Is it true that learners of English in EFL context don’t have enough exposure to English?

True or False?

The idea that EFL learners have limited amount of exposure to English may not be true anymore. If you teach in a context where internet access is limited or too expensive and you don’t have enough books, magazines, audios, films or other resources in English which cater to your students’ level and interests, then the answer may be: true. Otherwise, the answer is: False.

Ten years ago, I started to get interested in High school students whose high level of English could not be explained by the time they had been studying English either at school or with private tutors. I realized these students used English just for pleasure through activities they found interesting: listening to songs or reading whatever book in English they could get.

The world has changed a lot since then, now the accessibility to material and technological resources in English is much easier and cheaper. Two years ago I Types of textsdecided to research the topic for my master thesis (that will be available to be shared in a few months). You can see a poster with some data from my research at Research Gate.

One of the aims of my investigation was to analyse the uses of English outside of the school of 122 High School students (16-18 years old) in an EFL context (Uruguay) and these were the main results:

N/S: not specified
N/I: not identified
No private lessons: students who do not attend private English lessons outside of school.

The most common practice in English carried out by students beyond the classroom is watching films and series, followed by watching videos online.

Surprisingly, the students who get more involved in English-based activities autonomously do not attend English private lessons.

More girls than boys get involved in out-of-class activities in all modes except for online games.

Therefore, students are exposed to different types of English input outside of school, so teachers may take advantage of these affordances (Menezes, 2011) and integrate them into their classrooms. Below, you will see some ideas:

How to take advantage of students’ beyond the class modes of  learning English

  • Setting class time to discuss which activities they have performed using English, what they have learnt and what strategies they have used to cope with difficulties. students

  • Checking what activities in English they engage in and bring them to the classroom, for example watching an episode from one of their favourite TV series or watching a music video of their favourite singer/group. You may also ask for volunteer students to prepare a lesson based on it.

  • Another alternative is to provide activities to be performed as homework to foster loglanguage awareness. However, teachers should refrain from focusing too much on grammar or vocabulary activities out of context (i.e.: focusing on isolated items without considering the context of use). As each student may engage in a particular activity and it’s likely that you can’t design an individual piece of homework for each of them, a good idea is to ask them to keep a learning log where they record the activity they have done, what they have learnt by doing it and again the strategies they have used to cope with unknown language. 

Whatever option you choose, remember to take into account your students’ interests, as it is this personal interest and the student’ s capacity for autonomy which make these affordances so powerful for language learning.

Also, try to encourage these kinds of engagement by valuing them, offering suggestions and helping less motivated students to try out new ways of being in contact with the English language.


Menezes V. (2011) Affordances for Language Learning Beyond the Classroom. In: Benson P., Reinders H. (eds) Beyond the Language Classroom. Palgrave Macmillan, London



demanding teacher

My former students say they didn’t learn in my class

Does it ring a bell? Sometimes you end up discovering that your efforts and hard work were not enough for your students. If you are a school teacher, you most probably get to know about the issue through your former students’ new teacher or, because your new students make the same complaint about their former teacher.


This may happen to school teachers or to teachers who work at language institutions, where students change teachers every year. For private tutors, the issue may arise when the students quit for no clear reason.

You feel disappointed and may even ask yourself, what’s the point? What happened to all the efforts you devoted to:

  • preparing the lessons
  • delivering the lessons
  • preparing the following lesson based on how the last one worked
  • searching for new resources to motivate your students
  • searching for new approaches to teaching the topic to those learners who didn’t get it
  • preparing different types of evaluation and correcting them
  • setting up a good classroom atmosphere where every learner feels secure and appreciated
  • Etc., etc., etc., etc…..?demanding teachers

Well, maybe you are doing too much. Yes! You are doing too much.

How come? Well, last year I researched how high school students learn English as an L2 beyond the class (not published yet) and one of the findings was that:

What most students need in order to learn is to have a demanding teacher.

Does it sound odd? Well, in fact, it is not a new idea. Vygotsky claimed a long time ago that to learn a person must go beyond his/her current level of knowledge/competency/proficiency. If a person is always in his/her ‘comfort zone’ (sort to speak), no learning is possible. Learning occurs when the person is ‘forced’ to go beyond what he/she already knows (Zone of Proximal Development); in any other case, he/she would be just practising with his/her previous learning.

In the field of SLA, Krashen uses the idea of comprehensible input to explain how learning takes place. Learners should be exposed to input which is a bit further from their current level of knowledge to learn.

Your students won’t probably tell you that they want you to be demanding because they feel comfortable doing what they already know, but you may try talking to your former students in an informal setting asking them for their feedback on your teaching.

Besides, as important as learning is that students feel they have learned so they will feel confident about using the L2 and motivated to learn more.

However, how can a student feel that he/she has learned if nothing new is presented to him/her? What is new may be different to different students, so checking their prior knowledge is essential to offer the right challenge for each learner.


If you teach large classes, what you expect from all the learners may be the starting point, then you can suggest more challenging activities or contents for more advanced students. Let them choose their own learning path offering additional resources as needed.

If you need more ideas, you can watch Jim Scrivener’s talk Demand High

Have you ever been through this experience? Share your thoughts with us!

Types of texts

Reading in an L2: the idea of ‘Authentic Reading’

Reading is far from being a passive process, it is a constant process of guessing, hypothesising, anticipating and confirming, in which the knowledge “one brings to the text is often more important than what one finds in it” (Grellet, 1982 in Ball & Hockly n.d.). Consequently, the practices in which we involve while reading in a second language (L2) should resemble the practices of reading in the mother tongue (L1) if we intend to make the L2 reading experience an authentic one. read 1

Types of reading strategies

With regards to the approach to reading, there is a distinction between two main types of strategies that readers use when they are faced with a written text: top-down strategies and bottom-up strategies. Top-down strategies use macro-level cues to decode a text in order to acquire a more global understanding of its contents. These cues may include considering the layout of the text, making hypotheses and anticipating contents. Bottom-up strategies involve the decoding of the passage step-by-step from small textual elements like words or phrases. This process was for several years the traditional way of analysing a text and many courses are still based on this approach to reading.

The problem with an exclusive focus on bottom-up strategies is that the individual parts of the text are given more importance than the text as a whole. According to Grellet (in op. cit.), this might encourage reading all texts at the same speed, which might not be appropriate in all cases, and that there would be a reluctance to infer the meaning of sentences and paragraphs from what comes before the text. This author concludes that it is always preferable to start with the overall meaning of a text (top-down strategy), its function and aim, then move towards a more detailed analysis.

What is an authentic text? A different view of ‘authenticity’

There is an important issue to consider when selecting texts for our learners and it is the idea of authenticity. Widdowson (in Ball & Hockly, n.d.) distinguishes between ‘genuineness’ and ‘authenticity’. Genuineness is a ‘characteristic of the text itself and is an absolute quality’ (op. cit.: 32), it is what teachers usually refer to as authenticity. On the other hand, his definition of authenticity is how the reader responds to the text. Not adapting a text would make it ‘genuine’ in Widdowson’s sense. However, a genuine text is not necessarily better than an adapted text. If the reader is allowed to respond as they would do it in real life we have what Widdowson calls an ‘authentic text’.

In which types of reading activities do we involve in real life? Types of texts

People read for many different purposes and depending on these purposes we may gist to check if the matter is relevant to us, for example when we read our friends’ post on Facebook; we may read to extract the main idea of a product ad to check it is what we are looking for; we may also read to infer the purpose of a literary text for a class assignment; it is also possible to read just for pleasure and while doing so we may find ourselves reacting to the text or creating mental images derived from it. Whatever purpose we may have for reading, the strategy we use will differ and the same should happen when we are learning to read in other languages.

Reading activities in the language class

According to Greenall and Swan (1986 in Ball & Hockly n.d.: 17-18), reading activities can be described as follows:

  • Extracting the main idea (read in a general sense to distinguish between important and unimportant information).
  • Reading for specific information (looking for the important information needed to perform a specific task).
  • Understanding text organization (recognising how sentences are joined together to make paragraphs).
  • How paragraphs form a passage and how this organization is signalled.
  • Predicting (see what information is new and which one is known so that there is not an overload of new information).
  • Checking comprehension (finding specific information in the passage).
  • Inferring (when the writer decides to suggest something indirectly, the reader has to infer information).
  • Dealing with unfamiliar words (guessing a word or expression by looking for clues in the context).
  • Linking ideas (seeing how different words are related to the same idea).
  • Understanding complex sentences (seeing how long and complicated sentences can be simplified).
  • Understanding a writer’s style (a number of stylistic devices and features are discussed to appreciate why a writer chooses a certain word or expression).
  • Evaluating the text (evaluating why the passage was written and the purposes that certain sentences serve).
  • Reacting to the text (separating what the writer says from what the reader thinks).
  • Writing summaries (the ability to write accurate summaries requires accurate comprehension of the passage).
  • Speed reading (to prevent the tendency ‘to stumble on unfamiliar words’ thereby failing to ‘grasp the general meaning of the passage’).

Authentic readingreading 2

You can choose one or several activities from the ones mentioned above based on your students’ need regarding reading strategies and use it/them with any type of text, but how about assigning an authentic activity to deal with an authentic text and engage students in authentic reading? By authentic activity, I mean a reading activity which relates to the type of text used and how that type of activity is used in real life. Just think about this, what are the odds that you need to summarize an e-mail? Instead, you should probably need to focus on the subject, the author and the main information (who, what, when, how).

The concept of ‘action knowledge‘ (Barnes, 1976) can help us to support the idea of authentic reading. Students come to school with an amount of knowledge they have incorporated during their lives, they have unintentionally learnt many aspects of the world and how to behave in different types of situations. The same is true for their reading experience in their L1. Even younger learners, whose literacy skills in L1 are in the first steps, have grown up watching their family members reading different types of texts and what they do with them. They have watched their older siblings writing a summary of a History book and they have also observed that their siblings do not do the same while reading a comic.

We may also go back to Grellet’s words in the introduction of this post to support the idea of authentic reading, “(the knowledge) one brings to the text is often more important than what one finds in it” (1982 in Ball & Hockly n.d.). Surely, as a reader yourself you can think about types of reading activity that are ‘natural’ to a specific text type or genre, bring that knowledge and the learners’ knowledge into the class and enhance their reading experience both in the L2 and in the L1.

What types of reading activities would you suggest for a short story? For a piece of news? And for a blog post? Write a comment with your suggestions.


* If you want to read about the differences between reading in the L1 and reading in an L2 click this link to my previous post


Ball, P. & Hockly, N. (n.d.). Developing Language Skills in the Classroom. Funiber

Barnes, D. (1976/1992). From Communication to Curriculum. London: Penguin. (Second
edition, 1992, Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.)

Is it still possible to make a distinction between ESL and EFL contexts?

Confusing termsimage

Chances are that being a teacher of English whose students are non-native English speakers you have come across one of these acronyms and abbreviations: EFL, ESL, ELL, and so on. The most wide-spread distinction  made between EFL and ESL is based on whether your students live/work in a country whose first, second or even third language is English, in this case, your students would be English as Second Language learners (ESL students), or your students live/work in a country where English is not the first, the second or the third language so, your students would be English as a Foreign Language learners (EFL students).

If you read  website you will find the following definitions:

“EFL: English as a foreign language. English language programs in non-English-speaking countries where English is not used as the lingua franca. It is also used in some U.S. university programs where international students study English and are likely to return to their home countries after graduation or finishing course work

“ESL: English as a second language. English language programs in English-speaking countries where students learn English as a second language”

ELT: English language teaching”

ELL: English language learner. Often used to refer to a student in an ESL or EFL program”

The reasons why a country may or may not have English as a first, second or third language can be found in the history of that country (origins, invasions, wars, cultural bonds) or geographical (proximity), and it is not the intention of this post to deepen in those issues. However, there is a social phenomenon which is now changing our prior ideas about the difference between ESL and EFL and that is, as you have probably guessed, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) including TV.

There may be very few places in the world where technology has not become part of everyday life. Through technology, cultural, social, economic and political ideas spread and change our beliefs and behaviours at a speed never seen before and these changes have an impact on the processes of language learning around the world.

Second language or foreign language?

According to Gabbiani (2012:37), the differences between a second language (L2) and a foreign language (FL) are not related to the language proficiency one may have but to the degree of knowledge and participation in the culture of that language. From this point of view, what defines an L2 or an FL context is the type of relationship the language user establishes with the values of the other culture.

Longcope (2009:304) states that the context is not just the location where language learning happens (for example, class learning vs street learning (Gabbiani: 2012:39)); the context is the relation established by the language learner with the location and the behaviour in which he or she engages in that location. This means that two learners in the same class may respond to the context in very different ways: one learner may interact actively with the other language (ESL learner) while the other may respond only under certain circumstances (EFL learners). So, we could say that context = location + behaviour. 

 What is the answer, then?

If we agree that the context of English language learning is a combination of the location and the learner’s behaviour in that location and that each learner responds in a personal way to a certain language learning situation, it is highly possible that we have both ESL learners and EFL learners in the same class. So, for practical purposes, how should we refer to both types of learners? One possible term would be English Language Learners (ELL), using this term the focus is just on the subject students are learning; English language, without specifying what type of response they have to that language.

Another possibility would be English to Speakers of Other Languages learners (ESOL learners), in this case, the focus is also on the English language as a subject of learning but we are adding a reference to the learner’s native language (ie: a learner whose native languages is other than English).

In both cases, using the terms ELL context or ESOL context we are able to describe and/or investigate in a more precise way the characteristics of this context (location + behaviours) without conditioning its description by using an innapropiate term.

Would you suggest an alternative terminology?


Gabbiani, B. (2012). “Formación Continua – (Co)construcción Permanente. Creación de un Espacio para la Reflexión sobre la Educación Lingüística”. En Brasil Irala y Silva (Orgs.) ENSINO NA ÀREA DA LINGUAGEM. Perspectivas a partir da formação continuada pp.35-58 Mercado Letras.

Longcope, P. (2009). Differences between the EFL and the ESL Language Learning Contexts. Language and Culture Studies Vol. 30 Nº 2, 303-320.