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What is TEFL?

A quick look and introduction to the TEFL industry.

This knowledge base is a collection of useful information about teaching English abroad. We try to keep it as up-to-date and current as possible. Everything in the menu at the top we've tried to keep generic so it applies to everyone. If you hover over Countries, then you can go to the country profiles which have specific information for each country.

If you find anything you don't understand, areas you'd like covered etc. drop us an email at [email protected]. Hope you find it useful!

What is TEFL?

TEFL is teaching English to students whose first language isn't English.

Atop that we'll pile all the trappings: foreign countries, multiple types of schools, countless certifications and endless acronyms (often to describe the same thing), but that's always the heart of it.

There are so many different reasons people do it. Some want to learn about a country and a culture, perhaps learn a language in the way that’s only possible when you live there.

Others want a gap year and a chance to travel while earning money.

Some want a career in teaching English, perhaps with the goal of becoming a tenured professor.

Others just want a job market that’s more welcoming than back home and there’s no doubt the TEFL industry is thriving.

Hopefully the knowledge here gets you on your way.

What's the difference between TEFL and TESOL? Let's talk acronyms.

Every industry is burdened by it's own set of acronyms. And unfortunately the TEFL industry is no different.

I've split them into groups, for two reasons. Either because the acronyms are very similar and often used interchangeably, or because all the acronyms are used in the same area.

  • ESL - English as a Second Language
  • EFL - English as a Foreign Language
  • EAL – English as an Additional Language
  • ESOL - English for Speakers of Other Languages
  • TEFL - Teaching English as a Foreign Language
  • TESL - Teaching English as a Second Language
  • TESOL - Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
  • ESP - English for Specific Purposes
  • EAP - English for Academic Purposes
  • TESOL - Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages
  • IATEFL – International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language
  • TOEFL - Test of English as a Foreign Language
  • TOEIC – Test of English for International Communication
  • IELTS - International English Language Testing System


These acronym's are all very similar, they're all talking about speaking English when it's not a native language.

There are slight subtleties, but despite this the acronyms are often used interchangeably (or sometimes just flat out misused). What is the difference between ESL and EFL?

EFL is English spoken by a person who lives in an area where English is not the native language. This could be a Spanish child learning and using English in Spain, or the same child in Britain for a summer camp to learn the language.

ESL is English spoken by a person who lives in an area where English is the native language. This could be a Spanish immigrant living in the UK and, learning and using English, or a Trinidadian learning English in Trinidad and Tobago, where the countries official language is English, but most people speak something else.

ESOL is identical to ESL, but used in different countries (UK & NZ as opposed to US & CA). EAL is a more generic version of ESL, because what if English was someone's third language?

As we mentioned before, people might use the acronyms correctly or they might not. Especially when you're looking for jobs abroad acronym's are used pretty much at random, there's no difference between "TEFL Teacher needed in China" and "ESL Teacher needed in China".


These are also all very similar, they're all talking about teaching English to people whose first language isn't English.

All the differences between EFL, ESL and ESOL we mentioned above are the same here, the only difference is here we're referring to teaching rather than speaking, so the difference between TEFL & TESOL is identical to the difference between EFL & ESOL.

What a mess. There's been some attempts to standardise this and come up with an acronym that covers all English language teaching, in the UK and Europe ELT is the most modern one. But in America TESOL is used (despite the differences we just mentioned).

(Even more confusingly TESOL actually refers to two things. The concept of teaching English to speakers of other languages and a professional organisation based in America.


Wait TESOL appears again?
Yep. TESOL and IATEFL are acronyms for the two largest professional networks for English language learning and teaching, based in US and UK respectively (although they both have global members).
You know because all these acronym's weren't confusing enough.


These are the three most common standardised English language tests. The TOEFL and IELTS are the two largest and most well recognised.
They’re often used as a pre-requisite by companies, countries or institutions who want to know someone’s English proficiency.
Are some acronyms missing? Probably, we seem to generate acronyms at a terrifying speed, but these are the majority.

How large is the TEFL industry?

The total market in 2012 was estimated to be about $63.3bn.
We can then split that up into the market for students studying in their home country (i.e. China, India, Japan etc.) and those studying outside their home country (typically the US, UK or Australia).

Students studying in their own country: $51.7bn
Students studying outside their home country: $11.6bn

The short of it. It’s a whole lot of money.

The British Council estimates the total number of English language learners at about 1.5 billion, of which 1.5 million are looking to learn outside their home country.

Again, that’s a whole lot of people. (All numbers for this question and below are from the GOV UK report here.)

How fast is growing?

The industry is estimated to grow at an average of 25% per year over 2012 – 2017 rising to a market value of $193bn.

Who are important players in the TEFL market?

British Council – The British Council covers a number of areas, but being English teachers we'll focus on it's English language interests.
They run teaching centres, examination centres, the IELTS (one of the largest English language qualifications. See the acronyms above.), accredit language courses and touch on virtually every part of the TEFL industry, particularly in the UK.

TESOL, International Organisation – This is a professional organisation for EFL teachers (a charity looking out for the interests of the EFL industry).
They have two quarterly journals, the TESOL Quarterly and the TESOL Journal. They both look to further the academic side of the TEFL and show off the latest in English learning research.
They also run awards, a large yearly conference and provide career development opportunities like seminars, scholarships, online courses and regional programs to help teachers.

IATEFL – Very similar to TESOL, but based in the UK.
They don’t run journals but rather focus exclusively on networking and keeping the industry connected. They have a yearly conference, provide scholarships and awards, host webinars, provide connections and support to teaching associations worldwide and so on.
If you’re looking to get into the community of EFL teachers TESOL and IATEFL are both great places to start.

Large Companies

Not the be all and end all, but a list of some of the largest English language companies who are in the industry. Countries will often have very large national providers however only international ones will be listed here. Country specific ones will be in the country sections in knowledge base.

  • International House
  • Berlitz
  • English First
  • Wall Street English
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