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EFL vs. ESOL: A False Dichotomy

February 2, 2013

There are many things in life that I don’t understand, and one of them is the apparent insistence among English language teachers in the UK to talk about “EFL” and “ESOL” as if they are two completely different things. I understand why the two different terms exist – historically the two have evolved out of different contexts – but both of them involve teaching English to people whose first language is not English, and therefore they are fundamentally the same.

I know that it’s possible to make it seem like they are very different. We can imagine a typical “EFL” class as a small group of affluent young people from a variety of prosperous countries, happily doing mingle activities to practise adverbs of frequency by asking each other how often they eat Italian food. Similarly, we can imagine a typical “ESOL” class as a group of refugees and migrant workers from various war-torn or economically impoverished countries, happily filling in forms and doing role-plays about going to the job centre.

But it isn’t as simple as that, and definitely not as polarized.

Let’s examine some of the reasons people use to describe the difference between EFL and ESOL.

1. They come from different places.

Not necessarily. In our college we have asylum-seekers from China and Pakistan, and we also get international students from the same countries. We even had some Libyan international students who, when the civil war started, claimed asylum and therefore changed their status. But they were the same people and they wanted to complete the same course.

2. They have different learning backgrounds.

In typical ESOL classes there may be some learners who had very little education in their own country, leading to literacy issues and the need to develop effective study skills. But there are also asylum-seeker students and migrant workers who have postgraduate qualifications. Besides, it’s not unusual for international students to have literacy issues or other additional support needs.

3. They have different needs and goals.

All of these students are currently living in the UK, and many students on “EFL” courses hope to stay here for some time, particularly those who intend to go to university. International students often bring their families with them and therefore require knowledge about many topic areas that are currently the domain of the ESOL classroom. Conversely, many students in ESOL classes aspire to higher education or jobs in professional sectors, and would therefore benefit from courses that contain an academic or professional/business focus.

4.   They are in the country for different lengths of time.

If you believe that students on EFL courses only study for short periods while ESOL students are here long-term, this is only sometimes true. Many students on EFL courses study English before going on to higher education; they could be in the UK for several years. Migrant workers, by definition, have a transient existence, and some only stay in the UK for a matter of months. Asylum-seekers could be repatriated more or less at any time. Even refugees with indefinite leave to remain in the UK often hope to return to their own country when it is safe to do so.

Obviously, there are many students who do meet the stereotypical criteria, but my point is that there is a lot of crossover; ESOL and EFL are not mutually exclusive, which makes the whole idea of segregating students into these two distinct categories seem rather arbitrary. I mean, you might as well divide them along the lines of whether they are tall or short! Or whether they prefer coffee or tea! Or whether they are rich or poor! Oh, hang on a minute…

So is that it, then? Do we have EFL for those who can afford to pay and ESOL for those who can’t – before we even start to look at their reasons for studying? If that’s the case, isn’t that a bit sinister? The provider is getting paid for delivering the courses anyway. Surely the source of the funding is irrelevant.

I feel very lucky to work in a college that does not employ this odd and rather scary practice. To use a student’s financial or visa status as a means of placement just seems wrong to me.

Of course, I may be missing something important. But this ESOL/EFL divide is very common, particularly in England. And based on the reasons I have so far been given for it, I just don’t understand.

  1. Essentially, I think you’re right. There is certainly too much emphasis placed on the division at times. One of my bug bears is the fact that many ESOL teachers would rather die than use any published materials because they’re ‘ELT’ so, instead, they create their own materials. This is very time consuming and, for those without much training (and a lot don’t have much training in language teaching), it means that the materials often don’t work very well at all. I’ve written about this here
    Apart from sensitivity in terms of choosing appropriate topics, the most significant difference, as I see it, is in terms of literacy. Of course, ELT students may have these problems too, but it is more unusual, so dividing ELT and ESOL can mean that there is more support for literacy development. However, there are ways round this, by providing extra support in-class or outside, and making sure teachers are aware of the issues.
    You mention the fact that historically the two have evolved from different contexts, and I wonder if that’s still at the root of the division. Having worked and trained in both contexts, I think there are some quite significant differences in attitudes and approaches. However, I think both contexts have a lot to learn from each other too, which is why combining ELT and ESOL, or at least having them in the same staffroom (!) can be very enriching for both ‘sides’.

  2. For sure, there are more students currently in ESOL classes who have literacy needs than there are in EFL classes. But imagine a world where ESOL and EFL are one and the same. Then all students with literacy needs would study together, and all students without literacy needs would study together. The students would be placed into separate groups according to their needs, not according to their bank balances.
    Regarding the use of published materials, I believe that coursebooks need adapting whatever the context; they have been written for everybody and are therefore specific to nobody (I have an article in the ETP coming up which touches on this). So again the “divide” here is based on perception rather than reality.
    It’s so obvious that “ESOL” teachers and “EFL” teachers can learn from each other. I say this as someone who started in the private sector then moved to the FE sector. Where I work now we don’t segregate our students so we are able to employ a healthy blend of approaches that derive from both “sides”.
    My argument, however, is less about pedagogy and more about ethics. The divide is one that has been created and is being perpetuated by the practitioners, not the students. I find it very odd that it is seen as acceptable (even good practice) to segregate students on the basis of where their funding comes from. I’m surprised it is still allowed, to be honest.

  3. thesecretdos permalink

    Hi Steve
    I have long felt the same way, and yet when I started reading this, I was fighting the urge to disagree with everything you say! Go figure…

    The obvious difference between ESOL and EFL is that ESOL students are often painfully aware of the need to learn English and to operate in English. EFL students -in the UK- are often living in a bubble that allows them to defer any discomfort caused by being less proficient in the language.
    I have worked in EFL all of my [working] life and spent most of that time wishing I was in ESOL – not least because I saw the UK government’s drive to implement a national curriculum as a force for professionalism: finally, an agreed statement of what is supposed to be a marker of proficiency that wasn’t based entirely around the complexities of the verb phrase! ELT is allowed to blunder on regardless with individual takes on what constitutes proficiency in the language and no accrediting body that dares to take issue with it.

    ESOL also can lay claim to having a history of actually helping people to live their lives and realise their potential, unlike EFL which can lay claim to having contributed to the growing alienation that people feel when learning The International Language. I think I regard ESOL as being more grounded in a practical pedagogy that helps people integrate themselves into society whereas EFL is informed by a weaker, academic pedagogy that keeps people on the margins of the society.

    Ultimately, however, I share your view that there is no real difference between EFL and ESOL. Nor is there a difference, I suggest, between EFL and EAP. Or ESP. Or EGAP. Or ESAP. Or…I’m sure you see where I am coming from. Language skills are language skills and, for most people, further acquisition really means building a solid foundation upon which the more specific features (register, lexical range etc) can be allowed to develop themselves. There is very little to be gained from helping a pre-intermediate student produce convoluted noun phrases that couldn’t be gained from helping them talk more fluently about their hopes for the future.

    I suspect that the real division between EFL and ESOL comes from the fact that for FE colleges, they have traditionally represented two very different income streams. One was essentially a self-financing cash cow and the other was funded by public money and was therefore subject to greater scrutiny. You are lucky indeed to work in a place where the artificial distinction is ignored: both ESOL and ELT have heaps to learn from each other. The students can only benefit from increased diversity in the classroom. I suspect that this has more potential for carrying over into life outside the classroom as well.

    • Hello, secret DOS,
      It certainly should be the case that students in ESOL classes have more immediate needs to learn English, and that teaching English to them is perhaps more “worthy”. Having said that, many of my current students rarely or never speak English outside the classroom, preferring to live within their own L1 community despite the limitations this entails. The classroom environment then becomes a forum for broadening horizons and raising aspirations – I sometimes feel I’m teaching a lot more than the language. But in terms of lesson content and the way language is presented (in contexts the students can relate to, with a focus on communicative purpose rather than meaningless drills and gap-fills) there’s certainly a lot of good stuff going on in ESOL.
      I agree that a national ESOL curriculum is a good idea in principle as it does attempt to professionalise an area with rather vague aims and therefore dodgy standards. However the content of the skills for life curriculum could gain a lot from more “efl” materials – I think this is something Rachael Roberts would agree with.
      Of course, being in Scotland we don’t have a national ESOL curriculum. Instead we have a national qualifications authority and we build these qualifications into our courses. This gives us the advantage of much greater flexibility but brings its own problems (see my other post “Just how excellent are we talking, here?”)
      I think the bottom line, as you and others say, is that it’s unhelpful for ESOL and EFL to be regarded as completely different things when there is so much crossover. I would welcome more opportunities for the two to integrate and learn more from each other.

  4. eltcriticalmoments permalink

    Hi Steve,

    There are many acronyms in ELT (there’s one!) and they often lead to confusion. When I first became an English teacher the course offered was the RSA Cert TEFLA (that dates me) so I qualified as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language. Even then, a distinction was drawn between TEFL and TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) but at the time TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) had yet to cross the Atlantic. Anyway, after only four weeks’ training I hadn’t the slightest clue what might be the differences between them. I’d only just discovered what a modal verb was, and I was about to be thrown in at the deep end.

    It was only later that a ‘blossoming of acronyms’ began to happen, some might say a surfeit or embarrassment of acronyms, and lines began to be drawn as to which were most fitting and appropriate to various teaching contexts. Some people disliked the F in TEFL because they felt that the word foreigner had a negative feel to it, and for some the idea of TESL seemed more fitting to who and what they were teaching anyway. Maybe at around this time TESOL became more internationally known, and there was a tendency to ‘acronym creep’ from TESL to TESOL. Maybe TESOL won out because, like all the best acronyms, it was easier to say. Interestingly, on this point about acronyms and political correctness, I read that the EU actually tried to ban the use of TESOL because it deemed the word ‘other’ to be derogatory!

    And speaking of other, there is one other aspect of this dichotomy I’d like to mention, and that is the fact that the English teaching industry (oh dear, horrible word) is currently controlled by two global superpowers, TESOL and IATEFL. One is the US-based American Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Institute (also known as ATI) and the other is the UK-based International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Phew, thank goodness for acronyms! These two giants run parallel conferences, issue parallel certificates and diplomas, and endorse and promote the materials produced by parallel publishing houses. Could it be, in part at least, this state of duopoly that is perpetuating the dichotomy?

    Best regards, Tom.

    • Hi Tom,
      An interesting suggestion that it’s the large organizations that are behind the various different acronyms. I also did the CTEFLA, and the DTEFLA (really showing my age here!) and Cambridge then changed them to CELTA and DELTA in the late 90s, around the same time as the term ELT was starting to be used as a kind of umbrella term (coincidence?)
      However, since then the awarding body has become Cambridge ESOL, suggesting the term ESOL is becoming more dominant. It’s also interesting to note that while the CELTA is still called the CELTA, the long version is now “Certificate in teaching English to speakers of other languages”. So Cambridge now call it a qualification in TESOL but are keeping the acronym CELTA. Maybe the CELTA brand is too strong to give up..?

    • Hi all,

      Coming at this one quite late in the day (comment wise) following a twitter exchange with you earlier this morning, Steve.

      I’d like to say that (speaking from the perspective of an ESOL teacher who also has one year of EFL experience in Spain) that I broadly agree with the points you’ve made above and the extra comments people have made have all added to this. I think overall, despite the bureaucracy of it all, I enjoy working in ESOL far more than I did in EFL (though, perhaps I didn’t give it a fair shot with only one year).

      Also, I wanted to add a comment in response to Tom’s – I’m a volunteer for IATEFL, and while it is true that we run an annual conference, along with Special Interest Group events (including an ESOL SIG – an attempt to bring the two strands of ELT together?), IATEFL doesn’t actually issue certificates and diplomas. This is the preserve of organisations like Trinity and Cambridge ESOL. I cannot comment for the TESOL Institute in the USA.



      • Thanks for adding your views, Mike. Interesting that you describe what you did in Spain as EFL and what you do now as ESOL, as if they are two different things, and yet you agree with my points in this post. I worked for around 10 years teaching English in various countries, and I have about the same amount of experience teaching English in Scottish FE colleges. I appreciate the impact that different contexts had on the type of teaching I did/do, but I still see myself as having essentially done the same job all this time. I don’t see myself as having made a career change when I started working in a more ESOL-y environment. Do you?

  5. Hi Steve,

    I read this post with interest because over the years I’ve noticed a distinct shift in the whole EFL v ESL dichotomy. I speak as an EFL diehard not teaching in the UK, so perhaps my view isn’t entirely relevant here. However, I feel that the original distinction (ESL as teaching to learners in an English speaking country and EFL as teaching English as a foreign language in a non-English speaking country) is becoming increasingly blurry. I teach in an EFL environment, but over the last 20 years English has increasingly become a vehicle of communication in many sectors here, rendering the whole ESL v EFL divide somewhat meaningless. It’s hard for me to imagine a pure “EFL” environment nowadays.

  6. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for this comment. It’s certainly true that learners in non-English-speaking countries have far more exposure to English, and far more opportunities to use it, than used to be the case. At the same time, learners of English in the UK often have aspirations far higher than being able to perform basic everyday transactions, so there’s an increased need for them to become proficient in the use of both complex and accurate language items. So, if the approaches to teaching are responding to needs, the lines should be getting more blurry. I’m still not sure if the lines should ever have been there in the first place, but if people are recognising that the two things are not so different then I see that as a good thing.

  7. Hello everyone. Im Ana. I just finished test for ESOL, but the teacher told me that for me is better do EFL. I have to decide to monday, and i dont know what to do. I see EFL is more expensive. I dont know what to do. Do u think is about a money? In the flyers i saw the note: free english course, and now i have to pay a lot. What is better for me, person that want to stay maybe here one more or two years more. Thanks for any answers, ana.

    • Hi Ana,
      So are you living in the UK now? If you are, it should be possible for you find a free ESOL course in a college or a community centre. An ESOL course will help you to improve your English so that you can function more effectively in your everyday life here. Many ESOL courses also help you to find a job, or find a better job, by developing employability skills. Most college courses also give you the chance to get qualifications in English.
      I don’t know your exact situation, or the type of courses that are available to you, but I am not sure that an EFL course can give you anything that an ESOL course can’t. Maybe there is more of a theoretical focus, so you can learn more about grammar and how the English language works. If this is important to you than maybe an EFL course is better. But most good ESOL courses also include grammar, in addition to the practical focus (the courses in my college do, anyway).
      Maybe you should ask for more information about each course and then decide which one is more suitable for you. But if one course is free and the other one isn’t, I know which course I would choose!

      • Thank You for answer.Yes l live in London, but some day i will move. I decided to do first cambridge certyficate. ( even i will not past the certyficate after 3 month) ls quite expensive. Is true, EFL is more like a logic work with a words, playing with a words. I can feel it after one week. Is very dificult. Anyway my friends that was doing ESOL curse and speak/write more or less like me, she told me, that in Esol course in the group is many people with a difrend level or laungage, and she doesnt continue cause she knows english better then people in her group. Is a very big difrence beetween proficiency laungage in the ESol group . Is that true, Steve ?Maybe thats is why teachers propose people to do EFL, no ESOL courses. Maybe after tree month i will choose the Esol, next level if they have a level for me.
        Thanks Steve

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