The Alphabet Soup of English Language Learning: ESL, EFL, ELL, and ESOL

December 08, 2014 | By: Norma Levkowitz

The field of English language learning and teaching is dynamic and constantly evolving. Research findings about methodologies and the impact of digitization on language learning abound with significant implications for classroom practice. Equally abundant is the number of acronyms used to refer to students who study English. How are the approaches to teaching students who are identified as ESL, EFL, ELL or ESOL similar or different?


1) First, A Word About Terminology: ESL, EFL and others

The TESOL International Association, whose purpose is to advance professional expertise in English language teaching and learning for speakers of other languages worldwide, defines the following acronyms:

ESL: English as a second language — English language programs in English-speaking countries where students learn English as a second language

EFL: English as a foreign language — English language programs in non-English-speaking countries where English is not used as the lingua franca. It is also used in some U.S. university programs where international students study English and are likely to return to their home countries after graduation or finishing course work.

ESOL: English to speakers of other languages — used to describe U.S. elementary and secondary English language programs. It is also used to designate ESL classes within adult basic education programs and as a general term for ESL/EFL.

ELL: English language learner — often used to refer to a student in an ESL or EFL program.

2) Teaching ESL and EFL: Similarities

Both ESL and EFL students benefit from a pedagogical approach that is based on engagement in classroom discourse and experiential activities that encourage them to construct meaning and gain new understanding.  A second or foreign language is acquired most successfully when students use language in context for communicative purposes. A student-centered approach coupled with immediate feedback and engagement in activities, which are aligned with the students’ experience, propels English language learning. Spiraling of vocabulary and skills acts as reinforcement, so that students can progress to increasingly higher levels of content complexity.  Finally, ESL and EFL learning depends upon a positive, success-oriented experience. Top Universities in New York city.

3) Teaching ESL and EFL: Differences

The major differences in teaching ESL and EFL students are derived from geographic location and cultural learning. When English is learned in English-medium countries (ESL) English is needed for survival. Instruction in ESL classrooms needs to build understanding of sociocultural norms, beliefs and assumptions, and value systems that area part of all language use. When learning English in non-English medium countries, the purpose of learning the language is to open opportunities for academic, professional, and employment advancement, to gain access to global media, and sometimes merely as enrichment. In this scenario, students need much practice and exposure to authentic English language application.

4) Computer Assisted Language Learning for ESL and EFL

Digital technology can provide both ESL and EFL students with an arsenal of tools to enhance their English language acquisition. Mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets have enabled the integration of educational technology in a variety of learning environments. Teaching platforms in blended learning environments help teachers enhance verbal and written discourse of students through discussion and social networking. English language learning applications and widgets enhance reading, writing, listening, and speaking competence. Immediate feedback shortens the correction cycle of online practice, and reports provide teachers with data for improved instructional decision-making.


The varieties of acronyms for English language learning have evolved over the years as a response to understanding the circumstances and needs of the target learners. It behooves educators and educational technologists to seek not only appropriate ways to define language learner needs, but to develop the most appropriate solutions for English language learning and teaching in the digital age.




A sample from Time To Know’s English Solution

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