English Language Teaching Terminology

Written by: Mike Turner



Time to read 6 min

A Word on Jargon

Like most specialised disciplines, English Language Teaching comes with its fair share of jargon. To the outsider, this can be pretty opaque and sometimes feels like a barrier to communication. However, at its best, industry jargon provides a common set of words, phrases, and acronyms that help ELT professionals communicate more quickly and easily. It means you don’t have to gloss every phrase, or constantly define and re-define your terms.

This works well when language is used consistently, but a word of warning here. You should note that the terminology is not always used correctly or consistently, particularly online. You will always come across ambiguities, or writers using technical words and phrases in slightly different ways. This is sometimes down to the history or learning culture in a particular setting. You will also come across blogs, articles, and videos online where the jargon is misused or is just plain wrong – in the very real sense that most professionals in the field would not recognise the meaning attributed to it (it’s worth remembering that words have no intrinsic meaning other than that which we attribute to them by consensus).

Who is this for?

In this article, we have tried to bring together and explain some of the more common concepts and terminology used in the field of Teaching English as a Foreign Language. We hope it will be a useful reference for teachers but is also intended for anyone coming to the field for the first time - whether they are considering a career in TEFL, are new to the industry, or work with TEFL teachers or organisations in an associated or support role.

The Basics

Let’s start with some basic, generic terms, that are often confused:

  • TEFL - Teaching English as a Foreign Language / EFL - English as a Foreign Language
    Teaching English to students whose first language is not English. This is usually in countries where English is not the first language (hence the ‘foreign language’ part of the term). However, some private language schools in English-speaking countries also offer what they call English as a Foreign Language – usually to students who are in the country temporarily, for holiday, work or study and who plan to return to their own country.
  • TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages / ESOL - English for Speakers of Other Languages
    This term is sometimes used interchangeably with TEFL but is more often used when English is taught in English speaking countries such as the UK or USA. TESOL also tends to be the term preferred to TEFL in the US.
  • ESL – English as a Second Language
    This refers to English used in societies where it may not be the official, main or native language, but where it is used widely. Think about the Netherlands, or India, for example. Sometimes the line between EFL and ESL becomes blurred in countries where English is becoming more and more common.
  • EAL - English as an Additional Language
    This is a term often used in schools in English-speaking countries to describe the teaching of English to groups who may need additional language support outside of regular classes, or specifically differentiated learning in their regular classes. Support is often provided by a specialist EAL unit or by the SEN (Special Educational Needs) department. These learners are usually migrants whose first language is not English. However, they are not a socially or linguistically homogenous group – for this reason, their needs will usually be individually assessed.

A Select Glossary

There are hundreds of technical terms related to teaching and language learning and it would not be practical to list them all here. However, below we have listed a selection of a few of the more common ones you may encounter.

  • Accuracy-based Activities
    Activities where the aim is to practise and achieve mastery and accuracy of a specific form or forms. For this reason, the teacher will tend to correct errors, model correct forms, and ask for repetitions from students.
  • Activating Language
    Providing opportunities for students to practise and use the language that they have ‘learnt’.
  • Aspect
    Those elements in the tense system that encode information about when an action started and whether or not it is ongoing. For example: the -ing form of a verb indicates the action is ongoing; the perfective aspect (using the auxiliary verb ‘have’) provides clues about when an action started and whether it has finished.
  • Auxiliary Verb
    A verb is used to help encode grammatical information, rather than having any intrinsic semantic content.
  • Blended Learning
    A mixture of face-to-face and online teaching.
  • Collocations
    Words that commonly appear together in sequence. Collocations can be weak or strong. When given the start of a strong collocation, it is easy to predict what comes next, for example: ‘salt and...pepper’; ‘rancid...butter’; ‘a splitting...headache’. Weaker collocations evoke a wider range of possibilities, for example: ‘broken...heart’; ‘broken...English’; ‘broken...vows’).
  • Communicative Competence
    The ability to communicate meaning effectively in interactions.
  • Concept-check questions
    Questions asked by the teacher to check specific aspects of the students’ understanding. They tend to be ‘closed’ questions, formulated in such a way that they cannot be answered correctly if the concept, language point, or instruction has not been understood.
  • Conditionals
    Constructions that describe predictions about the future based on situations, events, or conditions that have not yet happened; or, alternatively, conjectures about how things could have been different. Conditionals have an ‘if’ or ‘when’ clause (the condition), plus a result clause (what will happen or what could have happened differently).
  • Drilling
    A technique whereby the teacher models words and phrases to be repeated by individual learners or in chorus by the class. The aim is to correct pronunciation errors, elicit accurate pronunciation, and aid memorisation through motor-muscle memory.
    A communicative methodology that focuses on the use of non-coursebook texts, meaningful conversations, and collaborative communication.
  • Flipped Learning
    A student-centred approach to learning that uses a blended learning model. It usually involves students learning content through online videos and lectures, then using supervised classroom time to practise, apply and deepen understanding of the learnt content.
  • Fluency-based Activities
    Activities where the aim is for students to communicate fluently. For this reason, the teacher will tend not to interrupt to correct errors – although they may be noted and corrected later.
  • The Four Skills 
    The four basic skills required to understand and speak a language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
  • Lexis
    Often used as a synonym for vocabulary, lexis is somewhat wider in scope. It includes not just words, but also multi-word phrases and formulaic expressions.
  • Mixed-skills Activities              
    Activities requiring a balance of two or more of the four skills.
  • Modal Verbs (Modal Auxiliary verbs)
    Plural verbs that are used to indicate ability, possibility, intention, and permission (for example: can, could, will, would, may, might, must).
  • Phonemes
    Symbols representing the sounds of English. Often taught using a phonemic chart to help students with the elements of English pronunciation.
  • Phrasal Verbs
    Strictly, a main verb plus adverb combination, the meaning of which cannot be easily guessed from the regular meaning of the verb. They are often used in place of a more formal verb (for example, ‘sort out’ rather than ‘resolve’). The term is commonly applied to other multi-word verbs that function in a similar way, but which take prepositions or particle/preposition combinations (eg: ‘get into’, ‘come up with’).
  • Pragmatics
    The study of language in use, in real-life situations.
  • Productive Skills                         
    Speaking and writing. The skills required to produce language.
  • Receptive Skills            
    Reading and listening. The skills required to understand, but not necessarily produce, language.
  • Regular and Irregular verbs
    Regular verbs refer to verbs that follow regular rules and patterns when – for example, adding -ed to form a past tense. Irregular verbs do not consistently follow these rules and, for example, with past tenses, they need to be learnt individually.
  • Semantics
    The study of meaning in language.
  • Suggestopedia
    An approach to language learning that places specific emphasis on the physical learning environment, the atmosphere, and the authority of the teacher. Lessons include discussions of the language, reflective silences, and listening activities where background music is played, and texts are read by the teacher in harmony with the music.
  • Task-based Learning
    An approach to learning that focuses on providing learners with meaningful tasks that they must complete using the target language.
  • Teacher Talk Time (TTT)
    The proportion of a lesson that the teacher is talking. A high level of TTT is generally considered a bad thing since it reduces the amount of time available for students to talk and practise.
  • Tense System 
    The tense system encodes different types of information through the forms of verbs we use. We most commonly think of tenses related to the time an action is happening (past, present, or future). However, the tense system also encodes other information, such as when an action started and whether it is ongoing or has ended.
  • Total Physical Response
    A series of teaching techniques that link the learning of language to physical actions.

Abbreviations and Acronyms

Hopefully, the glossary provided above will be a useful starting point for you. We have also put together a couple of additional documents you can download below. The first provides a list of ELT acronyms, the second a list of some commonly taken international English language exams.