TESL and TEFL are NOT the Same

Flashcards to Teach Kids English


English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) are NOT the same. Many schools, teachers, authors and other professionals use these words interchangeably, which wouldn’t be such a problem if it were merely a lexical error. The real problem stems from the fact that most teachers continue to adhere to TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) approaches within TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) environments. This is especially noticeable in Asia, where I feel the deployment of inappropriate TESL techniques play a key factor in the general lack of English acquisition, particularly amongst children. Despite the increasing use and popularity of the term TEFL, and a heightened awareness amongst teachers of the way in which it differs from TESL, language lessons have not changed much to meet the needs of students who are learning English as a Foreign Language.

English as a Second Language (ESL)

English as a Second Language refers to those studying the language in an English speaking country. Anyone living in an English speaking environment will be immersed in English, regardless of whether or not they study in a formal classroom setting. Television, school, books, newspapers, movies, daily conversation, everything is in English. This is important for two reasons. First of all, they have the advantage of considerably greater exposure to English in their daily life, which can amount to 60 or more hours in an average week. This comes though natural interaction with friends, colleagues, teachers, service workers, casual conversations in social settings and, in the case of home-stay students, communicating with family members. Then there is the more indirect exposure acquired from television, radio, reading menus and timetables, or simply over-hearing the conversations of native speakers. Students are learning, using and reviewing huge amounts of English everyday, and doing so in way that is totally natural rather than being artificially created in the classroom.

This leads us to the second major advantage that ESL students have over their EFL counterparts. If they also study in an ESL classroom, they can use this time to “fine tune” their English skills. They can ask grammar or vocabulary questions about English they have picked up elsewhere. Students can get clarification on grammar, vocabulary or expressions they didn’t understand. They also benefit more from deeper examinations of grammar and language usage. This is basis for most English textbook series where language targets are taught on a one per lesson basis, in a linear fashion. This works very well in an ESL environment because students benefit from having real opportunities to review and implement the English they have learned, outside of the classroom.

The importance of students having a real need to communicate in their daily lives should not be underestimated. For ESL students, it is not simply some esoteric subject they have to read in a textbook. Living in a country where you don’t speak the local language is extremely difficult. Even simple interactions like taking public transportation and shopping can be very frustrating. ESL students are impelled to gain at least a cursory understanding of English, just to make their lives bearable. Motivated students always learn much more.

English as a Foreign Language (EFL)

In a typical EFL setting, however, targets covered just recently are often quickly forgotten, because students invariably lack the opportunity to apply what they have learned in everyday situations. This is because English as a Foreign Language refers to studying English in one’s home country; where English is not the native language. EFL students typically have only an hour or so per week of total English exposure, with virtually all of that happening in the classroom. There is little or no outside contact with English in their daily lives. If English is only used in the classroom, there is little incentive to study and learn, especially for children. Not surprisingly, it is often the case that the only English that students can reproduce on their own initiative comes from the teacher talk that is used repeatedly in class. One hour per week is almost inconsequential. Without outside study and constant review, students will retain very little of what they have learned. Consider how slowly you would improve if you played a musical instrument, played baseball, or studied mathematics for only one hour per week. Mastering a foreign language is not so different from becoming an accomplished musician or professional athlete. Advanced English ability requires many thousands of hours of study, review and implementation through communication.

I don’t think many people can disagree with what I have said up to this point. So far I have simply been stating the facts and most English educators would agree on those premises. Contention arises, however, from what those facts mean in the EFL classroom. How should a TEFL approach to English language acquisition differ from that of TESL, if at all? I would argue that, as things stand, most EFL classes are not substantially different from those found in ESL settings, and that is the crux of the problem. Although the deficiencies in applying TESL techniques to TEFL students are well recognized, they have largely been ignored.

What are the implications for EFL classes?

1. Teach Useful English First

Students need breadth before they need depth. Give students the basic expressions and vocabulary they need to start communicating in English, in a useful way, from the outset. Most textbooks get into repetitive grammar drills very quickly. “It is a pen.” may be an easy place to start, but unless they are answering a question from someone with lower English ability than themselves, it is unlikely that they will have any immediate need to use this phrase. It doesn’t help students find the bathroom, ask for a pencil, or say that they don’t understand. Teachers should always be asking themselves, what are the next set of expressions or vocabulary that students need and want to communicate.

Spending a month on shapes like square, circle and triangle, might be fun for four-year-olds, with all the opportunities for crafts and creative activities, but will kids ever need to communicate “square” “circle” and “triangle” in a real life situation?

How about making sure they can express wants, likes, possessions and greetings first?

Students also want to communicate with YOU. This fact is often ignored, or it’s importance underestimated. It is rarely necessary to use the local language in the classroom, though many teachers do just that because it is easier, or simply to improve their own communication skills. The students, however, derive no benefit from this whatsoever. Teach them phrases like “I don’t understand.”; “What does that mean?”; “Here you are.”; “Stand up.”; “Be quiet!”; and “Take out your pencil.” from the very beginning. In this way, it quickly becomes possible to create an English-only environment in the classroom. Not only that, but this ‘teacher talk’ soon becomes second-nature to the students, and will naturally become language that they are able to reproduce on their own.

2. Repetition

EFL students will not get the repetition and review opportunities they need outside of the classroom, so language recycling has to be an integral part of each and every lesson.

Focusing on a single target per class works well in TESL settings but is not very effective in TEFL. It is far more efficient to cover a specific language target over 12 classes, using spaced repetition techniques, for five minutes each class, than to cover something once for 60 minutes. As students get more advanced, the more focused style of TESL can be employed, but for children and all beginners, covering many targets repetitively is the only way to get students comfortably and naturally using English.

Textbooks are not designed to teach in this way. Each chapter has to focus on a narrow target and subsequent chapters progress in a linear fashion. This is not how EFL students acquire a language. Unfortunately, in some situations, using a textbook might be unavoidable. This might be due to an inflexible teaching policy in the school where you work, or perhaps because other teaching materials are simply not available.

If you have to use a textbook, and want to see real communicative progress with your students, start teaching several grammar and vocabulary targets in each class, but repeat the same targets many times with increasing delays in repetition. If this is hard to imagine, consider a textbook with 10 chapters taught over a year. In each class, teach a little of as many chapters as you can. Ensure that the language being learned becomes progressively more difficult by adding vocabulary and grammar difficulty.

At the end of the year students will know and be able to effectively communicate all of that English because they have practiced each target dozens of times. With a traditional textbook approach, early chapters are all but forgotten by the end of the year. It is near impossible to provide the required amount of repetition within the pages of any textbook. However, by employing this modified approach to using the textbook, with constant recycling of language being learned, students acquire the habit of using English effectively, and will therefore speak more confidently, and more often.

Are you an EFL or ESL teacher?

Regardless of whether you are teaching EFL or ESL, it is highly likely that you are using TESL approaches. If you are teaching in an English speaking than great, your students will be progressing quickly. If you are teaching in a country where English is not widely spoken, then different teaching approaches are needed. The linear textbook based approach of teaching limited grammar targets in sequence does not work. By the time you finish the textbook, students will have forgotten most of what was covered. TEFL requires a different approach with a focus on communicative English and massive amounts of repetition. Great EFL teachers do this intuitively, but a more systematic and simple approach needs to be developed. That is what I hope to provide with ABCfrog.net.


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