Teaching English as a Second Language in the Classroom

ESL teacher in front of a chalkboard

Earning a certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) will teach you strategies for helping English language learner students to share ideas and engage in content-based instruction. If you feel called to become a teacher, one specific career you might be interested in is that of an ESL (English as a second language) teacher. ESL teachers specialize in working with ELL (English language learner) students.

Typically, ESL teachers have an academic background in education and an advanced certificate that qualifies them to teach English to non-native speakers. One example of these advanced certificates is the TESOL certificate. What is a TESOL certificate? This guide will walk you through the fundamentals. 

What Is a TESOL Certificate? (An Overview)

TESOL is an acronym that stands for teaching English to speakers of other languages. It is a qualification and a certificate that designates a teacher as having competencies in working with students who do not speak English as their native tongue. TESOL is also the organization that works to establish best practices in this subfield of education. 

Aside from the question, “What is a TESOL certificate?” another common question that aspiring teachers have is whether the TESOL will prepare them to teach adults or children. The answer is: both. You do not need a separate certificate or other credential to teach either audience, as the TESOL certificate will enable you to teach both of them.

It is not uncommon for a professional certificate to expire and require renewal periodically. However, this is not the case for the TESOL certificate. Although ESL teachers are strongly encouraged to continually refine their skills and pursue professional development opportunities, they do not need to renew their TESOL certificate.

What Does It Mean To Be TESOL Certified?

Differences Between TESOL, TESL and TEFL Certificates

Now that you know the answer to the question, “What is a TESOL certificate?” it is time to take a closer look at other similar certificates out there. There are three main certificates for ESL teachers: TESOL, TESL and TEFL. Aspiring ESL teachers are often confused about which certificates they should choose. They may even wonder whether they need all three of them in order to be an effective teacher.

The good news is that you definitely do not need three ESL certificates—just one should suffice. The one you should choose depends on your specific career goals. Take a look at the differences between the TESOL, TESL and TEFL to determine which one would best meet your goals. 

  • TEFL certificate – The TEFL acronym stands for teaching English as a foreign language. TEFL is the most widely recognized of all ESL certificates. It equips ESL teachers to work in countries where English is not a native language. 
  • TESL certificate – The TESL acronym stands for teaching English as a second language. It is ideal for teachers who intend to teach ELL students living in countries where English is a native language. 
  • TESOL certificate – The TESOL certificate is a relative newcomer to the ESL teaching subfield. It is a hybrid certificate that blends together elements of the TEFL and TESL certificate courses. This means that TESOL certificate graduates are equipped to teach ELL students in both native and non-native English-speaking countries.

In short, the primary way to determine which certificate you should earn is to consider where you would like to teach. If you would like to teach ELL students in the U.S., Australia, Canada, the U.K., or any other country where English is spoken as a native language, then you should earn the TESL. If you are thinking of living and working in a country where English is not spoken as a native tongue, then you should earn the TEFL.

The TESOL certificate provides a more flexible option for aspiring ESL teachers. If you are not quite sure where you would like to teach, the TESOL is a good choice for you. Even if you think you already know whether you would like to teach either domestically or internationally, you may still want to earn the TESOL just in case you change your mind later on.

What Are the Basic Principles of Teaching English Learners?

As previously mentioned, TESOL is both a certificate and an organization that promotes best practices in English language education. All teachers working with English learners can benefit from actively embracing these best practices and incorporating them into their professional endeavors. The six principles established by the TESOL International Association for teachers of PK-12 students are as follows: 

  • Make an effort to better understand your students: ESL teachers are strongly advised to develop an understanding of their students’ cultures, languages, families and educational competencies. This helps to ensure that ESL teachers can effectively engage their students in the classroom and adapt lesson plans as needed. 
  • Establish a classroom culture that is conducive to learning: Classroom culture is crucial, and students of all cultures and backgrounds should feel safe and comfortable. 
  • Focus on high-quality lessons: ESL teachers should design lessons to fit learning objectives. All lessons should strategically enable students to refine their critical thinking skills and language knowledge. 
  • Make adaptations as needed, guided by students’ needs: ELL students of various cultural backgrounds and language competencies may either struggle with their lessons or not be sufficiently challenged by them. It is imperative that ESL teachers continuously assess their students to determine when to adapt lessons to meet their students’ individual needs. Although the TESOL International Association does not specifically say so, lesson adaptation is particularly important for ESL teachers working with ELL students with special needs. 
  • Continuously assess and gather student data: Even if two students have a similar cultural background and language competencies, they will naturally learn at different paces. Continual language development assessments are needed in order to advance the learning of each student. 
  • ESL teachers should commit to ongoing professional development: Long after an ESL teacher earns their TESOL or other certificate, they must continue to engage and collaborate in their community of teachers, and to look for ways of improving their practices.

Do ESL Teachers Need to Be Bilingual?

Many qualified teachers hesitate to undertake a TESOL certificate program because they are not bilingual, or they aren’t confident in their second language proficiency. You should know that it is not necessary to be bilingual in order to become an ESL teacher.

This is because the most efficient way of learning a second language is via the immersion method. In the full immersion method, the teacher speaks only in the language that the students are learning. The teacher also requires the students to speak in that language. How exactly does this work?

Quite simply, it is because the more exposure a student has to a language, the better the student is able to learn it. Full immersion teachers rely on other communication aids to improve understanding. For example, a teacher who is discussing vocabulary for food items might use a colorful chart that displays pictures of various foods. Hand gestures can indicate which food item the teacher is discussing at any given time.

Similarly, a teacher might point to a student’s red shoes to explain that “red shoes” is the same as “souliers rouge.” Then, the teacher might point to another student’s red backpack and say “red backpack” so the students understand that “red” means the same thing as “rouge.”

Essentially, the full immersion method is a bit like learning how to ride a bike without first using training wheels. It may seem overwhelming at first, but it is a very effective way to accelerate student progress.

Although the full immersion method means that ESL teachers do not need to be bilingual, it is still helpful for these professionals to learn another language. Even if the teacher communicates with students only in English, the process of learning another language will provide the teacher with keen insights about the learning process and how best to assist students. Additionally, if you intend on teaching English in a country where English is not spoken as a native language, learning the native tongue will enable you to more easily live and work in that country.

How To Become an ESL Teacher

All aspiring ESL teachers must first earn an undergraduate education degree. Earning a degree in English language education (for English speaking students) is a natural fit for a future ESL teacher, although there is some flexibility here. Then, you will need to acquire a license to teach from the applicable state board of education. 

It is a good idea to gain some practical experience as a teacher in an English-speaking classroom. You will learn the fundamentals of classroom management and methods of keeping students engaged and motivated.

Then, if you would like to teach ESL students in a higher education setting, you will need to earn at least a master’s degree in education. This can qualify you to teach at community colleges. You may need to earn a doctoral degree if you would like to teach at larger universities.

The last hurdle is to successfully complete a TESOL certificate program. After you pass your certificate exam, you’ll be qualified to work with ELL students. 

Earning Your TESOL Certificate

The average TESOL certificate program consists of 120 to 140 hours of instruction. It may be an in-person or online course. A TESOL certificate program will generally cover the following areas: 

  • The evaluation and comparison of current language models and the theories, methodologies and practices of language learning 
  • Culturally responsive instruction methods and instructional materials 
  • The structures and methods of conducting ELL student assessments and how to apply findings from those assessments to adapt the learning materials and lesson plans as needed 
  • The psychosocial, emotional and cognitive needs of ELL students with special needs 
  • The fundamentals of linguistics, including an examination of phonology, morphology, semantics, pragmatics, syntax, historical linguistics, sociolinguistics and second language acquisition theories

You can expect your TESOL certificate program to be an intensive educational journey. Although future ESL teachers can typically earn their certificate while working, be sure that you will be able to appropriately balance your work and educational obligations. If you are currently teaching, you may wish to enroll in a certificate program that takes place during the summer.

Deciding Whether To Teach at Home or Abroad

After you have earned your TESOL certificate and you are fully qualified to pursue an ESL teaching job, you will need to decide exactly where you would like to teach. If you have an adventurous spirit and you have been bitten by the travel bug, then making this decision should be easy. You will likely want to teach in another country, possibly in one where English is not the native language.

There is a high demand for English language teachers abroad, particularly in Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam, as well as in Latin American countries. Note that ESL teachers applying to jobs in Asian countries can typically be hired with a phone interview, whereas Latin American employers often prefer to schedule face-to-face interviews.

If you are on the fence about whether you would like to teach in the U.S. or abroad, you could try dipping your toe in the water. Look for a teaching job in an English-speaking country like Australia, Canada or New Zealand. That would allow you to explore another land and culture, yet still feel relatively at home.

Is There a Demand for ESL Teachers?

There is a strong demand for ESL teachers both in the U.S. and around the world. As of September 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that, “despite declining employment, 5,100 openings are projected for adult basic and secondary education and ESL teachers each year, on average, over the decade” (from 2020 to 2030). “All of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.”1 This is on top of the job openings for ESL teachers who specialize in working with children and teens as well as those who work in other countries around the world.

Qualified educators of ELL students may also have additional opportunities in the digital sphere. Thanks to technology, digital learning is more popular than ever. It is possible to teach a classroom of students virtually from anywhere in the world and there may also be opportunities available for ESL teachers who are interested in one-on-one tutoring work.

Grand Canyon University’s College of Education offers a variety of undergraduate programs that lead to teacher licensure, including the Graduate Certificate of Completion in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Click on Request Info at the top of your page to learn more about your options at GCU. 


1COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Adult Basic and Secondary Education and ESL Teachers.

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.