The Topic: What are the Differences between the ESL Classroom and the EFL Classroom?

Moderator @Shaunwilden led a few of us (@Tomtesol, @Bobk99, @esolcourses, and @JoeMcVeigh) to try to find a place to start into what we agreed was a rather dangerous minefield of assumptions and generalities.


For the most part, that’s where it stayed, with occasional more enthusiastic jaunts into near-off topic-land. The above earlybirds established that primary differences are that EFL tends to refer to situations in which the classroom time is the students’ primary (or only) chance to use English (and often, though not exclusively, the students share a mother tongue), while ESL is used to describe classes occurring in countries where English is a national language and thus the classroom is not only and probably not the primary English-speaking opportunity.


That said, nearer the end of the chat @dianatremayne pointed out that MANY ESL students leave class right into their local L1 cohort for the duration of their out of class time, thus rendering the class, from their perspective, more EFL than ESL.


The conversation then explored the implications of this distinction.


@JoeMcVeigh (later echoed by @JimScriv) first suggested that with English all around, ESL classes found more immediate motivation, with opportunities/need to apply what is addressed in class. @esolcourses suggested that ESL courses tended to have functional syllabi while later EFL courses were said to be more exam and otherwise “future” focused. @JoeMcVeigh then pointed out that there were likely differences because ESL tended to include students from multiple languages while EFL tended towards monolingual contexts. @tomtesol confirmed that it is much easier to maintain English discourse in the ESL classroom (due to the necessity of it’s use as an international language), than in EFL classes in which it can even be a challenge to avoid the L1.


Later, @Marisa_C raised the role of the internet and social networks in what used to be EFL environments, and @tomtesol seconded this with the observation that in his current EFL classes the sense that the ”future’ is becoming today’ is palpable.


We can see from the shifting sands in the above two paragraphs that the ELT community is well into its postmodern/anti-positivist era… The question of the place of culture in the syllabus arose, and answers were never confirmed, though most seemed to think ESL fell short in this area, and that ESOL, very similar to ESL, covered and tested (native speaker?) culture (@tesolcourses and @Marisa_C).


@LTLLblog asked and answered that it seemed mainstream textbooks tended to focus on ESL environments but are often used in EFL anyway. At this point the topic was nearly exhausted, but @jimscriv popped in and delivered the saving observation that everything (all the acronyms) boils down to looking at “what an individual needs” – that any classroom, ESL, EFL, or other, needs to be supporting its individual students, and the conversation tended in this direction for a bit, alternately agreeing and questioning (that while meeting needs can motivate students, class size makes it tough sometimes). And that was about it! @OUPELTGlobal supplied us with the only link of the session,, which could have ended our chat (and summarized this summary) right there, if folks hadn’t maneuvered us into tasty topics on the tangents.


See you soon!


About the Author

tomTom Randolph is an Associate Professor of TESOL in Korea, an ex-Cambridge examiner, and a Wiley-Blackwell, Georgetown, and Compass media published writer and materials developer. He is @Tomtesol on Twitter and his website is Evolutions, where this summary and other reflections on learning are accumulating