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TESOL, TEFL, TESL - What's With All the Acronyms

TESOL, TEFL, TESL – What’s With all the Acronyms

If you’ve been considering a career teaching English abroad, you’ve likely been doing some research and asking around about certification options, classroom styles and job requirements. Chances are, you’ve run across one or more of the common acronyms like TESOL, TEFL or TESL that are used to describe the various ESL (English as a Second Language) certification programs.

Many people (and companies) tend to use the terms interchangeably, but there are some nuanced differences that are worth taking a little bit of time to familiarize yourself with. While all three acronyms tend to give you similar levels of qualifications and skills to teach English to students, it’s worth considering a few things to help you decide if one style of teaching might be a better fit than the others.

First, let’s break them down.

TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language

The way a student intends to use their English will heavily influence how an instructor needs to prepare lessons.The TEFL designation and certification refer to the idea of teaching English to individuals who primarily use it as a foreign language, meaning they will likely not use it on a day to day basis, but may use it for travel, hobby or business. This is the ESL term most commonly used within the UK.

One of the nuanced differences of a TEFL approach is the idea that the students who are learning English do not need to learn it to function on a day to day basis. This means that classroom approach might focus on how to use English to navigate while traveling or to strike up a conversation around hobbies or special interests. There might be less focus on culture studies because TEFL students may not spend as much time immersed in an environment that requires the English language.

That said, it’s important to remember that most TEFL certifications still provide the broader tools for teaching English overall and that the change in focus may simply be in the teaching style and activities used within the classroom itself.

TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language

The TESL designation and certification refer to the idea of teaching English to individuals who will activity use English as a second language and may even find themselves immersed in an environment where English is the primary language of those around them. These students need to build the skills to use English in day to day situations like business meetings, casual interactions and relationship building. They may be planning to relocate to an English speaking region or have a job or career that requires day to day use of English.

Because of these differences in student goals, classroom instruction might focus more heavily on the ability to communicate around daily tasks and responsibilities as well as social communication and cultural nuances like the use of idioms. TESL students are often preparing for (or already living in) an environment where English is constantly spoken around them, so they may have more opportunity and motivation to practice English on a regular basis.

TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

Many certifications are now incorporating concepts of both TEFL and TESL into their curriculum.

Many certifications are now incorporating concepts of both TEFL and TESL into their curriculum.

The TESOL designation and certification are one of the newer acronyms to apply within the world of teaching English to non-native speakers. It tends to be used most often in countries like Australia and the United States. TESOL has become an all-compassing certification that often includes both a TEFL and a TESL focus. It aims to incorporate the concepts of teaching English as a second language as well as teaching English as a foreign language, opening the doors of its instructors to a broader understanding of how to handle a wide range of student intentions.

TESOL is also sometimes used by universities to refer to graduate programs in English language teaching, not to be confused with a master’s program in applied linguistics which tends to focus more heavily on theory and language research.

You will also find this acronym in use by TESOL International Association, the largest professional organization for teachers of English as a second or foreign language.

Beyond the Acronyms

It’s a good idea to ask any company you are considering going through certification with how they define each of these terms. While each of these acronyms originated with a different focus, the growth and maturation of the industry has led many programs to truly use the terms interchangeably.
While there are certainly instances where a particular country or employer may prefer that your certificate include one acronym over the other, it’s important to remember that your choice of certification program should ultimately come down to which option best suits your style of learning and your long term goals. Take the time to research the benefits of classroom instruction verses web based instruction and the various combinations of the two.

Research the countries you are most interested in looking for a job in and have a solid understanding of the background, skills, training and certification you’ll need to land that first job. You can learn more about individual country requirements by visiting our country information page. You can also request a free information package about our TESOL certification program.


    • Neal
    • July 28, 2015

    Is there any evidence to back this up? In my graduate ESL/EFL program I was taught that the only difference is the language being spoken outside the classroom. If that language isn’t English then it’s TEFL, and if it is English then it’s TESL. The idea that all TEFL students “will likely not use it on a day to day basis” is silly considering the instructor has no idea who will and will not be using English on a daily basis in the future. I teach TEFL at a university and we indeed teach English as if the students will be using it on a daily basis.

    • It’s not so much about the individual use of the language but the language of the country that’s important. As the author mentioned near the end of the article, “While each of these acronyms originated with a different focus, the growth and maturation of the industry has led many programs to truly use the terms interchangeably.”

    • Lascelles A. Wallace
    • April 29, 2017

    Is there a an Oxford Seminar certificate center in China … I have someone who is interested in acquiring a certificate . I China – Jiangsu Province , Changzhou City.

    You can contact me by email .
    Thank you
    Lascelles A. Wallace MIT/TOSEL/TESL/TEFL

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