This blog post is a follow-up sharing written by one of the colleagues, Kawai Wong, who spoke at the colloquium “Inquiry into expertise in EAP teaching: EAP teachers’ professional growth” led by the English for General and Specific Academic Purposes Community.


Being back in Hong Kong after having been away for over 20 years, I had understandably expected to make many adjustments to how I live my day-to-day life. I have had to walk and talk faster, stop smiling to strangers, and get used to being shouldered and elbowed on the train and in the elevator.

Er, I mean, “lift”.

Yet one change that I have to make is about how I teach, which has surprised me somewhat. I had thought that, after working for fifteen years in English education in the US, I could teach English in any settings. The past two years of teaching at PolyU, however, have shown me that I still have much to discover. What I have come to realize is that there are many considerations I need to keep in mind when teaching ESL vis-à-vis EFL. Being more aware of them will allow me to make my transition from being an ESL teacher to an EFL instructor much smoother.

At the sharing session organized by the Hub, I have already shared how I need to build more scaffolding in my lessons so that my instructions, which would be completely digestible to an ESL student in the US, become less dense and complex to my students in Hong Kong, who are learning English in an EFL environment. Instructions in general need to be comprehensible, of course, but for EFL students, who do not engage in English as much as ESL students, briefer, more direct input would be best. This is especially the case when it comes to spoken input as many EFL students acquire English textually and thus might not be as good in listening and speaking as they would be in reading and writing.

Another obvious difference is that, for ESL students, English is the predominant language of the country where they reside, whereas for EFL students, English is simply a school subject. What this means is that ESL students have a much greater exposure to English media and popular culture outlets and to authentic and practical input and output. EFL students, naturally, rely more on the teacher to create a language environment in class. What’s more, they need to explore ways on their own to acquire key words, phrases, and cultural features that would occur much more readily to ESL students. As such, we as their teachers need to not only avail ourselves to our students in class but also to give them reliable resources and actionable advice on how to learn English independently.

One other point to keep in mind is the difference in the language the teacher uses in class. By “language” here I mean the way of expressing oneself. In an ESL setting, because the students all live in the same country, the idioms and expressions used by the teacher, many often quite casual, could be culturally-referenced and regionally-specific. Indeed, the students would benefit greatly from learning them because they would be able to use them in real life. For EFL students, however, English is often an academic subject, so the language they need to master needs to be somewhat more formal. Also, since EFL teachers often come from multiple English-speaking countries, using words and phrases that are regional or cultural might confuse their students as the students have no context with which to understand the expressions. Worse, a student might use an esoteric expression in a conversation with a speaker who is not familiar with it, thus creating confusion, which might even hurt the student’s learner ego. As EFL teachers, we should then make sure that the English variety we use in class is the most universal kind so that our students are as clear and easily-understood as possible.

Certainly, there are many other things we need to contemplate when it comes to teaching ESL vs. EFL, so what are some other major differences we should consider when teaching ESL vs. EFL? What are some ways that we could align ourselves better as teachers in these divergent settings? And what do you think about the observations and suggestion I have made above? Please feel free to share them in the Comments section and/or email me at

Extended Reading

The British Council Blog, “ESOL v EFL”

The Oxford University Press English Language Teaching Global Blog, “How ESL and EFL Classrooms Differ”

The Pearson English Blog, “ESL and EFL – Are They the Same?”



Kawai Wong has been teaching at the high school and university levels in the US and China for over a decade, working with native and non-native students from various backgrounds and interests ranging from design to finance to law. Particularly, Kawai help them to acquire better public speaking and composition skills so that they are more effective in both their spoken and written communication.

Prior to working as a university English instructor, Kawai also taught English literacy and civics classes for adult new immigrants to the US.

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