How to Become an ESL Teacher

ESL teacher working with young student

If you are wondering how to become an ESL teacher, then you likely already know that “ESL” stands for “English as a second language.” ESL teachers work with English language learners (ELL), helping them acquire and improve their English language skills. ESL teachers are in high demand, both in the U.S. and around the world, which makes this a smart career choice for those who are passionate about both teaching and language.

How to Become an ESL Teacher: An Overview

The process of becoming an ESL teacher is an exciting journey. You will first need to earn your bachelor’s degree in education, and it is best for you to pursue a degree that is focused entirely on ELL instruction. This degree will take most students four years of full-time study to complete, including the student teaching experience.

After completing your student teaching experience and graduating, you will then need to acquire a state teaching certificate and possibly an endorsement (a qualification indicating that you have specialized in ELL instruction). Once this process is complete, you can then earn a specialized ESL certificate to improve your career qualifications further. Then, it is time to begin looking for job opportunities at home or around the world.

What Does an ESL Teacher Do?

The main job of an ESL teacher is to help English language learners become proficient in English skills. These include reading comprehension, writing, listening and speaking skills. ESL instructors typically teach classrooms of students, but they may also work one-on-one. Although teaching English skills is the main task of ESL teachers, their job is actually much broader.

ESL teachers who work in the U.S. with immigrant populations typically also help students adapt to their new country. Teachers show sensitivity to these students’ cultural differences, by nurturing a respectful classroom culture and using culturally responsive teaching methods to help their students feel accepted and valued.

These teachers actively work on building meaningful relationships with their students and families. ESL instructors must also take advantage of any opportunities to advocate on behalf of their students. For example, they may collaborate with students’ families, community members and colleagues to develop solutions for any problems the students may be experiencing.

Other job responsibilities may include the following:

  • Developing a curriculum, lesson plans and assignments based on evidence-based practices and analysis of available data 
  • Utilizing a standards-aligned, evidence-based method of instruction, including differentiated instruction that meets the unique needs of individual students
  • Using scaffolding strategies to improve student comprehension and reduce student anxiety 
  • Assessing student progress, paying careful attention to any cultural biases that might affect the validity of the data

These are just a few examples of the daily job responsibilities of an ESL teacher. For many ESL teachers, their day progresses in much the same way as that of any other schoolteacher. They arrive early at school, make last-minute preparations for their lessons, deliver lectures and give exams. ESL teachers may also attend school staff and parent-teacher meetings, as well as act as chaperones at extracurricular activities.

Do You Need an ESL Degree?

The first step in the process of becoming an ESL teacher is to earn an ESL degree. It is highly recommended that aspiring ESL teachers choose a degree program that is specifically designed for teaching ELL students.

In addition, be sure to select a degree that will lead to initial teacher licensure. This ensures that the curriculum is aligned with state standards and that you will qualify to pursue a teaching certification after you graduate.

The requirements to become a certified ESL teacher vary from state to state. Be sure to check with the department of education for the state in which you plan to teach. Then, you can plan your pathway toward your career accordingly.

ESL teachers do not typically need a master’s degree; a bachelor’s degree is usually the only degree required. The degree curriculum may vary from one school to the next, but in general, you can expect to study any of the following topics:

  • ELL curriculum design, methods of student instruction and progress assessment
  • Literacy skills, linguistics and phonics
  • Cultural sensitivity and social justice in an educational setting
  • Methods of structured English immersion for ELLs
  • Child and early adolescent development and psychology

In addition, you will likely learn about appropriate classroom management techniques, state standards in education and nurturing student engagement.

All aspiring teachers must complete a certain number of practicum hours. These take the form of a student teaching experience, which is much like an internship. In order to qualify to become a student teacher, you must pass a background check with fingerprint clearance, pass all state-mandated exams, maintain a minimum GPA and complete all other courses in your degree program.

The student teaching experience is an immersive one that will give you practical skills and hands-on practice working with ELLs. You will be paired with an experienced teacher and at first you will likely observe that teacher and the classroom, making careful notes and asking questions after each class.

Then, you will be given some responsibilities in the classroom, such as working with students one-on-one or in small groups, delivering lesson plans and grading assignments. The experienced teacher will supervise you, stepping in when needed and offering feedback or guidance.

After you successfully complete your student teaching experience, you will graduate with a bachelor’s degree. You will then be ready to pursue your state teaching certificate.

Consider Learning a Foreign Language

ESL teachers work with students of diverse backgrounds, and although it is not strictly mandatory for an ESL teacher to speak their students’ native language, it is highly recommended. Even having a little knowledge of the native language can be very helpful.

While you are working toward your undergraduate ESL degree, you should consider taking some foreign language classes. You might consider declaring a double major or earning a minor in the foreign language. Choose a language that is most likely to be spoken by your future students.

For example, if you would like to teach ESL classes to students in South America, you should consider learning Spanish or Portuguese. Spanish is also a good choice for those who would like to teach in the U.S., particularly in Southwestern states and major metropolitan areas, like New York City or Miami.

If you do not have much time to devote to foreign language studies, do not let that dissuade you from becoming an ESL teacher. It is definitely possible to teach ESL classes entirely in English—without using a single word of the students’ native tongue.

In fact, this immersion method of language instruction is highly recommended. Immersion learning is known to be particularly effective, particularly for language learning.

As an example, consider when you first learned to ride a bike. Training wheels may have been helpful at first—but after a while, they simply hindered you from learning how to actually ride a bike. At some point, the training wheels need to come off for true learning to occur.

Acquire Your Teaching Certificate

Every state has its own requirements for aspiring teachers who are pursuing a state teaching license or certificate. In general, however, you can expect to need the following:

  • Bachelor’s degree in education from an accredited institution
  • Official transcripts
  • Fingerprint clearance/background check
  • Passing score on mandatory state teaching exams
  • Application fee

In addition, your state may offer the option to earn endorsements (areas of specialization) on your teaching certificate. One of those endorsement options might be ESL instruction. Even if it is not strictly mandatory to earn this endorsement, it is recommended, as some employers may expect it.

The good news is that once you have earned your teaching certificate, earning an endorsement is typically easy. Although requirements vary from state to state, you will usually need to submit proof of your degree. Your official transcripts should reflect the required credit hours in the area of specialization. You may also be required to submit your fingerprint card again, along with an application and application fee.

Earn a Specialized ESL Certificate

There are three different ESL certificate options for aspiring ESL teachers. Note that you will need to earn one of these specialized certificates in addition to your state teaching certificate or license, and in addition to any endorsements added to your teaching certificate. Fortunately, you do not need to earn all three ESL certificates—just one.

The ESL certificates are as follows:

  • TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language
  • TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language
  • TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

At first blush, these acronyms all look pretty similar—if not nearly identical. Yet, there are key differences to be aware of. The certificate you choose will largely depend on which setting you would like to work in.

Let us first take a closer look at the TESL. The TESL certificate is appropriate for aspiring ESL teachers who would like to teach English to speakers of foreign languages who are living in the U.S. or in other countries where English is the dominant language. For example, if you would like to teach in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada or the U.S., then you should earn the TESL.

Now, let us take a look at the TEFL certificate. This certificate is designed for ESL teachers who would like to teach English to students living in countries where English is not the dominant language. It will equip you to work in China, Honduras, Japan or nearly any other country.

Lastly, the TESOL certificate is a relative newcomer to the family of ESL certificates. It is appropriate for individuals who would like to teach in both English-speaking and non-English-speaking countries. So, if you are not quite sure where in the world you would like to work, you should earn the TESOL certificate.

Regardless of which certificate option you choose, you can expect to take some additional courses and pass an exam in order to earn it. Online courses are a great option and popular among aspiring ESL teachers—just be sure to choose an accredited program.

Cultivate the Qualities of an Effective ESL Teacher

While you are working through the process of becoming an ESL teacher, you can also work on cultivating the important characteristics and skills that these professionals need to be effective in the classroom. In this line of work, a positive attitude will serve you and your students well. It is important to view ELL students positively as individuals whose diverse backgrounds and native language skills are indeed assets to be appreciated.

In addition, ESL teachers should have an open mind and an enduring appreciation for other cultures, traditions and perspectives. You will be working with students of diverse backgrounds, so global awareness and a respect for other cultures are crucial. Similarly, ESL teachers should view all students as equal language learners, regardless of where they were born.

Other important skills and characteristics of ESL teachers include the following:

  • Creative, outside-the-box thinking
  • Positive energy
  • Resourcefulness and flexibility
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Communication skills
  • Appropriate classroom management abilities

Where Do ESL Teachers Work?

ESL teachers are in high demand all around the world, making this an ideal profession for adventurous souls who like to travel and experience other cultures. You might spend a few semesters teaching English in South Korea, for example, before jetting off to the Philippines or Honduras.

Of course, you can also spend your entire career working with ELL students in the U.S. if you wish. Areas with large immigrant populations represent the best opportunities for employment in this field. For example, you may wish to explore teaching opportunities along the southern border or in major metropolitan areas.

ESL teachers often work in public school districts as well as in private schools. They can also find employment at social service agencies, particularly those that focus on supporting immigrants.

Increasingly, many ESL teachers spend all or part of their career working online. In fact, you could work from the comfort of your own home as you teach students all around the world.

If you feel called to become an ESL teacher and help others succeed, you can begin working toward a bright future at Grand Canyon University. Apply to enroll in the Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education With an Emphasis in English as a Second Language degree program, which leads to initial teacher licensure and includes a student teaching experience. Click on the Request Info button at the top of your screen to learn more about our teaching programs and our dynamic learning environment. To learn more about the College of Education and our degree programs, join in our efforts to elevate the education profession.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.