***This content is based on a blog post from esltrail.com by Reading Horizons Curriculum Director Heidi Hyte. ***
Even those of us who are within the teaching 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.
To hear Heidi explain the difference between those acronyms, watch the following video:
ESL meaning: 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.
EFL meaning: English as a Foreign Language is learning English in a non-English-speaking country. For example, students in China who are learning English are considered EFL students because English is not the official language of the country. But if those same students were in the U.S. learning English, they would be considered ESL students.
ESOL meaning: The meaning of the initialism ESOL is English to Speakers of Other Languages. It applies to both ESL and EFL contexts. One 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.
ELL meaning: The term English Language Learners 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. This could simply be a preference issue.
ESP meaning: 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.