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Key concepts for CELTA


In common with most professions, English Language Teaching (aka ELT) has its share of terminology.  It isn't jargon, for the most part, because terms refer to key concepts.

On any CELTA course you are almost certain to come across most of the terms in this guide.  Referring to them now, and taking the little tests will prepare you well to focus on what is being said rather than being distracted by the terms in which it is said.

Many of the terms you will encounter form opposing pairs of ideas and that is how they are presented here.  All the terms in bold are ones you might meet on your course and should understand.
All these terms are the focus of guides on this site in one way or another.


Area 1: language

Language structure vs. Language function

  • Language structure refers to the systems of the language and covers, e.g., pronunciation (phonology), grammar, word classes (lexis), tenses and many other forms.  If you say, e.g.:
    'I have visited America' is an example of the present perfect
    We can say 'torrential rain' but not 'torrential snow'
    you are talking about language structure.
  • Language function refers to what is done with the language in terms of communicating a meaning such as apologising, asking for information, explaining, introducing yourself, etc.
    If you say, e.g.:
    'I am terribly sorry' is an exponent which realises the function of apologising
    or if you say
    Saying "Yes, but ..." with a raised finger is a way of interrupting a speaker
    you are talking about language function.

Be careful:
The word 'function' is used in another way in English Language Teaching.
It can also refer to what a phrase is doing in a sentence.  For example, in:
    I want the blue pair

    I want it
the words the blue pair and it are performing the same grammatical function (as the object of the verb want).

Language skill vs. Language system

  • Language skills are divided into:
    Productive skills: writing and speaking
    Receptive skills: reading and listening
    If you say, e.g.:
    To get the general gist of a text, read only the first, topic sentence of each paragraph
    Write an unordered list of ideas and then divide the list into pros and cons of an argument and think of an example of each
    you are talking about language skills (reading and writing respectively in this case).
  • Language systems concern phonology, lexis, verbs and tenses, idioms, word order, pronouns and conjunctions and any other structural area.  If you say, for example:
    Notice how the 'r' at the end of 'father' is pronounced when the following sound is a vowel
    The words 'to and fro' in 'He walked to and fro' is a fixed expression meaning backwards and forward between two places
    The future perfect tense is formed with will + have + past participle
    then you are talking about language structure.

Grammar vs. Structure
These terms are sometimes, rather loosely, used to mean the same thing but there is a difference:

  • Grammar refers to the whole system of a language and covers relationships between words like nouns, pronouns and verbs, clause- and phrase-structures, pronunciation and more.
  • Structure is more finely targeted and refers to a particular way a language will make meaning and formally acceptable phrases and sentences.  For example, the following all describe particular structures:
    In English, we use the determiner 'many' before count nouns and the determiner 'much' before mass nouns (Not many houses, not much accommodation)
    In French, we can make a question by inserting est-ce que before a positive statement
    In Greek, a question is formed in speaking by a change to a rising-tone intonation and in writing by putting ';' at the end of the statement

General English (GE) vs. English for Specific Purposes (ESP)

  • General English refers to learning English to use it for no specified purpose and in no specific setting.  This is usually what is taught in schools and in many classes around the world.  It is also called more generally English as Foreign Language or EFL.  It may also refer to learning English to function in an English-speaking environment (English for Speakers of Other Languages or ESOL).
    Learning English in order to talk to other non-native speakers also falls into this category and is sometimes called ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) or EIL (English as an International Language).
  • English for Specific Purposes refers to learning English to use it for a specific purpose in a specified setting.  For example, it may be learning English to study in an English-speaking institution (English for Academic Purposes or EAP) or to use it in technological setting (English for Science and Technology or EST) and many other areas.

Use vs. Usage

  • Language use refers to the communicative effect of language, i.e., its value and meaning in real life.  If you say, e.g.:
    I feel terribly tired
    and the answer is
    Why don't you go and lie down for a while?
    then we understand both the words said and the communicative intentions of the speakers.  That is language use because it makes sense at both the structural level and the communicative level.
  • Language usage refers to the formal accuracy or otherwise of language, i.e., its significance and structure.  If you say, for example:
    I am very tired
    and the answer is
    Mars is known as the Red Planet
    then we understand the meaning but the response has no communicative value.  Focusing only on form without considering function is language usage.

Cohesion vs. Coherence

  • Cohesion refers to how language hangs together by using, e.g., a pronoun to stand for a noun or a conjunction to link two ideas.  For example:
    John went into the house and then he searched it carefully
    The ideas are joined by he standing for John, it standing for the house and and then linking the two actions in time.
  • Coherence refers to the sense that speakers see in the language, for example, an answer which is relevant to a question or a paragraph relevant to the topic or heading.  For example, if we have an exchange like:
    Q: Where's Mary gone?
    A: The shops

    Then there is no obvious cohesion (pronouns, conjunctions etc.) but the conversation is coherent because we can understand what's happening.

Formal vs. Informal language
There is a cline here, not an on-off distinction.

  • Formal language is in a style suitable to exchanges between strangers or between people with roles of different power which avoids slang, colloquialism or contractions.  For example:
    Might I just interrupt to ask a question?
    is a formal way of performing the function of interrupting.
  • Informal language refers to more casual use of language including colloquialisms and between people familiar with each other and of equal power.  For example, to perform the same function of interrupting informally, we might say:
    Hang on a sec'.  What about ...?


Area 2: Teaching and Learning

Structural language teaching vs. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)

  • Structural language teaching focuses on getting the structures of the language right in order to be able to use the language accurately and effectively in real life.
    Usually a syllabus for this kind of teaching starts with simple structures such as the verbs be and have and goes on later to more complicated structures such as tense forms, irregular verbs, conditional sentences with if and so on.
    The syllabus is arranged by difficulty of structure.
  • Communicative Language Teaching focuses on doing things in the language in order to communicate your meaning effectively in real life.
    Usually a syllabus for this kind of teaching is divided into areas such as introducing yourself, asking for information, giving directions, expression personal opinion, talking about heat and cold, expressing levels of certainty and so on.
    The syllabus is arranged by the perceived usefulness of the functions.

Context vs. Co-text

  • Context in lay terms is used to describe what in ELT is referred to by both these terms.  For English language teachers, context is the social setting in which language occurs and is distinguished from co-text.
    It is simple to see that the bowl of food above is in the context of a breakfast table.  The context refers to the things and people around the item in question.  In this case, it includes the glasses, cups, furniture, cloths and the people who may be nearby.
    For example, the language item:
        It's cold in the room
    means different things in these two contexts:
    Context 1: a guest standing at a hotel reception desk talking to the manager
    Context 2: a child reporting on her school day to her mother
    Many other language items can only be understood if the context is made clear.
  • Co-text can be understood in this example to refer to the cereal and the banana.  In other words, it is the language immediately surrounding the item in question which tells us its meaning.
    For example, the word bark is a noun in
        The tree has silver bark
    and a verb in
        I wish that dog wouldn't bark so much
    Only the co-text allows us to understand which meaning of the word is the correct one to assume.

There is a guide to context on this site.

Inductive vs. Deductive Learning

  • Inductive learning involves going from examples of a form to working out the rule.  For example, if you are given something like
    Verb  Past tense 
    smoke smoked
    finish finished
    type typed
    pick picked
    Then you can work out that the rule is:
    To make the past tense of a regular verb, add -d if it ends in 'e' and add -ed in other cases.
    That's inducing the rule from the examples.
    You will have noticed that the forms you need to look at are highlighted.  That's important because we can't learn from something we don't notice.
  • Deductive learning works the other way.  Given the rule, the learner can deduce the correct form.  For example, if you are told that:
    You add '-er' to form the comparative of a short adjective and use 'more' to form the comparative of longer adjectives
    you can complete a table like this:
    Adjective Comparative form
    cold colder
    old ????
    beautiful more beautiful
    disappointed ????
    In other words, you are deducing what the right form should be from a rule you have been given.
    (That rule is simplified to the point of inaccuracy and will have to be carefully refined later.)

Display question vs. Communicative or Real question

  • A display question is one to which the asker knows the answer and is used to check understanding, e.g.:
    What's the past tense of 'go'?
    requires the learner to display his or her knowledge of form.  The teacher knows the right answer and the learner knows the teacher knows the right answer.
  • A communicative or real question is more open and the asker does not know the answer.  It requires new information, e.g.:
    How do you feel about this text?
    asks for the learner to express a personal opinion and the teacher does not know in advance what that might be.

Behaviourism vs. Cognitivism

  • Behaviourism is a theory of learning which focuses on the instilling of habits by repetition and reinforcement by praise or other factors.  For example, if you get students to respond to prompts like this:
    Teacher: I go to Margate every summer (whisper: John, London, every morning)
    Learner: John goes to London every morning
    Teacher: Good, well done!
    then the effort is to instil the right form of the verb and the right ordering of the elements of the sentence by repetition and practice without a focus on meaning.
  • Cognitivism is a theory of learning which focuses on the learner as a thinking person who makes and refines hypotheses and classifies input mentally.  For example, given a text about where someone often goes and what she often does such as
    Mary gets up about 7 and takes a shower.  Then she goes into the kitchen and makes breakfast.  She takes the bus to school at 8 and starts teaching in her classroom at 9 every day.
    the learners can figure out:
    that 3rd-person sentences require an 's' on the end of the verb
    that place comes before time
    so then they can make:
    Mary goes to work every morning
    rather than
    Mary go every morning to work

Controlled activities vs. Free activities
Again, there is a cline from very tightly controlled to completely free activities.

  • A controlled activity is one in which the learner is forced to focus on form and meaning under the control of the teacher or the materials.  For example:
    Asking the learners to identify all the past-tense forms in a text
    Getting the learners to construct a sentence given the skeleton such as 'He ... often ... go .... London ...train'
    Getting learners to repeat a model

    Controlled practice is sometimes called restricted practice.
  • A free, or freer, activity allows the learner the freedom to respond personally to the task and use the language he/she considers appropriate (but hopefully, the language and/or skill which is the topic of the lesson).  For example:
    Getting the learners to exchange personal information
    Asking learners to write about a holiday
    Requiring learners to give a presentation using focusing devices such as 'There are three important things to notice.'  'The essential reason is ...'

Accuracy vs. Fluency

  • Accuracy describes whether a piece of language is properly formed and acceptable structurally.  For example:
    He go yesterday London
    is comprehensible but inaccurate
    He went to London yesterday
    is both accurate and comprehensible.
  • Fluency describes the ability to produce comprehensible (but not always accurate) language in real time without too much hesitation and pausing.  It can describe written or spoken production.

At various points in most lessons the focus will be on one or the other.

Learner led vs. Teacher led

  • A learner-led phase of a lesson is one in which the learners play the main role in using, manipulating or responding to the language.  For example:
    Learners interview each other
    Learners work together to produce a plan of action
    Learners take on roles and simulate real-life communication
  • A teacher-led phase of a lesson is one in which the teacher takes the main role such as explaining, demonstrating, instructing or presenting language.

Learning vs. Acquisition
This distinction is usually credited to a theorist called Krashen.

  • Learning is a formal process of being instructed in the language (often in a classroom).  This is familiar to us all.
  • Acquisition refers to the picking up of a language by exposure to it in a natural setting.  This will be familiar to anyone who has learned some of a language simply by spending time in a country where it is spoken and without doing any formal study.

Try a test (or two).