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Articles for Teachers

TEFL, TESL and TESOL - What's the Difference?
By:Gill Hart

If you are thinking of becoming an English language teacher (ELT) to foreign students then you may be confused with the many acronyms of the profession. If you decide to take an English teaching qualification, a quick look at the newspapers and internet will provide you with a huge choice of courses but what is the difference between a TEFL and a TESL course, for example?

In truth, these days the distinction between the two is becoming less important and there is a tendency for content to overlap. There are still some fundamental differences, however.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language

TEFL - Teaching English as a Foreign Language usually represents the acronym on a teaching certificate that means that you have qualified to teach students whose first (or second) language is not English. e.g. Poland, Thailand, Turkey, China, Russia, Brazil. In other words, English does not have a special status within that country. English is taught as a foreign language and the aim of teaching is not for survival but is usually academically based, using the whole range of skills e.g. reading, writing, listening and speaking.

This means that once a student leaves the classroom they are not usually immersed in English and therefore are not using it in much of their daily life.

Teaching English as a Second Language TESL - Teaching English as a Second Language has two possible scenarios here:

English is used as a second language whereby natives of a particular country and are likely to use it daily. e.g. English is a common language to communicate and holds a special status as a medium of communication in government and education. It will have a common role in a multilingual setting like Singapore and India, for example. Within these countries English may be given the status of an "official" language. e.g. In Dubai where all government forms and utility bills are printed both in English and in Arabic, and English is widely used as the medium for education.

The term ESL is also commonly applied to immigrants, students and refugees who live within a country where English is the first language (such as the U.S., the U.K. or Australia) and who need to learn to function in their host community as quickly as possible, in order to integrate effectively. They will need English for work and education, and everyday activities such as shopping and travelling i.e. any English which will enable them to survive. e.g. a Chinese family who have emigrated to the United Kingdom.

TESL usually ignores literature and more academic concepts that are not considered necessary for survival at a functional level.

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

TESOL - Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages is now used in many countries and is a common term developed in the USA. TESOL makes no distinction between foreign and second language learners and is therefore a general term for teaching those whose mother tongue is not English.

What is the difference for an English Teacher?

Some needs of an ESL student are different to that of an EFL learner:

EFL students

Students from an EFL background will generally have a limited communicative competence and smaller vocabulary range due to their lack of exposure to English outside of the classroom. After the "English lesson" ends many do not continue to practice their English and it is viewed as just another lesson like Science or Math.

If you are a TEFL teacher then you are likely to teach students who are not using it as part of their daily routine. Therefore teachers need to encourage students to expose themselves to English as much as possible, e.g. read newspapers, magazines, use the Internet and watch TV and English speaking (or subtitled) movies. Songs are another great motivator, especially with teenagers.

The teacher is likely have more limited resources and access to authentic and ELT materials

English classes may be geared more towards an academic goal, a globally recognized English certificate such as IELTS or TOEFL. Content may also be wide ranging including exposure to literature and more emphasis on grammar than everyday functional situations.

Commercial text book content usually focuses on developing the four skills, reading, writing, listening and speaking.

ESL students Students from an ESL background will generally have a larger vocabulary and higher level of English communicative competence, due to their exposure to English outside of the classroom.

The teacher has a greater choice of materials etc and English support outside of the school.

Materials will place a greater importance on themes based on culture and social practices. There will usually be more emphasis on speaking and listening.

Learner motivation is likely to be higher as English is of practical use.

If you are teaching immigrants and refugees in their adopted native English speaking land then you will be concentrating mainly on functions and situations - providing language, vocabulary and structures which are necessary to survive. e.g. at the doctors, at the airport, shopping, social communication and applying for a job.

ELT course books

ELT course books may not make such direct distinctions and therefore a course book should be chosen carefully to match the needs of each individual group of learners. However, it is true to say that the cultural components of most commercially produced course books, and the linguistic varieties taught, are still based mainly on English speaking environments (the UK and North America) - although recently publishers are seeking to move away from this and provide a more global prospective.

These days vary rarely does a school director make any distinction between TEFL and TESL when employing language teachers and the terms foreign and second language are becoming less important. With English now having the status of a global language and with the increasing in Internet use, today's younger generations are becoming more and more exposed to English in their daily lives.

Further acronyms in the ELT profession are:

ELT English Language Teaching

EAP English for Academic Purposes (academic writing)

EGP English for General Purposes

EIL English as an International Language (professional people)

EOP English for Occupational Purposes (instruction manuals)

ESP English for Special Purposes (sub divided into EAP & EST)

EST English for Science and Technology

Note: academic sources for this article: Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language, David Crystal (Cambridge University Press 1995) Chapter 7 – World English p107-109

Gill is an experienced English language teacher having been teaching and managing language schools for twenty years. She has also run her own TEFL training courses for new teachers. She is a now a freelance writer and is currently studying journalism. She has taught in Europe, Thailand and The Middle East and currently lives in Asia. For more of her related articles on teaching English please see her page at http://www.socyberty.com/writers/GillHart.14604

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