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A Short Guide to Acronyms in ELT

Acronyms in ELT: What they mean and where and how they are used. 

Like any profession or field, the teaching of English has evolved and developed a whole range of acronyms and specialised terms to describe where we teach and what we do regionally and pedagogically. However, the terms may be confusing at times, as they are often used interchangeably and in different ways by educators at different stages of their teaching careers.  Indeed, some have either changed their meanings or disappeared from use altogether. Here, I will attempt to both define and put into context some of the more commonly used (and misused) terms. 

TESOL International has a pretty good list of these with definitions Wikipedia also offers a fairly succinct explanation of the key terms used in the field so I will try to find a middle ground between these two approaches and offer the key terms from the English Education field within the context of where and how they are used. 

The Term English Language Teaching (ELT) is most often used by educators, publishers and training programs amongst others to refer to what ESL and EFL professionals actually do. 

The British Council(2) defines it as “the activity and industry of teaching English to non-native speakers.” There is no agreed term for the field of English teaching.  For example, TESOL is used in North America to include both TESL and TEFL (and ESL as well) but in British English the proper term is ELT

Other often used terms include: English as an international language (EIL), English as a lingua franca (ELF), English for special purposes and English for specific purposes (ESP), and English for academic purposes (EAP). Those who are learning English are often referred to as English learners(ELs) or English language learners(ELLs).

Whilst EIL focuses on how English is viewed within a global context considering both the many dialects of English around the world as well as the movement towards a yet to be defined standard English(4)&(5); ELF reflects the impact that non-native speakers of English are having on the evolution of English(4). EIL has seen the use of terms like World English, International English, Global English (and now Globish, which “’…is not artificial…[i]t derives from the observation that some kind of English is spoken everywhere.’ (5) 

ESP is a learner-centered approach to teaching English as an additional language (see EAL below), which focuses on developing communicative competence in a particular discipline such as academics(EAP), accounting, agrology, business, IT, teaching, tourism, nursing and engineering amongst others.  

ESP programs incorporate the following characteristics:

  1. Designed to meet the specific needs of the learners.
  2. Related in content (themes and topics) to particular disciplines or occupations.
  3. Use of authentic work-specific documents and materials.
  4. Promotion of cultural awareness and seeks to improve intercultural competency.
  5. Delivers intermediate and advanced level language training.(7) 

Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language:

According to Teflpedia(1), Teaching English as a Second Language(TESL) is the term for the teaching of English in English speaking countries like the US, Canada, the UK and so on.  

Teaching English as a Second or other Language (TESOL) is also used to include learners in these contexts for whom English is either a second or additional language to be learned. English as a Second Language(ESL) is also used to describe the field or programs in these countries. According to Nordquist (3), “English as an additional language (EAL) is a contemporary term (particularly in the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union) for English as a second language (ESL).” 

Teaching English as a Foreign Language(TEFL) is used to describe the teaching of English in countries where it is not a native language for the residents of that country, for example China, Japan, Korea, continental Europe and other parts of the world where English is not a recognised official language. English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is used to refer to the field or programs in these countries. 

Nuanced Acronyms:

As ELT has evolved, so has the terminology, such that, English as an additional language (EAL) takes ESOL even further by acknowledging that true multilinguals may be learning English as a third, fourth or further additional language.  English as an international auxiliary language(EAIL) acknowledges the need for “International Auxiliary Languages(IALs) [which] are languages constructed with the aim of facilitating communication between people who would otherwise have no other language in common. They are usually designed to be significantly more simple, and thus, more easily learned, than national or “natural” languages.”(8)  

Also, English as a new language (ENL) is an acronym also recognising that some learners know more than two or three languages.  It is the acronym of choice for the U.S.-based National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification.(9) 

For learners, there is the need for English language acquisition(ELA) along with English language development(ELD) in order to develop English language proficiency(ELP) perhaps demonstrated through their ranking on the Common European Framework of Reference for Language(CEFR).  Their proficiency could be demonstrated through tests like the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), (is a language test designed by ETS (formerly Educational Testing Service)) to measure the everyday English skills of people working in an international environment.  

The Test of English as a foreign language (TOEFL), is a standardised test, developed by ETS (formerly the Educational Testing Service) and is used to measure the English language ability of non-native English-speaking students who are applying to U.S. institutions of higher education.  

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) tests are international standardised tests of English language proficiency for non-native English language speakers who wish to work or study overseas. This test is jointly developed and administered by the British Council, Cambridge English Language Assessment, and IDP Education, and is used by most Australian, Canadian, British, and New Zealand institutions of higher education.(9) 

Low English Proficiency (LEP) learners might attend intensive English programmes (IEPs). These programs are based on methods like Content Based Instruction (CBI), communicative language teaching (CLT) or Content Learning Integrated Learning (CLIL) amongst others, including the more traditional methods.(10) 

Professional teachers in Europe or other parts of the world are required to have completed a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA), which is administered by Cambridge Assessment English based in England, this acronym refers to a specific, branded TEFL certificate course. Practitioners with CELTA certification can continue their studies by completing the Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults (DELTA) program which is the equivalent of a MA in Linguistics, or an M.Ed. in TESL/TEFL from a North American University (12) and it is the preferred ELT credential in many parts of the world(11).  Amongst ELT professionals, there is an ongoing debate about whether Native English speaking teachers (NESTS) or Non-Native English speaking teachers(NNESTs) make better teachers and role models for their students (see reference 13 for a good overview of this topic). 

Finally, while the acronyms here are by no means all of the possible acronyms used by every teacher in every context around the globe, they encompass most of the more commonly used (and misused) acronyms used by ELT professionals. Is there an important acronym missing from this article that is commonly used in your part of the world? If so, please add it along with a link to the meaning or definition in the comments below. 















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