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EFL and ESOL revisited

September 21, 2013

Someone recently asked me if I thought there were big differences in classroom practice between ESOL as taught in FE colleges and EFL as taught in private language schools. It’s such a big question, and one I wasn’t expecting. I’ve even blogged about it before, yet I didn’t know where to start and ended up giving a rather rambling and incoherent answer which, considering it took place in the context of an interview, left me a bit disappointed with myself.

So what should I have said? There’s a lot that I have said already, and I could have referred him to my previous blog post in which I propose that dichotomising EFL and ESOL is unhelpful and inaccurate, largely because the dividing line between ESOL learners and EFL learners is not clear. I could also have made the point about the role money plays; EFL courses are usually commercial and fee-paying learners are therefore from privileged backgrounds, while ESOL learners have their courses funded because they are viewed as being from disadvantaged backgrounds (broadly speaking).

However, neither of these points actually answers the question. He was asking specifically about classroom practice – how is that different?

I think that to give a decent answer it’s important to consider the origins of the two “professions”. EFL methodology is informed largely by academia, specifically applied linguistics. Teaching techniques, methods and approaches are derived from the ideas of  brainy people who study psycholinguistics, L2 acquisition, cognitive linguistics etc. You can look at the work of Skinner (behaviourism), Chomsky (universal grammar theory), Hymes (communicative competence), Corder (the interlangage hypothesis), Krashen (L2 vs. L1 acquisition), to name a few, and you’ll see that all of these guys were, first and foremost, concerned with how the mind works and how it acquires language. Teaching methods and approaches that are common in the EFL classroom (audiolingualism, CLT, task-based learning, guided discovery etc.) all draw heavily on theories in applied linguistics.

ESOL, on the other hand, has its origins in practical contexts rather than theoretical ones. It developed in response to a need for immigrant communities to learn English, and this is evidenced today in the heavy focus on practical, useful content, rather than (or at the expense of?) the presentation of language as a series of systems. Methods and approaches in ESOL are informed less by language acquisition theories and more by principles of education in general. Teaching techniques applied in the ESOL classroom are therefore quite generic in terms of their roots, relating more directly to learning in general rather than language learning in particular.

So, the two “types” of English teaching have very different origins, but let’s get back to the question: what differences are there in terms of classroom practice? Well, despite the contrasting prior influences, I would suggest that they have both arrived at very similar places in terms of actual classroom practice. Communicative Language Teaching is all about getting the message across, which is what ESOL has been prioritizing all along. Communicative approaches such as task-based learning place great importance on the contextualization of language, and the need for students to have a meaningful use for what is being taught. Again, ESOL courses have tended to use the need to use language for real-world tasks as the driving force of the learning programme.

Lexical approaches to language teaching place less emphasis on grammar rules and more on identifying set phrases. Similarly, ESOL practitioners will often provide a range of exponents without going too deeply into their grammar. The use of corpora has allowed EFL providers to identify high-frequency lexis and teach this first. In the same way, ESOL courses tend to sequence language in order of what students are most likely to hear, or need to use.

EFL courses sometimes start with a needs analysis, leading to a negotiated syllabus. ESOL programmes these days usually include ILPs (Individual Learning Plans), the content of which is used to inform syllabus content. The Social Practice Approach, commonly applied by ESOL practitioners in colleges and community learning contexts in Scotland, is simply a model for identifying student needs and addressing them within the course. Dogme espouses teaching with fewer resources and focusing more on what the learners can bring to the classroom. This is a pretty good description of the social practice model in a community learning setting.

When you think about it, you can take pretty much every “good idea” that is currently popular in EFL and see it in practice in ESOL. The ideas may have come from different places, but the conclusions on what makes good classroom practice are the same.

So on re-examination, I still feel that the biggest difference between EFL and ESOL is that people perceive there to be a difference. Many professionals on either side seem to find it hard to accept similarities; considering the origins and motives of each (promoting social equality versus generating income) it is felt that they cannot possibly involve the same kind of classroom practice.

But, for a moment, let’s ignore how ESOL and EFL started, who influenced them, and what motivates their providers. If you simply consider that both of them are primarily concerned with getting people who don’t know English to be able to communicate effectively in English, suddenly it’s a lot less surprising that the same principles and practices can equally effectively be applied in either context.

I’m still not sure if I’d be able to answer my interviewer’s question in a succinct way though. How would you answer it?

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12 Comments
  1. samuelshep permalink

    Gosh this is a good post! I think that the distinction you made between EFL being a much more cognitively rooted (in that it’s mainly about language and learning) and ESOL being more socially & pragmatically rooted (it’s mainly about the learners, their language, and what they do with it). But as you say, the difference in classroom practice is now minimal: I think, however, this is more to do with more and more people moving from one to the other: ESOL teachers going abroad, of course, but also EFL teachers returning to the UK and finding work as ESOL teachers. So lessons and practices move between the two.

    I think this is a good thing I meet a lot of ESOL teachers from a generic/literacy trained background who are nervous about teaching grammar, or are unaware of the cognitive elements of language learning, and I have also met an awful lot of EFL teachers who simply ignore the needs of their learners and trog through the text book.

    Very good, very thought provoking and an inspiration for me to write a similar one. But not on a Saturday night!

    • Fair enough, Sam – we all have much better things to do on a Saturday night!
      You’re absolutely right about the impact of staff crossing over from one to another. I’m one of those people, having spent about 10 years teaching abroad before I came back and started working in the FE sector. Most people I know who work in FE also have some experience working abroad or in private language schools. I’m not sure if those going the other way are able to have much influence over ways in which English is taught abroad though. I’d be interested to find out though.
      I look forward to reading whatever you end up writing on this subject – I’m sure it will be a great read, as always.

  2. sjesol permalink

    Hmm, we have discussed this in depth at my place of work. I agree that there is a perception that the two are different. This is not always helpful. But in terms of classroom practice we came to the conclusion that the starting point for ESOL can sometimes be different. Whereas an EFL approach may work from warmer to language input/analysis to controlled practice of this in a real-life situation (and I know that’s not always the case before anyone says it), ESOL learners bring with them a lot of experience of living and working in the country. It tends, therefore, to be that we start with a real-life situation, work through the language needed and then put it into action. I agree that the methods of doing this are often the same tho. And because I think that understanding grammar and vocabulary is one key to learners owning the language, we do a lot of this…just perhaps not in the same way that pre-prepared resources will organise things or not by adhering to the conventional order of things (e.g. I taught an Entry 2 (Pre-int) group present perfect simple in their first lesson because we were grappling with ‘How long have you been here?’).

    • Hi, and thanks for your comment.
      The EFL approach you describe is certainly a very familiar one, starting with a small language item and then opening it up as the lesson goes on. This kind of lesson sequence has been around for ages, and is still very commonplace. But the “purer” versions of communicative language teaching – task-based learning and Dogme in particular – which, in my view, have the closest similarities to English as taught in ESOL contexts.
      As Sam says above, a key reason for similarities in terms of classroom practice is that a lot of people working in ESOL have an EFL background, and are perhaps less afraid of teaching grammar (or more confident of learners’ ability to deal with grammar) than those who haven’t worked in or been trained for this aspect of language teaching.
      I also agree with you about pre-prepared resources not necessarily fitting with the way we deal with language. Is this because they are not designed with us and our learners in mind, or is it a wider problem that occurs when you use any pre-prepared resources?

      • Hi Steve

        My opinion is that ‘less is more’ and that pre-prepared resources sometimes have too many stages planned out in too much detail (which is understandable since these resources are designed for native and non-native teachers). But, in providing step by step activities, the opportunity for the learners to direct and interact naturally with the learning is sometimes missed or given as an extension activity only. It’s often quite difficult to know how to skip a stage from a pre-prepared resource which leaves the teacher with two options – follow the resource to the letter or just use step one as a springboard. The latter can be quite daunting for new teachers. Now, a toolkit of activities and teaching methods is a useful thing but it takes time and training to develop this. The various pressures on publicly-funded ESOL providers mean that teacher development often feels like an afterthought and can be too generic in its scope…. but perhaps that is a discussion for another day!

  3. Gordon Wells permalink

    There may not be a succinct answer that does justice to the nuances and subtleties you’ve outlined. You could write a book about it. More than a few probably have already. Have you seen the British Council’s recent “Innovations in ELT for migrants and refugees”, edited by David Mallows? You can get it free online as a PDF. As a cross-sectional snapshot of current UK practice (including the Hebrides!) both within and outwith the classroom I’d recommend the whole book, but particularly the final chapter by John Sutter, writing about a “social turn” in ESOL – where he also links dogme and social practice approaches, with some exemplification from Carol Goodey’s work… But I think I agree broadly with your own summary – that the difference lies in perception. To put it another way, the ELT profession is itself a “multicultural” one (EFL, ESL, ESOL, EAL etc…) in which difference can be taken as more important/significant than commonality, depending on the degree of analysis/introspection of the sort you’ve just offered we are prepared to apply…

  4. Thanks very much for the book recommendation, Gordon – I’ll check that out.
    We do indeed work within a very diverse profession, but it is one profession all the same. I think that’s really what I want to say.

  5. Ty Kendall permalink

    Another difference between EFL and ESOL that I can think of (which informs classroom practice) is student motivation. Now, I’m generalizing here but I’d say that EFL students tend to be more extrinsically motived – they’re learning English to pass an exam, to get their IELTS, to get into university, etc. …it’s far more a means to an end, whereas ESOL students (whilst still having extrinsic motivation factors) on the whole tend to possess more intrinsic motivation – possibly by virtue of being immersed in the L2 culture and having more of an immediate “need” to be genuinely interested and looking beyond immediate gain.

    I think this is sometimes reflected in the syllabi and in classroom practices. In the former (EFL – extrinsic motivation) you can end up teaching to the test, resulting in a narrow focus, more drilling etc. In the latter (ESOL – intrinsic motivation) you can take a more relaxed and – I hate using this word – “holistic” approach.
    Of course you can teach to the test in ESOL too and the above is based on some sweeping generalizations, but this is what I’ve experienced teaching (briefly) both ESOL and EFL.

    There may also be a focus-differential too. In my ESOL classes there was definitely an emphasis and priority placed on language SKILLS, whereas I felt this less so in the EFL classroom where language SYSTEMS (grammar etc.) was king.

    However, that said, I think these differences are quickly being ironed out.

    • Hello Ty,
      As you say, these are generalisations that are often used to describe motivational differences between ESOL and EFL learners. In my previous post about this topic (“a false dichotomy”) I suggested that generalisations like this are perhaps given more importance than they should. Regarding motivation, I have taught loads of students in EFL contexts who demonstrate clear intrinsic motivation in that they’re really interested in the language and what the learning of it can bring to them. I have also taught ESOL learners who, although they’re living in an English speaking country, are not particularly motivated to learn English; they realise they have to and this is why they are in the class, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they want to.
      I still feel that generalising learners and learning contexts, and using this to describe ESOL and EFL as different things, is just not particularly helpful. As I was trying to say in this post, the same broad approaches can be applied to both contexts. In fact, a lot of the most progressive EFL-y communicative approaches seem to be applied more often in traditional ESOL contexts than in EFL contexts. Maybe if EFL providers were to get out of the coursebook bound, Grammar McNugget rut that they seem to be stuck in they might be able to catch up a bit. Of course, I realise not all EFL providers do this – I’m generalising 😉

  6. Reading all of the interesting reflections above, I have a feeling that the same “acronyms” (let’s not go there LOL) mean different things to different people.
    I have always understood:
    EFL = teaching in a context where English is NOT spoken in community, (apart from temporary intensive EFL courses) ,
    ESL = English as a second language in the US,
    ESOL = English as a second (or “other” because Britain is more multicultural) language in the UK.

    Looked at from “abroad” it seems to me that both ESOL, and ESL have taken a “social turn” which is a whole different story (or not).

    It’s just that, as an anti Grammar McNugget EFL teacher in France, it still seems to me that the dichotomy between “foreign” language learner (for whom it is frequently an obligatory part of the curriculum) and “second (or third etc)” language learner, who can put the “new” language to work on leaving the classroom, really does exist, and the alphabet soup we throw at our profession maybe doesn’t help all that much.
    (said by an EFL, ESP, EAP teacher)

    • Hi Elizabeth Anne,
      That’s a very good point – there is even disagreement on what some acronyms actually stand for. I think ESOL these days is “English to/for Speakers of Other Languages”, which is a massive catch-all expression. I agree that using acronyms is not particularly useful.
      The distinction that you make is related to whether English is being taught in an English-speaking country (so students can use English outside the classroom) or a non-English speaking country (where students are removed from the option of using English). So does this mean that if one of your French students goes to a language school in England for two weeks they are doing an ESOL course? Teachers in the language school would disagree with that. And what about countries where English is widely used as a lingua franca – places like Malaysia or India? Because of the prevalence of other languages it’s difficult to describe them as English-speaking countries, yet people from different language groups use English to communicate with each other. If you learn English in one of these countries is it EFL or ESOL?
      It’s very interesting to get your perspective from France though – English is clearly seen as a foreign language there. I wonder if it’s regarded in the same way in all European countries. Most Dutch people seem to start learning English at a very young age. Does growing up with a language change your perception of it?

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