ESL vs. EFL in Learning and Teaching

There’s a difference when learning & teaching English as a second language (ESL), and learning & teaching English as a foreign language (EFL).

Learning ESL versus learning EFL:

In learning ESL, the learner is learning English within an English environment. In this case, English is spoken outside the classroom. The learner here learns English to understand and speak it outside the classroom. The situation is different in EFL learning, the learner learns English inside a classroom, but continues to speak her/his own language when leaving the classroom.

An example of an ESL situation is a Japanese boy who immigrates with his family to America; he speaks Japanese at home with his parents, but during the rest of the day and at school, he must speak English. He needs to learn enough English to be able to keep up with his schoolwork and communicate well with his schoolmates.

On the other hand, the Egyptian girl learning English in an Egyptian school learns English as a foreign language. She must understand and speak English only during her English lessons – perhaps 3 times a week. The rest of her day in school and at home, she will speak her own language. It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t know much English or if she learns slowly; this will not affect her day-to-day life in and out of school as it would for the Japanese boy.

Teaching ESL versus teaching EFL:

Teaching ESL is different from teaching EFL. This difference influences the content and methods used to teach English language.

At ESL Schools, students learn:

* General English that helps them feel comfortable in school and communicate well with their new friends.

* Most importantly, they are also taught the kind of English language and skills that will help them to be successful in their other classes, history, mathematics etc. which are all in English. This is typical of most programs in ESL situations.

In many EFL classes on the other hand:

* English is often taught in a traditional way; i.e. based on step-by-step learning of a number of grammatical structures in a graded order of difficulty.

* As the learner has to master the language in his class and has no chances to practice English outside his class, the methods and techniques chosen should allow him/her to use the language both fluently and accurately. These techniques should ensure maximum exposure to the language

ESL teacher versus EFL teacher:

The difference mentioned above between teaching (ESL) and (EFL) requires the teacher to approach English classes differently.

* In ESL setting, the teacher should focus on personal reasons to learn English. Whether students want to learn English to communicate with a variety of people from other countries or they want to learn the language for professional reasons, perhaps to get a better job. The teacher, then, can choose the suitable approach to teach the language according to each reason.

* By contrast, many of EFL students lack the opportunity to experience English in their daily lives. They may be required to study English for a test or because it is a compulsory part of the curriculum. In addition, EFL settings often involve large classes and limited contact hours, which makes learning English a challenge for students.  And although they may want to learn English for the same reasons as those of ESL students, their motivation level can be low since English is not part of their daily lives and the English course simply does not offer enough exposure to the language. Consequently, the EFL teacher should try his/her best to overcome these challenges and expose students to as much authentic English as possible. In addition, he/she should create real-life situations for students to practice the items of English.

Selecting ESL classroom activities:

Information gap activities are ideal in ESL classroom as the students come from different countries. Some students have information that others miss. Information gap activities can be a variety of question-and-answer and discussion activities about the students’ countries. They can also do presentations to teach classmates about their culture. Students are often quite eager to participate in such presentations. In fluency practice activities, the teacher can rest assured that the students will not resort to their native language because they speak to students who do not understand their language. Task-based problem-solving activities are also useful in this case because they engage the learners linguistically and cognitively and require them to negotiate a solution entirely in English. This classroom scenario also gives the teacher an opportunity to sometimes focus more intensively on accuracy in speaking because many of the students have good opportunities for English fluency practice outside of the class.

Selecting EFL classroom activities:

In an EFL context, the teacher must deal with the fact that the students are probably not receiving any significant exposure to English outside of the classroom. Because of this lack of opportunity to speak English, teachers need to maximize fluency practice, getting the students to use the language as much as possible in class and reducing emphasis on accuracy. To achieve these goals, teachers need to select suitable speaking activities to ensure that students will use English. Activities that lack structure or which fail to generate student interest will lead most students to abandon English. Also, an activity that is interesting but too cognitively challenging to manage in English will cause most students to resort to their native language.

Criteria for selecting EFL classroom activities:

The best activities that encourage students in EFL classroom to produce English ought to:

  • have a clear, measurable and suitable objective.
  • achieve progress in English use.
  • easy to manage in English.
  • be interesting to the students.

EFL teachers should integrate fun with work by carefully designing activities to achieve the specified instructional objectives. This includes setting a time limit, clarifying the rules, sometimes giving prizes, and generating enthusiasm to play and use English in communicative situations.


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  1. Really I apprtiate that effort

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