Common TEFL Confusions

This page is about confusions that teachers often have, rather than confusions that students have. Each term is listed in alphabetical order, first within the list and then within the entry.

Acquisition/Learning: Some theories of learning state that picking up language (acquisition) is fundamentally different from conscious knowledge or book knowledge of a language (learning), and some even believe that the one cannot affect the other.

Advanced/Near-native/Proficiency: Although Advanced sounds very high, in practice it usually simply means one better than Upper Intermediate. Students in an Advanced level class will therefore usually still make some elementary mistakes and lack an impressive and natural use of idiomatic language. Students at Advanced level should be able to pass the Cambridge CAE or get a 6.5 in IELTS. The next level up is Proficiency, usually meaning preparation courses for the Cambridge Proficiency in English (CPE) exam. Students at this level will have an impressive level for a foreign language learner, but will still have a noticeable influence from their own language on accent etc and are not usually Near-native. This is made more confusing by the fact that the more technical meaning of “Advanced” often covers all three when we are dividing all students into the three levels of Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced.

Advanced/Post Upper-Intermediate/Pre-Advanced: Many textbook series and conversation schools follow Intermediate and Upper-Intermediate levels with one called Advanced. This is a bit of a misnomer, as students who finish Upper-Intermediate courses rarely produce Advanced level English. For example, students will usually take two years (or two terms studying full time in an English-speaking country) to get from the Upper-Intermediate/Post Upper-Intermediate FCE exam to being able to pass the truly Advanced CAE exam. For that reason, Advanced textbooks are often a jump in level for students who have just finished Upper-Intermediate courses, and often focus on language which they don’t yet need.

Adverb/Preposition: Many words can be both, e.g. the “by” in “I get by” (adverb) and the “by” in “I go to work by bus” (preposition). The difference is that a preposition has an object.

Affix/Suffix: A suffix is the opposite of a prefix, i.e. something that goes on the end of a word to change its meaning or grammar, e.g. -ish or -tion. “Affix” is the more general word, and includes both suffixes and prefixes. 

Applied Linguistics/Linguistics/SLA: Linguistics is the study of language. Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is the more specialist study of how people pick up or study languages other than their mother tongue(s). Research and theories from these fields may or may not be relevant to language teaching. Applied Linguistics is a field of academic study that does always have practical applications in mind, usually meaning relevance to second language learning, but also including things like language policy and speech therapy.

Arrangement/Plan: “Going to” is used for plans, e.g. intentions, goals and ambitions like “I’m going to save 1000 pounds by the end of the year.” The Present Continuous is used for arrangements, e.g. “I’m meeting him outside the cinema at 7 o’clock” or “I’m flying to Las Vegas tomorrow.” The difference is that an arrangement has already involved someone else, e.g. fixing a time with your boyfriend or buying the ticket. 

Article/Determiner: The only articles in English are the indefinite article (a or an) and the definite article (the). Some people also include “some” and “any”, perhaps because in Latin languages these are simply the plural of the indefinite article. The term for a larger group of words which go in the same place and have a similar function as articles is “determiner”. Examples include demonstratives such as “that” and possessives such as “his”.

Assistant Language Teacher (ALT)/Foreign Teacher (FT): Many people who go to teach abroad find that they are actually just an assistant to the local teacher. Your actual role can vary from a “human tape-recorder” who stands around waiting to be called on once or twice a lesson, to someone who is left to plan and do the lesson, with the local teacher helping with translation when needed - and it is usually impossible to know which you will be until you start working with that specific local teacher. FT sometimes means the same thing, but often means that you basically have the class to yourself.

Beginner/Elementary/False beginner: Elementary students have usually studied or picked up some English before and although they will start from absolute basics in the coursebooks, they should quickly be able to get past the Present Simple and numbers and more or less be able to express themselves when talking about simple and familiar subjects such as family and routines. Beginners (that is “true” or “complete” beginners) know no English, with the obvious exception of words that their own language and English share. Nowadays these tend to be mainly the very old, the very young, or people who have had very little schooling. All three groups also tend to progress slowly. This can make mixing them with “false beginners” a real problem, because false beginners are students who don’t know enough to start an Elementary course (perhaps because their previous learning was very unsuccessful or a long time ago) but do have some knowledge of English.

British Council recognized schools/British Council recognized summer schools: Perhaps understandably, the inspections of schools which only run for the summer are much less vigorous than the inspections of year-round schools. For example, the British Council are obviously not expecting much teacher development when people are only teaching there for two weeks.

British Council recognized schools/Foreign branches of British Council recognized schools: The British Council does not inspect schools outside the UK. This means that there is no guarantee of the standards of a foreign branch of a school that has a British Council recognized branch in the UK, and the standards are indeed often very different.

Business English/ESP: ESP stands for English for Specific Purposes (originally English for Special Purposes) so studying English for business is a kind of ESP, if quite a general one. Many of the other kinds of ESP are more specialist, e.g. English for Hotel Staff, English for Peacekeepers and Technical English. ESP is also the name of a whole approach to teaching, with the syllabus and materials based on a detailed needs analysis. 

Cambridge KET/Cambridge PET: Although PET was really once the “Preliminary English Test” that its name suggests, it is no longer (just as First Certificate is no longer the first Cambridge exam). That is now the Key English Test, which is for students who have studied approximately half as many hours as students taking the PET.

CELTA/CTEFLA: CELTA always means the Cambridge "Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults". This was formerly the RSA/Cambridge CTEFLA (Certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults), and some other course providers continue to use the general term CTEFLA (perhaps the reason why Cambridge changed to a more unique acronym).

CELTA/TEFL: TEFL just means Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and is the standard expression for that job. You therefore can’t “do a TEFL”, let alone “do the TEFL”. Many people start by “doing a TEFL course/certificate”, of which the most popular and most recognized is the Cambridge CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults).

Certificate/Certificate of attendance: Some TEFL courses, e.g. weekend ones, give you a “certificate of attendance” to show that you have been there. Although this is slightly better than no TEFL training at all, it is not the same as having graded written work and lesson observations, which is usually what “TEFL certificate” means in this industry.

Chains of schools/Franchises: When applying for jobs, it can be very difficult to work out if a school is just a franchise rather than part of the chain, but it is well worth the effort as this can make a great difference - for better or, usually, worse. Most large chains also have associated franchise schools.

Chunks/Collocations: Collocation is just about which words commonly go with or next to each other, e.g. “make” + “a promise” or “terrible” + “mistake”. Chunking is the more general expression for collections of words, and includes longer stretches such as “He who pays the piper calls the tune”, which it isn’t very sensible to think of as just a collocation of “piper” or “tune”.

Cloze/Gapfill: A “gapfill” is a task where students have to add something to a sentence to make it complete, e.g. “The postman put my letters _______ the door”. “Cloze” is sometimes used with this general meaning, but its technical meaning is a text where words are removed at regular intervals, e.g. a paragraph with every fifth word removed. This is rare in EFL materials, although sometimes used in research.

Coherence/Cohesion: “Coherence” has basically the same meaning as EFL as it does in normal life, meaning the things that stop a piece of speech or writing from being incoherent, for example clearly ordering and linking together your ideas. “Cohesion” is more about grammatical ways of achieving the same effects, e.g. using pronouns to refer to things that you have mentioned before.

Communicative/Free: “Free speaking” is when no restrictions are put on what language the students should use while they are talking. Examples of typical free speaking activities include roleplays, discussion questions and debates. “Communicative” means that people are really expressing something that they want to say and other people are really listening. Free speaking activities such as discussion questions are therefore also usually communicative, but there can be free speaking that is not communicative, e.g. if one person is droning on while the other person has no real reason to listen or if one person is practising speaking at home before class. There are also many communicative activities where the type of language is restricted, either by the teacher asking the students to use particular language or due to the set up of the activity. Many language games, e.g. information gap activities such as picture differences, fit into this category and are therefore communicative but not free.

Concept check questions (CCQs)/Instruction checking questions: An instruction checking question is one that you ask to confirm that students know what you want them to do, e.g. “How long do you have to complete this task?”, “Which people are Student A?” or “Are you allowed to show your worksheet to your partner?” They therefore usually come just after you explain or demonstrate an activity such as a game or speaking task. Concept check questions are to check that the students really understand the explanation of the language that you have just given them, e.g. “So, what’s the opposite of this word?” or “Can you put it into an example sentence?” CCQs usually come after explaining a word that students didn’t understand, during error correction, or as part of a grammar presentation.

Correction/Feedback: “Feedback” means telling students how they did, for example when producing an example sentence or giving a presentation in English. For many teachers this feedback consists mainly or entirely of correction, but you could also point out good language that they should try and use again, more complex language that could be used in the place of perfectly correct but simpler language that they used, etc. 

Deductive approach/Inductive approach: An inductive approach to grammar or other language is when you give students examples of the language and help them to work out the rules. A deductive approach is the opposite - giving them the rules and asking them to apply them in example sentences etc. What is particularly confusing about this technical use of inductive/deductive is that the normal use of deduction, e.g. what a detective does, is more similar to the jargon use of the word inductive.

Descriptive grammar/Prescriptive grammar: A descriptive grammar describes how people really use the language. Most grammar books for EFL students and TEFL teachers nowadays are overwhelmingly descriptive, especially newer corpus-based grammars which include spoken forms such as explanations of how native speakers use the expression “you know”. A prescriptive grammar is usually aimed at native speakers and tells them how they should speak and write, e.g. that split infinitives should be avoided. As with that example, many prescriptive grammars are little more than the opinion of the writer, but they do often have an influence on what grammatical forms are accepted, especially in writing. You may therefore need to tell students that “native speakers often use this form, but many people consider it to be incorrect so try to avoid it”.

Diploma/Diploma: Diploma is a confused term in English generally, and this is also true in TEFL. The two most well-known and respected diplomas in TEFL are the Cambridge Delta and the Trinity Diploma. These are only for teachers with considerable experience and usually an initial teaching qualification, and they are often accepted as credit for part of a relevant MA course. In other words, they are something like a university postgraduate diploma. Some other training organizations call their initial teaching qualifications a diploma. In TEFL, these types of qualifications are more generally known as “certificates”.

EFL student/TEFL student: The T in TEFL stands for “teaching”, so a TEFL student is someone studying to be a teacher of English as a foreign language. However, TEFL has become a bit of a catchall term and so people saying “TEFL student” often actually mean “EFL student”, i.e. someone studying English as a foreign language. Sticking to “(TEFL) trainee” and “(EFL) student” is probably less confusing.

EFL/TEFL: TEFL means Teaching English as a Foreign Language, so the T in “TEFL teacher” is redundant (but often used). The job title should be “EFL teacher”, “Teacher of English as a foreign language”, or simply “English teacher”.

ELT/TEFL/TESOL/TESL: In Britain there is a clear distinction between TEFL and TESL. Teaching English as a Second Language means to people who are settling in the UK, e.g. immigrants, refugees and school children who don’t speak English outside school. Teaching English as a Foreign Language means teaching people who need the language in their own country or to travel, e.g. people coming to the UK for a short course or studying in their own country. People teaching abroad or in summer schools are therefore TEFL teachers. English Language Teaching (ELT) is an umbrella term, especially used in the UK, for both TESL and TEFL. TESOL is sometimes used in the place of TESL, e.g. in the name of the Trinity CertTESOL, which was originally aimed more at TESL teachers than the CELTA. However, in America TESOL is more similar in meaning to ELT, with the US-based international organization of English teachers of that name covering both students studying in conversation schools in Spain and refugees in the USA.

Error/Mistake/Slip: As with “Freudian slip", a slip is a mistake that you could have avoided if you had, for example, been concentrating more when you were speaking. In TEFL, “mistake” is used to mean basically the same thing. “Errors” are things that students got wrong because they didn’t know any better and so will perhaps make again and again if not corrected or otherwise looking at the language. This is why we say “error correction” rather than “correcting students’ mistakes”.

Functional/Situational: A function (e.g. apologizing or requesting) can occur in many situations, and a lesson on one function could include practice of shopping language and formal emailing. A single situation (e.g. shopping in a post office or going through immigration) could have a range of functions. Nonetheless, the two approaches can easily be combined as a Functional/Situational Approach.

Functions/Notions: The differences between these have been classified in many different ways, so that it is usually best just to lump them together as a Functional/Notional Syllabus or Functional/Notional Approach. Functional language is language that is meant to achieve a particular purpose, e.g. a request or a promise. Probably the most useful definitions of notions are things that are more about ideas and might be left out by a course that is just about functions, e.g. numbers, time, size and movement. Both are ways of avoiding an overwhelmingly grammatical syllabus.

Gerund/Present participle: A gerund is a noun made from a verb + ing, while a present participle is a verb that ends in -ing. In “Swimming is fun” the word “swimming” is a gerund because it can be replaced with another noun such as “football”. In “I am swimming” the word “swimming” is a present participle, as the sentence has the common structure of subject + auxiliary verb + main verb. There are however some cases where it may be difficult to work out which is which, such as “I like swimming”. For this reason, many teachers think that it is easier just to use the expression “ing form” for gerunds and present participles.

Grammar/Spoken grammar: The grammar that is traditionally taught to both native speakers and non-native speakers is based on sentences and structures such as subject + verb. These are just two examples of parts of “textbook grammar” that are often missing in fast, informal speech. Speech does have its own patterns, however, and it is possible to examine and teach some of this “spoken grammar”.

Homographs/Homonyms/Homophones: “Phone” means “sound”, so homophones are words which are pronounced the same but spelt differently, e.g. pair and pear. “Graph” means “write”, so homographs are words which are spelt the same but pronounced differently, e.g. “to tear/a tear” (= rip) and “a tear” (produced by crying). Homonyms have the same spelling and pronunciation but are still totally unconnected words and so will have different entries in a dictionary, e.g. “skate” (the fish) and “skate” (the winter sports equipment). However, some people use homonym as a catchall term that includes homophones and/or homographs.

IELTS Academic/IELTS General: IELTS Academic is by far the more common of the two versions of the IELTS exam and is used all over the world, mainly for university admissions. IELTS General is mainly used for immigration purposes, but also for entry to some vocational colleges. If a course doesn’t say which one it is or a student doesn’t know which one they need, it is almost always IELTS Academic.

Intermediate/Intermediate: The more technical meaning of “Intermediate” is much wider than that covered by Intermediate level textbooks, often including the Upper Intermediate textbook above them and perhaps the Pre-Intermediate one below them. For example, Cambridge First Certificate (FCE) is an Intermediate level exam, despite being most suitable for students of a high Upper Intermediate or Pre-Advanced level.

Lexis/Vocabulary: Lexis is usually simply a fancy word for vocabulary. If the term serves any purpose, it is perhaps to emphasize that vocabulary does not just consist of words.

MA in TESOL/Pre-experience MA in TESOL: Some MAs in TESOL are taken by people straight out of university in the same way as other people take a TEFL certificate such as the CELTA, the difference being that the MA is longer, has much more theory and rarely has any observed teaching practice. The most well-respected MAs limit entry to people with a basic level TEFL qualification and at least two or three years of teaching experience. The same is also true in MAs in ELT and TEFL.

Mixed-ability/Mixed-level: Many people use “mixed-ability” to mean “mixed-level”, that is a class where the students are at clearly different levels and so would be placed in different classes if there were a placement test or a wider range of classes available. Actually, “mixed-ability” means that students are the same level but possess differing abilities to progress and so the class will probably become a mixed-level class over time, especially if the teaching approach suits some students more than others.

Multi-word verb/Phrasal verb: A multi-word verb is any verb plus adverb and/or preposition, e.g. “I get on with him” or “I walked up the stairs”. Some of these cannot be guessed from the meanings of the individual words, e.g. the original meanings of the three words “get” + “on” + “with” don’t suggest anything about relationships. These multi-word verbs with idiomatic meanings are called phrasal verbs, and are perhaps the most difficult part of English for language learners. “Walk up”, however, just means “walk” + “up” and so is much easier to learn and is not classified as a phrasal verb.

Phonemics/Phonetics: /l/ and /r/ are two English phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound which change the meaning of English words, e.g. if you change from saying “leak” or saying “reek”. There are 44 phonemic symbols to represent (RP) British English in the phonemic chart and learners’ dictionaries. The one phoneme /r/ actually represents a lot of quite different sounds, however, including a rolled Scottish R and a posh RP one that can sound close to /w/. If we want to represent these kinds of sound changes that don’t lead to changes in meaning (a Scottish “reek” and an RP “reek” meaning the same thing), we need a much wider range of phonetic symbols. The same is true if we want to represent sounds that don’t exist in English. The much larger collection of symbols that can represent all these kinds of sounds is a phonetic chart, e.g. the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and its associated Extensions to the IPA.

Phonemics/Phonics: Phonics is a system for teaching children to learn to read by sounding out letters, e.g. teaching that c + a + t makes cat. Phonemics is a system to show foreign language learners and dictionary users how words are pronounced by the use of a special phonemic script.

PPP/TTT: PPP stands for Presentation Practice Production, and is a way of presenting language and then practising it in a more controlled and then freer way. Test Teach Test is similar, but first you test what language the students already know. See also TTT/TTT.

Pre-Intermediate/Low intermediate: Pre-Intermediate textbooks are usually between Elementary and Intermediate ones in level. Low Intermediate often means the same thing, but it is sometimes used with the different meaning of students who are able to study an Intermediate textbook but are at the lower range of that level, i.e. only just above Pre-Intermediate. 

Scanning/Skimming: These are both ways of reading quickly. Scanning is looking for specific information, and is only really possible with things that really stand out such as numbers, long words, and words starting with capital letters. Skimming is reading through a text very quickly, for example so that you know what each paragraph is about before you look at the comprehension questions or to check whether it really is something you want to read or buy.

Standard English/RP: Standard English is a (formal or neutral) written form that is shared by all British English speakers, i.e. shows no regional or class variations. This term is also used for spoken forms that are the same as or close to that written form, e.g. ones avoiding purely spoken or regional forms like “ain’t”. It is possible to speak Standard English with any kind of accent, as indeed BBC Radio presenters nowadays do. Received Pronunciation is a particular accent that was traditionally considered a standard and is related to “BBC English”, “Oxford English” or “Queen’s English”, but is nowadays very limited and class-based.

Student/Trainee: It would be much easier if everyone stuck to the simple system of “students” being people who are studying English and “trainees” being people who are learning how to teach, but many people use “student” for both. That can lead to students being observed teaching students!

Teacher/Trainer: Trainer usually means “teacher trainer”, but sometimes means “business trainer”. The latter could be a Business English teacher, but they could also be someone who teaches business concepts and skills to foreign students through the medium of English.

TEFL/TOEFL: TOEFL is the Test of English as a Foreign Language, and is a way for non-native English speakers to show their language level, especially if they want to study in an American university. TEFL is Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and a TEFL course or TEFL certificate is the usual initial teaching qualification for that job.

Tense/Time: Students and beginner teachers often assume too much connection between the name of a tense and its uses. For example, the Simple Past tense in “I wish I was you” has no connection to past time.

TOEFL score/TOEFL iBT score: The traditional paper-based test (TOEFL PBT) is out of 677 points, but the newer and increasingly popular TOEFL iBT (Internet-based test) is out of 120 points. The conversion between these two scores is very complex, with a 60 in the TOEFL iBT being approximately equivalent to a 497 in the TOEFL PBT (often still called just “TOEFL score”).

TOEFL/TOEIC: These exams are offered by the same company (ETS) and are quite similar, but TOEFL is mainly for entrance to university and TOEIC is for occupational purposes. Different exams are also more popular in different countries, with TOEIC being most popular in East Asia and France.

TTT/TTT: One TTT is “teacher talking time”. Many TEFL trainees and new teachers have to try to reduce their TTT in order to give students more time to speak. The other TTT is Test Teach Test. This is a way of presenting new language in which you first see what students already know before attempting to fill the holes in their knowledge.