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How to Become an ESL Teacher – Guide to Teaching English Abroad


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Of the more than 7,000 languages in the world, people speak some more than others. They speak English in more than 100 countries, according to Ethnologue, a linguistic data firm cited by The Washington Post. The Post also cites research from Ulrich Ammon of the University of Düsseldorf, noting that more than 1.5 billion people are learning English, making it the most studied language in the world.

If you’re a native English speaker or speak English well enough that people often assume you’re a native speaker, working as an English teacher can help you earn extra income while pursuing a fulfilling career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the U.S. demand for teachers of English to nonnative speakers will decline by 2028. But there’s likely to be considerable demand for them abroad thanks to the high number of people who want to learn English.

ESL, EFL, TESOL, TEFL: What Do the Initialisms Mean?

As you get started exploring your options for teaching English to nonnative speakers, you’re likely to encounter an alphabet soup of initialisms. Although they generally all involve the same skills, there are subtle differences between them.

For example, if you’re teaching nonnative speakers in a country where English is the primary language, like in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada, you’re typically teaching English as a second language (ESL). But if you decide to travel to a country where English is not the primary language, people usually refer to it as English as a foreign language (EFL). Students who live in places like Spain or Japan study English in much the same way you studied Spanish or French in middle school.

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Where you plan to teach English can also influence the type of certificate you earn. If you’re going to teach English to nonnative speakers in the U.S., you need a certificate for teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). If you hope to travel abroad to teach, you need a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL).

That said, your experience may matter more than the type of certificate. For example, having a TESOL certificate doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t teach English abroad. More likely than not, the program you’re applying to will look at the big picture when considering your application. No matter which certificate you have, if you have experience teaching, an international program isn’t likely to disqualify your application based on certification alone.

It’s also worth noting that the quality of the certification program matters more than the initialism it uses. Ideally, the program will be accredited, offer hands-on teaching experience, and have instructors who have experience and who love teaching.

Skills You Need to Teach English to Nonnative Speakers

A love of language is just the first thing you need before you jump into a career as an EFL or ESL teacher. Having a few other job skills can help you master the interpersonal and daily classroom management aspects of teaching.

  • Communication Skills. As an EFL or ESL teacher, you must be able to communicate with your students. Depending on students’ proficiency with other languages and your own skills with their native language, you sometimes have to find ways to get your point across a considerable language barrier.
  • Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity. Whether you teach at home or abroad, you’re going to work with students who have a cultural background different from yours. Some may also have different socioeconomic backgrounds. Being aware of the differences can help you engage and connect with your students.
  • Empathy. Empathy is an essential skill for language teachers. It helps to learn a new language along with your students. That way, you have an idea of what they’re experiencing and can put yourself in their shoes.
  • Ability to Think on Your Feet. Lesson plans are important, but you know what happens to the best-laid plans. Being able to change course as needed, such as when your class needs more time on a particular point of grammar, is a must.
  • Flexibility. Similar to thinking on your feet, you need to be flexible to be a good English teacher. Flexibility doesn’t mean letting your class walk all over you. Instead, it means recognizing that sometimes, you can’t move at the pace planned for in the syllabus or you need to rearrange due dates.
  • Time Management. What can you fit into an hourlong or 90-minutelong class? You might be surprised. Time management skills can help you see when it’s time to move from the warmup to the lesson and then to guided practice. Managing your time helps your students get the most out of their class time.
  • Patience. Students make mistakes. They’re likely to make the same mistakes repeatedly. You must have patience as your class works to learn English. It can take a while, but trust they will get there.
  • Public Speaking. Although plenty of EFL and ESL teachers are shy, quiet people, they also know how to switch on and perform when they have to talk in front of a group. It’s helpful to take a public speaking course to develop the ability to speak clearly and calmly in front of your class.
  • Creativity. Make learning English fun for you and your students. As a teacher, it helps to have some creativity so you can come up with engaging class activities and assignments.

Steps to Becoming an EFL or ESL Teacher

The steps you take to become an EFL or ESL teacher vary based on where and who you plan to teach. Since teaching in public or private primary or secondary schools in the U.S. typically requires a degree in education and a teaching certificate, this guide focuses on what you need to do to teach English to adults, either in the U.S. or abroad.

First, you need to have an excellent grasp of English before you can start teaching it to others. If you don’t know your future tense from your past or if the thought of using a semicolon makes you feel itchy, teaching English probably isn’t the gig for you.

If it’s been a while since you’ve cracked open a grammar book, that’s OK. There are plenty of grammar resources, both online and in print. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has an extensive list of resources. Khan Academy also has some excellent grammar videos. You can also head to your local library to check out a few English language grammar books. The content in the books or online can also help you when it comes time to start preparing lesson plans.

Once you’re sure you have a thorough understanding of the English language and grammar mechanics, you can go about actually becoming a teacher in one of two ways. The first is to earn a certificate. The second is to volunteer and work your way up to paid positions.

Getting Certified

There are dozens of certification programs. Choosing the right program for you involves looking at your goals and what you’re planning to do as an English teacher, such as traveling abroad, teaching online, or working at a community center in your home town.

I earned a TESOL certificate from Arizona State University (ASU) through Coursera. The program was a self-paced massive online open course. Earning a certificate online is very affordable (I paid $49 per month for access to the platform), and in many cases, you can take as much time as you need.

One of the drawbacks of the program was limited access to the people teaching it. There were forums, but hardly anyone used them, and there were no one-on-ones with the program leaders. A lot of the assignments were peer-reviewed, and to put it bluntly, I got the sense that a lot of people were just there to get the grade and move on.

If you prefer a more personalized experience, enroll in an in-person certification course or a course that mixes online with in-person teaching. Check with colleges and universities in your area to see if TESOL certificate programs are available and what they require of you.

There’s also the option of traveling abroad to earn TEFL certification either right before teaching or as you teach a class. The ASU program I was in had a partnership with CIEE (aka the Council on International Educational Exchange) that allows people to complete their program by participating in a two-week practicum course abroad.

Traveling to earn your certificate can get expensive, as you must pay for the cost of the program plus travel and lodging costs. Although some programs promise to help you find a position after you finish your certificate, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a job. A more budget-friendly option is to enroll in an online TEFL certificate program through a company like Premier TEFL, which allows you to learn from anywhere in the world.

Tefl Teaching English As A Foreign Language


If you don’t want to bother with the time and expense of earning a TESOL or TEFL certification, you can get started by volunteering in a classroom.

Depending on your location and the need for ESL classes in that area, there could be a wide range of volunteer opportunities available. Philadelphia, where I live, has many ESL programs. Philadelphia’s Office of Adult Education (OAE) offers free training programs for people interested in volunteering as ESL tutors or teachers. After completing an online or blended-learning program, the OAE helps place you with a volunteer organization.

Check with your city’s government to see if it has a similar office or department or offers a similar program. Your local library can also be an excellent resource for finding volunteer opportunities. Some libraries offer ESL programs to residents and are often happy to take on more volunteers.

Volunteering to teach ESL or to help a teacher in a classroom lets you learn the basics of classroom management and lesson planning on your feet. It can also help you get a better sense of whether teaching is something you enjoy doing or something that’s a good match for your skill set.

Most TESOL and TEFL certification programs include a practicum component, but in some cases, the practicum is simply you pretending to teach a lesson while filming yourself. As a volunteer, you get to work with real learners and can get a better sense of the demands of the job.

You can also combine volunteering with a certificate program or start as a volunteer and then enroll in a certification program if you discover you enjoy it.

Finding a Job Teaching English to Nonnative Speakers

Once you’ve earned your certificate or have gotten some hands-on volunteer experience teaching English, it’s time to start looking for a job as an ESL or EFL teacher. You can find work in your community or another country. You might also find work as an EFL or ESL teacher online. There are pros and cons to each option.

Teaching English Abroad

It’s a good idea to start slow if you want to teach abroad. Instead of committing to a one-year contract or signing up for 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer, look for short-term programs. Spend three months or so teaching English over the summer or dedicate a semester abroad to teaching. If you love it, you can always extend your time in the country or return later. If you hate it, you can go back home afterward and never look back.

When looking for programs, do your research to make sure the program is legitimate. There are many options, and some are better than others. Some are country-specific, such as English Program in Korea and Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. Others, like CIEE, offer teaching programs in multiple countries. It’s also a smart idea to read reviews from teachers who’ve worked with particular programs and talk to past teachers to see if a program is a good match for you.

Before signing up for any program, it pays to understand the overall pros and cons of teaching English abroad.

Pros of Teaching English Abroad

Some of the benefits of going abroad to be an EFL teacher include:

  • Getting to experience another culture
  • Getting to practice and develop your own language skills
  • Opportunities for personal and professional growth
  • Chance to travel even more, as in many cases, you’re closer to other countries too

Cons of Teaching English Abroad

Traveling to teach isn’t all roses, though. There are some serious drawbacks to think about:

  • Feeling lonely or isolated, especially if you’re traveling solo
  • Low pay in countries with a lower cost of living and lower salaries that U.S.-based people are used to
  • Cultural differences and teaching-style differences
  • Costs to get to your destination
  • Having to get a visa, though some organizations that offer TEFL certificates and match teachers to positions overseas (such as CIEE) can help

Teaching English in the U.S.

As with traveling abroad to teach, it’s a good idea to get your feet wet as an ESL teacher before you make a full-time career change. You can start tutoring students individually or teach one class on the weekends. If you like it, you can start to look for full-time positions as a teacher. Either way, there are benefits and drawbacks to teaching ESL in the U.S.

Pros of Teaching English in the U.S.

On the plus side:

  • Giving back to your local community
  • Fewer life changes
  • Flexible job opportunities, either full time or part time

Cons of Teaching English in the U.S.

On the minus side:

  • Nonprofit program opportunities limited to volunteer or low-paying positions
  • Many require TESOL certificates.
  • Working with children typically requires a teaching certificate for your state
  • Decreasing opportunities for ESL teachers in the U.S.

Teaching English to Nonnative Speakers Online

If the idea of a remote job appeals to you, you can teach English online. Where your students are located depends on the organization you work with or how you set up your own shop.

To teach online, you usually need to have a reliable Internet connection and access to some type of video conferencing program, such as Skype. If you’re working through a company, such as VIPKid or Education First, they usually have software you must use.

If you decide to find students on your own, you must advertise to find them. You can use social media, such as Instagram or Facebook, to connect with potential students. Another option is to create a Meetup page and set up meeting times over Skype or a similar video conferencing program. Since you can charge for events on Meetup, when students RSVP, they can pay the class fee.

While online programs often provide lesson plans, independent teachers have to find their own. Luckily, EFL and ESL teaching materials are readily available online. Shane Dixon, one of my professors from ASU, published “100 TESOL Activities for Teachers.” It’s a valuable resource when lesson planning or developing your curriculum.

When you’re first getting started, it’s often easier to work with a company like VIPKid or EF Education First since they find the students for you. But there’s a lot to know about working with these companies too. Check out our complete guide to teaching English online for more information.

Pros of Teaching English to Nonnative Speakers Online

Some of the benefits of teaching online include:

  • Setting your own schedule
  • No commute
  • Access to a wider network of learners
  • Working wherever you want with more freedom to travel

Cons of Teaching English to Nonnative Speakers Online

Teaching online does have its disadvantages, including:

  • Odd hours when working with students in other time zones
  • Building your reputation takes time
  • Sometimes low pay if you work with a company
  • Little control over the number of hours you work if you work with a company
  • Students canceling or bailing on classes can hurt your income

Final Word

No matter your goals in life, teaching English to nonnative speakers is a flexible and rewarding way to earn a living. For those with a serious case of wanderlust, it’s the perfect excuse to travel the world while getting paid. But it can also create a source of income for those who want to work from home doing something meaningful. And if you just want to help newcomers to your area get acclimated to the U.S., you can volunteer.

Whatever your reasons, as an EFL or ESL teacher, you don’t just help others learn and grow. You also have the chance to grow as you learn more about your students and their life experiences.

What appeals to you most about teaching English to nonnative speakers?


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Amy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her interest in personal finance and budgeting began when she was earning an MFA in theater, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Brooklyn, NY) on a student's budget. You can read more of her work on her website, Amy E. Freeman.