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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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  1. Hi Kate – Thanks for the article – very interesting. 🙂

    Do you think the difference is as clear cut as this – For instance in the ESL context; “students have a practical need for English and ample opportunity to use it” – is that generally true? Equally EFL students “have limited exposure to English speaking culture” – is this the case in the digital world? And why is TV a ‘distorted lens’

    In general do you think there is a clear distinction, is it useful to draw this line.

    What does everyone think about this?

    • Hi Richard,
      Thanks for your feedback on the article. Sorry for taking a while to get back to you. I was on holiday.

      I do think that in the ESL context students have many more opportunities to use English because they are living in an English-speaking country. If they have only just arrived in the country or are true beginners, they may be somewhat cloistered and not using English as much as they could, but certainly they are still exposed to a lot of English in the grocery store, on the bus, on street signs, at work, etc. Showing them practical ways in which they can step out into the larger community using English is a great thing to integrate into lessons.

      I do think EFL students are quite limited in their exposure to English-speaking culture, no matter how much they listen to English music, watch English movies & TV, or even read English websites. They are likely to think all Americans are glamorous, fast-talking stars, that we all sleep with nearly anyone we meet, crack jokes every 2 sentences, and have jobs that don’t involve doing any work. This is what you see on TV. It’s not much like my experience of American culture. A lot less adventure happens in everyday life. There’s a lot more subtle strangeness for foreigners, and there’s a lot of nuance that just doesn’t come through in a media setting. TV is also not the place to find discussions of the difference between American or British perspectives on X issue and your local culture. These have a place in an EFL classroom but will not be found in mainstream media.

      thanks again for your perspective,

      • I grew up in a bilingual society where English is a common second language to most people. There were the first language English speakers, but they were in the minority. Yet, English was all around us as second language speakers and it did make it a lot easier to become fluent – mostly by the age of 10-12 kids can speak both languages almost equally well.

        I am now in Korea, and I can clearly see the difference between ESL and EFL learners. All media are translated into their first language: mobile phones, media players, computer games, computer software, books, boardgames, user manuals, etc. All English movies are subtitled. We didn’t have that. All of it was in English and we had a reason to learn English – to be able to enjoy all entertainment media, we’d better.

      • Thanks for sharing your perspective dear Kate. I’m Peruvian and love teaching English to kids. And I have been gathering some of my favorite comedies in which I could hear British English like Belvedere or The Nanny. But, Luis, my 11 year-old student, likes fiction, so I promised him to watch “Beetlejuice” or “Nessie Monster documental” for example. But apart of these beloved programs, I’m not fond of the “modern” comedies…
        On the other hand,, I have never been abroad, so you’re right when you tell that we have less opportunities to be exposured to the real living english. So, I have good news! I’m applying to work in USA with the VIF Program and I am so excited1 This will be a great opportunity to enrich my english! But about the subject I have taught, there are options in which I have to choose just one: English-ESL(Ii don’t see the “EFL” option)-Language Arts and Bilingual Elementary English/Spanish-Language Arts/SS(MS only)- Language Arts(MS only) and Language(other). I clicked on “English”, since I have taught it like if I were teaching to ESL students, since they are peruvian, like me. But I taught them Language arts, since I understand that it includes listening,speaking,reading and writing. I appreciate your help. Greetings from Peru! Giselle

      • Kate, everything you have said is absolutely true with the EF students that I teach who come here from China. They usually think that the TV shows they watch in China really do represent what we Americans live like. They receive a very pleasant surprise during their 3 weeks with us each summer.

    • Hi, thanks so much for the using the term ESL!

      Unfortunately, many well-meaning American and Canadian educators have adopted the term ELL — English Language Learners in its place. Misunderstanding the “second” in ESL, they were trying to say that English is often the 3rd or 4th language that people were learning.

      However, the second in ESL really reminds us that these learners already have a complete language and culture and that English is the language they are now using in addition to their first/home/native language. ESL in fact honors their background and culture.

      On the other hand, the term ELL ignores their original culture/language. Additionally, it fails to remind me us that ESL students aren’t “blank slate” that we are filling with knowledge. Finally, it also ignores the fact that every single speaker of English, whether it was the first or fifth language learned, will hopefully remain an English Language Learner for all of his/her life!


      Charles Hall
      University of Memphis

      • Very interesting Mr. Charles! Here in my country it is usual to ask : “So, are you proficient or do you have a perfect English? But as you mentioned lines above… Even the best native teacher will be an English Language Learner for all his/her life! Right? I teach English to kids but at the same time I consider myself an ELL or EFL…since I continue studying English and teaching from now until all my life:)

        • Thanks for your comment. I’m now working in Saudi Arabia where I teach many “native speakers” who have never been to an English speaking country! They live their lives here in Riyadh in English and don’t even speak Arabic. This is an interesting group that is becoming more and more common around the globe!

        • “Perfect English”?????? does it exist????? only writers / poets native speakers can say they have a “perfect English”…or linguist who have studied the language for years…perfection does not exist!!!!!!!!!!!!even we native Spanish speakers are not proficient in our own language unless we have a linguistic background…
          Regards from Mexico!

    • Hi, Richard,

      I think that Kate is speaking in generalities, which may or may not be true in individual cases. Sometimes the only contact ESL students have with English is in their English classrooms, while in some countries there are many opportunities for EFL students to practice with other English speakers. I think that what Kate wants to emphasize is that we need to look at the students we are teaching, determine their priorities and needs, and make the lessons we teach fit the students we are teaching. She makes some good points about the differences between ESL and EFL, but we can’t just assume a “one size fits all” mentality about it.

    • Hi Richard Gresswell
      Yes I partially agree with your stance as the difference brought forward by Kate may not be exhaustive to the South Asian Countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh etc. While studying SLA here I was given to know that Pakistan is a medley of ESL-EFL contexts. The urban areas of our country may be said ESL while the rural areas predominantly are EFL contexts. But I disagree with stance as according to the definitions given by Kate, in the ESL context, students have explicit exposure to English where as I don’t think it is a reality in Pakistan as biggest cities of it (where English education is very common ) even don’t offer ample opportunities to native variety interaction to the students of English.

  2. I’d agree with much of what you say, especially the need for some kind of cultural bridge with ESL students – often the English teacher is one of the few people who is there and who has the time and opportunity to provide basic asnwers to questions an immigrant (for example) has about living in the country.

    But I would say that your second EFL point of Exposure to Living English is equally valid for ESL students as it is for EFL students. In fact, your suggestion of field trips for EFL students here can easily be applied to ESL students; a field trip in the local community can be incredibly valuable not only in terms of language but also cultural integration and understanding for ESL students.

    • Hi,
      I certainly agree that field trips can be used in both types of classroom, but the objective is a bit different. For ESL students there is always this urgency, a real practical need for the English they see all around them but cannot use sufficiently well. A field trip to the DMV and a lesson on the vocabulary used on driving tests is going to be useful for them if they’re at that level of English.

      With a standard EFL classroom you’re not going to get much joy with a driving test vocabulary lesson. It’s just too specific a use case for someone overseas to be interested in, unless you’ve got a class of college kids preparing to go to the US in 1 month and planning to take driving tests. For the most part, the EFL classroom isn’t going to focus on such mundane daily tasks in such detail.

      thanks again for your perspective,

  3. As far as I can see, ESL students also need all the things in the EFL group, although not vice versa. Opportunities to speak English outside class are often limited even in ESL contexts and non-traditional materials, field trips, motivation are important regardless of setting.

    • Hello,
      I agree that non-traditional materials and motivation are important in all settings. But the difference lies in the nuances. ESL students are living in an English-speaking country. They may not be very integrated into the English-speaking community, especially if they are true beginners or they have just arrived in the country, but they are still in a very different situation from EFL students. They shouldn’t need much help finding reasons to want to speak English for example. They may be shy about using their English, but giving them examples of ways to practice outside of class should be extremely straightforward. And they have a whole population of English speakers around them to practice on for free, so they don’t have to go hang out in expat bars or “meet people” on the internet to find people who they can try out their new English skills on. English is not theoretical for ESL students.

      Certainly there are lots of areas that overlap, and that’s why most course materials can be shared.

  4. I agree .I´d like opinions about the use of the native language in an Efl classroom.Thank you

  5. […] guest post on Oxford University Press’s English Language Teaching Blog for an insight into the key differences between ESL and EFL classrooms. Tweet   Please share this post with your social media network by clicking the FB […]

  6. Hi Kate,

    I enjoyed reading your post. One thing I’d pick up on is rewarding EFL students for work done outside of class. Any tips on how you go about this? It’s something that I’d love to encourage my students to do.



    • Hi Alex,
      Global English TESOL has some good ideas below. A few more:

      – depending on the age of students and your location, you can get them to interact in person or online with native English speakers. You can feel pretty safe encouraging adults to interact on their own, outside of class. If you’re in a big city, there are probably some native English speakers living there, and there may be foreign English speakers who come to give talks or participate in events. Find out when those things are happening and tell your students to go. Get your students to do an interview with a native English speaker online or off about x topic. Get students to edit wikipedia pages in the English version of wikipedia in a subject they know well (there’s lots of back and forth with more seasoned editors usually). Get students to post reviews of products they use or places they know on English-language sites. If you live in a place with tourists, give your students projects where they go talk to tourists. There are certainly a ton of English speakers waiting in line at the Eiffel Tower, bored and glad to talk to an English student while they wait.

      – for younger students you don’t want to just send them off to meet random people. Instead, find English-speaking classes abroad that you can do projects with, or that your students can be pen pals with. Don’t just assign and leave it to them to keep it up. Have correspondence come via you, the teacher, write the letters at home and then review in class, etc. There are lots of child-oriented learning sites that you can send students to play games on. If you use collaborative or interactive types of games they can come back with some proof of having played, a quest accomplished for example. Giving kids a lot of different examples of sites, one at a time over several weeks, lets them try different things and perhaps find one that they like enough to play it more often without prompting.

  7. Thanks for the helpful distinction. I think there is a lot of overlap but there is a distinct difference of focus between the two. Certainly in the EFL classroom it is too tempting to see no further than class we’ve prepared for and so not encourage meaningful interaction outside. As a teacher, you can set up Wikis for class collaboration, have students communicate in English via Skype on a conference call with each other in small groups on a topic the teacher sets – and then have them report back to the class next lesson and utilise social media via Facebook groups, for example. Where possible we need to encourage students to use English outside of the class in meaningful and interactive ways. It takes a bit of thought at the front end, but once established, the students will run with it. I realise there may be some limitations on social media and some are resistant etc. but in the main I think this is where we prove our worth as teachers, in the ‘added value’ stuff – extending learning outside of the class.

  8. Thank you for your very clear explanation of the differences between ES and EFL. Because language is such a living form I see that the more relevant it is made in the classroom the more motivated students will be to learn English. I know I always learn better when I have a reason or goal for learning.

  9. This is why I stick to ESL. Those differences are important in how you teach every day, and the kind of activities you can do.

  10. […] as a Foreign Language. Which is correct? They can be, depending on your teaching circumstances. This excellent post lays out the difference between ESL and […]

  11. I don’t disagree with any of your observations, but you don’t mention what I see as the primary difference between an EFL and ESL classroom: the educational level of the 2 groups is very different. EFL students tend to have much more education as compared to ESL students. That makes the job much different.

  12. I think your three needs for EFL students are right on the mark.

    I teach English in Russia and most of my students have studied English for years, but never with native speakers. So they know more about the “rules” than I do, sometimes.

    In America, we were taught English very rarely by rules. I know the rules but I also know the rules change. The OED is updated constantly with new words. Old grammatical imperatives are tossed out (the terror of ending sentences with a preposition being one). English is a living, breathing language and will probably be very different one hundred years from now.

    The only thing my students usually need is speaking ability. On paper, their English is fantastic–if you’re used to reading early 1900’s exquisite Queen’s grammar. If they actually want to converse today? They’re suffering.

    Phrasal verbs, collocations–these are the terms that leave them squirming. It’s what I focus on.

    And, yes! It’s because they live in Russia and have no one to talk to in today’s English.

    • Jenn I too am in Russia, could you contact me regarding your teaching experiences here in Russia?


  13. […] which make English learning interesting and motivating. For example the use of authentic videos in EFL classroom has become a practical material to work on. There is a great variety of videos to choose […]

  14. Hello! Thank you for your ARTICAL. I’d like to try your service to compare it to my previous experience. I did 10 lessons by Skype with a native speaker teacher from https://preply.com/en/skype/english-native-speakers, I think it’s an easy process to talk with native English speakers online and I was pretty satisfied with their quality, they also provide personal tuition for several languages. But I want to try another option.

  15. Hi, Kate!
    Thanks for your article! it helped me a lot to understand the different between these terms.
    However, I still have a doubt. I work in a bilingual school in Brazil. In the school we speak only English with the children and they have a specific Portuguese teacher to teach them to write and read. The school affirms that we are an ESL school, but it doesn’t make sense to me. For me ( and according to the your article) it is and EFL school. what do you think?
    I’m looking forward to your answer 🙂

    • Of course it is not an ESL school,don’t worry the same happens in Mexico,I have been in schools where the owner thinks it is ESL and it is not…it is just business to attract school tuition to impress parents….money…just money…..

  16. In an ESL environment students do not need the oral approach because it is outside the class,classes are about the language not how to use the language,whereas in an EFL environment it is essential the use of the language and grammar should be inferred,not taught….

  17. Hi kate, I live in colombia, I am writing a paper related to the EFL classroom, for me it is very important to understand what is exactly an EFL classroom.
    I have been looking for several definitions and I really like yours. It would be awesome for me to know more about your definition for “EFL classroom”

  18. Hi All!
    I think it is absolutely true that the students in an ESL class have a better opportunity to ‘pick up’ English. It seems that the students in an ESL class have no other choice but to talk in English because of having different backgrounds. On top of this, they use English whenever they step out of their residence in order to buy daily use things. On the contrary, the students in an EFL class have to work harder because of having same first language and coming from the same country. They, most of the time, try to switch to their mother tongue. This switching to ‘the native language’ halts the learning process to a great extent.

  19. Hi Kate
    just a few thoughts… Which category do you think Indians fit into? EFL or ESL? I train software Engineers in India; I eel that English is a second language for most of them.
    Another difference I have seen is that any Indians do not think that they have a problem with pronunciation( when interacting with native speakers). However, the perception of the NS( native speaker) who is listening to them is different. many feel that the main problem in interacting with Indians is their pronunciation.
    What is your take on this?

  20. […] ESL is English which is usually taught to students in an English speaking country. EFL is English which is taught to students in a foreign, non-English speaking country. Beyond this, ESL and EFL teachers may teach differently in order to address ESL and EFL student needs. Because EFL students probably don’t have as many opportunities to speak English, an EFL teacher may plan many oral activities. ESL teachers, however, may spend time helping their students with the integration process—getting a library card, taking a driving test, etc. For more information about different needs and about the differences between ESL and EFL, check out this informative blog post connected to the Oxford University Press. How ESL and EFL classrooms differ […]

  21. Hi,
    Ms. Lalitha you are right. Indians talk British English as they have about 200 years of their influence. Their pronunciation is a blend of their mother tongue and British English which makes it difficult to Understand.

  22. Thank you for clearing up the difference between EFL and ESL classes. I didn’t know that ESL classes were only taught in a country that has English as a dominate language. My friend is moving to the United States from France and I think she could really benefit from taking an ESL class when she gets here. I think I’ll have to help her find one that will work for her. https://www.ict.edu/north-houston-college/

  23. Thank you so much for making a clear difference between the two. In Gulf, where I teach, admin do not understand that English is NOT the second language, but a foreign one. The fact they use it in restaurants and shops, doesn’t mean a lot when it comes to American schools. That is why there are so many students struggling with literacy – the curricula applied is not alligned with EFL students’ needs.

  24. Thank you for your comments on this interesting topic, dear researchers. I am a student and I insure you that everyting said herein will help in Applied Linguistics course.

    • Teaching English as a second language (ESL) and as a foreign language (EFL) presents distinct challenges and opportunities. In ESL classrooms, students often need practical language skills and cultural integration support, while EFL students require extensive oral practice and exposure to living English. Understanding these differences is crucial for effective teaching. For example, South African educators have leveraged grants and funds to enhance EFL programs, providing resources for innovative teaching methods and cultural immersion activities. These initiatives not only improve language proficiency but also offer students valuable insights into global cultures, fostering a more engaging and effective learning environment.

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