Dispatch from the UK – ESOL, EFL, ESL… what’s the difference?

Published on 18th February, 2010 in Author Blog by Lindsay Clandfield

Most teachers will be aware of what the three basic acronyms above stand for in our field, but in case you aren’t here they are again:

– English for Speakers of Other Languages
– English as a Foreign Language
– English as a Second Language

In the UK the first two, and especially ESOL, have become quite important as well as having their own distinctive characteristics. During my last trip to the UK I had some conversations with teachers working in both sectors and they explained to me how they differentiate, in very broad terms. I thought I’d share.

EFL has been seen as English for foreigners, taught at private language schools (and increasingly on university short courses) to a largely middle class European or Asian clientele who wished to learn English for general or academic purposes. If you go to Oxford for a summer course, stay with a host family and go on day visits to London then you are probably doing EFL.

ESOL in contrast is English for new migrants. It focuses on English as a component for settling and working in the UK. ESOL had its origins in the 1960s, and was started informally by local councils. ESOL used to be sometimes referred to as ESL, and indeed the equivalent in North America is still called ESL in many contexts. ESOL has now grown into a major sector in the UK, more recently encompassing a whole “skills for life” focus and syllabus and has its own SIG (special interest group) now at IATEFL and its own special qualifications.

There seems to have been, at least historically, an ideological division between the two sectors. ESOL is seen to have had a more co-operative and anti-elitist ethos. I certainly know several English teachers who, disillusioned by teaching well-heeled and wealthy kids abroad have gone back to the UK to work in ESOL. Maybe it is part of the desire to help and make a difference that drove these people to language teaching in the first place. However, with new standards and curriculum guidelines in place, does this ethos still hold true? As one reader of my other blog said: attempts to actually do any learning or teaching (in ESOL) are often severely hampered by a constant pressure to quantify, exemplify and justify what has been learnt, what’s being learnt, and what’s going to be learnt, through meticulous lesson plans for teachers, and individual learning plans for learners.

I personally have taught plenty of EFL in Mexico, Spain and the UK. But I’ve also taught ESL in Canada (what would be considered ESOL). I like both, and each presents its own challenges. What about other readers? Which would you prefer to teach? If you teach ESOL, do you think my explanation above is a reasonable one? Post a comment.


  • It’s worth reading http://www.bit.ly/dc8BMl Some students in ESOL classes, are very different to those that would usually be found in EFL classes, and different approaches are required, but that’s certainly not true of ALL ESOL learners. I think ESOL is hampered by the bureacratic framework around it – but then EFL is often hampered by the need to make a profit at every stage!

    Phil Bird on 18 February, 2010
  • Hi Phil,
    Thanks for that. It was in fact that report that I first happened on after chatting with these teachers. Yes, it is very worthwhile reading if you are in the ELT sector in either way. And you are quite right about the “need to make a profit”-bums-on-seats approach of lots of EFL!

    Lindsay Clandfield on 18 February, 2010
  • The biggest difference between EFL and ESOL, I feel, is that you can make no assumptions about the learner profile of an ESOL student. Whereas in an EFL class, you can, as you say, assume ‘a largely middle class European or Asian clientele’, the same cannot be said of an ESOL class. Migration patterns, government drives, funding opportunities and the make-up of the local population all influence the type of student you might expect to walk through an ESOL classroom door, but the hardest part is trying to accommodate the potentially very different needs of each individual. And then there is the added pressure of the bureaucratic element that goes hand-in-hand with the UK education system, whereby it is a requirement to document exactly how you have achieved this through formal processes such as target setting, ILPs, initial and summative assessment, attendance data, retention data, etc (i.e. the red tape, by which, as far as I can see, EFL teachers are not bound).
    Another problem is the way in which ESOL has been placed under the same ‘Skills for Life’ umbrella as Adult Numeracy and Literacy (for native speakers). The result is twofold. Teachers who have no subject specific training in teaching English as a foreign/ additional (or whatever!) language find themselves teaching ESOL, and teachers that do have this kind of training are being managed by people who have little/ no awareness of their specialism.
    The problems with ESOL have made me, especially quite recently, feel somewhat despondent about my work. Which is why I am now so pleased that my PLN is becoming enhanced by the presence of like-minded ESOL teachers who are facing the same difficulties. Thank you so much for this post and bringing these issues to the attention of the wider ELT community, many of whom have little understanding of the difference between EFL and ESOL.

    Callie Wilkinson on 18 February, 2010
  • Thank you Callie for that comment, which makes a lot of sense. The report you, Phil and I have read seems to ring true in so many respects. I am beginning to realise what a different sort of challenge it is for the ESOL teachers in terms of student profiles. What seems clear is that more ESOL teaching handbooks with good ideas could be needed …

    Lindsay Clandfield on 18 February, 2010
  • Mmm. A niche. Do you feel that the Global series would address the needs of ESOL learners more effectively than other EFL course books? Will it be mapped to the ESOL core curriculum?

    Callie Wilkinson on 18 February, 2010
  • Interesting article and observations. I have both efl/esl experience and often the distinction isn’t clear. Some business English students fall into EFL but they are actually ESL (ESOL) as they are trying to operate in the UK. I taught in the EFL department in an FE College. We also had an ESL department. Our students were mostly European but we also had refugee doctors! ESL had mostly lower level non-European students but they had business people! Most teachers had taught in both ‘camps’. There was an element of snobbery too (anyone else had this?). To muddy waters further we were assigned a self-financing initiative and needed to attract paying students!I had thought that the move to ESOL was an attempt to bring the two together. This obviously has not happened. I know many who have left FE because of the paper-trailing but the private sector wages have tumbled over the past 10 years – nobody seems to be winning here – I hope the students are!!

    t two the difference as

    Berni Wall on 18 February, 2010
  • I find myself very much in agreement with Callie here, especially regarding the oppressive amount of paperwork that ESOL tutors in the UK are burdened with these days, which saps creativity and energy and interferes with the effective planning and delivery of lessons.

    As Callie also points out, another problem UK ESOL tutors face when trying to address learner needs is the spiky profiles that a lot of students present with. I’ve taught learners in beginner level classes who spoke perfect English but couldn’t read and write, and learners in Intermediate classes who had excellent reading and writing skills but who struggled to follow what was going on. Unfortunately the system isn’t flexible enough to accommodate such people, as what tends to be on offer is whatever course the powers that be have decided to fund that year, which, for some students, is not a terribly good fit. The amount of differentiation that you are likely to encounter in the average ESOL class makes teaching from a course book difficult to say the least, if not nigh on impossible.

    I could be wrong, and I hope I am because I really like the Global series but I’m not personally convinced that there is a niche market for EFL course books in the UK ESOL sector. Public sector ESOL is woefully underfunded, and I can’t see many colleges shelling out for books. As high percentage of ESOL learners in the not-for-profit sector are either asylum seekers, refugees or low waged, they aren’t really in a position to purchase course books, either.
    Having said that, it would be nice to see a workable and affordable alternative to the “no frills” ESOL skills for life materials that most UK tutors currently use.


    Sue Lyon-Jones on 18 February, 2010
  • I think it’s a mistake to see EFL and ESOL as a binary – there’s a continuum of different types of students in the UK – and semantically at least, the definition of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is appropriate for all of them. I believe in the public sector EFL and ESOL are funded differently, so it’s especially tricky to separate out students into different categories.
    I think that working conditions in the public sector are better than in the private sector, but instead of justifying your existence through bums on seats, you have to do it through multiple layers of bureaucracy. While cynical, I do believe that there are noble aims behind the system, they just tend to get lost.

    As Sue has pointed out, there are issues with using course books with ESOL classes, I find this particularly the case at lower levels, where the context differs most greatly from a “standard” EFL class; I find learners tend to have a greater grasp of vocabulary (being surrounded by it), but less of a grasp of grammar.. of course these are just generalisations.

    There have been some ESOL materials produced commercially, but generally they are not to a standard much higher than what practitioners themselves can produce, not to say that they aren’t useful, just that it would be nice to have more high quality materials to use. The reality is that there just isn’t the money in the sector – being confined to the UK, the market is much smaller than the global EFL market, so publishers are not particularly interested.

    The saving grace is how easy it is to share materials over the internet, I’m a particular fan of the http://www.talent.ac.uk website, which is great for this purpose.

    Phil Bird on 19 February, 2010
  • Thank you for the thoughtful comments. Callie I would not say that Global is an ESOL specific-book, although you’d have to take a look closely yourself to judge how suitable it would be in your classes – It was not written with the ESOL core curriculum in mind.

    Lindsay Clandfield on 19 February, 2010
  • Phil, I’ve just taken a look at that site you mention. It certainly seems to have a healthy looking resource section. I expected a bit more practical advice in the advice section but on the whole I can really see why you recommend it. Thanks for the tip, which I will pass on!

    Lindsay Clandfield on 19 February, 2010
  • I can’t disagree with what anybody has said here. I especially agree with Callie: lumping ESOL with the wider ‘skills for life’ agenda has been a mistake. I also like Phil’s comments: publishers don’t see any money to be made in UK ESOL. As a result, we are left with some out-dated and pedagogically awful government-produced materials. The paperwork is frankly ridiculous. Writing about what you’ve done/going to do to such an extent you don’t have the time to teach what t you’ve written about properly. Yet the paper is “proof” you have been doing your job properly.

    26 Letters on 1 March, 2010
  • An addendum to the above (all of which I agree with) and lifting off from Phil’s and Berni’s comments – in my experience there is also the possible situation where you get ‘traditionally’ EFL and ESOL students in the same system and often the same classes. Obviously that presents a number of challenges, that have been pointed out above, such as difference in educational background, VERY different styles of learning, and expectations – clearly they have different reasons for studying English. Challenging to say the least!

    Mike Harrison on 6 March, 2010
  • Yes I tend to agree with the comments above. The similarity is that all students are here to learn English ! The classes can vary in student ability and attitude – a lot of EFL students often see the lessons as something additional to them being in the UK, whereas ESOL students are in the classes to better themselves . The only other thing I will say is that the prolem now is that funding is being withdrawn from ESOL and that is making it motre and more diffcult fo find work as an ESOL teacher. EFL will ALWAYS exist as people have to pay for it ut it means those who need it will not have access to it. I wold also say that there is no diff bbetwen students – you can get nice students in any class and those who can really annoy you too !

    Neil on 17 March, 2010
  • It was really interesting to read all your comments. I’m an EFL teacher, but I’m currently trying to do some research for my Master’s, which will hopefully be focusing on ESOL learners and course books. I will be focusing on Indian immigrants who have lived and worked in the UK for a long time and are now trying to learn English (as are my parents). I’d be interested in hearing of any experiences/problems of teaching this group of students. I was surprised to find out that a lot of EFL books also market themselves as ESOL books, because I would assume that using an EFL book might be difficult for the group of people I’ve mentioned above. I’d also be interested to know if ESOL teachers have access to a lot of materials, and whether most of the materials come from EFL books. It seems that as there is no money in ESOL, EFL publishes are trying to recycle EFL material rather than produce suitable material for ESOL learners.

    Anita Sunda on 19 March, 2010
  • does anyone have any experience of The association of voluntary teaching of english ?
    my home town runs a 9 week course NOCN/ESL.
    I’ve enrolled on the course and after the initial training (27 hrs total ) you are assigned to a learner for a 6 month period. I would like to hear from anyone who has experience of the course and the work afterwards.


    martin on 4 June, 2010
  • Thank you for the very interesting read. I am currently teaching in Thailand, so I am not as aware of the difficulties you are facing in the UK as the rest of you. I tend to think that apart from the topics used in class, the core structure should be relatively the same when teaching beginners. No matter what their circumstances, they all need that elusive combination of implicit and explicit knowledge. Where do you believe that this changes?

    Don Brand on 26 July, 2010
  • I’ve taught in both camps, and ultimately my take is that a good teacher teaches to the needs of their students, and not to the dictats of a particular approach represented by an initialism/acronym. If as an ESOL teacheryou close yourself to the wonderful work on ELT globally then you are closing yourself off to a world of knowledge and practice.

    Sam Shepherd on 27 September, 2010
  • Recently encountered some rather ‘interesting’ interpretations of the difference between EFL & ESOL, however, the insightful perspectives presented on this site are refreshing and enlightening. My personal interest in this topic(MA research notwithstanding) is that I hold a Dip TEFL (18yrs ago) and a Dip TESOL (3 years ago)& the modules and materials studied were virtually identical…only the name has been changed to protect…??? Last year I applied for a position with Adult Education (recommended by a fellow MA student ). In feedback, I was told that my teaching skills/style was commendable and although the interview lesson I had prepared was very good(interestingly, an interactive job search skills lesson adapted from the ‘Skills for Life’ resources!) it was too ‘EFL’ and not ‘ESOL’ enough…they are vastly different, don’t you know!! Despite 24 years very broad UK teaching experience (with no negative feedback!), having taught refugees and asylum seekers 12 years ago, (before they were ESOL learners!) and having taught resistant and challenging EFL/ESOL students and created a core syllabus and valid examinations to be used for ALL learner levels, I was allegedly unable to produce material specific enough to be used in TESOL! (Two semi-retired primary school teachers were considered more suitable). I am confident that the majority of experienced/successful ESL/ ESOL teachers can interpret learner needs and adapt materials appropriately…and could create superior materials to boot! Sadly, I agree that a certain amount of ‘snobbery’ may exists; ‘ESOL’ is ‘establishment'(er..tax-payer funded!) and is perceived as more ‘charitable’,’professional'(well-paid!), etc….unlike its wicked EFL counterpart, a private commercial-for-gain enterprise! (run out of space!)

    Yvonne Lebbon on 2 November, 2010
  • Hi Folks, I came across this page by doing a Google search about the English verb “to prefer”. All of a sudden, this flying British flag popped up. I’ve been working as a language teacher for the last 3 years or so. My mother tongue is German, so I started teaching German. Nowadays, however, I teach English overseas in a non European Country. PART ONE continues.

    Daf EFL on 28 July, 2012
  • PART TWO. So, I kind of really like that distinction between EFL, ESL, ESOL and different business models that might be associated with different modalities. I also think that there is an important line to be drawn between schools and franchise-systems that use their own teaching material, and English course books that can be bought by free and independent teachers. PART THREE WILL FOLLOW

    Daf EFL on 28 July, 2012
  • After reading of these articles I became a bid confused because I need to improve my English language to pass the IELTS exam
    Please advice me which course will be better for me ESOL or EFL?

    Ahmad on 4 November, 2012
  • Hi there Ahmad,

    Thanks for getting in touch. ESOL and EFL are just different terms we use for learners of English who have slightly different learning requirements. The IELTS exam falls under the EFL umbrella – English as a Foreign Language.
    If you are preparing for IELTS then I’d suggest you use specific IELTS materials to prepare. You can find details of these at: http://www.macmillanexams.com

    I hope that healps and good luck with IELTS!

    Charlie and The Global Team

    Charlie on 6 November, 2012
  • I am an English teacher from Pakistan dealing mostly with ESL. I found the discussion interesting to read. But I would like the author to pinpoint the difference in teaching approaches towards ESL and EFL(English as First Language)

    Muzamil Shah on 28 June, 2013