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English Language Teaching Global Blog


How ESL and EFL classrooms differ

Filling in formsYou may think that teaching English is teaching English, whether you’re doing it in a Thai village or a suburban California school. And you’d be right, sort of. Many of the same textbooks, lesson plans, and online resources serve in both cases. Many English teachers go from one type of teaching position to the other, and back again. But there are fundamental differences between ESL and EFL classrooms. Understanding them will make you a more effective teacher.

An ESL classroom is in a country where English is the dominant language. The students are immigrants or visitors. The class is usually of mixed nationalities, so students don’t share a native language or a common culture. Outside the classroom, students have a specific, practical need for English, and ample opportunity to use it. Students have extensive daily exposure to English-speaking culture, although their understanding may be limited by their language skills.

An EFL classroom is in a country where English is not the dominant language. Students share the same language and culture. The teacher may be the only native English speaker they have exposure to. Outside of the classroom students have very few opportunities to use English. For some, learning English may not have any obvious practical benefit.  Students have limited exposure to English-speaking culture, most often through a distorted lens like TV or music.

Based on these definitions, we can see that there are important differences in the student population. Effective lesson planning must take them into account.

ESL students need

  1. Hands-on English lessons suitable for their immediate needs. If you’ve got a class full of recent immigrants struggling with how to fill out forms, teach them to fill out forms. If you’ve got a group of foreign doctoral students, teach them how to talk to their academic advisors. There may be a place for general grammar instruction, but not until more pressing needs are met.
  2. Explicit cultural instruction. These students come from many places, all very different from your classroom. Teach them about your cultural norms. Teach them how to get along in your society. Tell them how people from your culture see their culture. You might not think this is traditional English teaching, but it will generate fascinating discussion. Understanding culture is an invaluable step towards fluency.
  3. Bridges towards integration. As an ESL teacher, you may not consider yourself a guidance counselor, but be ready to suggest concrete ways for your students to address their daily problems in your local community. Whether that means referring them to an immigrant assistance association or helping them apply for a job online, you’re likely to be the first person they ask for help. Equip yourself with the knowledge you need, and be ready to do more research when asked.

EFL students need

  1. Lots of practice using English, especially orally. Get them speaking in the classroom, but also teach them where to find opportunities to practice speaking English outside of class, and reward them for doing so.
  2. Exposure to living English. Never lead your students to believe that English is a set of rules and words to memorize. It is the living, breathing creation of cultures and communities around the world. Do whatever you can to reveal this depth.  Pen pals, non-traditional teaching materials, and field trips are great ways to make English come alive for your students.
  3. Reasons to learn English, and motivation to stick with it. English can be very theoretical when you’re growing up in a village in Belarus. Find out about each student’s other passions and tie English into them. There are so many English communities online and off that it’s possible to find a tie-in for almost any other area of interest. Social networks are powerful tools.

These are the key differences I see between these student communities and strategies to teach English accordingly. Does this match your experience? What do you think are the key differences between ESL and EFL classrooms?


In her first guest post for OUP, Kate Bell, a writer and researcher, talks us through some of the practical differences between ESL and EFL classrooms.

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