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By Chris Fevens, former Program Coordinator for the TEFL program at Continuing Studies at UVic

As someone who promotes English teaching-training programs at a university for a career, I'm constantly being asked by potential students, institutions, and even experienced teachers what all these acronyms stand for and what's the difference between them. I get questions like "Should I take a TEFL class or a TESL class?" or "What's the difference between ESL and ELL?" all the time, so I wanted to write a quick blog entry to address the confusion.

Before I start to break down some of these acronyms, it's important to note that so many acronyms exist simply because the field of English language education is constantly evolving and becoming more specialized; especially over the last couple decades. Some of these terms may sound similar and may lead you to wonder, why do they all exist, however these slight differences can impact significant decisions like: Which type of course is best suited to my career goals? What are my students’ greatest needs? What lessons or topics should I cover in my classes...and so on.

Let's start with EFL, ESL, EAL, ESOL and ELL, which are commonly used to refer to who your students are what your students will be studying.

English as a Foreign Language (EFL):

The term EFL characterizes courses where English is being taught to non-native English Speakers in a context where English is not the first language used. A example of this would be a English language class in China. The students, who do not speak English as their primary language, could be called EFL students.

English as a Second Language (ESL):

ESL has been traditionally used to describe non-native English speaking students who are studying English in a country where the first language is English. For example, if a Japanese student came to Toronto to study English, this student could be referred to as an ESL student or someone who is studying ESL.

English as an Additional Language (EAL) & English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL):

As a result of criticism over the use of the term English as a Second Language, new acronyms have arisen to describe the same field of study. Essentially experts in language learning thought that since many language learners can already speak a second language, third language, fourth language and so on, assuming English would be their second language is inaccurate and this term needed to be replaced. So in ESL's place, people began using EAL and ESOL. These 3 terms fundamentally mean the same thing and are often used interchangeably.

English Language Learner (ELL):

Along the same lines as EAL and ESOL, the term ESL student has also been largely replaced in many countries for the same reason. As many people who are studying English already can speak a second language, the term was replaced by a much broader title: English Language Learner (ELL).

Now on to the variety of course / program acronyms that describe the options that are out there to future English teachers.

Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL):

TEFL courses provide students with the skills and expertise to teach English to non-native English Speakers in a country where English is not the first language. These courses are specifically for people who wish to teach English in a foreign country. Besides learning how to teach in a foreign context, these course may also provide practical advice on things like how to find a job abroad, what to expect when living abroad, dealing with employers/colleagues from different cultures, etc.

Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL):

Like the difference between ESL and EFL, these courses are developed for people who wish to teach English to non-native English teachers in a country where English is primarily spoken. For instance, if Dave wanted to stay in the U.S and teach English, he should take a TESL course. These courses may also provide future teachers with the knowledge of how to help students cope with their new surroundings and the language barriers they may be facing since coming to that country.

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL):

In my experience, TESOL courses seem to be the least consistent in terms of their direction and who they are intended for. These courses seem to cover the basics of teaching English in both English speaking countries and abroad, although some will be directed at people that want to teach in a foreign country, while others will be just for people that want to teach at home. To add to the variety of courses that may fall under the TESOL title, many of the TESOL courses out there have been designed for students whose first language is not English, but they wish to learn the skills necessary to teach English to other non-native English speakers. Although the term TESOL can be a bit vague, there are many great TESOL programs out there and it is important that you determine the objectives of a TESOL program before enrolling in that class.

Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA):

CELTA is a widely respected TESOL course run under the umbrella of Cambridge University. It covers the essentials to teaching English in any context in great detail. To many people CELTA is generally viewed as the industry benchmark because of its standardized instruction and international reputation, however, there are many international TEFL and TESOL certification programs offering training, testing and support that exceeds CELTA. My wife actually took a CELTA program and she was generally happy with her course. At the same time, the TEFL course I took a year earlier seemed to cover the same content for half the price. Always good to ask around about programs or browse online reviews before choosing a TESL, TEFL, TESOL or CELTA program.


Another thing you may be wondering about if you are considering taking any of these teacher-training programs, is should I take a face-to-face program or online program. I wrote a blog entry a few months ago on this topic.

I know there are more acronyms out there for this field of education, but I hope this helps clarify some of the main acronyms. Also, I know that some people may have different interpretations for even the ones I mentioned in this blog. Please let me know in the comment section if I got anything wrong or if this was helpful.

  • Posted April 4, 2017