Feb 27

EFL vs ESOL - What's the difference?

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What's the difference beween EFL and ESOL?
Find out what the differences between these two groups really are and whether the distinction matters.
If you are learning English, you might be learning it in your own country, going to class a couple of hours a week- this is usually called English as a Foreign langauge (EFL) or you might be learning because you have come to live in an English speaking country as a migrant or asylum seeker. This, at least in the UK, is usually called ESOL – English to Speakers of Other Languages. These are sometimes seen as quite separate and so I’d like to take a few minutes to explore the differences you might encounter in teaching these two types of learners. I’m Jo Gakonga and this is a video from ELT-Training. 

The first thing I should tell you is that I have taught EFL in private language schools in three different countries and I’ve also got 13 years experience teaching ESOL in the UK, so I know both groups, and I think that the differences between the two are much less than people often make out. In the UK, the difference used to be exacerbated because EFL teachers usually came from a language teaching background and ESOL teachers from a background of teaching adult literacy to people whose first language was English. This distinction is less pronounced these days and as far back as 2007, the British Council put out this report suggesting, as I just have, that it’s an unhelpful distinction. In both cases, after all, what you are trying to do is to help people to learn a language.

There are a few things that are worth thinking about, though. Your EFL learners, as a general rule, will be reasonably well educated and come from relatively affluent backgrounds. If they have enough money to pay you (or your school) to teach them English then they probably aren’t worrying about where the next meal is coming from. There are, of course, contexts in which this isn’t the case, but this is the norm. This means that they have probably learnt English in school and know what the present perfect is, even if they can’t use it correctly and therefore you can use this kind of metalanguage in class. They’re almost certainly literate, at least in their own script, and probably in the Roman alphabet, too. You’ll probably (although not always) be teaching them in monolingual classes in their home country, so you can use translation where it’s appropriate and they probably have access to the internet, which means you can suggest all sorts of useful things that they can do to increase their exposure to English outside of class.

ESOL classes will usually be funded at least in part by the state and ESOL learners can be a much more mixed bag. Here’s Pierre, for example. He’s from the DRC and he’s come to the UK as an asylum seeker. He is completely bi-lingual in Lingala and French -he had his whole education in French -and also speaks Swahili pretty well- and he’s a doctor. He’s educated, literate, has great study skills and a history of being successful with language learning. He knows lots of English words because they’re cognates with French and he has already made some English friends through the work he currently does as a care worker. He’s also very motivated to learn because he wants to be able to practice medicine in the UK. He’s going to learn English pretty quickly.

Let me introduce someone else. This is Zuzanna. She’s from Poland and she’s in the UK for work. She’s a graduate in computer science and she’s working in IT. She lives with her boyfriend, who’s also Polish. She learnt English in school for 6 years, but doesn’t feel very confident speaking it but her colleagues are friendly and she’s getting to know them. She’ll learn reasonably quickly.

Now let’s take a different case – this is Amina. She’s from Pakistan and she’s come to the UK to get married. She’s bright and motivated but she comes from a remote rural area and has never been to school so she is illiterate, both in Urdu, her first and only language and in the Roman alphabet. She’s also quite shy and, although she’s in an English speaking country, she lives with her family, in an area where there are lots of other Urdu speakers, so she doesn’t get much opportunity to use English outside of class. It’s going to be much more difficult for her to learn.

The point I’m making here is that ESOL is not a single entity. Whoever your learners are, EFL or ESOL, you’ll need to work with the needs that they have, but you probably need to be especially aware of this in ESOL classes.

I think that there are a few things that it is worth being aware of:
  • Some ESOL learners will have experienced pretty horrific circumstances and topics like ‘Your family’ need to be approached more carefully. In conjunction with this, your role as a teacher might have a more pastoral role, too, if people are having trouble with work, landlords etc in their new country.
  • Some ESOL learners will have issues with basic literacy that will add an extra layer of challenge to learning English. And connected with this…ESOL learners who haven’t had much or any education will lack study skills and might need more support.
  • Their access to the internet may be limited. It’s pretty unusual for ESOL learners not to have a smart phone in my experience because it’s often a way to connect with family at home etc. But they may not have other devices, so if you are teaching online, be aware that they are probably using a small screen.
  • You might want to take a more functional approach to ESOL classes, especially at lower levels. Your learners will need to know useful language for going to shops, the doctors, dealing with schools for their children etc. My personal feeling, though, is that this is no way precludes a focus on teaching language in just the same way that you would for EFL classes.


So there you go. This is a big area and I’ve only scratched the surface here, but I hope that I’ve raised the most important issues and given you a taste of the differences. Thanks for watching. Bye.
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