A person who teaches English is known by many different names depending on who they teach and where it is that they teach. This is a way that English teachers can flaunt their facility with the English language and aggregate acronyms in their professional profiles but it is also a way that they can precisely define their practice. These definitions are based on agreed upon classifications used by teachers in the Global North, or Western world, and may differ to definitions used in other places.
An English teacher
An English teacher is usually a ‘secondary’, ‘middle’ or ‘high’ school teacher (depending on the specific country’s terms) who teaches ages around 12 – 18. They specialise in the subject of English, teach across grades, and their job is to teach literary theory and how to write and analyse texts, literature, poetry and prose. They teach in schools in English speaking countries, or in countries where English has a special status or is considered a main or official language.
A primary school teacher
Primary school teachers teach the majority of subjects for their class throughout the school day. They work with children aged around 5 – 11 and teach English as a subject whilst maintaining a focus on literacy in all of their other subjects as well.
An ESL or EAL teacher
The term ESL or English as a Second Language has been updated to the more equitable term EAL or English as an Additional Language in recognition of the fact that EAL students may already speak more than one language and consequently the English that they are learning may indeed be their third of fourth language.
An EAL teacher teaches the English language to students who speak another language, in a country that uses English widely in the community. EAL teachers therefore work in countries such as the USA, the UK, Australia, New Zealand or Canada (outside of Quebec). An EAL teacher may teach any age group, including adults, and their students may be migrants, or children of migrants, or they may equally be indigenous students or children of the deaf community. All of these students learn English after already speaking one or more other languages at home and in their communities.
Teachers in English speaking countries
The teachers mentioned above teach English in English speaking contexts. Students learning in these contexts will have the benefit of being immersed in the language outside of the classroom, in the media, in discussions with other people, it will be a language they will use in their daily lives and this influences the decisions that the teachers make when planning to teach in these contexts. EAL school students often undertake intensive English instruction to ‘catch up’ to their peers and study increasingly nuanced English with the aim of performing ‘at grade level’ academically. Adults studying EAL may wish to become more adept at communication in the wider community or do so to further their education or vocational goals and the curriculum they undertake will reflect their needs.
An EFL teacher
An English as a Foreign Language teacher teaches English to students whose first language is not English and who live in countries or regions that are not considered English-speaking. Countries such as Asia, the Middle East, South America and some European countries consider English a foreign language as English is not widely used in the community. Again, their students may be any age, including adults, and they may teach at schools or in private institutions.
Teachers in non-English speaking countries
EFL teachers teach students who may not use English in their daily lives and these contexts require teachers to make adaptions to their teaching to accommodate this fact. Students in non-English speaking countries will learn English as a subject at school or in other institutions. The competency and proficiency students achieve in the language can dramatically affect their options for further education and this will mean that many students study very hard. Motivation therefore can often be affected and can, to some degree, be also implied by context.
EFL teachers may find that they need to spend time teaching English culture so that their students can understand more fully what they have read or heard. Language and culture are inextricably entwined and this can be difficult to understand if you are monolingual or monocultural but to varying degrees an EFL teacher must be a cultural interpreter for their students to help them become the English language users they wish to be.
The context influences and informs the learning
The context in which you teach (English, EAL or EFL) can influence
- What is taught
- How it is taught
- The motivation of the students
- The amount of time students have to practice the language
(especially speaking and listening)
The terms and acronyms designating different English teachers have a purpose and help define not only where these teachers teach, but who their students are. More subtlety they hint at what will be taught, how it will be expected to be taught and provide an indication to the potential motivations students have toward their English language learning.