What do all those letters mean?

Like many fields, TESOL is a field filled with acronyms.  Here’s a guide to sorting through the alphabet soup:

Terms describing language learners

  • ESL = English as a Second Language.  Describes students learning English in a context where the majority population speaks English.  This term is being used less because of the seeming inaccuracy in the term ‘second language’ – many English learners are learning their third, fourth, or fifth language.  However it’s not as inaccurate as some might suppose.  ‘Second language’ is a general linguistics term referring to any language that adds to a person’s first language.
  • ESOL = English for Speakers of Other Languages. This term was next to replace ESL in an attempt to correct the inaccuracy of ‘ESL’.
  • ELL = English Language Learner. The current word used by the US Department of Education to describe students learning English.
  • EFL = English as a Foreign Language. Describes students learning English in a context where the majority population speaks a language other than English.
  • EAL = English as an Additional Language. Commonly used in the UK for persons learning English.
  • LEP = Limited English Proficient. This is a dated term used to describe students learning English.  It has been phased out in an effort to define students by their proficiencies rather than their deficiencies.
  • CLD = Culturally and Linguistically Diverse. Sort of explains itself, not very frequently used, but known among professionals in the field.

Terms referring to specific sectors of the TESOL profession

  • ESP = English for Specific Purposes. Specialized training for very specialized content areas.  Some examples of ESP include English for Restaurant Workers, English for Medical Professionals, English for Business Purposes.
  • EAP = English for Academic Purposes. Specialized training for students who wish to study at the university level in English. 
  • TESOL (TESL/TEFL ) = Teachers of English of Speakers of Other Languages. Refers to the international professional organization as well as the teacher training sector of the field. 

Other generally known terms

  • ELT = English Language Teaching. Describes the overarching field, regardless of context or population being taught.
  • EIL = English as an International Language. Term describing the use of English around the world as a lingua franca. 

Did I miss something that you know about?  Leave it in the comments and I’ll add it!


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