A Lexicon for ELT Professionals

Diane Nicholls
ELT Teacher 2 Writer (2020)

I’m lorem ipsum-ed out. This phrase is all over the PowerPoints I’ve been editing and for ages I’ve wondered what it means. Now I know: this is ‘filler text’, used to reserve the space where the correct wording will be placed later. Thanks to Diane Nicholls, I’ve learned that it’s part of a much longer phrase and, although based on Latin, is basically meaningless. It’s one of 500+ headwords in ‘A Lexicon for ELT Professionals.’

Remember ABC’s 1982 album The Lexicon of Love? This slim (156 pages) compendium isn’t about love, but it’s written by someone with a love of all things word. Scores of us in ELT, whether in publishing or in teaching, will identify with the author when she says: ‘I’ve always loved languages and language learning and spent much of my childhood inventing new languages and reading dictionaries’ (page 5). And talking of reading dictionaries, if you didn’t realise that ‘widow’, ‘orphan’, ‘gutter’, ‘cold reader’ and ‘rider’ have special meaning in the publishing world, let the Lexicon enlighten you.

From a languages background and having worked extensively on corpora, learner- and native-speaker dictionaries and specialist glossaries, Nicholls now works as an editor, project manager, freelance lexicographer/linguist and admits to enjoying the business of corralling words and ‘trying to marshal them into some sort of order while secretly admiring their slipperiness’ (page 6).

Thankfully, she has ‘marshalled’ items from a 324,000-word corpus, based on all the modules in the ELT Teacher to Writer list, into this ‘compilation of what we talk about when we talk about ELT’ (page 6), while stressing that it is not a definitive list and that the 500+ items are naturally subject to evolution and change, as in any industry. I hazard a guess that a future edition might cover such terms as (non)native-speaker, translanguaging, mediation and ERT (emergency remote teaching).

But for now, dear teflers, editors, writers: do you know your cloze from your gapfill? Your EAL from your EAP? Look to the Lexicon for answers. In the meantime, test yourself with some MCQs. (Answers at the end of the article.)

  1. In publishing, a user path (e.g. Level 3 > Unit 3 > Vocabulary 1 > Activity 2) is known as …
    1. a branch
    2. a breadcrumb
    3. a bridge
  2. In publishing, a pre-publication book sample used to promote a book is …
    1. the blad
    2. the bleed
    3. the blurb
  3. In phonology, the linking of consonant sound to vowel sound is called …
    1. the washback effect
    2. the backwash effect
    3. both of the above
  4. In assessment, the direct and indirect influence of tests/exams on teaching methods is …
    1. the washback effect
    2. the backwash effect
    3. both of the above
  5. In materials and resources, PARSNIPS are …
    1. coursebooks that are outdated
    2. topics that are deemed taboo
    3. worksheets that can be cut up

These are just some of the items listed in the book, which is divided into two sections: section one is an alphabetical list of headwords and definitions running from A/W (artwork) to ZPD (zone of proximal development). Section two covers the same headwords grouped by theme (the broad area of ELT they belong to). You can thus dip in to Assessment, Language, Materials and Resources, Methodology, Organisation (e.g. British Council, TESOL, Trinity), Pedagogy, Pronunciation, Publishing, Skills and Learning to check where an item belongs.

When I started out in TEFL back in 1987, on a CELTA and a month of being bamboozled by new terminology (‘It’s elicit, not illicit vocabulary.’; ‘We pre-teach to activate schemata’), my then go-to references were Swan and Harmer. This type of lexicon would have been useful back then while I got my head around some high-frequency ELT terminology beyond just language and coursebooks. Years later, as an oral examiner for Cambridge, I had to acquaint myself with ‘descriptors’, ‘rubrics’, and the bewildering ‘suprasegmentals’ (aka ‘prosodic features’), all of which feature heavily in assessment material and which Nicholls covers in this guide.

This leads me to the book’s coverage. The stock terms I met on CELTA thirty-three years ago are here, along with exponents that reflect current pedagogy and industry preoccupations: the flipped classroom, English as a lingua franca, spiky profiles, virtual learning environments, English Medium Instruction, blended learning. The Cambridge exams (previously acronymed or initialised as KET, PET, FCE, CAE and CPE) are listed, reflecting their recent name change to Cambridge English: Key; Preliminary; First; Advanced and Proficiency. The one anomaly in the book is the inclusion of BULATS, the language skills test for business and industry, which was ‘officially retired’ in December 2019 (but no doubt still alive at the time Nicholls was compiling the entries).

Given the wealth of familiar and new terms, who exactly is the book for? Who are the ELT professionals of the title? The Lexicon is one of a host of newish titles in a series from ELT Teacher 2 Writer, who publish paperbacks and ebooks that develop materials-writing skills. This book, says Nicholls, is aimed at teachers creating materials for their own classes, new or veteran ELT writers, designers and researchers in the publishing sector and, increasingly, software engineers or digital developers who need to understand the terminology as they work to create online content. Her aim is to provide clear definitions; there is no judgment here of teaching approaches or discussion of contemporary lexis or non-standard grammar. We are to treat the book purely as a dictionary and not as a critique of, say, multiple intelligences theory or Dogme.

While I am now pretty well-versed in the language of teaching, methodology and assessment, my own experience of the publishing industry only goes as far as having had commissioning editors, and knowing more widespread terms like house style guide, glossary and proofs. The Lexicon introduces us to specialised yet high-frequency items like kerning (the amount of space between letters), gold master (final version software pre-manufacture and distribution) and the intriguing orphan (the last line of a paragraph when it appears alone at the top of a column or page). I believe these and others like them are the stalwarts of ELT publishing that writers and editors know, just as syntax, phoneme and scaffolding are familiar terms for classroom teachers.

Having once been a novice in a staffroom of old hands, I feel that this book would be a useful tool for new teachers thrown in at the deep end in language schools and colleges and having to quickly get to grips with placement testing, the CEFR, Can-do statements and learning-management systems. It’s also a very quick intro to those professional bodies like Cambridge, Pearson, Trinity, IATEFL, and the products and services they offer.

This little gem should be given out at the start of initial training courses, along with a notebook and a pen, or kept on the staffroom shelf, and it is a handy guide for anyone entering the world of ELT materials writing to pick up and keep on their desk. What’s nice is that, on the last page, Nicholls gives an email address and invites us to add our own terms and help build the next edition. As there’s currently no entry under Q, how about it?

Quiz answers:

  1. B A breadcrumb (or breadcrumb trail) is a series of stages, showing a user the path they took to get where they are in a website or application. Clicking at each stage takes them back to the previous page they visited.
  2. A (Bleed is also a publishing term, meaning ink that prints beyond the edge of a page)
  3. C (may also be known as linking)
  4. C
  5. B The acronym refers to politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, ‘-isms’ (such as atheism, racism), pork and smoking.


Swan M (1984) Basic English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Swan M (1995) Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harmer J (1983) The Practice of English Language Teaching. Longman Handbook for Teachers Series, Pearson Education Limited, 1983

Clare Henderson has worked as a teacher and trainer for Bell Cambridge since 1994. She is particularly interested in language evolution and change and runs a Contemporary English course for Bell Teacher Academy every summer.