Even some English language teachers don’t understand the differences between these acronyms so don’t feel bad if they confuse you too. When I first started teaching English language classes in public schools in Texas, it was called ESL but since then I’ve come upon many other acronyms like EFL, ESP, and ELL that provide more distinctions. As English teachers in many different settings, it’s important that we can clearly share research and advice so it’s important to know the most common acronyms. Here we look at the “E” acronyms. In other articles, I focus on the “T” acronyms .

ESOL: English to Speakers of Other Languages is a more comprehensive term that encompasses the learning of English in both a foreign non-English country and the teaching of English in an English-speaking country. One reason why this term was created is because some individuals argue that when students are learning English in an English-speaking country (ESL), these students are not necessarily learning just their second language. It might be a student’s 3rd or 4th language. Proponents favoring the term ESOL are less common than those who favor using the term ESL but it’s still important to know what they mean even if you don’t feel the need to use the more precise ESOL yourself.

EFL: English as a Foreign Language is learning English in a non-English-speaking country. For example, students in Japan who are learning English are called EFL students because English is not Japan’s official language. However, if students from Japan were in Canada or New Zealand learning English, they’d be called ESL students.

ESL: English as a Second Language is learning English in a country where English is the main language or one of the main languages. For example, students from China, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates often come to the U.S. or Australia or the U.K. temporarily or permanently and take classes to learn English as a Second Language. Though many of the teaching techniques and issues are the same for ESL and EFL teachers, there are some important differences depending on what type of country your students are learning English in. For example, in American primary and secondary schools, ESL classes may include students with many different first languages and a wide range of English skills. If you as a teacher have students who speak Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish and Arabic, it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to use all their second languages to help explain English terms. However, if you were teaching English in Shanghai, China, all your students would probably speak Chinese so it might be feasible for you to learn and use some basic Chinese when communicating with students.

ESP: English for Special Purposes includes students who 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.

EAP: English for Academic Purposes is learning English for the purpose of secondary or tertiary (university) success. It’s one of the most common types of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). EAP programs focus on the skills needed to get good grades in middle school, high school or college / university. When discussed in the context of middle school and high school classes, English teachers are usually aware of the educational theory of Jim Cummins, in that the English skills involved in Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) is just the tip of the iceberg and that Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) encompasses the much larger amount of knowledge that hides below the water line of the iceberg.

In university settings, EAP programs sometimes focus on the specific language skills of a particular major such as accounting. College EAP classes might also include training of students in test taking and note taking skills, critical reading and writing, comprehending and participating in academic lectures, dissertation research, and library skills.

Whatever type of English language classes you teach, you can benefit from sharing knowledge and teaching tips with your peers who teach other types of classes. Develop a professional learning community (PLN) online or in person and enjoy the wealth of knowledge and teacher training out there.