In the past 20 years, education in English has transformed in East Asia, and Taiwan is no exception. The number of programs has exploded and the spectrum of styles and methods range from the ABCs to graduate-level literature and rhetorical analysis. Twenty years ago, a few hours a week of vocabulary and conversation practice were the standard for English learning, but now many students are expected to be able to navigate between Taiwanese and Western-style classrooms with proficiency in both.

One consequence of this English education explosion is a lack of clarity in terms of what students need, what is effective, and what the goals of various types of study even are. Part of the issue is that many parents who are making decisions for their children grew up taking “English class” of a certain type, and so their expectations are based on their own experiences, even if their English education was not as effective as it could have been.

We get a lot of parents who are sticklers for grammar and vocabulary practice, and the fact we don’t emphasize these mainstays of traditional English learning can be confusing for people who learned this way. However, English class as it was done in the past isn’t particularly effective. What is the purpose of knowing all the rules of grammar if you don’t understand when and why to employ them in speaking or writing? How is having memorized list after list of vocabulary helpful when you don’t understand connotation or how to use words in a given context?

With this article, we hope to clear up the differences between types of English learning to help parents make more informed decisions as to what their students need.

*Note – the following distinctions are not necessarily the terms used in academic study of education or “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages” (TESOL) circles. Rather, we present simplified terminology to help teachers and students understand what to look for.

English as a Second Language 

ESL stands for “English as a second language”, and has a few other names, including EFL (English as a foreign language) and ESOL (English for speakers of other languages). 

*Note: ESL is not to be confused with ELA, which we will explain later.

ESL is how most English-learners have traditionally learned the language. This is how most buxiban programs and public schools in Taiwan teach English. Furthermore, if you have ever taken a “business English” class, or conversation practice, or anything like that, chances are what you were learning was ESL. 

The content in ESL classes is usually focused on the “four Fs”: food, fashion, folklore, and festivals, or other relatively superficial and out-of-context topics. ESL classes usually do not delve into deeper subject matter. Materials are designed specifically for language learners. The most fundamental classes begin with the alphabet and phonics, but beyond that, most attention is given to vocabulary and grammar, often at the expense of reading and practical language usage. Sometimes ESL classes are not even taught in English, with the logic being that comprehending the rules of English in a student’s native language will accelerate the rate at which they learn. 

The goal of ESL classes is mastery of practical language usage, but students who are only exposed to ESL-style classes rarely approach proficiency, much less fluency in English. 

ESL classes play an important role; you have to start somewhere, and without a functional vocabulary base and understanding of the rules of the language, you’ll never be able to read and write. However, most ESL programs and learners stay in this neighborhood far longer than is necessary.

English Language Arts

ELA stands for “English Language Arts” or sometimes just “Language Arts”. 

This type of English learning is how primary and secondary school students learn in native English-speaking countries. “International” programs in Taipei purport to this type of English learning, and some are successful in their implementation of ELA programs. ELA is also what Englist does at the Fundamentals levels.

The core of ELA programs is listening, speaking, reading, and writing, and employing these skills simultaneously in engaging academic content. Curricula are built around this academic content, most frequently books, but also native English media. This content can vary widely depending on age and level, school district, and even the teacher. However, regardless of level or geography, the focus of ELA is not out-of-context grammar and vocabulary; rather, students develop these skills by engaging with the content of their ELA courses, alongside interacting with teachers and classmates.

*Note – Content-Based Instruction (CBI) is a relatively new form of ESL education, but with deeper focus on specific content and analysis, it essentially turns ESL into ELA as we have defined it.


The focuses of ELA programs are native level literacy and reading comprehension. Classes are, of course, taught exclusively in English, and the ultimate aim of ELA is for students to build depth of understanding and comprehension, enhance analytical ability, and acculturation.

If your student (or you yourself) are at an intermediate level of English or above, you should be learning ELA rather than ESL. Reading books, writing sentences and paragraphs, and having conversations about deeper topics and ideas while using the language organically is vastly more effective at establishing language and literacy skills than traditional ESL learning.

Academic writing 

Academic writing is also called simply “composition.” In academic writing classes, students are tasked with learning various formats of writing, especially academic essays.

Academic composition is one of the main focuses of high school and college English education in native English-speaking countries. ELA classes tend to evolve into academic writing courses; as students read, discuss, and conduct research, the need arises for formalized academic writing. Even the two Advanced Placement (AP) English courses – AP Literature and AP Language and Composition – are built around academic writing, especially AP Lang and Comp.

Materials in academic writing classes are designed for fluent speakers of English, and are usually aimed at high school and university students.

At a glance, academic writing classes seem to be focused on arbitrary rules of academic composition and communication conventions. While the rules of writing and communication are critical parts of academic composition, the conventions are a small part of what students are tasked with learning.

Rather, academic writing aims to develop clarity, structure of thought, critical thinking, and analytical skills in students; or, in other words, academic writing trains students to think deeply. In order to write a powerful, convincing, and engaging essay (or anything else), students need to possess these deep thinking skills. These skills are why colleges insist that students can write essays, and why most universities ask that students compose personal statement essays as part of the application process.

The Englist Path – how to master English and be prepared for college

Our recommendations are straightforward and it is how we organize our program.

First, if an English learner speaks no English, or only rudimentary English, they should probably take a few semesters of ESL class. Englist offers some ESL level material in our Fundamentals 1 program. However, ESL can be useful at any age, so if this is where you or your child are, start here.

Once an English learner has developed some confidence in listening and speaking English, and knows the rules of phonics and can comprehend basic texts (e.g., storybooks), they are ready for ELA. For children, ELA learning should begin at first or second grade and last through junior high, with students having confidence when reading and discussing young adult literature. Englist’s Fundamentals 1, 2, and 3 classes are all ELA courses.

When a student is at about the high school level (maybe even junior high), and they are proficient in English, they should begin learning academic writing. This does not mean they should abandon ELA learning; rather, they must supplement academic writing training with reading, speaking, and listening practice, preferably in a classroom environment. This is how we have developed Englist’s academic writing courses.

After a few semesters of academic writing, students should also be tasked with learning different types of analysis and communication. At Englist we offer Taipei Teen Tribune. Other great extracurriculars include speech and debate, journalism programs, and creative writing classes.

We do think students should be immersed in English in their regular schools if possible, like at an international program.

However, this is not realistic for many families, and others simply prefer to keep kids in Mandarin language schools. Developing academically proficient English while staying in a local program is doable. In this case, elementary-level students will need to attend an English after-school program, optimally for 10 or so hours a week, but at least six hours weekly is necessary to develop true proficiency. Englist offers schedules to meet this requirement.

At the junior high and high school level, students should do three to four hours of English language study per week in a program that offers academic writing training. Many students at Englist do exactly this.

Furthermore, all students should read for at least 30 minutes per day, every day, and students should be put in English-immersion environments as frequently as possible. These could include summer camps overseas or just local English-language programs in the summer or winter.

If students follow this “trail”, they will be capable of attending university or working professionally in the western world.

Learning English is hard. To be able to do it with any degree of fluency in your second language is an especially daunting prospect, and then to be able to use English in collegiate or professional settings is even more difficult.

However, it’s absolutely possible. It just takes effort, time, and patience, as well as the knowledge for how to get where you want to go. We hope you consider contacting Englist if you want further information and assistance in getting there.


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