What does ESL stand for?

What does ESL stand for? ESL stands for “English as a Second Language.”

a photo of the words 'it's time to learn English' in letters of different sizes, fonts and colors

ESL means that English is the student’s “second” language. Because it is not their first (or ‘native’) language, they need help to develop their language skills.

The acronym refers to an educational program designed to teach English to people who do not speak English fluently yet.

English is the student’s “second” language, and they need to develop it further.

Now, in 2023, the educational field uses many other terms in addition to ESL. That’s because English isn’t always the student’s second language…what if it is their third or fourth? That’s why you might hear other terms.

One popular one is “ELL.”

What is the difference between ELL and ESL?

What is the difference between ELL and ESL? Basically, ELL refers to the students, while ESL refers to the educational programs aimed at helping the students.

ELL (English Language Learner) and ESL (English as a Second Language) are related terms. People use these two terms in the field of education to describe students who are learning English as a non-native language. While they are closely related, there are subtle differences between the two:


ELL (English Language Learner): ELL is a term used to describe students who are learning English as a non-native language. Mark LaCelle-Peterson and Charlene Rivera first used the in 1994 study. They thought the term the term ELL focused on what the students were learning rather than the limits that defined them. Consider, for example, that when you call a student an ESL student, you are focusing on the fact that English will never be their first or ‘mother’ language. In this way, it defines a student by what limits their success. In contrast, calling someone an English Language Learner focuses on their progress and active learning. It is a term that embodies more pride.

ESL (English as a Second Language): ESL refers to the instructional programs and courses designed to teach English to non-native speakers. ESL programs are often created to support ELL students in acquiring English language skills.


ELL: ELL is a term primarily used to describe students themselves, highlighting their status as individuals who are actively engaged in learning English.

ESL: ESL stands for the programs, classes, and instructional strategies designed to teach English to ELL students. ESL encompasses the educational approach and curriculum used to support ELLs in acquiring language skills.

Both terms are important in the field of education, as they collectively represent efforts to support individuals in becoming proficient English speakers, especially when English is not their first language.

Here are other common alternatives and related terms:

ELL (English Language Learner)

ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages)

EAL (English as an Additional Language)

EAL is often used in The United Kingdom and Australia.

ENL (English as a New Language)

TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)

TESOL is an academic and professional field encompassing ESL and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) instruction.

LEP (Limited English Proficiency)

LEP is a term used to identify students who have limited proficiency in the English language and may require additional language support services.

EL (English Learner)

EL is a general term used to describe students who are actively engaged in learning the English language. It is often used in educational contexts.

CLD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse)

CLD is a term that encompasses students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, including those who are learning English as a second language.

Bilingual Education

Bilingual education programs focus on developing proficiency in both the student’s native language and English. This approach helps students maintain and strengthen their first language while acquiring English skills.

Dual Language Programs

Dual language programs promote bilingualism and biliteracy by offering instruction in two languages, typically English and the student’s native language. This approach is designed to benefit both English-speaking and non-English-speaking students.

Now, I hope you have a better sense of what ESL means, as well as some related (and possibly more accurate) terms you can use throughout your English teaching journey.

Happy teaching!

Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.