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What Is ESL Teacher Certification?

Teaching English as a second language is a job that offers a lot of opportunities nearly everywhere in the world. Find out the certifications and requirements needed to become an English teacher and seize these opportunities for yourself.

What Does It Mean to Teach English as a Second Language?

Teaching English as a second language (ESL), sometimes also called teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL), is exactly as it sounds: instructing students whose first language is anything other than English how to speak, read, and write in English. Because of the role the English language plays in global commerce, this job is highly in demand in many countries, in addition to the need for ESL teachers domestically, who often work with immigrants to the US. Being well educated in English grammar, spelling, and pronunciation is key to being an effective teacher, so there is far more to the job than simply being a native speaker of the language. For jobs teaching ESL within the US, knowledge of a foreign language may not be strictly necessary, but for those hoping to teach English overseas, there are often many other requirements, and competency with the native language is sometimes one of them. Fortunately, there are many programs offered to help those wishing to teach English as a second language, both domestically and abroad.

ESL Teaching Goals To help those who are not native English speakers learn the language
Certificates Needed TESOL, CELTA, or other TEFL certificates
Domestic RequirementsBachelor's degree is required in most circumstances. Master's degree is sometimes preferred. State licensure as a teacher is needed for K-12 work.
International Requirements Vary significantly between countries and organizations, but often involve medical checks and require a bachelor's degree.

What Certificate Programs Are Available for English as a Second Language?

There are two main varieties of certificates that can be pursued, although the certificates alone will not qualify you to teach ESL within the US. The first is a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certificate, offered by many universities both online and on campus. These programs are typically between 4 weeks and 4 months, and generally require over a hundred hours of education in the classroom. Practical work within the course is a common component, and is highly recommended by the TESOL International Association.

The other major certificate program available is the CELTA, a curriculum put together by Cambridge University which is offered online and in many major cities across the US. CELTA may be completed in as few as 4-5 weeks or it can be taken over the course of a year, consisting of 120 classroom hours and at least 6 hours of actual teaching. A previously earned degree is not required for CELTA courses; however, an applicant should have everything expected of an applicant to a degree program at a university.

What Sort of Requirements Are There to Teach English as a Second Language in the US?

ESL courses are available to both adults and children, although ESL for children is typically part of a K-12 public school program, and thus ESL instructors must also hold the degrees and licenses necessary to work as school teachers. ESL teachers in schools need either a bachelor's degree in education with an endorsement or additional ESL certification, or a master's degree in education with a focus on ESL.

For those hoping to work with adults in private language schools or otherwise outside the context of a K-12 school, a bachelor's degree is usually required, although exactly what the degree is in often doesn't matter. From there, a TESOL or CELTA certificate must be earned, and an adult education certification is needed at minimum, although the exact requirements vary from state to state, and some may still require a master's degree. Universities or community colleges will always require at least a master's degree for those hoping to teach ESL courses at their institution.

What Sort of Requirements Are There to Teach English as a Second Language Abroad?

Each country has its own requirements and expectations of English teachers coming in from outside the country, so it is best to check with the program of the country you wish to travel to. For example, Japan has the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program, sponsored by the Japanese government, which brings over foreign teachers from around the world and places them in classrooms at schools from elementary to high school, teaching English alongside their Japanese counterparts. Applicants for the JET program must have a bachelor's degree, but do not need a TESOL or similar certificate, and will have to meet a variety of additional requirements, including background checks, submission of medical histories, and the passage of an interview.

Private organizations which offer English teaching programs exist as well, and each have their own requirements. These organizations will set up volunteer English teachers with food and lodging, often with a host family, and provide a stipend for the duration of your time in the country. Regular jobs with pay, benefits, etc. also exist, typically through a school directly but sometimes through these organizations. The quality of private organizations can vary significantly, so performing research and looking up reviews from previous participants is very important to ensure your time abroad is enjoyable.