Published 10th November 2015

In the TEFL world there are a large number of abbreviations and acronyms which not many people understand. Long, long ago someone decided that we needed to label each and every different TEFL situation, and since then TEFL teachers all over the world have been confused. These acronyms shouldn’t be a cause for concern, so don’t freak out if you don’t remember what they refer to exactly, but sometimes it’s nice to know what everybody is talking about. So here’s our guide to TEFL terms you will probably come across at some point in your TEFL career:

TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language

This is the acronym used for teaching students who do not speak English as their first language but are studying it. Usually this refers to a study context in a non-English-speaking country – hence the Foreign Language part – but more and more it’s used to describe any situations in which English is taught to a speaker of another language.

TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

This is often used as a synonym for TEFL, though it can also be used to refer to teaching English to non-native speakers in an English-speaking country. While TEFL is the term generally used in the UK and Europe, TESOL is more likely to be heard in the United States, Canada and Australia. In this sense the origins can be understood to refer to non-English speakers who have immigrated to an English-speaking country.

Just to add a bit more confusion, TESOL is also the acronym for the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, which is the American association which is the equivalent of the UK’s IATEFL – the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language.

EFL – English as a Foreign Language

This refers not to the teaching, but the content of what is taught. The coursebooks and other materials that we use in the classroom are EFL materials. So while TEFL usually relates to the practice of teaching and how we can be better teachers, EFL can refer to studies or research related specifically to the learner and how they learn languages. The two are clearly closely related. Lately though, the term ELT (English Language Teaching) is now used as an umbrella term.

ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages and ESL – English as a Second Language

These two are usually used interchangeably. They refer to the English learnt by non-native speakers in an English-speaking country. In other words, the students are learning English in order to be able to communicate in the environment directly outside the classroom, either as a second language or as a foreign language.

If your head hurts a little by now, don’t worry. There are so many abbreviations and acronyms flying around that most people find it difficult to keep track and to be quite honest, if we know what we’re doing, is it really necessary for us to know if we’re doing TEFL or TESOL? Will it make a difference to our teaching? We think not.