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Woman looking up with a lightbulb and question marks above her head
Author: Jane Bryan, EAL specialist

I have been teaching English for over 20 years and in that time I have held various teaching titles; I had a different acronym depending on which country or school I was teaching in. Over the past 20 years, I have been an ESL, an EFL, an ESP, an ESOL and an EAL teacher. As you can see ELT - English Language Teaching - comes with a whole host of acronyms. I will identify and describe them below.

*All terms below refer to students whose mother tongue is not English and who are learning English.


English Language Teaching 


English Language Learner - often used in America and South America.


Learners’ mother tongue -the language spoken at home. 


Learners' 2nd language - the language they are currently learning -English.  


English as a foreign language. 

When the language of communication within the learners’ wider community is not English (for example, students are learning English as a school subject, for travel or business purposes).


English as a second language. 


English language learners living in an English-speaking environment.  This term is less widely used now as many ‘ESL’ learners are multilingual; therefore this is not an accurate description of many learners.  



English to Speakers of Other Languages


Due to the reasons stated above this term is generally more preferred when referring to a learner who is learning English in an English-speaking environment.


English as an Additional Language


Similar to ESOL this term recognises that many learners are multilingual so in fact, English may be their 3rd or 4th language.


English for Special Purposes


The English taught is focusing on specific needs of the learners - this could be for work (Business English - BE), so the English is specifically needed for the learners’ line of work. This may also be for academic purposes (EAP) - preparing learners for university.


This is not where our acronyms end; when it comes to assessment the world of acronyms is also vast. 

Please find below a list of internationally recognised exams to assess students' English Language Level - and a brief explanation of what they are.

If you are interested in how these assessments align please have a look at the Community Village.

Cambridge exams (Cambridge English accessed 2022)

Schools often choose to offer these exams because they are internationally recognised, and prove linguistic ability from beginner to proficient.  Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing exams guide pupils through these four different areas of demonstrating competence in English. 

A2 Key for Schools (previously known as KET)

KET is aimed at A2 level learners and shows that they have the ability to use English to communicate in simple situations.

Preliminary for Schools (previously known as PET)

PET is aimed at B1 level learners and shows that they have mastered the basics of English. 

B2 First (previously known as FCE - First Cambridge English)

B2 First (FCE) is a qualification which shows that a student has the language skills needed to live and work independently in an English-speaking country. 

C1 Advanced (previously known as CAE - Cambridge Advanced English)

C1 Advanced (CAE) is an in-depth, high-level qualification which shows that a student has the language skills employers and universities would expect to see. 

Cambridge IGCSE English as a Second Language

This exam is designed for learners who already have a working knowledge of the language and want to consolidate their understanding in order to progress in their education or career. Through their studies, learners will improve their ability to understand and use English in a range of situations. The aim is to achieve a level of practical communication ideal for everyday use, which can also form the basis for further, more in-depth language study. 

N.B. If this exam is taken in Year 11 in place of First Language English Language/Literature, then it will not be sufficient as a GCSE offering for university; the student will be required to continue with an IELTS exam class when they reach Sixth Form. 

IB Diploma English B SL/HL (IBO Programmes accessed 2022)

The Language B Standard Level (SL) and Language B Higher Level (HL) language acquisition courses are designed for students with some previous experience of the target language. 

The difference between SL and HL is the number of recommended teaching hours and the level of competency the student is expected to develop in receptive, productive and interactive skills. HL students are also required to study two literary works originally written in the target language. 

The exam sets four key areas for students and teachers in English learning: listening, speaking, reading and writing. 

It should be noted that English B is designed for non-native English speakers. When applying to universities, English B is usually not enough to prove a student's English communication ability; universities generally require additional IELTS or TOEFL scores. However, the preparation for English B should help students achieve success in these exams. 

IELTS exams ( accessed 2022)

There are two forms of IELTS exams that students can take. The first is General Training; this is not suitable for schools, as it assesses those applying to study below degree level and is used as a requirement for migration to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. The IELTS Academic exam is designed for students wishing to study in an English-speaking environment or university. 

IELTS assesses students in four areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening. 

The majority of British Universities require a level of 6.5 in all four areas. Oxbridge and Russell Group universities will ask for a minimum of 7.0 in all four categories. 

N.B. This qualification is less preferred in US universities. 

TOEFL - Test of English as a Foreign Language

This exam assesses English language proficiency in four areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening. It is suitable for students wishing to enrol in English-speaking universities. 
TOEFL is recognised by more than 10,000 universities and other institutions in over 150 countries and is the preferred qualification in US universities.
Most universities require a minimum score of 70–80 for TOEFL, although some accept scores as low as 65.

TOEIC - Test of English for International Communication

TOEIC is an internationally recognised test of English language proficiency. It tests the everyday English language skills of people working in English-speaking international environments.

There are two parts to the TOEIC exams: TOEIC Reading and Listening and TOEIC Speaking and Writing. They do not need to be taken together, but are designed to complement each other.

ESOL Exams

These qualifications are for adults aged 16 and over living in the UK who need English language skills for everyday life, for study and for employment. (Trinity London ESOL accessed Jan 2023)

Pre entry
Entry Level 1
Entry Level 2 
Entry Level 3 

There is currently not one specific award body for ESOL qualifications. NATECLA has created a comprehensive guide detailing each award body alongside the qualifications they offer. Follow the link here.


IBO Programmes (no date). Available here (accessed 2022)

Trinity College: ESOL skills for life UK (no date). Available here (accessed Jan 2023)

Cambridge Exams: Exams and Test Cambridge English (no date). Available here (accessed Oct 2022)

ESOL: a guide to award bodies (no date). Available here (accessed Jan 2023)

Further learning - Blog

Created: Thu 2nd Nov 2017

In my experience, teachers often have quite strong feelings about the use of a pupil’s L1 (first language) in the classroom - it is either encouraged or forbidden. Garcia and Sylvan (2011) describe monolingual education as outdated in our current ‘globalized’ world and discourage the practise of imposing only one language. In fact, they suggest that teachers should support students in developing their awareness of their first language as well as the language of instruction.

Child learning remotely
Created: Fri 19th Mar 2021

It's now almost exactly a year since the UK education system went into lockdown. The ruling that schools must close to almost all pupils was a shock to teachers, pupils, parents and everyone involved in the education system - and the repercussions of the immediate crisis continue to ripple through our lives.

Created: Wed 4th Feb 2015

Including a useful EAL Progress Review and links to different EAL assessment continua

When teaching EAL, assessment procedures need to be in place in order to have a concrete analysis of student starting points.

This area is a minefield! Without other references or expertise to hand, a new teacher often turns to an expert for help… Google! Results popping up on the first page of a search shows the Oxford placement tests on the first page, but are they the answer?