemic chart, which you can find (with audio) at http://www.englishclub.com/pronunciation/phonemic-chart-ia.htm

Further reading

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

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






Direct method

A method of language teaching popular until the early 1950s. The method advocated the use of only the target language in the classroom, and the use of student-teacher dialogue supported by visuals such as gestures or photos.


When I learnt Russian my teacher used the Direct Method. She would do things round the classroom or talk about objects or pictures she showed us, describing her actions or the pictures and then asking us questions about them. In some ways it was quite similar to the way in which a parent teaches a child language.

Further reading

Howatt, A.P.R. and Widdowson, H. (2004). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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





This refers to stretches of connected written or spoken language that are usually more than one sentence or utterance long. Seeing stretches of language as discourse rather than sets of grammatical patterns allows us to analyse it for both the internal linguistic links it contains and the external links it makes to our knowledge of the world.


"When I learnt English at school we rarely used language as discourse. The teacher limited our language use mainly to short sentences. We certainly never looked at things like coherence and cohesion."

Further reading

McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Thornbury, S. (2005). Beyond the Sentence: Introducing Discourse Analysis. Oxford: MacMillan.





Discourse analysis

The study of how sentences and utterances join together to make ‘wholes’, i.e. study of the various ways in which sentences or utterances achieve coherence and cohesion.


"Discourse analysis has made us aware of all the different cohesive devices there are in writing, for example, conjunctions, backward and forward referencing, substitution.  Knowing about these things helps us to teach learners to write better."

Further reading

Celce-Murcia, M,. & Olshtain, E. (2000).Discourse and Context in Language Teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hatch, E. (1992).Discourse and Language Education. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, K. (1995).Understanding Communication in Second Language Classrooms.New York: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M. (1992). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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




Discourse marker

A discourse marker is a word or group of words, often at the beginning of a sentence or utterance, which signal(s) to the listener or reader the direction in which the speaker or writer intends to continue what they are saying. Examples of discourse markers are as I was saying, to sum up, by the way. Linkers are also sometimes said to be discourse markers.


"It’s useful to teach discourse markers to learners. They help learners structure what they are saying or writing and make the purpose of what they are saying clearer."

Further reading

Cook, G. (1989) Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hedge, T. (2005). Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (2005) Beyond the Sentence. Oxford: Macmillan.

Widdowson, H.G. (2007) Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Isolated, distinct, by itself. This term is used to refer to the teaching or testing of language items, when they are focussed on separately from others and in a minimal context. A teacher might, for example, give students an exercise just practising modal must, or a drill on the word stress in new vocabulary.

In language tests, multiple choice is often used to provide a discrete focus on specific grammar items. Correction is often discrete too, focussing on specific language items.


"When I listened to my students doing a group discussion it was clear they were having real problems with the forms of some irregular past tenses, so the next lesson I just focussed on these, doing noticing activities and exercises – a discrete approach – before combining them into another group discussion in the following lesson."

Further reading

Davies, A. Brown, A. et al. (1999). Dictionary of Language Testing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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




Discrete-item and Integrative tests

Discrete-item tests focus on eliciting and evaluating parts of language proficiency separately, e.g. grammar, lexis, pronunciation. Integrative tests aim to elicit and assess language use as a whole. Multiple choice grammar items are an example of discrete-item testing, whereas interviews are integrative tests.


It is often easier to design and mark discrete-item tests because they focus on just one thing e.g. tenses. Integrative tests, which focus on assessing e.g. learners’ ability to speak or write are more complex to mark reliably.

Further reading

H.D. Brown (2004). Language Assessment: Principles and Classroom Practices. Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Hughes, A. (2003).Testing for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Oller J.W. (1983). Issues in Language Testing Research. Rowley MA: Newbury House.



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





Drilling is a teaching technique in which the teacher asks the students to repeat several times items of language that they are learning. These can be vocabulary, structures, sounds or functions. Drilling, which involves students in responding to a prompt, originated in the behaviourist approach to learning and was intended to reinforce learning through habit formation. Many now criticise drilling for being a passive, boring and uncreative way of learning language. Others think it has a place in providing accuracy practice and security for learners at early moments of learning something new. There are various kinds of drill, for example:  whole class, individual, repetition, substitution, transformation.


"Whenever I teach new vocabulary I ask my students to repeat it after me, sometimes four or five times. I make sure to listen carefully to their responses, and try to make the drill interesting by e.g. asking them to say things very quietly, very loudly, very slowly, very quickly etc. I think drilling, in small doses, helps learners, especially those who lack confidence."

Further reading

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

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

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

Ur, P. (2009). Grammar Practice Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.