This Is How ESL And EFL Classrooms Differ

How ESL And EFL Classrooms Differ

As an English teacher, knowing how ESL and EFL classrooms differ is one of the most important things. I need to devise a curriculum and learning strategy based on the type of classroom I am teaching.

So, how ESL And EFL classrooms differ? The significant difference between ESL and EFL is that ESL refers to learning and teaching English as a second language. In contrast, EFL relates to teaching and learning English as a foreign language.

For example, an EFL learner will speak English inside the classroom but continue to speak their native language outside. On the other hand, an ESL learner will speak English inside and outside the classroom. Because of this, EFL classrooms require different English learning strategies. 

Keep reading to learn about how ESL and EFL classrooms differ. 

If you are interested in exploring more about ESL teaching, I suggest you read this article: Top 11 Benefits of ESL Classes: The Facts Explained.

What Is An EFL Classroom?

English as a Foreign Language classroom, also often referred to as an EFL classroom, is learning English in a country where English is not the first language. For instance, students learning English in China, Japan, Spain, or Thailand are considered EFL students because English is not these countries’ official language.

Generally, outside of an EFL classroom, students have very few opportunities to practice their English skills. 

In addition, EFL means developing and exploring English as an additional language in a non-English speaking country, including South Korea, China, or Thailand.

See also: 9 Best Countries For Teachers To Emigrate To (And countries where teachers receive the most respect from students)

What Is An ESL Classroom?

An English as a Second Language Classroom, usually called an ESL classroom, refers to teaching English to students who speak a different language and live in a country where English is the primary language

Typically, the students are visitors or immigrants. An ESL classroom is generally of different nationalities, preventing students from speaking their native language. 

ESL classroom typically focuses on teaching listening, speaking, reading, and writing at proper developmental and proficiency levels with limited use of their native language.

In short, ESL, or English as second language classrooms, are programs where students learn or improve English.

In the United States, the two most popular kinds of ESL classes are the American Language and Culture Programs (ALCP) and Intensive English Programs (IEP) (Source: University of the People)

The table below shows the differences between EFL and ESL classrooms

Key Features EFL ESL
Definition EFL classroom refers to teaching or learning English as a Foreign Language.ESL classroom refers to teaching or learning English as a Second Language.
Conditions – EFL classrooms involve studying English in a country where English is not the first language.
– For example, China, Japan, Spain, or Russia
– ESL classrooms involve studying English in a country where English is the first language.
– For example, Canada, The United Kingdom, or The United States
Purpose EFL learners learn as requirements for career advancement, studying abroad, or vacations as a means to survive while visiting a foreign country.ESL learners are quotidianly exposed to English and practice English with native speakers.
Materials EFL study materials are usually developed for learners studying English in their native country or for students taking a short course in an English-speaking country.ESL materials specifically offer ‘survival English,’ which helps the migrants to integrate into an English-speaking country.
Country EFL refers to studying English in a country where English is not the dominant language.In contrast, ESL involves learning English in a country where English is the dominant language.
Table Contains The Differences Between EFL and ESL Classrooms –

3 Key Differences Between ESL and EFL Classrooms

The most important differences between ESL and EFL classrooms include:

1- General English Vs. Traditional English 

In most ESL classrooms, students are taught general English, which allows them to become more comfortable with communication. They also practice speaking English outside the classroom, which boosts their learning. However, EFL classroom students don’t have this luxury. 

In most EFL classrooms, students are traditionally taught English. This means they are taught step-by-step, focusing more on grammatical structures and difficulty levels. That is because the student has to master the language in the classroom, as they don’t communicate in English outside. 

2- Enhancing Understanding Vs. Maximum Exposure

In ESL classrooms, English language and skills are taught to supplement children’s learning in other subjects. These include other classes, such as history, math, science, etc. The style is much more casual, and the focus is to get students to enhance their language understanding. 

On the other hand, students in EFL classrooms receive maximum exposure to English. Teachers must utilize techniques and methods that allow the students to use the language more accurately and fluently. So, the learning is rigorous and extensive. 

3- Motivation Factor 

As an English teacher, I have noticed an important difference between ESL and EFL classrooms. There is a lack of motivation in EFL classrooms because most students are studying English to either get a promotion or because the government requires it. As a result, they don’t have any opportunities to use English for genuine communication outside the classroom. 

However, ESL settings offer more opportunities to speak English, which is why students are motivated further.

So, the key to success in an EFL classroom is to create more opportunities to speak English outside the class. Providing such opportunities to the learners will motivate them to improve their English speaking and listening skills. 

See also: Are Mixed Ability Classes Better? (Including 9 pros and pros!)

What Each Classroom Needs?

Now that you know how ESL and EFL classrooms differ, it is important to know what to provide each classroom.

We will first start with ESL classrooms. You can also check this guide for some ESL teaching resources. 

ESL Classroom Requirements 

As a teacher, here is what you will need to provide to ESL students in the classroom:

1- Focusing On Immediate Needs

ESL students might only need hands-on English lessons that suit their immediate needs. For example, you might get a class full of recent immigrants struggling with basic tasks. These include filling out forms and other basic things. 

If that is the case, you must focus on their immediate needs and teach them how to fill the forms with the right instructions.

On the other hand, if you have a group of foreign doctoral students, you can teach them how to communicate with their academic advisors. Again, the key is to focus on the pressing needs of ESL students. 

See also: 11 Best Books for ESL Students (And spark the love of reading!)

2- Exposure To The English Culture And Society

Students in ESL classrooms come from various places, which is why they might not be familiar with your culture.

You have to teach them about cultural norms so that they can integrate into society. For example, you can teach students how to get along with people in your culture, what is acceptable, and what isn’t. 

Many people think this isn’t teaching English, but it will help generate a great discussion in English. Such a discussion will allow the students to polish their English skills and understand more about where they are. 

3- Integration And Immersion 

Finally, ESL classrooms need integration and immersion in the local community. Students will need help with various tasks, such as applying for jobs, talking to the immigrant assistance association, and much more. They will come to you for help, and you must guide them accordingly. 

You should equip yourself with all the necessary knowledge and help your students. In the long run, they will thank you for anticipating their needs and helping them out. Integration and immersion guarantee fluency in the language. 

See also: 11 Ways ESL Students Can Improve Their Speaking Skills.

EFL Classroom Requirements

Now that you know what ESL classrooms need, here are the requirements of EFL classrooms. Also, don’t forget to check this TEFL guide for the best EFL resources

1- Oral Practice 

One of the top things that EFL classrooms require is a lot of practice using English orally. You have to get them to speak English in the classroom to become more fluent. However, teaching students to find opportunities for speaking English outside the class is good. 

You can even create a reward system, as these students have less motivation to learn English. Doing this will enable you to help your students in the best way possible

2- Exposure 

During my experience, I learned that it is never good to let your students believe that English is a set of words and rules they need to memorize.

Instead, it is good to help them understand that English helps create communities and cultures around the world. As a teacher, you must do everything you can to help them realize the depth of learning this language. 

You must do whatever it takes to help them gain exposure outside the classroom. For example, you can take them on field trips, assign pen pals, and teach them using non-traditional materials. Once you do, it will help your students gain more exposure outside the class. 

See also: 11 Ways ESL Students Can Improve Their Listening Skills.

3- Give Them Reasons And Motivation 

Students need reasons to learn English, especially if there is no way to learn more of it outside the classroom. You can help them by talking about the passions of everyone and then tie English to these discussions. They can also find communities online for their interests that will help them boost their English skills. 

Social media and networking platforms are one of the most powerful tools of our time. You can teach the students how to use them efficiently so that they can have more reasons to learn English. It will also offer them the motivation to stay consistent with their learning. 

Similarities Between EFL and ESL

  • Both EFL and ESL are developed for non-native English-speaking students. 
  • Both EFL and ESL classrooms aim to develop or improve learners’ English speaking, listening, writing, and reading skills.
  • Both EFL and ESL learners aim to help learners to break communication barriers. 
  •  Both ESL and EFL courses strengthen the brain’s functioning.
  • Learning a new language (ESL and EFL) can help improve memory, enhance students’ ability to multitask, and improve their performance in other academic areas (Source: Middlebury Language Schools)

See also: 12 Best Countries To Teach English And Save Money.

Final Words 

That was everything you need to know about ESL and EFL classrooms differ. You will have to go the extra mile for EFL classrooms because students don’t have an outlet to speak and practice English outside the classroom.

So, you will need to devise strategies and techniques that will help them gain maximum exposure to the language. 

On the other hand, ESL classrooms will also need maximum exposure, but you will have to focus on the immediate needs of the students.

No matter what classroom you are in, you must help students integrate into society and the community. This is one of the most important tasks you have as an English teacher. 


Hello friends, I am Altiné. I am SO excited you are here! I am the guy behind Project English Mastery. I am from Toronto, Canada. I graduated with a Master in International Economics and Finance from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. After working a few years in the banking industry and completing my 120 TEFL from the University Of Toronto, I decided to teach English in China. Project English Mastery is a blog that provides helpful resources for English Teachers and Learners: vocabulary and grammar, exercises, and class activities ideas and tips.

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