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The following is a glossary of ESL terms frequently used by educators and researchers when referring to ESL-related issues. This list provides educators with an introduction to basic terms as well as links to other on-line sources. For more extensive glossaries please scroll to the bottom of the page for a description of the sites and their addresses.


Academic Language
Background knowledge
Cloze passage
Comprehensible Input
Cueing system
Culminating task

Forms of writing
Graphic organizer
Guided reading
Language-experience story
Learner dictionary
Learning strategies
Learning styles

Literary (or stylistic) device
Media works
Multiple Intelligences
Non-verbal communication
Pattern book
Phonological Awareness
Pictorial dictionary
Reading strategies

Social and cultural competence
Standard Canadian English
Target language
Varieties of English
Visual aid
Writing process

A                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Academic Language:  This term refers to the variety of language that is used in academic purposes in school settings.  It is formal, discusses abstract topics and uses precise vocabulary terms.

Acquisition: The picking up of a language through meaningful conversation. Similar to the way a child learns his or her first language. There is no formal study of forms and grammar. Acquisition is often contrasted to learning a language through conscious study of forms such as schooling. Acquisition will occur when a learner is exposed to meaningful, comprehensible input.

Approach: A set of principles about teaching including views on method, syllabus, and a philosophy of language and learning. Approaches have theoretical backing with practical applications.

Assessment: The ongoing process of gathering information from a variety of sources in order to provide students with descriptive feedback and improve the classroom program. Assessment can involve the gathering of data related to students’ experiences as they work towards the curriculum. Formative assessment focuses on evaluating the process (i.e. evaluation of ability to work in groups) whereas summative assessment involves the gathering of information related to the end product of a learning process (i.e., test at the end of a chapter). Peer assessment, which involves the giving and receiving of feedback among students, is also an important part of the learning process.

Audience: The readers, listeners, or viewers for whom a particular work is intended.


B                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Background knowledge: The background experience and knowledge that a student brings to classroom learning. Sometimes referred to as prior knowledge.

Benchmarks:  Models or examples of student work used to demonstrate various levels on a scoring rubric.

Bilingualism:  The ability to speak two languages fluently.


C                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Cloze passage: A passage of text with some words omitted (e.g., Canada’s mineral resources include nickel, copper, and _____). Students complete these passages to demonstrate reading comprehension, knowledge of the subject matter, and proficiency with specific items of grammar, vocabulary, or spelling.

Comprehensible Input:  This is second langauge input that is just beyond the learner's current second language competence and ability

Cognate: A word related to another word in origin and/or meaning (e.g., English school and scholar; English school and Spanish escuela).

Competence: When learners acquire a L2, they internalize rules which are then organized into a system. This constitutes their ‘competence’. The actual use of this system to comprehend and produce utterances is referred to as “performance’. Researchers (and linguists) disagree about the exact nature of ‘competence’. Some (e.g. Chomsky) view competence as entirely linguistic, while others (e.g. Hymes) view it as communicative (i.e. ‘communicative competence’ consists of both knowledge of linguistic rules and knowledge of how these rules are used to communicate meanings).

Context: The actual situation in which communication takes place. Situational factors such as who a learner is talking to influence the choice of linguistic forms.

Conventions: Accepted practices or rules in the use of written or oral language.

Cueing system: A group of signs (cues) that help readers to extract meaning from print. There are four major types of cues: semantic, syntactic, graphophonic, and pragmatic. Semantic cues are meaningful relations among words. A reader needs to know the meaning of words and have some knowledge of the subject matter in order to understand text. Syntactic cues are grammatical patterns such as word order or word endings. Graphophonic cues are the connections between sounds and the written symbols of language. Pragmatic cues are the characteristics of different types of text (e.g., when a reader recognizes the differences between a newspaper and a telephone directory and uses these resources differently).

Culminating task: A multifaceted assessment task used to provide evidence of the extent to which a student has met the unit expectations.

Culture:  This term refers both to the sociological and psychological characteristics of groups as well as the arts, beliefs, institutions, and other products of each group.

Curriculum: The set of knowledge, skills and attitudes in a subject taught to students during a school term.


D                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Discourse:  To communicate thoughts through the use of words often through speech or writing.


E                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Editing: In writing, the correcting of grammatical, usage, punctuation, and spelling errors to ensure that the writing is clear, coherent, and correct. ( See also proofreading; revising; writing process.)

EFL: English as a foreign language. Originally this term referred to non-native speakers who are learning English language in a non-native English speaking environment. For example, a non-native English speaker learning English in Taiwan.

ESL: English as a second language. Originally this term referred to non-native speakers who are learning English language in an English language environment. For example, a new immigrant learning English in Canada. Note: ESL can be used to refer to English when it is an individual's third or fourth language as well.

Evaluation: The consideration of factors that influence the learning process such as syllabus objectives, course design, materials, methodology, teachers and assessment.

Exemplars: Examples of student work or performance that demonstrate different levels of achievement.


F                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Forms of writing: Forms of writing include: narrative, dialogue, anecdote, poetry, dramatic script, description, set of instructions, announcement, advertisement, personal essay, descriptive essay, supported opinion, expository essay, persuasive or argumentative essay, research essay or report, summary, critique, proposal, résumé, editorial, speech, letter, brochure, manual, agenda and minutes of a meeting, set of notes, learning log, diary, journal, list, survey, and chart.


G                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Graphic organizer: A visual representation such as a chart, table, timeline, flow chart, or diagram used to record, organize, analyse, synthesize, and assess information and ideas.

Guided reading: A reading process in which the teacher guides students through text, using a series of structured activities before, during, and after reading.


I                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Interlanguage:  A term that refers to the way learners produce their second language.  A learner's interlanguage reflects their linguistic knowlege that is automatically used when speaking or writing.

Intonation: The pitch of the voice in speaking. Variations in intonation convey information (e.g., a rising pitch at the end of a sentence indicates a question). Intonation is an important component of pronunciation. (See also Stress.)


L                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Language-experience story: A text based on a shared class experience, such as a field trip or an experiment, composed orally by the students and transcribed by the teacher for instructional purposes.

L1: L1 is the abbreviation for first language or mother tongue.

L2: L2 is the abbreviation for second language, or a language that is not the mother tongue.

Learner dictionary: A dictionary produced specifically for second-language learners, containing extra features such as illustrative sentences and information about the grammatical features and language styles associated with specific words.

Learning strategies: Planned methods or techniques for facilitating and enhancing learning (e.g., memorization techniques for assimilating materials; cognitive techniques for making purposeful associations among ideas; social techniques for interacting with peers).

Learning styles:  These refer to a learner's natural and perferred orientation to learning.  Learning styles include visual, auditory, kinesthetic etc.

Lexicon:  The vocabulary of a particular language.

Linguistics:  The study or understanding of the nature of language

Literary (or stylistic) device: A particular pattern of words, a figure of speech, or a technique used in literature to produce a specific effect (e.g., metaphor, simile, symbol).


M                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Media works: Some examples are: documentary, situation comedy, television or radio drama, news report, sports program, nature program, editorial, newspaper, magazine, brochure, interview, film, video, travelogue, television commercial, newspaper advertisement, cartoon.

Method: How a language is taught. Methods are made up of a set of techniques that usually reflect a certain view of language teaching.

Morpheme:  A meaningful linguistic unit consisting of a word, such as man, or a word element, such as -ed in walked, that cannot be divided into smaller meaningful parts.

Morphology: The study of the patterns of word formation in a particular language, including inflection, derivation, and composition.

Multiple Intelligences:  This is an educational theory developed by Howard Gardner that suggests that all people possess at least eight different intelligences that operate in varying degrees depending upon each individual.  These intelligences include:  bodily-kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.


N                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Non-verbal communication: Physical behaviour that supports communication (e.g., gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, physical proximity, touching).


P                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Pattern book: A book that contains text with predictable and/or repetitive language patterns.

Phoneme:  The smallest phonetic unit in a language that is capable of conveying a distinction in meaning, as the m of mat and the b of bat in English.  

Phonetic:  Refers to the sounds of a language.

Phonological Awareness:  This is a conscious awareness of the sound segments of speech.

Pictorial dictionary: A dictionary for language learners in which entry words are accompanied by illustrations or photographs to clarify their meaning.

Portfolio: A collection of various types of evidence that are used to track progress or assessment. Items which can be included are: assignments, projects, reports, writings and test results which are personal to the learner.

Pragmatics:  The study of language and how it is used in social contexts.  This also includes the knowledge and beliefs of the speaker and the relation between speaker and listener.

Proficiency: Proficiency consists of the learner’s knowledge of the target language; it can be considered synonymous with ‘competence’. ‘Proficiency’ can be viewed as linguistic competence or communicative competence. L2 proficiency is usually measured in relation to a native speaker's proficiency.


Proofreading: The careful reading of a final draft of written work to eliminate typographical errors and to correct errors in grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation. (See also Editing, Revising, Writing process.)


R                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Reading strategies: Methods used in reading to determine the meaning of a text. Examples are: rereading; substituting an appropriate familiar word for an unfamiliar one; using root words to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words; using background knowledge to determine meaning; using information from the context to determine meaning; predicting the use of specific words or types of words from the context (e.g., in a simple statement, the verb often immediately follows the subject); making inferences; predicting content; confirming or revising predictions; adjusting speed in silent reading according to the purpose of reading or the difficulty of the text; using graphic organizers; skimming text for information or details; scanning text to determine the purpose of text or the type of material included; recording key points and organizing them in sequence; monitoring comprehension. (See also Cueing system.)

Realia: Props or other physical items which are used to increase the realism of role-plays. Fake menus, fake contracts, and costumes are examples of realia.

Register: style of language (e.g., formal, colloquial) appropriate to a specific audience, purpose, or situation. Register is determined by the level of formality on a particular social setting, the relationship among the individuals involved in the communication, and the purpose of the interaction.

Revising: The process of making changes to the content, structure, and wording of drafts to improve the organization of ideas, eliminate awkward phrasing, correct grammatical and spelling errors, and generally ensure that the writing is clear, coherent, and correct.

Rubric: A scoring tool that lists criteria for evaluating a piece of work and defines gradations or levels of quality from poor to excellent. It is used to evaluate students’ work or to guide students to desired performance levels.


S                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Scaffolding:  Reducing the linguistic demand of instructional and assessment materials so that students can show what they know.  This is done with the assistance of a teacher who gradually withdraws support until the students become more independent in the classroom.

Semantics:  The study of language meaning.

Social and cultural competence: The ability to function appropriately in a particular social or cultural context according to the rules and expectations for behavior held by members of that social or cultural group.

Standard Canadian English: Oral and written English that follows accepted rules and practices of grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation and that is used across a broad spectrum of Canadian society (e.g., in government, educational, medical, legal, scientific, business, and media communications).

Strand: Headings that organize content or performance standards.

Stress: Emphasis on specific syllables in a word or specific words in a sentence when speaking. Stress is an important competence of pronunciation and contributes to meaning. (See also intonation.)

Syllabus: A syllabus in the content of a language program and how it is organized. This can be contrasted to a method, which is how a language program is taught. Structural syllabuses and functional syllabuses are two different ways of organizing language material.

Syntax:  The grammar or structure of a language.


T                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Target language: the target language is the language that the learner is attempting to learn.

TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language.

TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages or Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Transfer: Transfer is the process of using knowledge of a first language to learn a second language. Transfer can be positive, when a first language pattern identical with a target-language pattern is transferred. It can be negative, when a first-language pattern different from the target-language pattern is transferred. In the latter case, L1-induced errors occur.


V                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Varieties of English: Different forms of English used by particular groups of English speakers, including regional and social groups, and characterized by distinct vocabularies, pronunciation patterns, and grammatical features.

Visual aid: An object used to relate classroom teaching to real life (e.g., food, clothing, a photograph, an item from school or daily life).


W                                                                       ____                                 ____________________________                  

Writing process: The process involved in producing a polished piece of writing. The writing process comprises several stages, each of which focuses on specific tasks. The main stages of the writing process are: generating ideas; choosing a topic; developing a plan for writing; writing a first draft; reviewing and revising; editing and proofreading; and producing a final copy.





More ESL and General Education Terms on the Internet

Are you looking for more information? The following list provides and introduction and links to a host of helpful websites!

This website provides a glossary of abbreviations and acronyms related to teaching and learning English as a Second Language. Some abbreviations allow you link to their own websites.

2. http://www.applyesl.com/en/dic/gloss/index.asp?EvtMsg=Sel,0,0

It is a glossary for ESL students. The terms are related to school life and the explanations are very clear and reader friendly.

3. http://www.m-w.com/

This is the Merriam-Webster online-dictionary.


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