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TEFL, TESOL, ESL, ELT: what do they all mean?


In the world of English teaching, abbreviated TEFL terminology abounds. Whether you’ve just started out on your career or have been teaching for a while, it’s likely that you’ve wondered what they all mean and how they apply to you. As we will discover, with a few pointers up your sleeve you can begin to navigate this world and take advantage of all it has to offer. 

So without further ado, TEFL, TESOL, ESL, ELT: what do they all mean?

TEFL, TESOL, ESL, ELT: what do they all mean

Abbreviations and Acronyms

A lot of the TEFL terminology you might encounter while researching English teaching courses and job opportunities belong to one of these two categories.


These are pronounced as individual letters. Examples include:

ESL – English as a Second Language

EFL – English as a Foreign Language


These are pronounced as words. Some of the most common are:

TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language

ESOL – English as a Second or Other Language

TESOL – Teaching English as a Second or Other Language

As you will have gathered, there is no major difference in meaning between the various abbreviated TEFL terminology – all of them are used to refer to the professional field of Teaching English to non-native speakers of the language. Remember that in most cases, this does not mean that you are expected to act as an ‘ambassador’ of an English-speaking country, and you certainly don’t need to be a native speaker to teach ESL. The idea is to help students improve their English skills, allowing them to better communicate on the local, national, and global stages.

What does this TEFL terminology mean in practice?

If you have decided that TESOL (or TEFL, or… – you get the picture) is the right career path for you, you might well be asking yourself what all this means in real terms. 

The first recommendation we’d always give is to obtain a Cambridge CELTA or equivalent certification. As you may already know, the CELTA is independently moderated by Cambridge Assessment English.

This means that the quality of the training you’ll receive meets the highest of standards – whichever the format and wherever in the world you do your course. Around 75% of employers worldwide request this qualification so if you are just starting out in teaching EFL (or if you have already started but need a recognised qualification), this is the course for you. 

So, once you’ve obtained your qualification and you are ready to start working in TESOL, what options are available?

Teaching English in a non-English speaking country

One popular option is to look for teaching work in a country where English is not a native or majority language. If you are a native English speaker, this may involve moving abroad, with all the challenges and rewards this brings. Non-native English teachers too may choose to look for work in another country, but they also have the option of job seeking in their own town or city. 

Many CELTA graduates look for work at specialised language academies, such as in our language school Oxford House, which often provide ongoing professional development opportunities and the ability to connect with other teachers. Others may choose to apply for language assistant programmes or seek private students. Find out what one of our CELTA graduates has been doing since graduation: Where are you now? Graduate story: Lucy Parsonson

Teaching English in an English-speaking country

In this case, you are likely to be working with either immigrants or foreign students, both of whom are typically highly motivated to improve their level of English. Again, you may choose to work for a specialised TEFL academy, or you might wish to specialise in English for Academic Purposes and apply for university teaching jobs (more information about this later). Yet another option is to gain experience by doing some voluntary teaching work – Oxford TEFL, for instance, is proud to be working with Migracode, providing English classes to refugees and migrants as they learn coding and other IT skills.

Teaching English Online

Especially in light of the current restrictions on movement many of us are facing, online teaching may also be an appealing option. This has the advantage of letting you work from anywhere in the world, and can also be flexible regarding time zones, teaching schedules and so on. If this is an attractive option to you, consider finding your niche.

We have compiled some of our top suggestions to help you exploit the huge market available in teaching online English classes: Teaching English Online: What’s your Niche?

Whichever path you choose as you get started on the TESOL career ladder, you may find it helpful to consult a Careers Advisor. Oxford TEFL CELTA graduates gain access to our lifelong Careers Service, meaning that a professional is on-hand to guide you through the process of finding vacancies, creating a TEFL CV, preparing for interviews and introduction videos.

A few other terms of TEFL terminology

We hope that by now, the question ‘TEFL, TESOL, ESL, ELT: what do they all mean?’ has been answered, and that you’re feeling more confident in navigating the world of English teaching.

There are a few other initialisations you might hear about as your career begins to take off:

CPD: Continuous Professional Development – this term refers to all activities which help you keep growing as a teaching professional. For example, it includes workshops, courses, observations, coaching, and others. Being able to demonstrate that you have focused on your CPD will make you more and more employable as time goes on, and good employers should have a range of development opportunities which you can participate in on top of any you do under your own initiative. If you are keen to learn more, check out Oxford TEFL director, Duncan Foord’s personal take on what these terms mean in practice: CPD in ELT. Keep calm and carry on!

TDC: Teacher Development Course – Completing a development course demonstrates to potential employers that you are taking your CPD seriously, and that you have a specialist knowledge of the area or areas you chose to focus on. Oxford TEFL offers 30-hour online courses with tutor support  in a range of areas including Teaching English Online, Teaching Pronunciation and Leadership in ELT

DipTESOL: Diploma in Teaching English as a Second or Additional Language – is an internationally respected, prestigious qualification for experienced teachers of ESOL/EFL. It is ideal if you are looking for the next step in your ELT career and you are ready to gain an advanced qualification in ELT which will impress employers worldwide. The Trinity DipTESOL course will transform your teaching and help you move into roles such as examiner, course book writer, teacher trainer or school manager. At Oxford TEFL, we are currently offering fully online or blended options, so gaining your DipTESOL has never been more flexible. 

You might also have heard of the DELTA, which is equivalent to the DipTESOL but accredited by Cambridge rather than Trinity and with less of a focus on phonology.

Final thoughts

Now that we’ve simplified the sometimes scary world of abbreviated TEFL terminology, hopefully it’s clear that TESOL is a dynamic and varied industry which has something to suit everyone.

If you’re just starting out, remember that even the most experienced teachers sometimes forget what the latest acronym stands for – no-one will judge if you don’t know your TOEFL from your TOEIC straight away.

The important thing is to focus on which TEFL qualification and job will work best with the skills and experience you bring to the table.

And what other abbreviations might you need to know as you move forward with your career in teaching English? 

Ready? Now is the time to gain your qualification and start teaching in your dream destination or online.

  • For more information about Oxford TEFL’s 4-Week Intensive 100% Online CELTA course, click here.
  • For more information about Oxford TEFL’s 14-Week Part-Time 100% Online CELTA course, click here.
  • For more information about Oxford TEFL’s 4-Week Intensive Face-to-Face CELTA course in Barcelona, click here.
  • For information about our Teaching Online Development Course, click here.
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