What does EAL stand for? What are the differences between EAL, EFL and ESL? What support do EAL students need and what support do they actually get? All your questions answered here!

What on Earth do all the acronyms mean?

If you have ever engaged in a discussion about students who have English as an additional language, you may have heard various different acronyms flying around! This can be extremely confusing, so let’s define some key terms:

EAL – English as an Additional Language. This is the term most commonly used in primary and high schools at the moment, and it refers to any students who speak languages other than English.

EFL – English as a Foreign Language. This is a more outdated term now (perhaps due to the negative connotations associated with the adjective ‘foreign’ as used in the media) but it essentially means the same as EAL.

ESL – English as a Second Language.  This term is less favoured than EAL as it implies English is a secondary language only, when sometimes it can be a student’s third or fourth language, or can even be a joint first language alongside another language.

TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language.  You may have heard this in the context of the job commonly sought after by graduates who want to travel and teach at the same time. Because of this, school-based EFL teachers can sometimes be seen as having an ‘easy’ job, but the reality is that this is an extremely challenging role, particularly in the UK where students have such a vast range of first languages!

TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. This essentially means the same as TEFL above but is becoming the preferred term, presumably due to its more inclusive word choice.

TEFAL – is a French cookware manufacturer, but for some reason, people insist on using it in the context of language education!

What support is available to EAL students?

The answer to this question is not a simple one and depends largely on the individual student and (more commonly) the resources available to the school they attend.

Some schools have a dedicated EAL department which delivers an intensive introductory English course to new EAL students in order to prepare them for joining mainstream classes later in the academic year.

Other schools place new EAL students immediately into mainstream classes, even if their English is extremely limited. This is sometimes due to lack of resources to individually support EAL students, but it can also be due to the belief that total immersion in an English-speaking environment is the best approach to encourage rapid language acquisition.

There is actually evidence to support both approaches, but as yet there is not a silver bullet, tried-and-tested, nation-wide protocol. Although arguably, with NALDIC’s (National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum) estimation that there are ‘more than a million children between 5-18 years old in UK schools who speak in excess of 360 languages between them’, there probably should be, although this is a blog post for another time! NALDIC’s website is also a great place for information and advice about the education of EAL students in the UK. 

Whatever approach a school uses, the most important thing for teachers and students to remember is that being an EAL student should never be seen as a disadvantage, nor should it be assumed that a student’s intelligence is limited because of their limited English. Their barrier to learning is linguistic, not cognitive, and they may have been top of the class if the subject was being taught in their own language. It is sometimes more helpful to think of EAL students as ‘emerging bilinguals’, who will eventually have a full grasp of their own language, the English language, and hopefully (with their teachers’ help) a great many other subjects too!