Teaching English as a second language: How to get started

Teaching English as a second language: How to get started

by Laura Jones

Updated August 16, 2022

Wondering how you can get a job teaching English as a second language? If you’ve always wanted a job that allows you to travel, live in another country and truly immerse yourself in the culture, teaching English abroad is a way to do that. After completing a course, you’ll have your pick of jobs with English schools all over the globe that are constantly looking for teachers. Let’s talk about how to teach English as a second language.

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What’s the difference between TESL and TEFL?

We’ll start by looking at the acronyms, which can be confusing.TESL stands for Teaching English as a Second Language, and it refers to teaching programs in English-speaking countries for students whose first language isn’t English. TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language and it refers to programs in countries where the primary language isn’t English. TESOL–Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages–is an umbrella term for both. Be aware that the terms are often used interchangeably. 

How do I become an ESL teacher?

You will need some education to become an ESL teacher. In most countries, a bachelor’s degree plus a TEFL certificate is required. If you have a teaching degree, you might not need the TEFL certificate, though it would be a good idea to do at least a short course to become familiar with some teaching techniques. The courses can range from a quick weekend course to a one-month-long intensive session or even a master’s degree

You don’t need to be a native English speaker to become an ESL teacher, especially if you want to teach in your own country. However, many employers prefer native speakers or can only issue visas to people from certain countries, so if you didn’t grow up in an English-speaking country, you might find fewer job opportunities available to you. 

Which certificate is best for teaching English?

The most widely recognized teaching English as a second language certification is the Cambridge CELTA. It’s also the most expensive, and it costs around $2,800 in the US. Its equivalent, the Trinity CertTESOL, is also a popular choice and, if you want to have the widest choice of jobs, particularly in Europe or the Middle East, it’s a good idea to go for one of these two certificates. It’s also the best certificate if you want to teach abroad long-term and make TEFL a career. 

However, there are plenty of cheaper options that you can do over a weekend or online that will also qualify you for jobs, especially in many parts of Asia. The courses offered by the International TEFL Academy and i-to-i are well respected. Once you have some experience under your belt, the certificate will matter less. 

If you want to focus on TESL and teach, for example, in the US, you should look at individual countries’ requirements for teaching there. 

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Is teaching English as a second language easy?

Imagine entering a classroom of forty 13-year-olds who’ve already done a full day of school. They don’t speak a lot of your language and you don’t speak any of theirs, and your task is to get them engaged in grammar activities. Does that sound easy? Just like for any other teacher, learning classroom management techniques is essential to being good at teaching ESL. 

Don’t let us put you off, though. ESL teachers often have much smaller groups than normal teachers and many of the students will be adults. Once you’ve learned to grade your language, you’ll have little difficulty communicating with your students. You can choose an age group to focus on too, so if you love working with young children, for example, there are plenty of jobs in kindergartens. 

Where can I teach as an ESL teacher?

You can teach English as a foreign language just about anywhere! Back in 2014, there were an estimated 1.5 billion people learning English and that number has continued to grow since then. China is the largest market for ESL teachers but there are opportunities in almost every country, from Peru to the UAE to Vietnam. The demand for teachers in countries like the US, Canada, and the UK is also strong thanks to international students and immigration. 

If you’re hoping to make big bucks, you’ll want to head to the Middle East, especially Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but you’ll need some experience to get the highest salaries. Several other Asian countries are also competitive money-wise, including China and South Korea, where the benefits and the low cost of living mean teachers can save a lot. You can also teach online with a range of companies, including Lingoda

Are you going to become an ESL teacher?

Are you ready to take the next step toward teaching English as a second language? If so, your first task is to decide where you want to teach and then find the right course to take. Once you’re qualified, the world truly is your oyster and you’ll be able to make money while traveling the globe. 

Learn languages at your pace


Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

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