How to Teach English As a Second Language

Learn about the qualifications, training, job duties and requirements to become a teacher of English as a second language to determine if this is the career for you.

You may speak perfect English, but that doesn't qualify you to teach someone else how to speak it. Training to teach English as a Second Language, or ESL, comprises up to five steps, depending on where you want to work and how much education you wish to pursue. The more training you complete, the more jobs will be open to you in this field.

Essential Information

Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) refers to the instruction of English to people whose native language is not English. ESL teachers work in schools, language institutions or independently with youth and adult learners to improve their English language skills. Qualifications for becoming a teacher of ESL vary by state and job type, but minimum requirements generally include a bachelor's degree and an ESL certificate.

Required Education Bachelor's or master's degree*
Other Requirements ESL certification*

Source: *ESL

Step 1: Earning a Bachelor's Degree

A 4-year bachelor's degree is generally the minimum level of education required for ESL teaching positions in the United States. Bachelor degree programs in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) are uncommon, but available, as are degrees in English, education or linguistics with a concentration in teaching ESL.

While these degrees may better prepare students for ESL teaching careers, students with undergraduate degrees in any major are eligible to earn ESL teaching certification. Students are encouraged to complete coursework in a language other than English in preparation for teaching ESL.

Step 2: Earning ESL Certification

Candidates with ESL certification typically find jobs teaching in private schools, language institutes and academies. Some do freelance work, teaching one-on-one conversation classes or business English in offices.

ESL teachers who work in private schools or language institutions must hold an English teaching certificate, such as TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certificates. Independent certificate programs generally require 2-6 weeks of full-time work, but may demand up to 15 weeks. Program coursework covers teaching methods and lesson planning, as well as a teaching practicum, in which students are supervised and evaluated in a classroom setting.

While many independent certificate programs do not require a bachelor's degree, most public and private schools in the U.S. and abroad prefer ESL teachers with a degree. Independent certificate programs may be completed at a language school in the U.S. or in another country. Certificate programs offered at a college or university are typically offered through continuing education departments or as part of a master's degree program in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages).

Step 3: Earning State Teaching Certification

Many public schools employ ESL teachers to work with elementary and secondary school students who speak a language other than English at home. To work in a public school, candidates must go through the teaching certification process established by the state department of education certification board.

Teaching certification requirements vary by state. However, in general, candidates must complete an accredited teacher education program, earn a minimum of a bachelor's degree in a related field and pass required testing, which commonly includes the Basic Skills Test. Once these requirements are met, an aspiring ESL teacher must pass the ESL subject test to receive ESL teaching certification.

Step 4: Earning a Master's Degree

According to TESOL, Inc. (, most ESL teaching positions in public schools and higher education require a master's degree in TESOL or a relevant field, such as English or linguistics. A master's degree program typically takes two years to complete. Students spend part of this time observing teachers in classrooms and gaining practical teaching experience. Master's programs also prepare students to pursue research through a doctoral program.

Qualifications for entering a TESOL graduate program vary by state. Students must hold a bachelor's degree and may be required to take the GRE or Praxis I exam. Like undergraduate programs, most require native English speakers to be competent in another language. International students need a passing score on the TOEFL and may use English to satisfy the second language requirement. In addition, some graduate programs require candidates to have classroom experience with K-12 students.

Step 5: Gaining Teaching Experience

Many schools and language institutes prefer to hire candidates with prior teaching experience. Students in an ESL or related degree program may find volunteer opportunities in social service organizations or summer jobs working as an English tutor. Others gain teaching experience by completing an internship either domestically or abroad. Students in an internship take on teaching responsibilities that include managing and teaching a class on their own and assisting other teachers. Internships may also satisfy experience requirements for ESL certification or licensure.

You'll need at least bachelor's degree in order to teach ESL in the U.S. and in most places abroad. An ESL teaching certification will allow you to work at private schools and language institutes, but a state teaching certificate with concentration in ESL permits you to work in public schools as well. A master's degree and some practical teaching experience (through an internship or tutoring) can open doors to an ESL job in higher education.

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