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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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. http://www.naldic.org.uk/eal-professional-development/conference-reports/conference18

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 talk and learning: http://www.carolread.com/articles/s%20talk%20and%20learning.pdf


Schema theory

Schema theory maintains that we develop frameworks in our heads for making sense of and organising information about different concepts, topics and phenomena in the world, and that these frameworks influence how we understand new information. If we can find a link between our schemata and new information, it helps us to process it. For this reason, many lessons include a warmer activity on the lesson’s topic that aims to activate and bring to mind learners’ knowledge, attitudes towards, and experience of the topic.


"We had to do some comprehension work on a text about Charles Darwin. So, I did a warmer activity to help activate my learners’ schemata about him. But what I found was that no one had ever heard of him or what he did. That made the comprehension work much more difficult as the students couldn’t really relate to or see the relevance of what we were reading."

Further reading

Carrell, P.L., Devine, J. and Eskey, D.E. (eds) (1988). Interactive Approaches to Second Language Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cook, G. (1997). Key concepts in ELT: schemas. ELT Journal 51/1. Oxford University Press.

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

Widdowson, H.G. (1983). Learning Purpose and Language Use. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Schema/schemata (n. sing/pl)

The organisation of experience and/or knowledge into conceptual frameworks in the mind or brain. Schemata allow the brain to reference and integrate new knowledge or situations through making connections with what is already known.

Different readers bring different schemata to a text and these are also often culture-specific.



This is an English vowel sound, represented in the phonemic script as /ə/. It is the most common vowel in spoken English as many other vowels are shortened to schwa in connected speech (See Connected Speech). Schwa plays an important role in maintaining regular rhythm in spoken English.


Do you think there would be 5, 6 or 7 schwa sounds in this sentence if it was spoken?

What do you reckon happened when they arrived at the station?

I think the answer could be 5, 6 or 7 depending on how quickly the speaker spoke. This is where the schwas could occur:

/wɒt du ju rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdæt θə steɪʃən/

/wɒdʒə rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdæt θə steɪʃən/

/wɒt du ju rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdət θə steɪʃən/

/wɒdʒə rekən hæpənd wen θeɪjəraɪvdət θə steɪʃən/

Further reading

Dalton, C. and Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kelly, G. (2000). How To Teach Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.

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

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





Segmental and Suprasegmental

These terms refer to features of pronunciation. The segmental features are the phonemes or individual sounds whereas the super-segmental are rhythm, stress and intonation.


I have a student whose pronunciation of individual phonemes is really quite good, but he has real problems with stress, rhythm and intonation. I’d read that learners usually have problems with segmentals and not with suprasegmentals, but he’s the other way round and I don’t quite know how to help him.

Further reading

Brazil, D., Couthard, M. and Johns, C. (1980). Discourse Intonation and Language Teaching: Harlow: Longman.

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. and Goodwin, J. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Roach, Peter (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology, 4th edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





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.



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.




A sentence is a group of words which in English contains at least a subject and a verb and which is independent as it does not need completion to make sense. A sentence contains a main clause and possibly subordinate clauses, too. In writing, sentences start with a capital letter and end with a full stop.


These phrases don’t make sense by themselves so they’re not sentences: in the park, arriving late, while they were waiting, whose glasses are black, she put her…

These are sentences: They played in the park. Tthe bell rang while they were waiting. The woman whose glasses are black never speaks. She put her hand up.

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.




Sentence stem lecture or reading (n.)

A way of encouraging participants to listen or read carefully and of checking their retention of input. In this technique participants are required to complete sentence beginnings (stems) with selected parts of the input contents. 

Mariella was a skilled lecturer who often gave her students a sentence stem lecture to ensure they stayed awake throughout the hour.   

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.






Short-/long-term memory

Our memory system is able to store memories for shorter or longer periods. Our short-term memory (also called working memory) is limited in capacity and only retains information for a short period of time, while our long-term memory is much larger and retains information for longer.


"I have a wonderful short-term memory for things like the prices of items I bought yesterday, what my family were wearing yesterday and how long it took me to do things, but my long-term memory is poor – I have few recollections of my childhood."

Further reading

Bilborough, N. (2011).  Memory Activities for Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

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

Stevick, E. (1976). Memory, Meaning and Method. New York, NY: Newbury House Publishers.




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) had the following SIG groups in 2014:

Business English 


English for Specific Purposes 

Global Issues 

Learner Autonomy

Leadership and Management 

Literature, Media and Cultural Studies 

Learning Technologies 

Materials Writing 



Teacher Development 

Testing, Evaluation and Assessment 

Teacher Training and Education 

Young Learners and Teenagers 

Further reading










See Role play

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.




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.




See Error/Mistake/Slip

Slot and filler

This term refers to a description of how elements of language can be organised and used to substitute for one another. These elements may be grammatical, functional or lexical.

The term is also used to refer to a technique for laying-out language on a page to prompt exercises or aid guided writing or speaking.


This is an example of a slot and filler table for use in the classroom.

There are










can be


(Language for Thinking, John Clegg)

Further reading

Krashen, S., & Terrell, T. (1983). The Natural Approach. Oxford: Pergamon.

Lewis, M. (1996). The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

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

Thornbury, S. (1997). Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote ‘noticing’. ELT Journal 51/4.

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


Cook, V.J. (1989). The relevance of grammar in the applied linguistics of language teaching. Trinity College Dublin Occasional Papers, 22





The stem of a word is the part that never changes and to which any inflections or affixes are added. A word stem may or may not have the same form as a word’s lemma. (See Lemma). A lemma is the citation form of a word so it always looks like a word, whereas a stem is the part of the word that is added to. For example, take is a lemma, but tak- is the stem for this word, but for the word run both the lemma and the stem are run.


To have an idea of what a word’s stem is can be useful for producing correct spelling. You add –ing to tak, for example, not to take to make the –ing form of take.

Further reading

Carstairs McCarthy, A. (2002). An Introduction to English Morphology: Words and Their Structures. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Matthews, P. (1991). Morphology 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



You Tube Video: http://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/seminars/spelling-myths-and-enchantments



Strong/Stressed and Weak/Unstressed Syllables

A syllable is a unit of speech which in English consists of a vowel sound or of a vowel sound and one or more consonants. A syllable can be divided into three parts: onset, nucleus and coda/final. Word stress operates on the different syllables in a word. In terms of pronunciation, syllables can be stressed, weakly stressed or unstressed. A stressed syllable carries the main or secondary stress in a word and is pronounced with greater loudness and length and higher pitch. A weakly stressed syllable has little sound prominence and an unstressed syllable receives no prominence. The amount of stress given to a word and the syllables within it depends on how important it is in conveying essential information.


Here are some words showing typical English syllable patterns:

a (indefinite article) – a syllable consisting just of a vowel sound

am – a syllable consisting of a vowel + a consonant sound

jam – a syllable consisting of consonant + vowel + consonant sounds

tram – a syllable consisting of consonant + consonant + vowel + consonant sounds

And here are some words showing different degrees of stress on different syllables:

|on|ly – main stress on ‘on’ and weak stress on ‘ly’

|phone – one main stress

|station – main stress on ‘sta’ with weak or no stress on ‘tion’

|Un|nec|es|sari|ly – main stress on 'sar', weak stress on 'un', 'nec', 'ess', 'ly'; weak or no stress on 'ri'

Further reading

Richards, J. and Schmidt, R. (2010). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, 4th edition. Harlow: Pearson.

Stirling, J. (2011). Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners. Lulu.com

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









This term is used in ELT to refer to types of assessment in which the assessor needs to use their judgement as to how correct an answer is, because the answer is open-ended and can be evaluated according to various different criteria. Speaking tests and essays are examples of subjective assessment formats. Two people listening to the same student speaking might grade him/her differently because they are listening for different things or because they give importance to different aspects of speaking.


"I was worried about doing an interview as part of my test because I didn’t like my grade depending on the examiner’s judgment. But then they explained to me that the examiner had to work with specific defined criteria when grading, and that another examiner would be present to grade as well, so I realised my grade wouldn’t be subjective."

Further reading

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

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

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




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