What the EFL? TEFL, TESOL, ESOL, EAL, ESL… What’s the difference?
In the world of English Language Teaching, there are abbreviations everywhere. Sometimes it's easy to get so lost in the letters and acronyms that are used to talk about the industry, that you can't see the wood for the trees.
To clear this up, here is a short glossary of these, to guide you through the jungle of ELT (or ESOL, or ESL, or… OK, see the list below - I’ve alphabetised them for reference)
Fields within English Language Study
The following terms relate to the study of English as a language in different settings. They focus on the types of language being taught, and how students work with the language in class
EAL: English as an Additional Language - commonly taught as a language support subject in primary and high schools to help second-language students with their English for study.
EFL: English as a Foreign Language - EFL used to be used for pretty much any English language teaching situation, but as the term ‘foreign’ is not very helpful to define the range of purposes that people have for learning English, EFL is now mostly used for English language education which happens in non-English speaking countries.
ESOL: English for Speakers of Other Languages - A broad term which includes any English language teaching that happens with students whose first language is not English, wherever they are and for whatever purpose they are studying
ESL: English as a Second Language - A more specific term where students speak only one language, and this is their first exposure to foreign language learning (i.e. in primary education)
EAP: English for Academic Purposes - Language support for university students whose first language is not English, usually provided on bridging and foundation programmes, and pre-sessional courses before students enter an English-speaking university course.
ESAP: English for Specific Academic Purposes - This is a form of EAP where the language study is related to a specific type of academic study, or a specific subject (EAP for engineering students, for example, is different from EAP for medical students)
ESP: English for Specific Purposes - The study of language for specific jobs, interests or other purposes, for example English for business, English for travel and tourism, or even English for watercolour painters or sommeliers (yes, I have actually taught this ESP class - it took some research…)
Fields within English Language Teaching
The following are focused on the delivery of the above types of English language content. They are focused on the methodology and techniques we use to teach English, rather than the purposes of the students and their study
ELT: English Language Teaching - simply the practice of teaching English language classes in any context
TEAP: Teaching English for Academic Purposes - the teaching of EAP (see above) as a field within ELT
TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language - the teaching of EFL (see above) as a field within ELT. Despite how many people describe their qualification in ELT, TEFL is a field within teaching, NOT a certificate or qualification. This causes some confusion about the role of different types of certificates and qualifications (see below).
TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages - the teaching of ESOL (see above) as a field within ELT. As above, TESOL is a field within ELT, NOT a certificate or qualification (see below), and the use of TESOL as a qualification also muddies the waters around the role of different certificates in the industry.
TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language - the teaching of ESL (see above) as a field within ELT
These distinctions may seem small, but given the huge range of settings where English is taught and learnt, it is worth differentiating them for more purposeful teaching. Employers often use these terms specifically to highlight what kind of students they work with, so it is worth becoming familiar with the different fields within ELT.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on online language education.