Compare these two definitions from Merriam Webster:


noun | lex·i·con | \ˈlek-sə-ˌkän also -kən\

the words used in a language or by a person or group of people


noun | jar·gon \ˈjär-gən, –ˌgän\

the language used for a particular activity or by a particular group of people

There’s not much in it, is there? Is the difference in meaning related to size? To completeness? Or is it a question of connotation?

There’s a lot of talk of jargon in ELT, sometimes negative. The lexicographers amongst you might disagree, but jargon has something of an image problem, compared to lexicon at least. When we say jargon, we think of confusion, obsfucation and exclusion. Jargon is a dark side of innovation and progress; it’s the lexical manifestation of being left behind.

ELT has always suffered from something of a jargon problem; just try explaining affective filter, schwa or lexical chunk to one of your non-ELT friends. And it’s far from being alone in this as an industry (as any teachers of ESP amongst you will attest to). But it certainly feels like there’s been an increase in the use of jargon in ELT over the last few years. I think the fact that someone was able to produce an ELT jargon bingo card for the last IATEFL conference is a sign that we’re approaching peak jargon.

It’s against that backdrop that I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new series on ELTjam: The Lexicon of ELT in the Digital Age. In the training that we do for publishers, in the projects that we run, and in the blog posts that we read, write and commission, we’re exposed to an awful lot of terminology at ELTjam, some of which may be unfamiliar to our readers. This series aims to address that. Over the next few months we’ll publish short posts that seek to break down and demystify some of these terms. You can see a full list of what we intend to cover here. If there’s anything you think we’ve missed or that you’d like us to cover, please drop us a line to let us know.

Compiling the list was an interesting task. It’s not in any way intended to be exhaustive or fully representative. It simply features the terms and concepts that we come across with most frequency in the work that we do at ELTjam. That’s why you’ll notice that it’s heavy on terminology from publishing, software development, product management, digital language-learning and the startup world.

One final word, or two: why lexicon and not jargon? Quite simply, it’s an attempt to remove some of the negative connotation around some of these words and concepts. My hope is that through explanation comes understanding and maybe even interest. At the very least, I hope that it’ll be a useful resource.

So, to begin at the beginning…

A/B testing

Common technique used in web-based product development to test which of two variants creates the results that you’re looking for. Imagine, for example, that you’re trying to convince learners to sign up for your exciting new online language-learning product. You might try an experiment where 50% of visitors to your website are directed to a version of your home page that explains how quickly your product will teach them English (group A), while the other 50% are directed to a page which shows them how cheaply your product will teach them English (group B). Over a period of a couple of weeks, if more people from group B sign up for your product than group A, then you might assume that your target customers care more about price than speed when it comes to language learning. You’d then adjust your marketing to reflect that. You might then try another A/B test that tested two different price points. Wouldn’t it be great if you discovered that learners would just as easily pay £1.99 for your product as £0.99? I wonder what extensive A/B testing would reveal about what language-learners really care about: price vs. quality, speed vs. convenience, etc. I bet Duolingo knows…


Often called a ‘startup accelerator’ or ‘seed accelerator’, an accelerator is like a turbo-charger for a startup business. If you’re lucky enough to get your business onto an accelerator – for example, by winning at a startup weekend – you can expect a mix of education and mentorship to help your business succeed and, if desired, get you ‘investor ready’ – the Holy Grail for many unfunded startups.  ELTjam is very lucky to be part of Accelerate Cambridge at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, where we’ve covered everything from entrepreneurial finance through to prototyping and MVP development. We also get weekly mentoring and coaching sessions and the chance to seek advice before taking big decisions. If you’re UK-based and considering setting up your own startup, you can find a useful list of accelerators here, or drop us a line at ELTjam and we’ll give you some more information about our own experience.


1. The process of obtaining something (for example, a second language). Often-overlooked detail in ELT EdTech products.

2. The goal of many startup businesses, usually by sale to a massive company. Arguably questionable as a primary business objective but extremely common.

Adaptive learning

The most controversial topic in ELT at the moment? If not, then it’s surely one of the most debated. As a concept, maybe it’s easier to explain in analogue form. Imagine a print coursebook where the contents of the next page were generated as the page was turned, based on the learner’s experience of the page they’d just finished. The new page would adapt to the learner’s unique needs and requirements at that exact moment – what they were struggling with, what they were finding too easy, etc. Adaptive learning’s strongest advocate is Knewton, a New York-based technology company with partnerships in place with several ELT publishers and EdTech companies (including ELTjam) whom we’ve featured on the blog in the past. Its biggest detractor? Probably ELT author Philip Kerr, who’s written extensively on the topic on his blog Adaptive Learning in ELT.


The second most controversial topic in ELT at the moment? If not, then it’s surely one of the worst understood. Probably easier to begin by explaining what it’s not:

  1. It’s not just about speed.
  2. It’s not permission to ignore quality and flood the ELT publishing market with sub-standard products.
  3. It’s not the end of days for ELT authors.
  4. It’s not, in this context, an adjective.

Agile as a product development approach has its roots in software, and at its core lies the concept of value. Agile exists as a way to guarantee that whatever your product does, it delivers true value to the end user. You do this by working in a more iterative and incremental way so as to be constantly testing your assumptions about what your users want or like (i.e. what is of value to them). What this often means in practical terms is working on fortnightly ‘sprints’ in a closely-knit, cross-functional team (for example, engineering, content and marketing together) with the aim of delivering a working version of your product that customers can actually use.

Agile can perhaps best be understood in contrast to its counterpart development technique: waterfall (traditionally used by ELT publishers the world over).

  1. In waterfall, you focus on predicting what might happen and plan for that. In agile, you focus on reacting to what’s actually happening.
  2. In waterfall, you focus on executing the plan (to budget, schedule, etc.). In agile, you focus on creating value for your users.
  3. In waterfall, you focus on long-term milestones (handover to production, proof stages, product launch, etc.). In agile, you think shorter-term: what can we achieve in the next two weeks that we think our users will value?
  4. In waterfall, you build something complete and then test it (for example, a designer produces an entire coursebook from a manuscript, then an editor checks the entire set of first proofs). In agile, you test as you build.
  5. In waterfall, you release new things to the market infrequently (for example, a new six-level adult coursebook series every five years). In agile, you try to get new product out into the market as quickly and often as possible so that you can learn from it.
  6. In waterfall, you focus on delivering the project. In agile, you focus on delivering the product. This might be of particular interest to ELT publishers, many of whom use internal processes and success metrics that function at project level and not at product level.

Can’t decide whether to use agile or waterfall for your next product? It’s simple: If you know the problem you’re trying to solve and the solution: waterfall. If you know the problem but not the solution: agile. So, publishing the second edition of your best-selling print adult course? Waterfall. Trying to enter the b2c vocabulary app market? Agile.

For more on how agile might work in an ELT context, check out this post from 2013: Agile ELT (or, How to publish an ELT course in three months).

Coming next in The ELTjam Lexicon of ELT in the Digital Age: aha momentAPIappasynchronousauthoring tool

ELTjam offers a range of in-person and online training courses for ELT publishers and EdTech companies on all aspects of digital product development. For more information, contact nick at eltjam dot com. 

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