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How to Become an ESL Teacher: Step-by-Step Guide

Learn how to become an ESL teacher. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start an ESL teacher career.

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Do I Want to Be an ESL Teacher?

English as a second language (ESL) teachers instruct students whose first language isn't English, in reading, writing and conversing effectively. These professionals are also sometimes called English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teachers. These teachers approach English skills from a real-life perspective, often focusing on conversational and job-related communication skills. They can help students function in an environment built upon the English language, or they may work abroad to introduce students to English. Travel may be required, and teachers might need an abundance of patience when working with students who may become frustrated when trying to learn an unfamiliar language.

Job Requirements

In most cases, a bachelor's degree and teacher certification are required. The table below outlines the main requirements needed to become an ESL teacher:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree*
Degree Field English as a second language or adult education*
Licensure/Certification Teaching license required*
Experience Teaching experience is helpful when looking for work*
Key Skills Excellent communication skills, patience, ability to relate to students of diverse backgrounds*
Computer Skills Knowledge of computer-based training software, desktop publishing software, Microsoft Excel**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net Online.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree is the minimum educational requirement for a professional ESL teacher. Most workers earn degrees in education, English, writing or teaching English as a foreign language. Students may also earn education degrees that come with a bilingual concentration. Applicable coursework includes using technology to teach, motivating adult learners, working with learning disabilities, developing lesson plans and teaching diverse cultures.

Success Tip:

  • Learn a second language. While being fluent in a language other than English is not necessary for employment as an ESL teacher, it is useful to have foreign language skills for this job. Training specific to acquiring a second language may be earned through certificate, undergraduate and graduate programs.

Step 2: Obtain ESL Training

Upon completion of a bachelor's degree, aspiring ESL teachers typically must complete an ESL training program. For example, a certificate program in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) can provide the basic skills needed to teach ESL and attain licensure. Individuals will learn how to assess students' language skills, teach grammar lessons and practice conversational skills. While many certificate programs do not require prior teaching experience, some ESL certificate programs are designed for working teachers who have already earned their teaching licenses.

Step 3: Get Licensed

Like other teachers, an ESL instructor needs a teaching license (sometimes called certification) to work professionally. Requirements vary by state and internationally, so it's beneficial for aspiring ESL teachers to research the steps necessary to teach in a specific geographic area. Common requirements include holding a bachelor's degree and completing an approved teacher training program. Some states have specific license requirements for adult education teachers, which an ESL teacher might fall under. Aspiring teachers may also need to pass a teaching test and a background check.

Step 4: Gain Experience

ESL teachers may apply for employment in diverse learning environments, such as elementary and high schools, international education programs, intensive English language programs, adult schools, community colleges and corporations. ESL teachers with prior experience are particularly sought after, especially for overseas jobs. Patience, empathy and a desire to work in a multicultural environment are also essential for working as an ESL instructor, and experience can help workers sharpen these skills.

Success Tip:

  • Consider a master's degree. Licensed ESL teachers who want to increase their employment opportunities might consider earning a graduate degree in ESL or teaching English as a second language (TESL). Classes can include a number of research seminars and cover topics like linguistics, literacy development and academic English. The program often ends with the completion of an original thesis.
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