objectives of this unit

the least you should know

key characteristics

comprehensive questions

video examples

reflection and responses

where to go to learn more

connections to other units in this program

online and other electronic resources

print and paper based resources

additional references



In the world of teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) or English language teaching (ELT), two other acronyms are widely used: TESL (teaching English as a second language) and TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language). The difference between them is much greater than a single letter or word. TESL instructional settings differ from TEFL settings in a number of ways that can be very important for teachers. This unit explains those differences.

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Scenario: Ron encounters EFL teaching

Ron had worked successfully as an ESL teacher in his home town in Oregon for many years. He enjoyed this job. The students came from many countries around the world, and they were highly motivated to learn English. They needed English desperately in order to get along in American society, reach their educational goals, and obtain better employment. Because they were surrounded by English speakers, they had many opportunities to practice their new language and they progressed rapidly.

Because some of his best ESL students in Oregon were Japanese, Ron was excited to get a one-year job teaching English in Japan. He was enthusiastic about his assistant language instructor position in a high school located in a medium-sized town several hours from Tokyo. Shortly after he arrived, however, he became quite discouraged. Adjusting culturally to life in a foreign country was not easy. The food was different, the transportation system was foreign, and shopping for even simple necessities was a challenge because Ron’s Japanese language skills were very limited. But cultural adjustment to Japanese society was only one of his problems. He also had trouble figuring out how things worked at the school. He felt like a real outsider! Most of all, his English classes in Japan were radically different from those he was used to back in Oregon! They were three or four times larger (with about 40 students each), and the students all seemed terrified to speak even one word of English. If they spoke at all, it was in Japanese, not English. Most of the students seemed interested in only one thing—passing the big test at the end of the year. They didn’t really care about communicating with English speakers, and they had virtually no opportunities for doing so. As a result, their progress was painfully slow.

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Objectives of this unit

After completing this unit you will be…

  • Able to describe at least five key differences between teaching ESL and teaching EFL.
  • Prepared to adjust your instructional approach accordingly, depending on what kind of situation (ESL or EFL) you teach in.

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The least you should know

Although they both deal with helping people develop abilities in the English language, teaching English as a second language and teaching English as a foreign language differ in a variety of ways. Each of these differences has implications for the way you approach your work as a teacher. The following two sections will explain these differences and what they mean to your teaching. Of course, these explanations are necessarily general and simplified. In the real world, things are usually a lot messier. Don’t be surprised if you teach a class that has elements of both ESL and EFL.

Key characteristics of EFL and ESL settings, and their classroom implications:

  1. Out-of-class linguistic environment
    Characteristics: By definition, ESL teaching takes place in environments where English is widely spoken. Normally, native-speakers of English constitute the majority and English is used for a complete range of communicative purposes and functions. ESL learners are surrounded by English outside of the classroom. In contrast, in EFL settings English is not widely spoken outside of the English classroom. Once students leave class, they hear, speak, read, and write languages other than English (this is what makes English “foreign” in these settings.) Implications: Because of the many occasions where ESL learners encounter English in their daily lives, ESL settings are considered “acquisition-rich” environments. Students frequently learn more English out of class than they do in class. EFL settings, on the other hand, constitute “non-acquisition environments.” Students encounter English only in the classroom, and even there (because of factors described below) they may not have much exposure to English spoken naturally and fluently.
  2. Linguistic homogeneity vs. heterogeneity
    Characteristics: In contrast with many ESL classes, where the students come from a variety of countries and speak many native languages, EFL students tend to be linguistically homogeneous. They generally speak the same native language and are accustomed to speaking it with each other. Implications: In ESL classes, students often need to use English to communicate with their classmates. This makes setting up communicative practice situations relatively easy, especially when you mix students from one language background with students from another. Remember, Here we speak EnglishWhen they work with someone who does not share their same native language, students speak English with each other naturally. In EFL classroom settings, on the other hand, it is easy and very natural for students to speak their native language with each other. Some of the better English speakers may even become interpreters for their less proficient classmates. English language teachers must set up rules governing when English should be spoken and if/when the students’ native language is allowed (see Unit 11 “Managing classes of English language learners “ and Unit 32 “Conducting effective and enjoyable conversation classes”), and they must constantly be on the alert to enforce those rules and remind students of them.
  3. Cultural homogeneity vs. heterogeneity
    Characteristics: Unlike many ESL classes, where the students come from a variety of countries and represent many different cultures, EFL students tend to be culturally homogeneous. They generally share the same cultural background, and the target, English-language culture may be very remote and foreign. Implications: In ESL classes, students are already used to dealing with cultural differences because they live in a foreign culture. They naturally recognize that their cultural background is different from the target language culture and other cultures. EFL students may not be aware of these cultural differences, and they may still be locked into their native cultural patterns of behavior and thinking.
  4. Need to create the target linguistic and cultural environment in class
    Characteristics: In EFL settings, English is “foreign” and not normally used outside of the classroom. Also, since the English language is used in many “foreign” countries (the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore, etc.), the students may not be focused on a particular variety of English language and culture. In ESL settings, learners are already in an English-speaking environment, so this decision has been made. They have a clear linguistic and cultural target; it exists all around them. Implications: ESL teachers can take advantage of the many language-learning opportunities outside of the classroom by taking students on field trips, assigning task-based homework that brings students into contact with English speakers, or having students tell about their own English-learning experiences. In contrast, to provide linguistic and cultural experiences for their students, EFL teachers must create an artificial English environment in their classrooms by bringing in pictures, realia, guest speakers, etc. (see Unit 39 “Collecting and creating your own language-teaching materials”).
  5. Learners’ levels of expectations and ultimate objectives
    Characteristics: Since they are not surrounded by native speakers of English and need the language for a limited range of needs, EFL students are more likely to have more modest levels of expectations for their own English proficiency development. They may be studying only to pass a test, or to work with tourists, or to read books in English. These objectives may be far in the future. ESL students, however, often need English immediately in order to survive in the larger society in which they live. They may also need English for a wide range of purposes (from buying groceries in the supermarket to writing academic papers in college). They may need to compete with native speakers of English for education and employment. Some of them may even hope to assimilate into their new English-speaking society and become virtually indistinguishable from native speakers of English. Implications: EFL teachers need to be aware of the particular (and often limited) reasons why their students are learning English. Instruction can then be focused on achieving those ends. The same is true for ESL teachers, of course, but they need to be prepared for helping students achieve a wider variety of objectives and a higher level of proficiency.
  6. Level and type of motivation
    Characteristics: ESL learners normally need to use English outside of class in order to accomplish real-life purposes. They may even want to assimilate into English-speaking society. Generally speaking, their motivation level is high, and it is of the “integrative” type. EFL learners, on the other hand, typically have a more artificial purpose, such as to earn a course grade or pass a test, and a lower level of motivation. Their motivation is often more “instrumental” in nature. Implications: ESL teachers generally enjoy their students’ high levels of integrative motivation. Some even take it for granted and fail to employ teaching procedures and materials that motivate students. EFL teachers, conversely, need to work harder to motivate their students—either by creating lessons that are intrinsically interesting and enjoyable or by reminding students of external forces (such as future examinations or job prospects).
  7. Language-skill orientation
    Characteristics: Since they have relatively little face to face contact with live speakers of English, EFL students may be primarily oriented toward developing their reading and writing (and perhaps listening) skills. Many ESL students have a need for oral language skills above all others for their daily, survival and personal communication. They also have many more opportunities to hear English spoken naturally and fluently. Implications: As a general rule, ESL students will be more listening/speaking-oriented than EFL students, who may not have the need or the opportunities to develop their English listening/speaking skills. In many instances, you, their teacher, may be the only person they ever have spoken (or will speak) English with.
  8. Class size
    Characteristics: While ESL classes can be large in locales where needs are great and budgets are small, they generally tend to be small (10-15 students per class, rarely over 25), especially in intensive English programs. Class SizeEFL classes in many countries may have 30, 40, 50, or even 60 students per class—especially in public schools and in poorer countries. Among the students in these larger classes, there is also normally a wide range of English proficiency. The exception to this rule is classes in private, commercial (expensive) language schools, where class sizes are kept small and students are placed according to their language ability. Implications: When class sizes vary, so do instructional methods and materials. Classroom management also becomes a challenge with large (or very small) classes. Activities that work with a few students may not work so well with many students unless they are divided up into groups. (See Unit 11 “Managing classes of English language learners.”)
  9. Class meeting frequency
    Characteristics: ESL students often study in intensive English programs, in which they attend 8-25 hours of class per week. Of course, some ESL classes meet for only an hour a week, but that meeting schedule is much more common in EFL settings. Depending on school schedules, many EFL classes meet only once or twice a week (although they may meet for a couple of hours at a time). Implications: In intensive ESL programs, students improve quickly—especially at first. When class meets only once or twice a week, it is difficult to make much progress. In the days between class meetings, students are engaged in other activities and forget a lot of what they learned in the previous class. To increase memory and create more continuity, EFL teachers need to start each class with a much stronger review of the previous class.
  10. Need to warm-up/review at the start of each class
    Characteristics: In both ESL and EFL settings, warm-up and review (see Unit 6 “Designing effective lessons for language learning and teaching”) are important parts of lessons. In EFL situations, however, it is much more difficult for students to switch over from their out-of-class world, where English is rarely encountered, to the classroom where English is supposed to be spoken. Also, as noted above, in many countries, EFL classes normally meet less frequently than ESL classes do. Implications: EFL teachers typically need to plan their lessons to have longer, more extensive warm-up and review sections. Although it is not recommended, ESL teachers may more easily get away with jumping right into the presentation and practice sections of their lessons. Skipping the warm-up/review can have disastrous consequences in EFL settings.
  11. School system characteristics
    Characteristics: In many countries around the world, primary, secondary, and university-level EFL students go through school in cohort groups. This means that essentially the same students take all their classes (including English class) together year after year. As a result, they develop strong social bonds with each other. Furthermore, their placement in English classes may simply be the result of their year in school, not their English proficiency level. Implications: In such settings, getting EFL students to break out of their established social and linguistic bonds and speak to each other in English becomes extra difficult. Also, different EFL students’ English proficiency levels may vary dramatically within a single class group. Finally, any embarrassment caused by a students’ words or actions in English class will carry over to their other classes, where they have the same classmates. In some cultures, “losing face” can be very damaging, so in order to avoid it students simply do not engage in risky behaviors like speaking up in English class (see Unit 8 “Working successfully within foreign cultural, educational, and administrative systems).
  12. Learners’ proficiency level in English
    Characteristics: True beginners are more likely to exist in EFL settings, but in both ESL and EFL settings “false beginners” are common. Before coming to an ESL environment, many English learners studied English for many years in their homeland, but there they focused on reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary and not listening/speaking skills. Therefore, when they arrive in an ESL environment where they need to use oral language, they may appear to be at a very low level. Because of their existing foundation in other language areas, they can make rapid, dramatic progress. Students who stay in EFL environments, however, tend to stay at lower levels (especially in listening and speaking) because they lack motivation and opportunities to progress rapidly. Implications: If you are used to teaching in an ESL setting and then move to an EFL setting, do not expect your students to make progress as rapidly as you are accustomed to. If you are teaching ESL students who have recently come from an EFL environment, check their ability levels in the various language skills carefully. Help students use the skills and knowledge they have developed in some areas (e.g., reading and writing) to improve their language ability in other areas (e.g., listening and speaking).
  13. Teacher’s ability to speak the students’ native language
    Characteristics: In most EFL settings, the English teachers are local residents who themselves have learned English as a foreign language. They are usually able to speak the students’ native language fluently. Expatriate, foreign teachers, on the other hand, are often native speakers of English but have little or no knowledge of the students’ native language. In ESL settings where the different students in one class speak a variety of native languages, it is usually impossible to expect the teacher to know all of those languages. Implications: EFL teachers who share their students’ native language tend to use that language for class management, technical explanations, and often much more. It is more likely that English will become something that the class talks about rather than a real vehicle for communication. When the teacher does not know the students’ native language, however, it is almost unavoidable that instruction (including classroom management and technical explanations) will given only in English.
  14. Teacher’s proficiency level in English
    Characteristics: As noted above, in many EFL settings most teachers are local residents who speak the local language natively and have learned English as a foreign language—to a greater or lesser degree. Having gone through this process, they may have a knowledge of grammar rules or experience with the language-learning process, even though their English speaking skills are lacking. Sometimes, of course, EFL teachers are expatriate, native-speakers of English. More frequently, however, it is ESL teachers who are native (or highly proficient) English speakers. Implications: If their knowledge of English pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, or culture is deficient, EFL teachers may have difficulty using some teaching procedures and materials. Also, they may teach students incorrect English. When those students later have an English teacher who is a native speaker of English or highly skilled in the language, they may have difficulties due to the previous, incorrect learning that took place.
  15. English teaching materials available locally
    Characteristics: Books and other materials for teaching English are available worldwide, but their quantity, variety, and quality vary from location to location. In many EFL settings, especially in less developed countries, locally written and published textbooks are used because of economic necessity, but they may be lacking in editorial quality (with frequent typographical errors) or employ foreign or antiquated teaching methods. In ESL settings in more developed countries, higher quality textbooks are usually available, but they are also more expensive. Programs or students with limited budgets may not be able to use them for this reason. Implications: If you are assigned to use an existing textbook or other instructional material, be prepared to adapt it as necessary (see Unit 40 “Successfully adapting existing materials for greater teaching enjoyment and success). If your budget does not cover the costs of expensive materials, you can create and collect your own (see Unit 39 “Collecting and creating your own language teaching materials”).
  16. Students’ rate of progress
    Characteristics: Because of the factors listed above, EFL students generally make slower progress than ESL students do. Of course, this is a grand generalization. Individual characteristics such as motivation, language aptitude, learning styles and strategies, and many others make a big difference in students’ rates of progress. Implications: Be extra patient with your EFL students whose language learning and practice opportunities are limited. Don’t get discouraged if their progress seems slow despite your best teaching efforts. There are many reasons to admire and praise them for even small steps forward in their learning of English.

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Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  1. We’ve just gone through 16 differences between teaching ESL and teaching EFL. Without looking back and using your own words, how many of those differences can you now describe? (Try to come up with at least five. Ten is better. Fifteen is nearly perfect!)
  2. What kind of setting are you (or will you be) teaching English in? To the best of your knowledge, which of the typical ESL characteristics does it have? Which of the typical EFL characteristics does it have? What instructional adjustments may you have to make because of these characteristics?

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Video examples

Coming soon. (Introduction to the video clip(s) CHINA? JAPAN HIGH SCHOOL?? MEXICO? ELC?)

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Reflection and Responses

Think about each of the following questions related to the video you just watched. Write a sentence or two in response to each one.

  1. What characteristics of TEFL or TESL settings did you notice?*
  2. What type of instructional setting (ESL or EFL) would you say this one was?
  3. How did the teacher deal with each of these characteristics?
  4. If you have English language teaching experience, compare this class with others that you have been in.

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Where to go to learn more

Here’s where you get additional information on the topics presented in this unit.

Connections to other units in this program

  • Unit 8 “Working successfully within foreign cultural, educational, and administrative systems
  • Unit 10 “Adjusting your spoken English to make it comprehensible.”
  • Unit 11 “Managing classes of English language learners “
  • Unit 32 “Conducting effective and enjoyable conversation classes”
  • Unit 39 “Collecting and creating your own language-teaching materials”

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Online and other electronic resources

Coming soon.

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Print and paper-based resources

SnowSnow, Don. (2006). More than a native speaker: An introduction to teaching English abroad (rev. ed.). Alexandria, Virginia: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. ISBN 978-193118532-5 “Every year, thousands of men and women from English-speaking nations go abroad as volunteer English teachers. Success in teaching is largely based on qualities such as diligence, patience, and common sense, which many nonprofessionals possess in abundance. But learning the craft of language teaching by trial and error can take a long time and involve considerable emotional wear and tear on teachers and students. This book accelerates the process by offering a nontechnical introduction to English teaching geared toward the special needs of native-English-speaking teachers working outside their home countries.”

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Additional References

Maple, Robert. (1987). TESL versus TEFL: What’s the difference? TESOL Newsletter, 21(2), 35-36. Judd, Elliott L. (1981). Language policy, curriculum development, and TESOL instruction: A search for compatibility. TESOL Quarterly, 15(1), pp.???

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*[Example response from viewer of Longman TTTV Role Play video How about another video from my collection? ELC? The students are not all Chinese, I think there are a couple of Chinese students here, but there are, I think, some French speakers, and some Spanish speakers. For this reason, they naturally speak English with each other—especially when the French speaker and the Chinese speaker work together in pairs. I think the teacher engineered the student pairs that way on purpose. This class is quite different from the ones I taught in China where all the students (and there were a lot more of them) were Chinese. It was sometimes hard to make sure everyone was “on task” speaking English.]

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