The beginner’s guide to TEFL

The beginner’s guide to TEFL

There’s never a bad time to think about what you want in life. Maybe you’ve thought about changing careers, travelling abroad, finding happiness or something broader, like living in the moment and embracing new challenges.

Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL), then, ought to fit the bill. See, TEFL really is for anyone with enthusiasm and passion for English and teaching. At the very least, it’s a chance to test yourself, try new, exciting challenges and see another part of the world - or meet people from all over, online.

At best, it’s a lifelong vocation, a chance to see all the planet has to offer, and to inspire generations of learners. We know graduates from The TEFL Org who have turned reluctant English learners into star pupils, who go into business, academia and all kinds of other worthy careers. 

So, what is TEFL, how does one become a TEFL teacher, and where should someone with a TEFL certificate teach? Let’s dive right in. 

What is TEFL?

What is it all about?

Teaching English as a foreign language is self-explanatory. You’re teaching English to people who don’t speak the language as their native tongue, whether that’s as a second, third, or another language. You might also see TEFL referred to as “TESOL”, “TESL”, or “ESL”, which all generally refer to the same thing. Essentially, no matter the acronym, the message is the same: you’re teaching English to people who don’t naturally speak it.

That means essentially deconstructing your own understanding of English and teaching it as a brand new skill-set. We’re talking verbs, tenses, adjectives, and nouns. Sentence structure, paragraphs, phrasing, formal and informal English, colloquialism - you name it, you’ll be teaching it.

You don’t have to be a “native” speaker of English to teach it, either, as we’ll get to. The essential traits needed to get into TEFL are motivation and fluency. 

A woman wearing a backpack at a train station

What do you need to TEFL?

The primary thing you’ll need to be a TEFL teacher is, naturally, a TEFL qualification. In the past, these used to be the reserve of elite institutions, with the CELTA and DELTA qualifications leading the way.

Nowadays, that isn’t the case. High-quality TEFL qualifications are available online as well as in the classroom, meaning that you can study at your pace.

The industry standard

The industry standard TEFL qualification - as in, the one that’ll get you job interviews - is a 120-hour certificate . Why 120 hours? Employers judge that as a baseline for how long a prospective teacher ought to spend learning their craft. A good 120-hour course should give you a grounding in methodology, approaches to different groups of learners, a refresher in the English language (specifically grammar, phrasing, punctuation, tenses and other fundamentals) and demonstrations of good practice.

Advanced TEFL 

To find a niche within the TEFL job market, it might be worthwhile to take up an Advanced TEFL course . Courses that focus on areas of TEFL such as teaching young learners and business English are very useful for your CV, especially if you’re looking to hone a particular craft within the English teaching industry. In general, it’s never a bad idea to add something specific to your skill set, and it makes employers particularly interested in you if they know you can add something extra to a job role.

Do I need a degree to be a TEFL teacher?

You don’t need a degree to do a TEFL course. A degree may come in handy when it comes to finding teaching jobs, especially in countries with stricter immigration legislation. However, to become a TEFL teacher, you don’t need an undergraduate degree.

You don’t need to be in your early 20s, either, despite some lazy stereotypes. While being a worthy gap year pursuit, TEFL isn’t just a young person’s game. If you’ve come to a standstill in your career, you want a change of scenery or you’re considering retirement, TEFL might just be the best option for you. While some countries do have upper age limits on people wanting to move to teach English, the online world and much of the physical world welcome people from all walks of life.

Similarly, you don’t have to be a native English speaker to take a TEFL course, nor to teach English. Anyone with a fluent level of English is welcome!

Teaching English abroad

Do you want to teach English abroad? Well, you’re in luck: business is booming around the world. 

It’s surprisingly affordable to pack up and teach English somewhere new. For one thing, many employers will help out with costs, including travel and accommodation - ask during an interview, or review your contract (if offered) to find out whether your prospective employer does this. Furthermore, the cost of living in many countries - at least compared to the UK and USA - is comparatively low, meaning that the actual day-to-day expenses you accrue won’t be quite as hefty.

The biggest demand for English teachers is in China. There are countless schools needing English teachers, with English being the lingua franca of business, and China being an immense economic centre. To this end, it’s not just schools; the majority of English-learning companies are based in China. There are opportunities everywhere: in schools, kindergartens, tutoring adult learners, with companies looking to skill up employers, and the online sphere. 

A woman with her arms up in front of a landscape

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is also a great place to look for jobs. Hong Kong boasts the highest teaching salaries (at the top end of the scale), while Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam have considerable demand for English teachers. Japan and South Korea are immensely popular destinations, and as such, have programmes like JET and EPIK to get you moving. Asia, however, does have stricter entry requirements in the majority of cases, and a university degree might be required. Check out our Teach English Abroad requirements page , specifically the section about Asia, to find out more.

Latin America

Latin American countries remain extremely underrated, and we’re not sure why. For first-time TEFL teachers and experienced educators alike, Central and South America are crammed with fantastic chances to live and work abroad. Colombia is one of our picks for 2024 , and although salaries are on the lower end at £400 – £800/$500 – $1,000 per month (on average), the cost of living negates any concerns you might have about stretching your wages. 

From Mexico to Argentina, schools, universities and businesses are crying out for TEFL-certified teachers to fill vacancies. Entry requirements aren’t quite as strict, in the main, with lots of teachers finding work without a university degree. For more information, we have a Teach English in Latin America page that’s well worth checking out!

The Middle East and Africa

The Middle East is a strong English-teaching market, too. The requirements are stricter, especially in terms of experience and qualifications, but naturally you’ll find some of the world’s most lucrative TEFL salaries in and around the UAE, in nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Mainland Africa has plenty of opportunities, too. South Africa is a great place to travel and work, while Morocco, Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt and more have become more popular TEFL destinations in recent years. For more, read our Teaching English in Africa guide .


Finally, we arrive in Europe . Though English proficiency is considerably high in many large parts of the continent, there are still plenty of jobs going, as well as programmes to entice any budding TEFL star. Spain, for example, has Meddeas and NALCAP , while France welcomes thousands of eager English teachers through TAPIF

Obviously, it’s competitive, and the salaries are extremely variable, but there are plenty of chances to teach English in Europe. In Scandinavian nations, where English is taught from a very young age, teaching assistants and experienced teachers can find work. In mainland Europe, too, there are a range of top universities, international schools and training programmes that are perfect for different kinds of students.

To compare salaries and requirements across different regions, check out our comprehensive Teach English Abroad guide, as well as The TEFL Org Guide to the World , where you can learn about over 70 fantastic TEFL destinations.

Teaching English online

Want to teach English as a foreign language, but set your own hours, salary and workplace? Working online might just be the choice for you.

And when we say “choice”, it’s the operative word. You can choose whether to work for a company within an existing infrastructure or go it alone (or both!). There’s also a movement within the modern working sphere called “Digital Nomadism”, in which people explore the world and move from country to country while working online. For more on becoming a Digital Nomad, check out our guide .

There are myriad online English teaching companies to choose from, and all of them tend to hire readily. The likes of Italki, Preply and Cambly are the industry’s big hitters, but there are so many more to choose from. Feel free to browse our guide to the best online English teaching companies for examples of salary expectations, hours and more.

According to global predictions , the online language-learning market will be worth an incredible $25.73 billion by 2027. This reflects a compound annual growth rate of 10.2% from 2020 to 2027. So if you had any reservations about English teaching online being a cottage industry, worry not!

To get started teaching English online, you’ll need a reliable internet connection, a webcam, a microphone and lesson plans. It’s really that simple. Once you’ve found a job, it’s all about consistency, being adaptable to different time zones (you might have students from the other side of the world!) and conducting yourself in a professional, engaging manner.

For all our info on getting into teaching English online, read our comprehensive guide here .

What kind of demand is there for TEFL?

Numbers aren’t everything, but sometimes they’re a handy barometer. So when we tell you there are approximately 1.5 billion people learning English on Earth, you can get a pretty clear picture of the demand for TEFL teachers.

Yep, it’s that many. China, a country of 1.4 billion people alone, has a massive English teaching industry. Take into account the rest of Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Oceania… you get the idea.

English is the lingua franca of business, which is a huge part of why the language is deemed so necessary worldwide. Of course, there are also huge swathes of the world where English is the national language, or certainly the most widely spoken - Ireland, the USA, Canada, India, and more. These are powerhouse economies, so it’s only natural that the importance of English is understood by countries where other languages are primarily used.

What does this mean for you? Well, we’re not going to say “so you’ve no excuse not finding a job”. However, in terms of finding work, and job security, you’d be hard-pressed to find other industries with the same level of constant demand as TEFL. 

When we say “teaching”, the first thoughts are often about schools and school pupils. Absolutely, jobs in schools are available, and it’s a large part of the story. But it’s not the whole picture. Adult learners, especially those in the business world, are looking for highly-qualified English teachers. In terms of career development, learning another language can make a difference when it’s time to seek a promotion. Consider also hobbyists, adults who want to teach English themselves, and retirees - we’re talking about a whole scope of different people from different age groups and demographics.

In short: the work is there. 

Why should I TEFL?

So, why should you, the person reading this, get into the world of teaching English as a foreign language?

Firstly, it’s challenging. If you’re a native English speaker, a big part of TEFL is being able to deconstruct your own mother tongue and look at the language in a totally different way. The sentence patterns, syntax and grammar come naturally to you, sure, but are you ready to understand why things sound the way they do?

Once you’ve got a course, will you challenge yourself to work online, build a client base and become a successful online English teacher? Or will you up sticks, move abroad to somewhere entirely new and get to grips with in-person teaching? It’s a tough test, but once you’ve done it, you’ll never look back.

A rewarding career

Why’s that? Well, the rewards are incredible. Yes, salaries vary depending on country and you can easily make yourself a nice living. Beyond that, though, it’s your job to inspire and engage with people who want to learn English for all sorts of reasons. Whether it’s kids in school who dream of attending an English-speaking University, or adult learners who want desperately to change their scenery, there are a million motivations to learn the language. Helping them do that is utterly priceless.

What’s more, you can see the world. Very few jobs give you the opportunity to explore pastures new quite like TEFL. Forget the dingy conference rooms and 6-hour train journeys with stale cups of coffee - we mean travelling for work in a more permanent, exciting and rewarding way. 

Going online and unlocking your potential

Or, if you’re online , you can travel the world by proxy. That means engaging with students from across the world, understanding their point of view, what makes them tick, and what’s important to them. Yes, you can teach a litany of students from the comfort of your home, but when you’re teaching them, you’re in their world, and they’re in yours.

TEFL is also a chance to realise your potential. Didn’t think you could travel to a brand new place and hold the attention of 25 schoolkids? You can. Didn’t think you could run your own online business, and build a network of contacts from around the world? Guess what: you can do that, too. It’s not just about the nuts and bolts of English teaching, it’s about learning and achieving, too.

In a funny way, TEFL makes the world both bigger and smaller. Smaller in the sense that you can bring people from all over the world into your experiences, but bigger in the sense that you can be wherever you want to be, and speak to people you might never dreamt of talking to.

So, why should you TEFL? Well, why shouldn’t you?

Find out more about TEFL with our teaching English online and teaching English abroad guides!

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