Friday, February 1, 2008

What's the Difference: ESL, EFL, ESOL, ELL, and ESP?

I was at the ProLiteracy conference in Alexandria, Virginia last November standing at the Reading Horizons booth when a woman approached me and asked, “What does E-S-O-L stand for?” (She was referring to the “ESOL” acronym that was on the booth display.) “Oh!” I said. “It stands for ‘English for Speakers of Other Languages’.” She nodded and said, “OK. I’ve been wondering for awhile what that stood for. Thanks.”

She is not in the English language teaching profession, but I realize that even those of us who are within the profession may not be clear on the difference between the acronyms that have surfaced to describe our jobs. When I first heard about the profession of teaching English to speakers of other languages, I heard it referred to as “ESL.” Since that time (which was about 13 years ago), other acronyms have been brought to my consciousness (e.g., EFL, ESOL, and ELL) that are essentially getting at the same thing, but they’re used with the intention of providing more distinction between the different learning environments.

So, what is the difference between ESL, EFL, ESOL, and ELL? This is what I’ve learned from my experience.

“ESL” (English as a Second Language) is learning English in a country where English is dominantly spoken, or where English is the official language. For example, students from non-native English-speaking countries who come to the U.S. and Canada for an extended period of time learn English as a second language. They acquire English as a means to communicate in the dominant language spoken in the community where they reside. For example, I taught ESL to adults at the Cubberly Community Center through Palo Alto Unified School District in California. It was a heterogeneous classroom with students from all over the world who had moved to California. They were participating in free English classes so they could communicate. I had a husband and wife from China, he formerly a professor and she a doctor in China, who had relocated to Palo Alto where they were living with their daughter and her American husband and helping to care for their granddaughter. I had two students from the Ukraine whose husbands were recruited to work for a local U.S. company. I had a couple young high school graduates, one from Japan and another from France, who were applying to American universities and trying to polish their English skills. These are examples of students who were learning English as a second language (ESL).

Contrast that with when I went to Taiwan to teach English to children in Feng Yuan and Houli, Taiwan. These students were learning English as a foreign language (EFL). English is not the primary or dominant language spoken in Taiwan, so English is considered a “foreign” language rather than a second language. “EFL” (English as a Foreign Language), then, is learning English in a non-English-speaking country. I also taught legal English to Chinese prosecutors and judges in mainland China. These students were also learning English as a foreign language because these students were learning English in China where English is not the official language. If they had been in the U.S. learning English, however, it would have been considered English as a second language. Get it?

A more generic term has surfaced, however, as an attempt to generalize the ESL/EFL distinction: English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). This applies to both ESL and EFL contexts. Another reason why this term was created is because some individuals argue that when students are learning English in a native English-speaking country (ESL), these students are not necessarily learning a second language. It could, in fact, be a student’s third or even fourth language. English as a second language, then, is limiting and not fully comprehensive in its description. English to Speakers of Other Languages, “ESOL,” is a more accurate description. This was true of my Ukranian students in Palo Alto who spoke both Ukranian and Russian fluently prior to learning English. English was actually their third language. In this case, ESOL is a more fit description than English as a second language.

A final acronym that is used often is English Language Learners (ELL's). This is commonly used in K-12 environments. It has been brought to my attention, however, that some school districts prefer to use the term ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) to describe their student population. For example, when I was observing a phonics training in the Dade County school district in Miami, Florida, they use the term ESOL in their district rather than ELL. This could simply be a preference issue.

I also wanted to touch on one more acronym that is often used in the field. “ESP” stands for English for Special Purposes. Students who learn English for Special Purposes are learning English in context of a certain field, profession, or topic. For example, when I was teaching legal English in China, I was teaching English in context of law. These students were learning English in preparation for studying law through an American University where the professors were all native English speakers. These students were learning the English necessary to sustain them in their studies of law. They were learning the terms and concepts in English in preparation for their actual enrollment in the law school program. This is an example of English for Special Purposes (ESP).
Hopefully this provided some clarification on the different terms used in the English language teaching profession. I should mention that these views are based on my experience and informal research on the topic, and they are certainly not comprehensive. I’m confident there are other ideas not mentioned here that shed even greater light on the topic. But at least here are a few.

For me, the difference between the terms used is not as important as the difference that teachers make in the classroom, regardless of whether they're teaching ESL, EFL, ESOL, ELL's, or ESP. What's the difference? It's the teachers' vision and dedication. In my opinion, that's the real difference.

Take my poll to share the abbreviation/s you use most often when referring to your non-native English speaking students.

(A few of the ideas represented here are adapted from Decoding Strategies for Literacy Development, published by Reading Horizons, and are used with permission.)

For a comprehensive list of additional English teaching abbreviations, click here.


  1. Thanks Heidi. I finally understand ESOL! I always thought it a little silly having all these acronyms that basically stood for the same thing. But now I understand that they each have their own purposes.

  2. Additional Thanks.

    I have been teaching for 16 years and did not know these differences.

  3. You're welcome, Jason. I'm glad this was helpful!

  4. So in the context of Oman I assume it is EFL rather than ESL?

  5. Marium,

    Thanks for your question. I would assume that in Oman, English is taught as EFL versus ESL in most contexts.

  6. thanks Heidi i really needed to know the difference between TEFL and ESP.

  7. Thanks for the post! It is sure to be very helpful, I was just looking for this info.

  8. Thank you so much for those explanations, so i have one question please, as i'm a newcomer in the USA and i want to attend college, wish program is good for me ? ESL or ESOL ?

  9. Really good explanation. I knew the difference between ESL and EFL but wasn't sure about ESOL. I looked it up as I am applying for International School positions and saw a position advertised as ESL/ESOL and wanted to clarify the ESOL meaning. I think a lot of people do use most of these terms interchangeably, and outside of education circles, ESL is probably the most well known term, likely because it came first. I do agree with your final point that the more important distinction is not which acronym you use, but how dedicated and capable the teacher is. I also think that a lot of schools probably haven't analyzed too much which acronym they are using. For example, based on the actual meanings, the positions I was applying for is in Vietnam and advertised as ESL/ESOL but technically should probably be referred to as EFL rather than ESL since English is not the official language in Vietnam. Again, I don't think it makes too much difference, and probably wasn't an entirely conscious choice, since many longtime educators are not 100% aware of the actual differences. To the "anonymous" commenter who is asking which class would be best, I don't think you need to worry too much about it. If you are studying in a non English country, the course will likely be called EFL or ESOL while if you are taking a class in a country a class with pretty much the same content will likely be labeled as ESL/ESOL. More important that whether they call it ESL or ESOL is whether or not you have a good school with a teacher who cares about his or her students. So don't worry about what the class is called, just find a school and teacher that you feel comfortable with or has a good reputation with former or current students and a good track record. Also, in some countries the distinction between ESL/EFL might not be so clear cut. I currently work in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Although Arabic is the official language, the local population of Emiratis is actually much smaller in number than the actual expats from various countries that are living in the country for work. Because of this, English is spoken quite a lot all throughout the city and most places you go, although many of the speakers are speaking it as a second or third language, it is sort of like an unofficial second language in the city because with so many expats from so many countries, most people have to speak English to communicate with people from so many different places. My final observation, is that in a true ESL situation where you are studying in a country where English is the main language, you may progress faster than if you are studying in a country where English is not used in public. The reason for this is that if English is spoken all around you all the time you get many more opportunities to practice it and use it in real world situations. This is not to say that dedicated students cannot master English in non English speaking countries, but that they need to more consciously arrange to have opportunities to practice the language between classes, perhaps through language clubs, tutors, chatting online, watching movies in English or whatnot. Anyway, really good article, and this is my two cents on it.

    1. Great thoughts, Trevor. And I agree. The more exposure to English outside of class when learning English, the better. Best of luck to you in your English teaching!