Understanding English Language Teaching: TEFL, TESL, TESOL, TEAL

For the aspiring English language teacher, choosing a certification program or degree can seem a bit mind boggling if you can’t get your head around all the acronyms. Read on to understand the basic differences between TEFL, TESL, TESOL and TEAL.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL)

TEFL programs were originally designed to train teachers to teach students in a native English-speaking environment. English as a Foreign Language (EFL) refers to situations where language students use English in countries like America, Canada, the U.K. or Australia. It is assumed that students have English being spoken around them and are immersed in an English language culture. EFL students would include recent immigrants, tourists, and exchange students.

Now that the scope of English language learning has widened, new acronyms have been coined to describe the more global usage of English.

Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL)

ESL is currently the most common way to refer to English language learning programs around the world. Terming English as a ‘second language’ rather than a ‘foreign language’ changes the focus from learning English to visit or live in English-speaking countries to learning English for the sake of using English anywhere in the world. Whereas EFL curricula may have focused on useful terms for tourists, ESL curricula focuses more on everyday language for normal people.

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)

With the coining of ESL, teachers were quick to point out that for many students English was not a ‘second language,’ but a third, fourth or even fifth language. Many English language learners are already bilingual, so referring to English as a ‘second language’ isn’t correct in many cases. Hence ESL became ESOL, and TESL became TESOL. Most Master’s level programs you’ll find are termed MA TESOL as opposed to MA TESL or MA TEFL. TESOL programs tend to be more in depth than basic TEFL or TESL certifications.

Teaching English as an Additional Language (TEAL)

EAL is the least common acronym of the four, but it seems to be coming in vogue at international schools around the globe. The term is actually pronounced as if you’re saying all three letters : E – A – L, so it’s not an acronym in the true sense. Its full name is shorter to say than Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and it’s meaning is more concise: Teaching English as an Additional Language. No matter if your students can already speak one, two or even several other languages, English can be considered an ‘additional language.’
What should you get certified in if you want to teach English overseas or at home?

Basic certification programs in TEFL, TESL, TESOL, and TEAL are all very similar. If you’re at home or abroad, the concepts and strategies used to teach English will not differ too much. TEFL certification is still a doorway to English teaching abroad even though its name refers to teaching English in English-speaking countries.

I have a TEFL certification, but I have taught ESL at the University of Massachusetts. The majority of the students were learning English as a ‘foreign language,’ as they were immigrants or students in a foreign land. Since the term EFL has widely been replaced by ESL, the course was called an ESL course. This wasn’t correct in all cases, as many of my students already spoke two or more languages fluently. The class could have just as easily, and more correctly, been called ESOL or EAL.

Although my certification is in TEFL, I have spent time teaching for an MA TESOL program and I have applied for positions in EAL. Just because your certification has one name, don’t feel that you can’t apply for jobs or teach in programs that use the other terms. Teaching English to students who don’t know the language is a similar experience whether it’s called EFL, ESL, ESOL or EAL.

16 Comments on “Understanding English Language Teaching: TEFL, TESL, TESOL, TEAL

  1. Thanks for posting. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a cert, but I find it all a bit overwhelming. I’ve also heard of people getting the CELTA, which I’ve heard is a little more expensive…but preferred in the Middle Eastern countries.

    I already have a master’s in speech-language pathology, and so I’ve been trying to figure out if I should spend the time/money on some kind of cert or if I should just go abroad and see what I can find. Are there any good resources online for people “getting started” (besides Dave’s ESL cafe)?

    • MaryAnne’s advice is spot on. A speech-language pathology degree won’t necessarily open any doors for English teaching positions, although it will certainly be a useful background for some aspects of language teaching. CELTA is much more of an investment (time and money) than a basic TEFL, but a basic TEFL will only get you so far. You may want to be for an MA TESOL or simply get experience. TEFLJobs.net is another good place to look for entry-level jobs.

  2. Lovely post, Heather, and good for de-mystefying all those acronyms.

    One thing though: ESL is what is taught in English speaking countries and EFL is what’s taught in non-English speaking countries. I taught ESL for a year in Canada about a decade ago, before moving on to EFL in Turkey. My certification was in TESL (specifically for teaching in Canada) and I had to make some big methodological alterations when I changed over to EFL.

    They consider English to be a second language (ESL) in addition to the learner’s ‘home’ language if it is being taught in an English speaking country. It’s considered a foreign language (the ‘FL’ part) if it is being taught in a place where English is indeed foreign to that area (see:http://www.bridgetefl.com/tefl-faqs.php#1).

    • Thanks for adding that info MaryAnne. I’ve found that although in theory that should be the ESL/EFL difference, “ESL” is still used in many non-English speaking countries. In Morocco the norm was ESOL while in Pakistan (which does have English as an official language, but it not the native language of anyone but a small minority) it was ESL, ESOL and ELT (English language teaching). Also, most international school positions are listed as ESL (through Search and ISS) although many technically should be EFL because they are in non-English speaking countries. It further adds to the confusion….

      • You’re right- they are used confusingly interchangeably!

        I don’t know if chi girl (above) will notice this as I’m not replying specifically to her but I wanted to add that the CELTA (or equivalent- meaning at least 120 hours in class plus observations plus observed teaching practice, not online) is the minimum requirement for the Middle East but you’re unlikely to get a job there without a master’s degree in a related subject (i.e. MA Applied Linguistics or MA TESOL). If you have several years of experience and a CELTA (or equivalent, like I do- I have a 240 hour TEFL cert from a Canadian college) you can get your foot in the door in Oman and maybe Saudi (if you aren’t a woman).

        A Master’s in Speech Language Pathology, unfortunately, is unlikely to be of much use in getting an EFL job if you don’t have any actual TEFL/TESL/TESOL etc certification. A lot of employers, I’ve found, are looking for specific acronyms when hiring (MA TESOL, CELTA, DELTA, etc). In Istanbul I worked with a woman with the same MA as you and she had to get her CELTA before the Ministry of Education would give her a work permit.

      • Another thought on the acronym confusion: maybe ESL is used in countries where an official language is English, even if people there don’t often count it as their native language, like Pakistan? And the same for International schools, where the language of instruction frequently is English. I know that in Shanghai, there are ESL positions within the British and American International Schools, whereas all positions in the actual Chinese schools are EFL. It’s a strange distinction but it is there.

        I prefer ESOL- because really, it is English for speakers of other languages, and that’s all!!!

        • That’s really interesting about the situation in China – it seems they’ve actually managed to maintain the distinction where other countries may not have! I prefer ESOL or EAL as a term, as generally ESL ends up being a misnomer since it’s not a ‘second’ second but a third, fourth, fifth or sixth for many of our students.

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  5. it was very interesting to read.
    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

    • Feel free to quote the post on your blog – just link it back to this post so that your readers can get to the whole article if they’d like to. I’m at on Twitter @expatheather.

  6. You have opted for the rewarding career of teaching English to speakers of other languages, and now need to consider a higher qualification in order to develop as a teacher and be eligible for new roles.

    In relation to this, you may want to visit our online English academy is bases in Cebu City, Philippines. It is an institution with competent, effective, and efficient ESL teachers well-equipped to provide easy and fun way of learning English at a minimum amount of time per session.

  7. plz guide………….i m from Karachi Pakistani and wanna know that is TEFL beneficial for me as i m a non native english speaker bciz i have searched my job related web site they all want nativa english speaker for english teaching in china ….i want ur guidence that wat shud i do and in TEFL is really help for me to get the job abroad?thank you ..waiting for ur reply

  8. Hi! I’m much interested in Tesol ans tefl/tefl course but i didn’t find any institute around Hyderabad Sindh.

    Can you please provide let me know any good institute that offers these course in Karachi or Hyderabad.
    Many Thanks

  9. I want to apply in Dubai,Qatar or Oman as English teacher i have only degree of M.A English. I want to get an English langauge teaching course which will be accetablethere and also the place from where in Pakistan I can be certified.

    Many Regards
    Nudia Khaliq(Female)
    Govt teacher of Punjab

  10. I have done Masters in Political Science.Now teaching English to Grade 4 in Beaconhouse School System Pakistan.To apply in Behrain teaching senior school,which course shall I apply for ?

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