Coming to Terms with TEFL… PPP, TTT, oh my!

Let’s face it: sometimes we English teachers like to throw around cool-sounding words, just because. And acronyms… lots of acronyms. For newer teachers, this may lead to some confusion regarding standard practices—and for veterans, pressure to keep up with the latest trending topics at TESOL conferences worldwide, lest we be tossed into the den of antiquities… clinging to our beloved overhead projector transparencies for dear life!  

But fear not, fellow ELTs, because we are here today to help demystify this terminology, along with shedding some light on some of the most popular concepts in the EFL/ESL world. Although perhaps now you’re wondering, are you indeed an “ELT”? An EFL teacher? An ESL teacher? Wait, what’s the difference??  

A rose by any other name…  


So, what exactly is meant by the term ELT? Well, ELT is generally understood as “English Language Teaching”, whereas “an ELT” could therefore refer to an “English Language Teacher”. Likewise, ELL refers to “English Language Learning”. We should also note that, in this context, we are generally excluding the profile of “English teacher” as they would typically be thought of in a native English-speaking academic setting (e.g., a high school English/Language Arts teacher in the US or the UK), instead focusing on teachers of English for students whose native language is not English.  

So far, so good, right? Things get a little trickier, however, when trying to distinguish between “EFL” and “ESL”. Though often used interchangeably, there are some subtle differences worth pointing out:  

EFL (English as a Foreign Language) generally refers to learning English in a non-English-speaking country, where English is not the primary language of interaction. For example, if a student lives in, say, Argentina and takes English classes at school or a language academy, then they are an EFL learner. Spanish would (likely) be the student’s L1, or mother tongue, while English would be their L2, or target language/language of instruction. EFL learners usually have limited exposure to English outside the classroom, and their main motivation is often to pass exams or to travel abroad.  

ESL (English as a Second Language) generally refers to learning English in an English-speaking country, where English is used for professional communication, education, and day-to-day interactions. For example, if our Argentinian student moves to Canada and enrolls in an English course there, they would then be an ESL learner. ESL learners usually have more opportunities to practice English outside the classroom, and their main motivation is often to integrate into their adopted society or to improve their professional opportunities there. But… what if that student moves to Quebec (French-speaking Canada), you ask?  

EAL (English as an Additional Language) is a term which has been gaining traction in recent years and refers to learning English as one of several languages that the learner speaks or studies. For example, in the case of our Argentinian student, if they move to French-speaking Canada, then they may focus on learning French (primarily) and English (secondarily) at the same time. Or perhaps they stay in Argentina, but one of their parents is from France, so they’re already bilingual in Spanish and French, learning English as their third language. In either case, they would be an EAL learner. As you can see, EAL learners may live in either an English-speaking or a non-English-speaking country, and their main motivation is often to expand their linguistic, cultural and/or professional horizons.  

Similarly, the terms “TEFL”, “TESL” and “TESOL” are derived from the above categories:  

TEFL* = Teaching English as a Foreign Language 

TESL = Teaching English as a Second Language  

TESOL = Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages  


*Not to be confused with the TOEFL, the “Test of English as a Foreign Language” designed by ETS (Educational Testing Service) to assess a student’s English language proficiency (particularly for academic purposes), or the TOEIC (“Test of English for International Communication”, which focuses on professional purposes).  

In any case, it is important to note that these terms are generally not considered to be fixed or mutually exclusive, and they may change depending on the context and the perspective of the learner or the teacher. However, they can help you to understand the different expectations you may face and the different approaches and resources that you may need to achieve your teaching goals.  


The ABCs of ELT 

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s take a quick look at some of the most important terms and concepts you’re likely to come across in the world of English Language Teaching today, both old and new. Many will probably already be familiar to you, but you may discover some new ones as well!   


CALL: Computer Assisted Language Learning, i.e., using technology to help people learn a new language or improve their language skills. Some examples could be online language courses and language-learning apps, gamification and AI/chatbots, such as the famous (or infamous!) ChatGPT: Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer. Yes, like it or not, EdTech is booming, and AI is the new billion-dollar buzzword, instilling both wonder and fear in the hearts of educators the world over… and for some great tips on how to leverage ChatGPT in the classroom, be sure to check out our article here

CEFR: Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, the international standard which describes the ability/communicative competence of language learners on a six-point scale (A1-A2-B1-B2-C1-C2), from absolute beginner (A1) to fully proficient (C2).  

CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning, an approach that involves studying another subject in the target language (e.g., science or history) and thus developing one’s skills in the target language at the same time; commonly employed in bilingual school settings.  

CLT: Communicative Language Teaching, also known as the Communicative Approach, has been the standard-bearer of ELT for the past 40 years or so. Originally founded as an alternative to the “old-school” ways of teaching a language (e.g., Grammar Translation Method), CLT stems from the idea that the best way to learn a language is to use it for meaningful purposes and aims to develop learners' communicative competence.  

EAP: English for Academic Purposes, i.e., the English one needs to perform well in traditional higher education settings, such as studying at university or conducting scholarly research.  

ELF: No... not one of Santa’s little pointy-eared helpers, but rather “English as a Lingua Franca”. In general, ELF refers to the use of English as a common means of communication among speakers from different linguistic backgrounds and is centered around English no longer being solely the domain of native speakers but instead as a common tongue for communication between non-native speakers around the globe.  

ESP: English for Specific Purposes (e.g., banking, legal, medical, engineering) 

PPP: Presentation-Practice-Production, one of the core techniques for learning new language in CLT (see above).  

TBL/TBLL/TBLT: Task-Based Learning/Language Learning/Language Teaching is an approach that focuses on the use of authentic language to complete meaningful tasks in the target language (e.g., planning an event, carrying out a negotiation, etc.). It aims to develop learners' fluency and confidence by carrying out real-world tasks, based on the idea that learners can acquire language naturally and effectively through communication and interaction.  

TTT: This one depends on who you ask… For some, it means “Teacher Talking Time” (i.e., be careful how much you talk in class, to keep it more student-focused). For others, it can refer to the “Test-Teach-Test” approach to language learning: begin with a brief assessment of existing student knowledge of a language item, follow with targeted teaching, and then practice and reassess. 

And there you have it: a handy reference guide to some of the most common ELT queries! If you’d like to read a more in-depth comparison of the most common methodologies for language teaching (e.g., CLT, TBLT and more), please be sure to click here.