Sorting through the “acronym soup”

Many people, after only a few minutes of online research, become extremely frustrated with all the different acronyms used in the field of ELT (That’s an overall acronym to describe the industry – English Language Teaching). Especially confusing are the various acronyms used to denote initial teacher training programs and certificates.

I often hear people say things like, “I have the TEFL.” or “What’s the difference between a TEFL and a TESOL certificate?” Well, first of all, there is no such thing as “the TEFL”. TEFL is not a brand nor an official name denoting a standardized certificate program. In fact, there are many names and acronyms that have been used over the years to describe initial short-term training programs. For example, in the Puget Sound region alone, you can find TESOL programs (School of TESL, Seattle Central, CityU), an I-TEFL program (University of Washington), and a CELTA program (ELS Tacoma). For all intents and purposes, these are ALL TEFL and/or TESOL certificates.

So, which one do you need? Well, that really depends on your specific needs. I’d say you need the one that will provide you with the best training, period. To help you sort through the “acronym soup”, I’ve included a handy glossary (below) to help you navigate and better understand the various acronyms you will encounter during your research.

Traditionally, TEFL refers to teaching in non-English speaking countries, whereas TESL refers to teaching in English speaking countries, to non-native speakers living or working there. In practice, though, the two terms are often used interchangeably, and both are covered by the all-encompassing TESOL. – eslbase.com



Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

TESOL is an umbrella term that describes the profession of English language teaching when it involves working with non-native speakers of English. It has been in use in the U.S. since at least the 1960s (TESOL International Association is based in the U.S.). Here at the School of Teaching ESL, we’ve been offering a TESOL certificate since 1985. The term ‘TESOL’ is used worldwide, but it is more common in the U.S. and Canada.


Teaching English as a Foreign Language

Traditionally, a TEFL certificate focuses on teaching skills required to teach English in a country where students are not native-English speakers, such as China, Japan or Brazil. However, the term ‘TEFL’ is used so widely to describe teacher training courses around the world, that one should conduct thorough research before deciding on a particular program. In terms of course length, look for something with at least 120 hours of instruction and 6+ hours of real classroom experience.


English as a Foreign Language

EFL is used to describe the industry or context of teaching in a country where English is either not a first or primary language, or where it is not widely spoken (compare with ‘ESL’). However, this distinction has become less relevant in a globalized world, and the terms EFL/ESL are often used interchangeably.


Teaching English as a Second Language

TESL certification courses are traditionally aimed at teachers planning to teach English to foreigners who are currently living in an English-speaking country. For example, teaching international students, immigrants or refugees in places like the USA, the UK, Australia and Canada. Again, this distinction is becoming less relevant, and most TEFL/TESL courses adequately prepare you for either context.


English as a Second Language

ESL is used to describe the industry or context of teaching in a country where English is the first or primary language, or where it is widely spoken (compare with ‘EFL’). As stated above, this distinction has become less relevant in a globalized world, and the terms EFL/ESL are often used interchangeably.


English Language Learner

Seems straightforward enough – technically, this could describe anyone who is learning English in addition to a first language. However, this term generally refers to English language learners who are studying in the public school system, usually in the US or Canada. So, for example, our school offers an ‘ELL Endorsement’, which is a credential for licensed K-12 teachers in Washington State.

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George Rowe

George Rowe is the Executive Director of S-TESL. He has taught English in Ukraine, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Finland and the U.S. He has been involved in teacher training overseas and locally since 2010.

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