How to Become an ESL Teacher in 4 Key Steps and Tips for How to Teach ESL
Thinking of making a change? Considering becoming an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher?
This career, also known as EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teaching, can be a deeply fulfilling and enriching life experience.
You’ll be in a position to help students achieve their dreams by learning English. You’ll likely get to travel to some far-off places, too.
Like any career, though, ESL teaching requires forethought and planning, as well as specific certifications.
So before you do anything, read this guide for how to become an ESL teacher in four steps, plus useful tips for how to teach ESL once you get your first teaching gig.
- How to Become an ESL Teacher
- Tips for ESL Teachers
How to Become an ESL Teacher
1. Consider the career carefully.
The first step in deciding to leave your present life for a new career is making sure you’re clear on what exactly that new career entails.
As with any job, teaching English isn’t for everyone. Before investing your time and money in this endeavor, have a long think about the realities of this job.
While the exact requirements can change depending on your location and school, you’ll want to consider the following points before you pursue this career:
- Native or non-native English speaker: Native speakers are in higher demand and are often paid more money. However, you do not necessarily need to be a native speaker to teach ESL.
- English grammar: If you’re worried about your grammar level, there are plenty of ways to learn or brush up on such concepts. Additionally, most certification courses will make sure you know enough grammar to be successful.
- Speaking the local language: While some positions may ask for bilingual EFL teachers, in many cases you will only be required to teach in English. In fact, plenty of English teachers use the opportunity to learn the language of their host country.
- ESL classrooms: As with any classroom learning environment, the class will only be as good as the teacher and their materials. Typically, if you are prepared with an informative, fun, interactive lesson, then that is what your classroom will feel like too.
- Teaching children or adults: Most TEFL certification courses will offer guided, in-class teaching hours toward the end of the course so you can gain experience with an age group. While there are definitely opportunities to teach English to adults (especially if you have a business background), be aware that most ESL openings are for teaching children.
The second big thing to consider before making the switch is: Do I have the qualities of a great ESL teacher?
You’ll need to be confident and able to adapt quickly to new situations. You’ll also need to be organized, detail-oriented and ready to create engaging and practical lessons for your students. You also need to be willing to study the English language so you can teach it properly.
Finally, make sure that becoming an EFL teacher is something you really want to do.
Are you ready to…
- open yourself to new cultures and experiences?
- meet new and interesting people from around the world?
- potentially spend a year or longer away from home?
- be the best version of yourself for your students?
- work a meaningful and life-changing job?
Did you say “yes” to all of those? Great! You’re on the right track to becoming an ESL teacher.
2. Decide what type of ESL teaching you want to do.
The next step is to consider whether you’d like to teach in your home country or abroad. Are you hungry for adventure, or are you looking to make an impact in your local community?
Teaching ESL at home can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Often this means working with refugees and immigrants trying to make a new home in a place you know well. You’ll be an invaluable resource for your students.
You’ll likely find opportunities in:
- cities and towns with large foreign communities
- grassroots, non-profit, state or federal organizations
- preschools and kindergartens
Some perks of staying in your home country include not needing a passport or visa and not leaving behind family and friends. You won’t have to adjust to a new country and culture, and often the pay is quite nice. However, there may be much higher requirements for becoming a teacher.
Teaching English abroad, on the other hand, gives you opportunities to:
- immerse yourself in a new country
- meet a wide variety of people
- learn another language
- travel to neighboring countries
The international ESL market can be easier to break into, too. But, with the exception of a few countries, teaching abroad doesn’t always pay well. There’s also a higher potential for cross-cultural communication issues.
Teaching abroad typically also means adapting to a different way of life. This can be especially challenging if you don’t speak the language of your host country. However, you will also gain incredible cultural experiences and broaden your global perspective.
Typically, teaching at home or abroad will mean teaching English in a classroom setting. You’ll get to truly connect with your students, emulate the teachers you admired, create fun group lesson plans, meet students’ friends and families and so much more.
However, while in-person class sizes can vary, they often lean towards “overcrowded.” Sometimes dealing with parents can be tricky or challenging, if you end up in a role where you have to communicate with them directly.
The other option, then, is teaching online ESL classes. Connecting with students virtually helps you reach more learners, and can be cost effective for both you and them. It also means you may have the option to work from anywhere you’d like.
Of course, it can be more difficult to really connect with your students online and engage them in the lesson. While you can share articles and digital games, you lose the physical interaction of classroom activities. You’ll also need to ensure that you have quick and reliable Internet access no matter where you are.
3. Obtain any necessary certifications.
It may seem like there are an infinite number of acronyms to refer to English teaching and certifications, so let’s break it down!
Here are the different types of teaching qualifications:
- TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is for working abroad. Certification usually takes 120 hours and can be done fully online, in a classroom course or a combination. Note that “TEFL” is often used as a catch-all term for ESL teaching certifications.
- TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) is generally for those who want to teach English in a native English-speaking country. You might earn this certification if you hope to teach immigrants or refugees, for instance.
- TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is very similar to TEFL and may be used interchangeably. However, TESOL is generally recommended for those hoping to teach English in their home country, though it may also be used to teach internationally.
- TEAL (Teaching English as an Additional Language) is a new acronym that emerged as a response to the TESL. Many English learners aren’t learning English as their second language, but rather, their third, fourth or even fifth! A TEAL certification course will be similar to a TESL one.
- CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) is sort of like a fancy TEFL specifically for teaching adult students. It’s a highly regarded certificate that takes about a month to complete. It’s more expensive than other options but opens up a world of opportunities (literally) for the keen teacher.
- DELTA (Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is a higher-level form of accreditation which is only open to teachers who’ve taught for a period of at least one year. It’s recommended for those looking to turn their passion for ESL into a career.
Psst… I’ll let you in on a little secret: Some jobs don’t even ask for a teaching certificate at all! However, this is fairly uncommon. These days most English schools will require their teachers to be accredited by one of the above programs and hold a college degree (in any field).
Now you’ll want to consider which of the EFL qualifications fits your needs the best. Here are some resources to help you figure out how and where to get certified:
- Tefl.net has a search function which shows you the various institutions offering these degrees in your country.
- GoAbroad is a great resource for finding accredited institutions to undertake your ESL studies.
- Cambridge English has incredibly useful information regarding higher-level qualifications, as well as fantastic resources related to the ESL world as a whole.
- OnTESOL is a top-notch resource for comprehensive training and information on the TESOL and TEFL certifications.
- Teach for America can help US citizens who have a college degree in something other than teaching who are looking to teach EFL in their home country.
- International TEFL Academy is chock-full of information about teaching abroad and offers online, in-person and specialty courses alongside one-on-one guidance and job search assistance.
You can also research local colleges and training centers to see if there are any available ESL certification courses near you.
Whatever path you choose, always be sure to read the reviews of the institution and ensure that the certifying institute is accredited. If possible, try to contact some former students to ask about their opinions of the course.
4. Check out the job market and schools you’re interested in.
Once you have your EFL qualifications and are ready to get into your new classroom, it’s time to search the market.
Finding the right gig can be stressful, though, especially if you’re planning to go abroad to a country you’ve never been to before.
It’s all about using the right tools. Here are some of the most popular job boards to check out:
- Dave’s ESL Cafe is the gold standard blog in the English teaching world. There are daily updated job postings and endless materials, resources and information at your disposal.
- ESLbase is very comprehensive and includes a handy scam guide. (It’s also where I found my first job teaching in Spain!)
- TEFL.com allows you to search for jobs within very specific parameters, such as location or length of contract.
- /r/TEFL, the TEFL forum on Reddit, is another option for crowd-sourced info and potential leads for teaching positions.
If you’re looking for positions at home, you can browse local job postings and the job boards of nearby schools.
Once you’ve found some open positions you’re interested in, make sure to do your due diligence and research the schools, especially if you’re going to be moving abroad.
As in any industry, there are certainly cases of dodgy dealings, scams and teachers having horrible experiences on their ESL journey. Luckily there are a few steps to overcome this.
First, look at the school’s online presence. What does the website look like? Is it on any social media platforms? Informing yourself about the school won’t only help you avoid scams, it’ll also make you a more attractive job candidate.
Next, talk to as many people as you can, including your potential boss and co-workers. If possible, contact some ex-teachers too—people who are no longer beholden to a contract for their visa are often willing to be more candid.
You can check out this Facebook group full of EFL teachers and employers, or better, find a forum specifically for your target city.
There’s also a few places designed to help job candidates research potential employers—the TEFL blacklist on Reddit is a helpful resource to read about negative experiences and potential places to avoid. Workplace review sites such as Glassdoor may also give you valuable insight to a company.
Once you’re confident in the locations and schools, send in your application materials, prepare for your interviews and get excited to begin your new career as an English teacher! Spend some time researching common ESL teacher job interview questions and ways to answer them correctly, too.
Tips for ESL Teachers
Once you land your first ESL teaching job, how do you set yourself up for success?
Follow these tips for a smoother transition into your new job, whether abroad or at home.
Utilize your unique experiences
Finding your specialty within ESL can benefit you and your students.
Your foundation may be simply teaching wherever the jobs take you, but you will likely soon find that you enjoy teaching a specific type of class to a specific group of students.
Here are a few sought-after specialties that could be useful for your ESL teaching career:
- Business English: Have you spent a few years in the corporate realm? No matter your title or position, it could be worth giving business English a try. English has become a universal language of business in all industries for all levels from corporate execs to budding professionals.
Many TEFL certifiers have a special business English qualification you can earn as well, like this one. Teaching business English also tends to garner a bit of extra pay. Currently, these jobs are particularly lucrative in the Middle East.
- English for Young Learners: Not all EFL teachers can handle a chaotic classroom filled with small children. It can be challenging to keep young learners engaged, and they are often quick to revert to their native tongue. If you enjoy teaching young kids, this could be a valuable and profitable specialty.
There are plenty of Young Learners certificates available. Some are quick and easy, and some are quite extensive, like this certification from Trinity College London. In many countries, foreign diplomats and expats will hire a native English speaker to manage their child’s early language development as well.
- Academic English: If you have taught English, literature, creative writing or even history in your home country, academic English could be your specialty. This involves preparing students to use English for higher education and research purposes.
This type of EFL teaching will often require a university degree in English or a parallel major. You can find academic English positions in many public and private schools in native English-speaking countries and abroad.
Know what language skills to focus on
This may depend upon your school and any required curriculum you are asked to teach.
Whether this is the case or you have some more freedom over your ESL class content, it’s important to be aware of the four major language skills:
- Reading is a passive skill—the learner receives English input. Reading helps students expand their vocabulary and become familiar with proper sentence structure and phrasing.
Reading comprehension involves understanding the content of the text, while reading performance refers to the pace and rhythm of the text, typically when read aloud.
- Listening is the second passive language skill. As novices, students need to become familiar with the sounds of English. Next, they progress to listening comprehension, in which they listen for content and understanding.
- Writing is an active skill where the learner must produce the language. Any variety of writing practice may be utilized according to students’ needs: essay writing, report writing, email writing, etc. With writing, it’s important to note differences between professional and casual correspondence.
- Speaking is also an active language skill, and it’s again vital to note how different situations can call for different levels of formality.
Learning to speak is (probably) what your students are truly in class for—the ability to communicate with other English speakers, which involves learning pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, phrasing and more.
Learn how to plan lessons well
You will get a crash course on lesson planning during your certification training, and you will also discover what works best for you as you teach more classes.
One of the most common language lesson plan structures, however, is called PPP—that stands for Presentation, Practice and Production. Here’s a breakdown of each section:
- Presentation is the first stage, where you deliver the new lesson material to your students. It’s vital to get their attention and ensure they are understanding the content before moving onto the next stage.
- Practice is the second stage, in which your students will slowly begin practicing the new material they just learned. You can employ pair and group activities, but you guide them through the work and the new content’s proper usage.
- Production is the final stage, and usually the most fun for students. You’ll give them exercises they can do on their own, in a group or with a partner while you float around the class answering questions. Here, your students develop an understanding of the new material in their own unique way.
To create a successful PPP lesson plan, you’ll need to know the overall focus of your lesson—what exactly will your students learn by the end of the class?
Then, you’ll create and/or designate activities to fulfill each section of PPP. Make sure to exercise the most relevant English skills throughout your lesson: reading, listening, writing, speaking, vocabulary, grammar and so on.
Lastly, always have a backup lesson! Maybe the flu is going around and only eight of your 20 students show up. Maybe the power went out five minutes before class started and it’s still not back.
Your backup doesn’t have to be complex: It could be as simple as a game of “Jeopardy,” a word puzzle activity or a lesson based on a short story.
Make class easy and homework challenging
Many ESL teachers find that the time allotted for teaching a lesson is often not enough to cover all of the required or desired content. You can remedy this by making class time easier—for your students and yourself.
For instance, one of the biggest time sucks in class is simply waiting for students to speak. There’s nothing wrong with giving a struggling learner a few extra moments to compose their sentence, but if everyone is doing this every time they’re asked to speak, it can take up precious in-class learning time.
So set your students up for success! If you’re following a PPP lesson plan, this is very simple to do.
Your Presentation should clearly explain the grammar point (or whatever it is) and provide examples. The Practice stage lets the students get a feel for how the grammar point works. And in the Production stage, they have the opportunity to produce their own version of what they just practiced.
This has the added bonus of building up students’ confidence. Which means you can let them know that their homework is meant to be a challenge. They’re not meant to complete it perfectly—just to the best of their abilities.
Completing the more challenging tasks at home allows for extra time to be used there instead of in class. Just don’t forget to review the homework with your students the next day!
Use available resources
There are many incredible books, podcasts, videos, lesson plans and other ESL materials online. Use them!
For instance, “Complete English Grammar Rules” by Farlex International is a high-quality, reliable reference book for ESL teachers and students alike. It has tons of explanations, examples and exercises in its 520 pages, ensuring you can find the answer to just about any English grammar question.
For visual content, you can try FluentU. This language learning program takes authentic English videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons, complete with interactive subtitles, quizzes and other learning tools.
Authentic videos help introduce your students to English-speaking cultures and familiarize them with native accents and ways of speaking. With a FluentU school account, you can create custom flashcard decks, assign homework and track student progress.
For more resources you can use in your EFL lessons, check out the various textbooks, apps and software that are available.
Be honest, encouraging and fun
If you aren’t 100% sure about the answer to a student’s question, be upfront with them. For example, if a student asks, “Do they say soda or pop in New Jersey?” and you don’t know off the top of your head, just be honest.
I recommend responding with something along the lines of, “What a great question! You know, I’m not sure. Let me get back to you during our next class.” Just remember to actually follow up with them next time.
Similarly, remember to keep a positive attitude and be encouraging, even when your students are struggling or making you frustrated.
Constructive feedback sprinkled with encouragement helps students grow and learn, and it creates a safe and positive learning environment.
Having fun also fosters a positive classroom rapport! Play games and laugh with your students, but also ensure you know where to draw the line. You want to keep your classes lively and interesting, but you never want to lose their respect.
Diversify your income
Being an ESL teacher often comes with the benefits of frequent travel and some level of control over your own schedule.
Often, the salary for an ESL teacher abroad is just enough to cover what you need to live and eat (unless you land a more coveted teaching position). One way that many teachers vary their income while they teach abroad is to teach both in a classroom setting and online.
Similarly, most teachers (no matter their location) can do other online work—things like running an Etsy store, freelance article writing or even offering translation services.
In general, it’s important to note that ESL teachers abroad typically find that adding one or two additional income streams will allow them to make more money while fully enjoying their experience (without eating cheap or living in a hostel for months at a time).
Sold on becoming an ESL teacher? Then get ready for the exciting adventure of a lifetime!
As long as you’ve done all your research and prepared accordingly, teaching English as a second language can be a highly rewarding career choice. So be thorough, ask questions and enjoy every minute!