Acronyms are everywhere in English-language teaching. They describe what we do, how we do it, and to whom. But is the myriad of acronyms necessary? Can we streamline and agree on a single solution for the English-teaching sector?

As I look for social media groups to join, websites to search for jobs, and blogs to read, I never know which keywords to start from: English Teaching? Teaching English? TEFL? TESL? TESOL? ELT? ESL? EFL..?

My preference is for ELT because it includes, to my mind, everything I want to talk about: Teaching, learning, and English; and Scott Thornbury uses it!

But, alas, not for the first time most of the world doesn’t agree with me. Instead, according to Google, they favour in this order:

1. ESL
2. ELT

These acronyms are not strictly interchangeable but in reality they do not individually carry a specific meaning — each acronym is simply more popular in certain regions of the world, and ultimately are all used to talk in general about English-language teaching and learning.

Let’s have a quick look at what they stand for and where they are used.


ESL: English as a Second Language

In theory for English taught in English-speaking countries. Did you get that from the acronym or the actual words? I didn’t. And apparently neither did Dave from Dave’s ESL Cafe, who created the online jobs board and forum for English teachers abroad.

Most popular: Almost all the world, including the USA, Australia, and Canada.


EFL: English as a Foreign Language

Here the implication is that we are teaching learners in their home country, in which English is a ‘foreign’ language. Not too clear or helpful either.

Most popular: Eastern Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana.


ELT: English Language Teaching

Teaching English!

Most popular: Cambodia, Turkey, Peru, Colombia, and Ethiopia.


TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language
As EFL but with ‘teaching’ in front of it. Widely used for the teaching qualification.

Most popular: China, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Ireland.


TESOL: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages
In theory all-encompassing, as with ELT. Used often for conferences.

Most popular: China and Australia


TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language
As with ESL.

Most popular: Not really popular but used mostly in Canada.


In an era of English-language teaching in which we celebrate diversity and avoid labels, could it be time to define more clearly what we mean when we say we are teaching learners who are learning English as a ‘second’ or a ‘foreign’ language?

Firstly, we cannot easily label people anymore in this way. People move, live in countries where English is used for bureaucracy, used for gaming online, they spend some time in English-speaking countries, then move, they learn on-the-go, online, and fluidly. We can not pin some down to being an ‘S’ or ‘F’ learner.

There is a further debate here because we can argue that, in fact, someone who is learning English in rural China needs to be considered in a different way from someone who is learning English while living in central London. But this of a degree not binary.

Of course the learner in China will need to be taught in a different way and will need different skills than someone who is living in London and uses English on a daily basis; but this is what teaching is about — adapting to the learner in front of us and finding strategies to facilitate effective learning.

I favour ELT because it does not walk on the increasing rickety path of differentiating between ‘types’ of English, it is clear, simple, and I understand it. But, it is not up to me, it is up to us. And we don’t have to choose one over the other, but we do need to be careful about the words we use; we are language teachers after all.

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Posted by rfieldenwatkinson@gmail.com