A Very Simple Guide to Teaching Certifications for ESL
teaching esl advert
A typical advert.

You might have seen those ads on Facebook and Instagram promising you can get paid to travel the world. They show exotic locations like Thailand and Japan, and the pictures are filled with smiling locals and beautiful beaches. It sounds too good to be true, right?

But it isn’t. For people of all backgrounds, this exciting life is a reality. The job is called ESL, which stands for English as a Second Language, and it’s a booming industry right now. All over the world, people are eager to learn the new global language. This means there is plenty of money to be made, and countless locations where you can go and do the job.

But how do you get into ESL? How does someone set off on that path to being a teacher?

What Do Those Acronyms Mean?!

The logical place to start, I think, is with teaching certifications. It might surprise you to learn that having a teaching certificate is not always necessary for working in ESL… but it usually is, and it is certainly recommended. In this article I will give you a basic overview of certifications.

Below, I’ve included a list of the most well-known certifications, their acronyms, and their general purpose. I hope it cuts through the noise as you think about teaching English abroad.

  • TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language – This is the most common and basic certification, and it pretty much opens up the world to any native English speaker.
  • TESL/TESOL – Teaching English as a Second Language/Teaching English as a Second or Other Language – This is essentially the same as above. TEFL can be used more or less interchangeably with TESL/TESOL.
  • CELTA – Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults – Like the certifications before this one requires intensive training, and is recognized the world over. However, if you want to teach children, it’s best to stick with either the TEFL or TESL/TESOL certifications, or, if possible, find an institution that offers CELT-P, with the P referring to “primary”.
  • DELTA – Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults – We’ve included this certification here as you may see it when job searching. However, DELTA requires teachers have at least one year of teaching experience before taking the course for certification. It is a step above CELTA.
  • Others – Local teaching qualifications, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree from your home country (for example, PGCE in the UK), are seldom required, but will greatly improve your career prospects. You may be able to seek higher salaries, or apply to more prestigious schools if you possess one of these. Of course, while the above take only a few days or months to complete, a postgraduate qualification will take at least a year of full-time study.

Let’s take a moment to explore these terms a little further.

TEFL/TESL/TESOL

teaching english advert
Another typical advert.

As mentioned above, these terms are pretty much interchangeable. A language teacher may focus on the subtle differences between them but for all intents and purposes they are the same.

There is no official TEFL agency, and the certificates that are handed out by different organizations are therefore not necessarily equal. It may be tempting, therefore, to simply look up a cheap TEFL course on Google and then hope that it’s really easy to pass. (Most of them are, in fact, very easy.)

Most employers and government agencies don’t really care about whether a TEFL certificate was earned from one organization or another. However, there are some that are undoubtedly more valuable than others. For example, the CertTESOL from London’s Trinity College is going to appeal more to prospective employers than a 120-hour online course from a company few people have ever heard of…

Yes, that’s right. You can earn a qualification with as little as 120 hours’ study. And, to be honest, you could probably do it with much less than that. The 120-hour TEFL certification, available from numerous companies, is the absolute most basic certificate a prospective teacher would consider, and can be done entirely online. It usually includes documents for reading, videos on teaching methods, and a few tests and essays. There is no hands-on teaching experience, and so teachers may feel a bit unprepared after they have finished the course and received their certificate. However, it is certainly the quickest and easiest way to get accredited.

CELTA and DELTA

While TEFL, TESL, and TESOL are all pretty interchangeable, the CELTA is different. It is generally preferred because it is administered by Cambridge, and thus has far higher standards than the others, but it is also more expensive and takes longer to complete, at several thousand dollars and about one month of intensive study. This makes it slightly more exclusive, although it is worth much less than a postgraduate degree.celta logo

Teachers who study CELTA generally learn far more than those who do an online TEFL course, and so even though CELTA refers specifically to teaching adults, it may also help you find jobs teaching children. Having a CELTA on your CV makes you stand out above most other candidates for a job, and so if you can afford the cost and have the time, it opens up far greater opportunities.

The DELTA is a step above the CELTA, and while absolute newbies can join a CELTA course, generally the DELTA requires previous qualifications and experience in order to be accepted. It is also much harder, takes about three months to do, and has a very high failure rate. Given that some universities around the world offer MA courses for similar prices, which can be done as distance learning courses, and the fact that these MA degrees are worth much more to employers, many people view the DELTA as not particularly worthwhile.

Other Qualifications

Obviously, having a specific educational degree and/or training in your home country is a massive advantage in getting an ESL job. If you have a postgraduate degree in education or any area of education, you will find it no problem to get a high-paying job in most parts of the world.

At minimum, however, most schools and governments require ESL teachers to have a BA (bachelor’s degree) from any school in a native English-speaking country. Even if it is totally unrelated to education, it shows that you are an educated person, and that you are able to learn the basics of teaching. Many countries require this in order to give you a visa.

Note: Some countries require that you have your degree notarized in order to prove its authenticity, as some people attempt to get ESL jobs by using fake degrees.

TEFL Certification and Work Programs

Although it is most common for people to get a TEFL or CELTA certificate and then search for jobs (we’ll come to that later in the book), there are many programs out there that will help you do both. If you’ve got your university degree, you can apply for a short program, usually about 4-weeks, to work toward and receive your certification. Every program offers either a job upon “graduation” or gives significant assistance in helping you find work in your chosen country. Many programs offer immediate access to teaching, as they have partnerships with a number of local institutions.

If you haven’t already seen the advertisements on social media and the various online jobs boards, just Google “teaching English abroad” (or similar terms), and you’ll be inundated with possibilities. Ultimately, you want to be able to make a living while teaching abroad, as well as experience another culture, so it’s in your best interest to focus your efforts on tried and true programs. Do some research to find out if the company is reliable or not.

Below is a short list of programs which offer training, certification, and job assistance. The first company, known as ITTT, is probably the most reputable.

Head Teacher
I'm the founder and editor of Beatdom Literary Journal, author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. I'm also a teacher and operate the popular website, TED-IELTS.

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