The Steve Brown Blog

EFL vs. ESOL: A False Dichotomy


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.