Tagged: ESL

Yeajin’s EFL World

I’d like to tell you about one student of mine, just #onestudent. She is a 22 year old first semester student in the Graduate School of International Studies at the university I am currently employed at in the modern capital of South Korea, Seoul.

The student, Yeajin, told me she is enjoying most of her classes and her life in graduate school. She said some classes are challenging but the workload is manageable. She is not really sure what she wants to do when she finishes grad school but is thinking about working in an NGO or government agency. From my observations she is a very polite and sweet young woman. She seems hardworking and curious. My impression is that she is bright and thoughtful.  She is not extremely outgoing or outspoken but will freely share her thoughts when asked. She is a pleasure to teach. I might be kidding myself but it seems to me that she looks more and more comfortable speaking at length in English every week I see her.

I am not about to take any of the credit for this, though. She is working hard and she has so much English around her and she uses English every day in her life and in other courses. She is taking courses like Global Economics and East Asian Security in English. In her coursework she has classmates from all over the world. She is enrolled in my course called International Discussion, which is a spoken fluency focused course talking about issues of concern to students like Yeajin and her classmates. As above, I think she is making great progress each week. I also think she started out in a good place for these improvements.

I am not an expert on such things but in terms of speaking I think she’d be in the 6.5-7.5 range on IELTS. I am pretty sure her TOEIC score will be above 900 soon if it is not already. I guess she’d have to be nearing in on C1. I think her TOEFL score is just on the verge of being high enough for her to able to study in US university without restrictions. I don’t mean to imply that these mean much of anything (or convey much of anything for that matter) but just want to give you, dear reader, an idea of this student’s level. She can handle complicated discussions and makes her points clearly. Her pace when speaking is not so fast but she is very good when she gets going.  It does not require “undue effort” from a listener to follow what she is saying. Mistakes are minor and outright errors are rare. In short, it is easy to understand what she is saying. She is a strong user of English.

I am not sure if anything I have said here sounds very much out of the ordinary or is very exciting. Maybe her English abilities sound right in line with expectations for a student in an English medium graduate program. You might even be wondering why I told you all this, and I am not 100% sure either.

I guess this is where I should mention that Yeajin has never left Korea and is from the most sparsely populated and rural province.

I would say she is higher than her average peer in the grad school in terms of communicative competence even though she is in her first semester. In the first few weeks I found myself wondering exactly why she was so strong at English. So, I asked her. I might have said something like, “Sorry for this strange and direct question but why are you so good at English?” She seemed a bit surprised but calmly answered that she has always liked English and that she reads in English a fair amount (outside and previously to grad school work) and watches lots of TV and movies from the US. She also said some of her high school classes (like science and history) were in English as her school was designated as an international/foreign language school (this not the type with mostly international students, as more than 85% of her high school classmates were Korean). Accordingly, she had more hours of English than the average high school student. Now, she has lots of non-Korean classmates and has weekly private lessons focused on TOEFL with a native (please note the lack of scare quotes here) English speaking teacher.

Another reason I shared this is because I am sick of people talking about how there is such a massive dearth of English in Korea apart from the occasional English class. I am, of course willing to admit that Yeajin is not a typical student but I am not sure if the experts realize that students like her exist. Please kindly note the lack of  scare quotes on the word experts. This is the result of a long and contentious internal monologue.

Where were we? Oh yes, EFL. Korea is an EFL situation. It seems to me so many people harp on about Korea being an EFL country or an outer circle situation they fail to see the whole nuanced picture. There is English out there. Just as an example, the young lady next to me in this coffee shop in Itaewon as I write this has just read more than half of a graded reader in the time it took me to aggressively but gently tap out these words. In past rants posts I have expressed my confusion about terms like ESL and EFL and have also offered up some newer categories that might be more accurate and telling. What is my point? Maybe something about relying on labels like EFL too much. Yeah, that and not assuming students need to go abroad to improve their English or to have access to English.

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)

“South Korea is an EFL situation”

Since Korea is an EFL situation I cannot use authentic materials. *

Since Korea is an EFL situation I have to use more authentic materials.

Since Korea is an EFL situation I must speak English in class as much as possible because I am the only source of English that students get.

Since Korea is an EFL situation it is imperative that I give grammar explanations in Korean.

Since Korea is an EFL situation I have to focus on mostly grammar.

Since Korea is an EFL situation I should’t focus on grammar.

Since Korea is an EFL situation my students can’t really use English.

That might work in an ESL situation but it wouldn’t work in Korea. Korea is an EFL situation.

I have heard similar statements numerous times from teachers in Korea. When I hear such statements I often can’t help but think that the speaker is showing off their hard-earned TESOL (jargon?) knowledge. I also can’t help but think they are making excuses or justifying the status quo or what they do or want to do.

In my last post we explored terms like ESL, EFL, TESOL, and so on and now I find myself wondering about all the truisms of “EFL” and how true they actually are.  It seems to me sometimes labeling the situation as “EFL” or whatever can sort of circumvent truly thinking about the students and their true  needs and abilities.

With the internet, movies, global travel, and all the Korean students that have experience living abroad as well as a multitude of other factors I am not sure how well all the statements above hold up to scrutiny. While I can agree that Korea meets the criteria usually applied to be an EFL situation I am unsure what that really means in practice, especially when considering the wide range of contexts that ELT professionals in Korea find themselves in.

*Here is the #KELTchat  summary on authentic materials