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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This refers to the degree of fit or suitability that there is between a piece of language and the social context in which it is used. When the piece of language matches the social context it is said to be appropriate. When it doesn’t match it is said to be inappropriate. To match, it needs to be of the equivalent degree of formality. Appropriacy can be seen in pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar or discourse. The terms appropriacy and appropriateness are often used interchangeably in this meaning.


"I learnt my English by chatting informally with friends. When I started working in an office I had to make a definite effort to get the appropriacy of my language right."

Further reading

Carter, R. and Nunan, D. (2001). Teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English language teaching. Harlow: Pearson.

McDonough, J. and Shaw, C. (1993). Materials and methods in ELT. Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell.


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




Entry link: Appropriacy


Corpora are collections of spoken and/ or written language that are stored and processed electronically. Corpora are used in corpus linguistics to find patterns in language use e.g. the collocations of words, grammatical structures in spoken language, word frequencies, types of error. Corpora in ELT can contain a range of different types of texts or be based on particular genres e.g. ESP texts, or on proficient speaker or learner English.  Examples of English language corpora are the British National Corpus (BNA), Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), Cambridge English Corpus (CEC), the Louvain Corpus of Native English Essays (Locness).


"The corpus shows this word collocates more frequently with slightly than with a little."

Further reading

International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, John Benjamin Publishing.

Carter, Ronald & McCarthy, Michael (1995): Grammar and the spoken language. Applied Linguistics 16:2, 141-158.

Cheng, W., Warren, M. & Xu X.F. (2003). The language learner as language researcher: putting corpus linguistics on the timetable. System 31:2, 173-186.

Granger, S.; Hung, J. & Petch-Tyson, S. (eds) (2002). Computer Learner Corpora, Second Language Acquisition and Foreign Language Teaching. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

O’Keefe, A.,  McCarthy, M., Carter, R.  (2007.) From Corpus to classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sinclair, J. ed. (2004) How to Use Corpora in Language Teaching, John Benjamins Publishing.



Entry link: Corpus/corpora

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 software programme that displays the words with which a word collocates.  The programme presents the words, usually listed alphabetically, in lines giving linguistic context with collocations to the left or the right of the word, as in this example:

Concordancers can be based on different sizes and kinds of texts. They allow researchers to study authentic language use.                           They can also be used by learners to see patterns, frequencies and possibilities of collocation in their own or others’ language output.


"Once students get used to working with a concordancer they can find it really useful for spotting patterns and possibilities in                        language chunking."

Concordancers can be based on different sizes and kinds of texts. They allow researchers to study authentic language use.                             They can also be used by learners to see patterns, frequencies and possibilities of collocation in their own or others’ language output.

Further reading

Concordancers in ELT, Nick Peachey, https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/concordancers-elt

Cobb, T. (1997) The compleat lexical tutor http://www.lextutor.ca/



Entry link: Concordancer


Teachers recycle language when they deliberately bring items of language that have already been taught to learners’ attention or for learners’ use a second or further time. The purpose of recycling is to give learners further exposure to particular language items.  Coursebook designers often build recycling into their materials, as do syllabus writers who adopt a spiral approach, dealing with the same item again but in greater detail.


"That book is really good because it recycles the main language points, giving learners the chance to extend their understanding and use of what they’ve learnt before."

Further reading

Harmer, J. (2012). Teacher knowledge, Harlow: Pearson.

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



Entry link: Recycle


A set of letters containing the first letters of a group of words that is a name or phrase e.g. ELT (English Language Teaching), TBC (to be confirmed), UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Acronyms often belong to particular contexts and may not be understood by people outside that context e.g. acronyms used in ELT, such as PPP, TBL, TPR, TTT. Some definitions distinguish between acronyms and initialisms (where the first letters of a phrase are pronounced letter by letter rather than as a word e.g. scuba (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus).


"Many people don’t understand all the acronyms used in textese as there are always so many new ones, and some like LOL have more than one meaning."

Further reading

Crystal, D. (2008). Txtng: The Gr8 Db8. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Teacher Acronym Song



Entry link: Acronym


Register has two meanings. It is sometimes used to refer to the type of language (particular vocabulary, grammar or discourse features) that characterises particular fields of language use e.g. nuclear physics, hip hop music, football.

It is also used to refer to the degree of formality of language use, with language generally classified as formal, neutral or informal. The study of register is part of sociolinguistics.


"One of the hardest things to learn in a foreign language is using register i.e. what language it is appropriate to use in what context."

Further Reading

Bachman, L. (1990). Fundamental considerations in language testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ghadessy, M. (1994) Key concepts in ELT. ELTJ 48/3 http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/eltj/keyconcepts.html

Halliday, M.A.K., McIntosh, A., Strevens, P. (1964). The linguistic sciences and language teaching. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

Howatt, A.P.R. with Widdowson H.G. (2004). A history of English language teaching. Oxford:Oxford University Press.



Entry link: Register


A word or group of words, normally in speech, that make sense by themselves but do not necessarily contain the grammatical requirements of sentences found in more formal written language. The Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2010) says of an utterance: ‘a unit of analysis in speech which has been defined in various ways but most commonly as a sequence of words within a single person’s turn at talk that falls under a single intonation contour. Utterances may sometimes consist of more than one sentence, but more commonly consist of stretches of speech shorter than sentences’. The term utterance is often used in contrast to sentence in written language. 


"This little dialogue contains two utterances:

A: He didn’t really understand what was going on.

B: Right."

Further reading

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

Coady, J.,Huckin, T. (ed.s) (1997). Second language vocabulary acquisition: a rationale for pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kissine, M (2013). From utterances to speech acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. (2010). The lexical approach. Andover, Hampshire: Cengage Learning.

Prodromou, L. (2008). English as a lingua franca: a corpus - based analysis. London: Continuum.

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



Entry link: Utterance


A piece of paper, or electronic material, which contains tasks, exercises or problems for the learner to complete or solve. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with the term handout, but for some there is a difference as a handout provides materials for reference only rather than activities.


"The teacher always gave us worksheets for us to try and apply in practice what she had just told us about before."

Further Reading

Harmer, J. (2012). Teacher knowledge, 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.




Entry link: Worksheet


A method is a recognised and acknowledged set of teaching techniques and procedures that put into practice a set of beliefs about teaching and learning. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with approach, while others reserve approach to refer to theories and principles of language teaching. Richards and Rodgers (2001) say of the two ‘a method is theoretically related to an approach, is organisationally determined by a design, and is practically realised in procedure’ (p .16). Some prominent methods in English language teaching include Total Physical Response, Task-Based Learning, Grammar Translation. A teaching method covers syllabus, materials and classroom activities.


“Some teachers prefer to teach eclectically, taking techniques and activities from a variety of methods rather than rigidly sticking to one. This is often because they think that different learners learn language in different ways.”

Further reading

Celce-Murcia, Marianne, ed. 2001. Teaching English as a second or foreign language, 2nd edition. Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.

Lightbown, P. and Spada, S.  (2006). How languages are learned, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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



Entry link: Method


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


An approach to language teaching is the set of beliefs on which that teaching is based. The beliefs cover what language is, how it is used and learnt. From these beliefs a set of teaching practices are built. The terms method and approach are sometimes used interchangeably, with approach being used nowadays more commonly than method, perhaps because it implies a less rigid set of teaching practices than method, e.g. The Lexical Approach v the Direct Method.


"The Communicative Approach is based on a wide view of what constitutes language and language use. What methods should be used to teach this language and language use are still hotly debated."

Further reading

Hedge, H. (2000) Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larsen Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and Practice in Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S.  (2009) Teaching unplugged. Peaslake: Delta.

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

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




Entry link: Approach


A school of psychology very popular in the Western world in the middle of the 20th century. It claims that learning occurs through the establishment of fixed responses to given external stimuli, and that to establish these responses or behaviours, they need to be constantly repeated and reinforced. Behaviourism had a strong influence on language teaching in the audio-lingual method. It lost credibility when it was understood that language was too varied to be learnt simply by reinforcement and repetition, and that repetition was not enough to ensure all learning.


Drilling, the avoidance of mistakes and of using the L1 in class are influences from behaviourism that can still be seen in English language teaching.

Further reading

Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English language teaching. Harlow: Pearson.

Howatt, A.P.R. with Widdowson H.G. (2004). A history of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, M. and Burden, R. (1997) Psychology for Language Teachers: A Social Constructivist Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Entry link: Behaviourism


Related to mental abilities or skills. Cognitive is the adjective from cognition which refers to the mental processes of perception and thinking that our brains engage in.


"Cognitive skills such as remembering, evaluating, analysing and creating are often classified into higher and lower-order thinking skills."

Further reading

Anderson, L.W. (Ed.), Krathwohl, D.R. (Ed.), Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Complete edition). New York: Longman.

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

Ellis, R. (1997). Second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





Entry link: Cognitive


An approach to teaching and learning which does not adhere to any one recognised approach but selects from different approaches and methods according to teacher preference and also to the belief that different learners learn in different ways and different contexts, and that therefore no one approach or method is sufficient to cater for a range of learners. Eclecticism is sometimes criticised as being too random and having no guiding principles. This criticism has given rise to Principled eclecticism which attempts to keep the flexibility of eclecticism while including in it principles of teaching and learning.


"Some teachers appreciate the freedom and flexibility that eclecticism allows them in their teaching, while others prefer the clear teaching guidelines that using one particular approach or method can provide."

Further reading

Kumaravadivelu, (2012). Towards a post-method pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly Volume 35, Issue 4, pages 537–560.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and principles in language teaching, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.






Entry link: Eclecticism


The way in which languages are learnt unconsciously or ‘picked up’ by exposure to comprehensible input. In this definition, the term acquisition is used in contrast to learning, which is seen as a deliberate and conscious process of rule learning and self-monitoring of language use. However the terms acquisition and learning are used interchangeably by some writers.


"She learnt Portuguese simply through acquisition – hearing and reading it all around her and chatting with friends. She never studied it."

Further reading

Doughty, C. and Williams, J. (1998). Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightbown, P. and Spada, S.  (2006). How languages are learned, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford  University Press.

Ellis, R. (1985). Understanding second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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



Entry link: Acquisition


A task is a classroom activity that has a ‘real-world’ outcome e.g. a problem is solved, genuinely wanted information is exchanged. Tasks provide a purpose for the learning and use of language other than simply learning language items for their own sake (Rubdy 1998). Generally, a task is completed by using language freely to communicate in speech or writing. Some believe that tasks should not focus on practising any one specific piece of language, but rather be open-ended.

In the ELT literature the term task is sometimes used to refer to activity, sometimes to tasks with a specific language aim. There is considerable debate over what a task is, as there is over Task-Based Learning, in which tasks are the main drivers for learning.


"He always liked to give his students tasks to do as he thought they appreciated the sense of achievement tasks produce and their relevance to getting things done outside the classroom."

Further reading

B. Kumaravadivelu (1991). Language-learning tasks: teacher intention and learner interpretation. ELT J 45 (2): 98-107.

Nunan, D. (1989) Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J. and Schmidt, R. (2010) Longman dictionary of language and applied linguistics. Harlow: Pearson.

Rubdy, R. (1998). Key concepts in ELT.  ELTJ 52/3 http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/eltj/keyconcepts.html

Willis, D. and Willis, J.( 2007). Doing Task-based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Entry link: Task

Task-Based Learning

A way of learning and a method of syllabus or course design which is based on learners completing tasks. There is much debate over what constitutes Task-Based Learning, and particularly over what role a focus on language should play, if any. Some e.g. N.S. Prabhu, maintain that there should be no focus on language in Task-Based Learning i.e. that language should be learnt purely through exposure, acquisition and use. Others prefer to see some language input or focus on form, either at the pre-task stage or post-task or both.


"Our classes were task-based – we did one task followed by another e.g. comparing, problem-solving, classifying, sorting, surveying. I enjoyed them as we always used language to do something real."

Further reading

Foster, P. (1999). Key concepts in ELT.  ELTJ 53/1 http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/eltj/keyconcepts.html

Hawkes, M.L. (2012). Using task repetition to direct learner attention and focus on form. ELT J  66 (3): 327-336.

Littlewood, W. (2004). The task-based approach: some questions and suggestions. ELTJ 58/4.Oxford University Press.

Nunan, D. (2004). Task-based language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Samuda. V. and Bygate, M. (2008) Tasks in Second Language Learning, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Skehan, P. (1996). A framework for the implementation of task-based instruction. Applied Linguistics, 17/1, 38-62.

Willis, J. (1996) A framework for task-based learning. Harlow: Longman.



Entry link: Task-Based Learning


This term is often used to refer to a meeting or conference in which all members are present. In English language teaching it is sometimes used instead of whole class to mean those moments in a lesson during which the teacher gets all students to focus on her/him so he/she can give the same input to everyone at the same time. This is sometimes called teacher-fronted plenary.


"The danger of using too much plenary teaching is that it puts learners in a passive role of listeners only, while the teacher talks or inputs in some way."

Further reading

Andrews, S. (2007). Teacher language awareness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. Nunan, D. (1989) Understanding Language Classrooms: A Guide for Teacher-Initiated Action. Prentice Hall Publishers.

Schwab, G. (2011) From dialogue to multilogue: a different view on participation in the English foreign‐language classroom. Classroom Discourse Volume 2Issue 1.

Scrivener, J. (2012) Classroom management techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walsh, S. (2011) Exploring Classroom Discourse: Language in Action. Abingdon: Routledge.


Entry link: Plenary


A text is a collection of spoken or written sentences or utterances that form a cohesive and coherent whole, which have the features of a particular genre and perform a specific communicative function. Examples of text types are narratives, descriptions, processes.


"Much language teaching used to focus on helping learners produce sentences. Nowadays, though, there is greater focus on the features of texts such as their functions and the grammar needed to express those functions. Narratives for example often follow chronological order and make extensive use of past tenses."

Further reading

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

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

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

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



Entry link: Text

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