Beyond #ESL and #EFL: Newer Categories in English Teaching

In my teaching and training life, I have heard a lot of excuses here in Korea about why certain things can’t or must be done here because, you know, Korea is an EFL situation. I have  been known to be confused about what people really mean when they use terms like ESL and EFL. Additionally, I have been heard to mutter that EFL and ESL are outdated concepts at best. I’ve also talked about ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) with nearly anyone who has had the misfortune of talking about teaching English with me in the last 3-4 years. Alex “The Breathy Vowel” Grevett’s posts are a nice intro to the topic of ELF.

Back to ESL and EFL for a moment. Some folks seem pretty attached to the EFL/ESL dichotomy. Quite rightly, in my view, some of them point out that research in one area doesn’t mean a guarantee that it will carry over to the other. Having said that, I don’t think it gives us a lot of information about the students or their goals of the situation. Guys, (to my understanding) this distinction comes from ages ago when there were only 2 reasons to study English. The first was to live in an English speaking country (and thus to sound just like a “native speaker?) and the second was to be good at the grammar of English and to be able to read the classics. Things have changed. A lot. Now there are so many exceptions and that the expanding circles are expanding and changing shapes in ways that were unexpected making these terms not only potentially confusing but also less than meaningful.

After connecting with teachers of English all around the world via Twitter I have been trying to note similarities and differences in teaching contexts. I have found the handy ESL/EFL labels don’t really tell me much about someone else’s situation. Lately I have been thinking my teaching context has much more in common with English for Academic Purposes (EAP) programs in Canada (or anywhere, shoutout to Tyson anyway) than it does with General English Programs (GEPs) right down the street in Seoul. There must be distinctions that make more sense and give us more information and insight about the context than boring old ESL vs. EFL. Right? There must be other ways to think of contexts beyond ENSP and TENOR (“English for no Specific Purpose” and “Teaching English for No Obvious Reason”). Plus, as I always say, the thing this field needs is some more acronyms! So, I humbly offer the following ways to describe and distinguish between English teaching contexts. Apologies if I am just making up names for things that have already been named.

English in Language Schools and English in Public Schools

To my eyes this distinction doesn’t seem to get enough coverage when considering teaching contexts or discussing teaching techniques. This distinction seems more important to me than the country in which the classes happen to be occurring.  I am thinking, for example, that language school classes in London have quite a bit in common with language school classes in Seoul and that public school classes in Brazil have a fair amount in common with public school classes in Daegu or Delhi.
[Of course one could say that English classes in the States are drastically different from those in Japan and I would have to concede that point but it doesn’t mean that the above is incorrect or that this is not a distinction we should consider.]

Please note that this distinction is closely related to the next 3.

English with Many Students and English with Few Students and  English with Very Few Students 

Class dynamics, suitable techniques, expectations and potential for individualized attention from the teacher are all related to this distinction. Why is this not mentioned so much? I think it should be one of the first considerations when defining contexts. The question is “How many is ‘many’?”

Some teachers might want to add something about multi-level classrooms here or to create an entirely new grouping but my feeling is that they are all multi-level classrooms.

E2PC and E2NPC
English to Paying Customers and English to Non Paying Customers

Think about all the related factors here! Especially motivation. I have worked in private language schools where some of the customers didn’t pay out of their own pocket but were instead reimbursed by their companies or universities. It almost always obvious on the first day who had paid their own money to be there and who had been sent. There was a dramatic difference. The idea that students might tend to be less motivated and goal oriented can be related to to EIPS and EP4BP (English Paid for by Parents) as well. When describing teaching situations I think it is important to consider if the students have paid for the classes with their own money.

Graded English Courses and Ungraded English Courses

Such a key aspect! This can be further split into GEC-WGAM (Graded English Courses Where the Grades Actually Matter) but the idea is the same. Having grades tends to change things. I don’t want to say that grades are neccesary or problematic. I just want to say that this is another dynamic to consider when describing and considering teaching contexts.

English for Status Reasons

Highly related to ENSP, this is very common in Korea. People of a certain socio-economic status seem to take English lessons because this is what people of their socio-economic status tend to do. They don’t seem to have goals other than being sure to tell their friends that they are taking English classes. This can be quite challenging for the teacher that is focused on progress.

English as a Compulsory Subject

As it says in the title, this is when English is a required course. This is obviously very common in  EIPS and GEC situations. Here in Korea it is also very common in universities, which means all students need to take and pass at least 1-2 English courses in order to graduate, regardless of their majors. As you might expect, the motivation and expectations from ECS can be quite low. Problems can also arise when students that are extremely motivated to learn are forced to take ECS courses with classmates who don’t share this level of motivation.

Speaking English as an Alternative Language 

This is for situations where it is helpful culturally/socially/politically  to have English as an option. English provides another choice for students who might have reasons not to speak the dominant language of the particular region they find themselves in.

CGE and CDE and CFE
Coursebook  Dominated English and Coursebook Guided English and Coursebook Free English

Another continuum to ponder. How prevalent are coursebooks in the given context? Are they a resource? A requirement? Are students expected to touch every page or someone will get upset? Is the table of contents the syllabus? Can the teacher teach out of order if she so decides? Are all the assessments linked to the textbook? And so on.

Focused on TOEIC and  Focused on TOEFL and Focused on IELTS 

This is where the focus of a course is on students achieving a certain score in external demands. The scores on these exams are much more important than the other factors. Students need and want practice and language for the test but not for English improvement.
(See also: FO-CCs (English focused on Cambridge Certificates))

The following just apply to the teacher and teaching environment 

Teaching Under Crazy Supervisors and Teaching Under Reasonable Supervisors 

While most of the other points are focused on the students this is another aspect that we need to consider when describing teaching situations. To many otherwise tolerable teaching jobs have been ruined by shoddy (and worse) management. There are surely more places along this continuum between and beyond crazy and reasonable but this is a start.

Teaching Along Crazy Colleagues and Teaching Along Reasonable Colleagues

As above with supervisors. For teachers, those with whom we work  is a very important factor in determining how well we maintain our sanity as well as how we perceive the context and our place in it.

Teaching as a Connected Teacher

This is for teachers connected to teachers around the world.  I have found it is quite different from teaching as a non-connected teacher.

WIFI Hotspot Enabled Language Learning

Don’t let the “hell” fool you, this is about lessons where students and teachers have access to WiFi. Usually a good thing in my experience.

Tech-Laden TESOL 

This is used to describe teaching situations where ubiquitous tech is ubiquitous. This is not always a good thing. This is especially a bad thing when teachers are faced with random decrees from the management like, “You must use the SMART board at least once per lesson.”

Mike’s Questions: 

  1. What reasons are there (aside from the research point above) for continuing to think and talk in terms of EFL vs. ESL?
  2. To what do you attribute the staying power of the ESL/EFL dichotomy?
  3. What other distinctions/categories do you think are important?
  4. Are there other well-known categories out there?
  5. What did I miss in regards to the “old school” reasons for learning English?

Mike’s Notes:

  • Sometimes  Often my posts are a bit tongue in cheek. Sometimes people misunderstand how serious I am. The tongue-in-cheek ranking for this post is 6.5/10.
  • One thing that jumped out at me as I was thinking about these categories is how they can fit quite nicely with each other and we can use them together with other examples from the list in order to convey a great deal of information about a teaching situation.


Explain the following acronyms to yourself or to a friend.



I’d like to thank they witty, clever, knowledgeable, and kind Lord Andrew Pollard for graciously allow me to use his brainchild “ECS” above.
Actually I didn’t even ask for permission.

The deep, intelligent, and broody Michael Chesnut also provided the acronym and explanation for SEAL. For this I give my gratitude.


Related Links:
(What else should I add?)

Current Perspectives on Teaching World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca (Jenkins 2006)


  1. geoffjordan

    Very interesting! There are so many ways of doing this, but yours is a start and I bet it gives rise to some lively debate!

    First, I agree that the EFL / ESL distinction is out of date, and I think we should scrap it. Most research in SLA, for example, makes no distinction between the two.

    Second, I take the point of this post to be an attempt to establish some kind of new categorisation of English teaching contexts; not the content of teaching inside these contexts. So, as you say, teaching English as a Lingua Franca, for example, can be done in many of the categories you suggest. But then you introduce the “Coursebook Dominated English and Coursebook Guided English and Coursebook Free English” category which seems to refer to content not context.

    Personally, I think one very important difference is teaching classes and teaching groups of 3 or fewer. In big cities, like Barcelona, there’s an abundance of teachers who are working for institutions where the pay is 12 euros an hour. Not surprisingly, many are looking for alternatives, which include either finding private classes (3 maximum) or working for ELT companies which started out supplying teachers for in-company training and who now (given the pressure to drop prices so much that they can’t pay teachers even 12 euros an hour) are looking for niche markets, particularly blended learning and special training in such areas as cross-cultural communication, presentations and email correspondence, There are even services which offer a teacher to go with a business exec. on his/her trip. I suppose the general question is: Will big language schools continue to be the biggest context for ELT? .

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks very much for the comments! Much appreciated.

      Thanks very much for mentioning that the EFL/ESL distinction is not made in SLA research. To be honest this was one of the few reasons that I’d heard for still using the distinction that seemed reasonable to me.

      I see what you mean about the content/context thing as related o coursebooks but I was thinking that part of the context is the institution’s policy related to coursebooks. I guess we could make any number of similar distinctions but to me the insistence on using a textbook or not seemed like a contextual factor. Perhaps more to the point would be English Teaching where a curriculum is given and expected to be followed or something like that.

      I was toying with a distinction based on teaching 1:1 or not but that seems to be something that people already have a name for. I like your points about more specialized and niche markets and smaller groups. Very interesting to think about, especially when we consider the type of training that teachers might and might not get for this.

      I think your question about language schools is a great one! Certainly something to think about, with very broad implications for the field! Thanks again for the thought provoking comments!

  2. stevebrown70

    Great post as usual, Mike. I don’t understand either why people are so keen to hang onto the dichotomy of EFL vs ES(O)L, and I blogged about this myself recently from a British perspective –
    In this country it seems to me that the only real difference is money. “EFL” students pay for their courses and “ESOL” students don’t. Where I work we shove them all together, call the whole thing ESOL and everybody gets along.
    If you are going to split the profession in one way, you could split it in many others, as you have clearly illustrated. But why do people want to do that?

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for commenting and sharing, Steve! I had read your post previously and it is interesting to see such similarities between the posts. Hopefully I didn’t unintentionally plagiarize too much! After I re-read yours this morning I was feeling strange about (overly?) emphasizing the paying vs. not paying students with the implication that those who didn’t pay would be less motivated or something like that. I have a feeling this is probably not always the case! I think it is interesting that where you work everything is “shoved” all together. Very interesting. I might have mentioned it elsewhere but this idea of “EFL” in the UK is something that never occurred to me till I posted about these terms last year and got a wide range of responses.

      Your last question is a good one. I think that sometimes it can be helpful to describe the type of context we teach in so as to help those we are talking to follow why things are they way they are. That might be too simple but that is pretty much the main reason I can think of.

      The other reasons sound worse. Like based on egos or marketing or something. There must be more? 🙂

      The traditional distinction seems so silly when I think about some of my current students. Some of them, here in Seoul, are much more exposed to English and English speaking environments than their classmates who lived in the States for many years.

      • stevebrown70

        Hi Mike,
        No issues with plagiarism! It’s all about sharing ideas and if we have any influence on each other then that’s great. In fact, your last post about lesson planning prompted me to write a comment and then this inspired me to write a post of my own on the subject, so thanks very much! It’s here, by the way:
        About the reasons for making distinctions in EFL/ESL etc: how important do you feel stubbornness and a sense of self-importance are in this?

      • mikecorea

        Great post and thanks for sharing.
        I love you blog (and recommend it for anyone else reading this.)
        You post and the secret DOS follow on ( made for some great food for thought. I never could have expected such great chances for thinking stemming from my humble list. That said, I do think carving out and articulating beliefs can be a valuable (essential?) step in such discussions.

        You asked about stubborness and self-importance as factors in the labeling. I think they are huge factors. I always have this feeling in the back of my mind that this field (whatever it is called) suffers from a severe inferiority crisis so that is always creates barriers and divisions. I understand that this might feel necessary to separate the “backpackers” from the pros but I think it does more harm than good.
        (I wrote about pissing contests in the field here:

        Thanks so much for the exchange, Steve!

  3. tomsavery

    Great list but you forgot some important dynamics such as ELCWCTASD (English language classrooms where the co – teachers are secretly dating, which is surprisingly common) and LEFTWAT (Learning English From Teachers Who Aren’t Teachers, which seems to include half of the public schools in Korea).
    The acronyms are endless, as are the factors which affect language learning. But I’m not sure that putting them under the umbrella of EFL or ESL doesn’t reflect that truth. If we’re gonna rebrand them without monolingual “native speaker” assumptions I’d rather talk about Developing English Speaking Bilinguals (DESB) or suchlike! 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comment, Tom.
      I like your additions to the list! 🙂
      Very appropriate for Korea i think.
      Though you did leave me with 2 major questions and one more comment.

      1) You wrote “LEFTWAT (Learning English From Teachers Who Aren’t Teachers, which seems to include half of the public schools in Korea).” My questions here are:
      When does one become a teacher?
      What makes someone more or less teacher like?

      Does taking a training course make someone a teacher? An MA? Caring about the job? Having experience? Having a certain amount of experience? Is it about skills? Attitude? Awareness? Knowledge? Something else? I think I can see where you are coming from but I also think that it can be tricky to pin down what makes and what doesn’t make a teacher.

      2) You said you are not sure that using the umbrellas of ESL and EFL don’t reflect the truth of the situation.
      (Forgive me if I have misunderstood) I guess my question is, “How so?” Is the most common language students face when they walk out the door the best way to label the learning context? I really don’t think so at all. I’d love to see more of your thoughts on this as to why this is not an outdated concept and how it is in fact useful. I think this post sums up a lot of my thinking on this.

      Interesting that you use the word “bilingual” as I wonder if that is actually the goal for many/most students. As Kelly mentioned above the all purpose ELL seems to work reasonably well. I happen to use ELT as much as I can when talking about the teaching aspect.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting! I really enjoyed the exchange!

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for sharing the post and thanks for the actual literal LOL that came when I saw your comment about ending with a quiz. It was pretty much the first thing I saw this morning and it made me laugh a lot. I hope you did well on the quiz. 🙂

  4. Carol Goodey

    Hi Mike

    The 6.5 tongue-in-cheek rating adds to the enjoyment of the post, and you also make very good points. It’s important to keep in mind how different any situation might be and how this will affect the choices made by teachers or students. Choices that are not necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but that are constrained and shaped by the context. This post, along with your post on things you don’t care about #32 (at least my interpretation of it), makes a lot of sense!


    • mikecorea

      🙂 I think most of these terms have a pretty limited shelf life so you don’t need to update the list yet!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Btw I’m not sure if you are saying my post should have a higher TIC (tongue in cheek) rating or a lower one! I think I can write more tongue in cheek if need be! 😉

  5. breathyvowel

    I have a couple of minutes in between transcribing interviews, so here goes…

    For me the most useful part of an EFL/ESL distinction was what the students did when they left class for the day, as in went and integrated seamlessly into the target language community (ESL) as opposed to playing League of Legends all night next to an ever-growing tower of empty pot noodle cups. As you pointed out in your other post, this doesn’t really stand up.

    The amount of time students spend using English outside class would have a fairly big input on what I taught in it I think. Were the students to get lots of practice outside class, I might be tempted to focus a little more on what The Secret DOS would call knowledge, in the belief that the skills portion could be developed using the knowledge outside of the classroom. As it stands, my students are of the RPG playing variety, so I feel the need to allot some class time for this kind of practice. Knowledge unused is a bit pointless, I feel. I also wondered whether this kind of thinking had influenced The Secret DOS’s recent proclamations.

    Then I thought, conversely, that selecting the kind of skills that students need might be easier were one to be able to observe the community in which one’s students were trying to be a part of, and that building up a store of more generally applicable knowledge might be useful for future unspecified English speaking situations.

    All in all then, not a hugely useful bout of thinking, but I will leave you with two further acronyms for your list:

    TEEU (Teaching English to English Users)
    TEFEU (Teaching English to Future English Users)

    TBV (I’m not sure if this is a recognized TEFL acronym – yet)

    • mikecorea

      Hey Alex,

      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      I think you make some excellent points here regarding the impact of what students do outside class.
      Context is king… What I am thinking now is that the country that happens to be outside the doors is not the most important factors.

      I have heard some, umm, not so good English from students that went to high school in the states and returned to Korea and some great English from students that have never left Korea’s fair shores.

      You write that the amount of time spent on English outside class would effect your decisions as a teacher. Good point! Again that is not necessary related to the most frequently used language outside the classroom walls. Using the United States of Freedom as and example, it is very possible to survive without using much English in many situations. And switching it around to Korea, especially these days there are so many opportunities to interact in English for those that take them.

      I think I didn’t emphasize one thing enough in my post. That is THE INTERNET. Huge factor. Again, especially in Korea, those that want English input literally actually have it at their fingertips. This is a game changer.

      So, fine, the average college student might not need practice going to the post office in English but there there are lots of things they do need.

      You mentioned two new acronyms. Thanks for these. I think they are probably more accurate than the original ESL/EFL.. and I appreciate the emphasis on ‘using’ which i sa b ig step from a lot of what we have seen.

      I appreciate your comments and thank you for the bout of thinking they have given me. Feeling further and further away from the ESL/EFL distinction and even more toward the “needs analysis and understanding context” side.
      (Even if Hugh Dellar would say NA is not needed

  6. PTEC

    Hi Mike! I like this post because it got me thinking. People like labels and dislike labels. Why did ‘they’ generate/use ELF and ESL in the first place? As we traditionally define them they speak to content and location of study. EFL/ESL hold beliefs/are descriptors from the time in which they we conceived. Are those no longer viable? I don’t know. But what I notice in your list is an attempt to define the space between three overlapping circles: the stake holders themselves, the stakes they are holding, and context descriptors of content and location. That sweet spot in the middle contains a bazillion acronyms. And I wonder if it helps or hinders my understanding, if you are not trying to describe the specifics of EFL/ESL vs provide an overview, if you are not trying to replace broad descriptors with ‘politically correct’ highlights and shadows and if maybe that isn’t better left to a paragraph vs and acronym? Maybe I just need to know, why all this prestidigitation? Best, Tana

    • mikecorea

      Hello ptec and thanks for the comments.
      I have to admit I love it when people say my post got them thinking.
      I also have to admit that is one of my goals…It is much easier when it is something that I have been thinking about.
      Side note that you might appreciate: I almost called the blog “Beyond Best Practices.”

      I think there probably was some reasonable reasons for the coining of the terms ESL and EFL
      (BUT I think they were distorted by native speaker models from the start).
      I honestly believe that the terms are not really viable because they don’t tell us much seem to lead to more confusion than understanding.

      I think the ESL and EFL terms are just too cute and too limiting.
      Speaking specifically about Korean teachers it always reads like such and excuse to me.
      Like a bit of reading and studying provided a convenient excuse.
      “We can’t do that because we are EFL” rather than taking it any further and thinking about what might be possible or productive for students.

      You wondered, “maybe that isn’t best left to a paragraph vs an acronym.’ I think so. I think that is just it. I don’t think terms like EFL really carry much meaning (especially when people tend to use them in ways that differ from the common definitions).

      I think the list I created is no better or worse or more or less telling/informative than EFL/ESL distinction.
      Why the sleight of hand? Just to show that there are many ways of slicing up the field, I suppose.
      A commenter above mentioned that there are 100s of ways of slicing things up and I fully agree.

  7. mrchrisjwilson

    I’ve heard of English for No Obvious Reason before but not really Teaching English for no obvious reason…which makes me wonder. Who is it that has no obvious reason for being there, the student or the teacher 😉

    • mikecorea

      Hmm…if the student has no reason for being there it might be hard to find a reason for the teacher, right?

      One thing that jumped out at me throughout composing this list is that some ideas focus on the students and some focus on the teacher.
      This is interesting to think about.
      One category I toyed with was something like “English with an experienced teacher” but didn’t have much to say on that or many conclusions to draw.

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  9. Florentina Taylor (@_FTaylor_)

    :o) Thank you for bringing this to my attention by reposting it on Twitter! (Cor, goldmine for course designers!)

    I belong to the endangered species of those who still find the ESL/ EFL distinction useful. My reason is closely related to Breathy Vowel’s comment. For me, the key difference between the two is that in EFL contexts contact with the L2 consists mainly of instructed, deductive, top-down, instrumentally oriented, temporally limited content, whereas in ESL the boundaries between the classroom and the ‘real world’ are so blurred that at least some naturalistic, bottom-up, personally relevant content will inevitably spill into the classroom. Yes, EFL people use English on the web, but they can be very selective with the types and extent of communication involved (perhaps avoiding uncomfortable situations that would really stretch their proficiency – a ‘luxury’ that may be inaccessible to ESL people trying to tame a wild landlord whose porcelain sink just got broken).

    I still think it’s an important distinction, though I do agree it’s not helpful to see *anything* as strictly regimented into clear-cut categories. Very much will depend on the people involved – students, teachers, institutions. In my research, I keep finding a clear distinction between EAS and ECT (You’re welcome!) – or English as an Academic Subject/ English as a Communication Tool. Not just English, actually, as I’ve found the same thing with Modern Foreign Languages in the UK. This distinction boils down to whether the students and/ or teachers really give a ***, which I think transcends many traditional boundaries.

    (How long did it take you to arrange your acronyms in the shape of an English teacher who spends too much time on the computer?)

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for the insightful comments.
      Also thanks for the laugh. I had to return to the post itself (instead of just on email to see the image created by the acronyms. LOL)

      Your comments are very welcome and I appreciate your honesty about being an “endangered species of those who still find the ESL/ EFL distinction useful.” I couldn’t help but think of a new set of criteria. Something like “living in a (mostly? predominantly?) English speaking country and being in charge of your own daily life.” I like your example of dealing with landlords and I am also thinking of dealing with applications and forms and working and everything.

      One thing I (i think!) came to realize (from the comments of a smilar post of mine: was that some folks in the UK use the term “EFL” to talk about students who come to the UK for the summer or a term or whatever. I think that is really interesting.

      So rather than just geographical considerations there is more to it.

      Regarding the web. I think maybe I am very much focused on what can and could happen. There is so much possibility so I can’t really accept teachers in EFL countries assuming they are the only possible source for input. You wrote, “Yes, EFL people use English on the web, but they can be very selective with the types and extent of communication involved (perhaps avoiding uncomfortable situations that would really stretch their proficiency…” I think we could very easily say the same thing for ESL people in that they can (emphasis on can) be very selective about when and where and how they use English and not stretch their proficiency. Right?

      You write, “two is that in EFL contexts contact with the L2 consists mainly of instructed, deductive, top-down, instrumentally oriented, temporally limited content.” I don’t deny that this is often the case, but I don’t think it needs to be. I think what often happens is that the EFLness of a situation leads teachers to make these choices.

      Ultimately though I think we are in agreement. You mentioned the clear distinction between EAS and ECT (Thanks!) and the key distinction of TE-GAF and SE-GAF (teacher/student of English give an eff) and I think this is the key as well.

      A final thought which might be a bit repetitive is that from my view these (old) ideas of EFL and ESL are based on view that ESL students were wanting to integrate into the (powerful )English speaking countries and EFL students were just learning for tests and not communication or as a tool. I can’t and won’t deny the importance of tests in many places but i also think it is clear many students all around the world want and need English as a tool for communication. Thanks again for the thoughts, laughs and acronyms.

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