What is an English Language Assistant (ELA)?

With TEFL, we talk so much about diving right into teaching. Whether it’s teaching abroad, teaching online, private tutoring or dealing with big classes – the focus is very much on the idea of getting a qualification. Then, it’s about immediately getting into the classroom, virtual or otherwise, and teaching English as a foreign language.

What if there was a step between being TEFL certified and being a bona fide teacher? It’s in that space where English Language Assistants come to the fore, and their usefulness is hugely underrated.

If you went to school, you’ll know the role that classroom assistants have. A bridge between the pupil and the teacher, assistants can be of immense value, especially in bigger classes where the teacher’s attention is needed elsewhere.

This is particularly true in language learning. It’s extremely common for learning assistants to come to schools in the UK and in North America from Germany, France, Italy or Spain, to authentically assist pupils in learning a second, or even third, language.

The same is true for learning English. Even the best language teachers in the world mightn’t have the instinctual fluency of a native or native-level speaker from a certain country. Classroom assistants, or ELAs as we’ll call them in this article, can be of immense value.

It’s an avenue that many might not realise is available, and as a way to get into TEFL, it’s hard to beat.

So, how does one become an ELA? What are the pros and cons, how easy is it to arrange, and what are the lasting benefits? 

Let’s have a look!

Why become an English language assistant?

There are lots of good reasons to become an English language assistant. The most compelling one is that simply put, it’s a fun experience. Fundamentally, you don’t have the pressure of being a teacher, but you do get to build your skills in a classroom setting. 

However, there are some more concrete reasons to take up the ELA role.

Experience a new culture

Being an ELA means moving from home and embarking on a teaching journey wherever you want to go in the world.

That’s exciting in itself. It’s also really useful if you have teaching aspirations. Seeing how other schooling systems, syllabi and lesson plans work can spark ideas that you can use during your career.

During your downtime, you can explore a brand new place, get to grips with local culture, and pursue a well-rounded and engaging social life. It sounds idyllic; it can be just that.

Develop transferable skills

Before being a teacher outright, ELA experience can mould some of the most important transferable skills.

Take, for example, some basics – awareness of a different culture, problem-solving, time management and communication. These are skills applicable to any career or lifestyle.

Specific to teaching, presentation skills honed during an ELA tenure can set you up well for the future. Being able to think creatively, and encourage the same in your students, is also a major boost. 

Whatever you end up doing after being an ELA, there are priceless skills and experiences on offer if you become an English Learning Assistant. You can’t knock that!

A male teacher smiling at the front of a classroom

Learn a new language

Teaching languages abroad is a two-way street.

If you’re somewhere new, your language skills should – theoretically – improve from day-to-day interactions and experiences. However, in a classroom environment, where you’re the native or native-level English speaker, you’ll be outnumbered!

So, soaking up a new culture will inherently help you improve in a second, third or tertiary language. Combining that with a classroom environment will absolutely help, especially in regards to local slang and dialect.

It won’t just be students learning, that’s for sure.

What an ELA does

If it sounds good so far, you’re not wrong. However, let’s get into specifics. What exactly does an ELA do in a classroom environment?

Perhaps as pertinently, what does an ELA not do? How accountable is an ELA, and where do the boundaries exist between the ELA and the teacher?

Let’s explore the role in more detail.

What’s required from an ELA?

An ELA has a very important role in a classroom. Fundamentally, it’s about giving a flavour of locality and native-level conversational English in a different environment, and being another point of contact for students.

In the main, your primary objective is to support the teaching of English at a school or University. If a pupil needs direct help and a teacher is unavailable or otherwise preoccupied, an ELA plays an important role in providing critical assistance.

Furthermore, with how busy teachers are, an ELA plays an important role in the planning of classes and creating or using alternate resources to enhance the students’ level of English. This could be by utilising English-speaking culture, such as film, television or music. Or, indeed, by using games or songs in English.

In fact, talking of media and culture, an ELA has another impact. It’s not just language; an ELA can impart cultural wisdom while helping to teach English. In a language full of idioms, it can be hard to make sense of expressions and phrases. That’s where you’d come in.

What’s more, an ELA will help support foreign excursions where applicable, while also designing and implementing activities both in and out of the classroom. If a class is able to take a trip to an English-speaking country, then the onus will be on you to provide some local knowledge.

What an ELA doesn’t do

As an ELA you will not be required to teach any subject other than English. Obviously, having some knowledge of the local language will help immediately!

An ELA doesn’t discipline children. That is, very strictly speaking, the job of a language teacher. You’ll need to keep your cool and know that if any children are misbehaving, it isn’t your job to deal with it.

Similarly, you won’t be asked to cover for staff illness. You aren’t a supply teacher, after all; you’re there to help the teacher out.

A female teacher sitting beside a young female student

Where can I be an ELA?

Being an ELA is a popular choice, especially in destinations where English language assistants are in-demand.

Amongst the most popular programmes is Meddeas, a Spanish ELA initiative which provides TEFL training from a Spanish university, classroom time, medical insurance, no fees and a monthly stipend for successful applicants. As ELA programmes go, it’s a particularly good option for those with a wish to explore Spain.

Similarly, the JET Programme in Japan hires ‘Assistant Language Teachers’, who provide a similar role in Japanese schools. JET began in 1978 as an initiative for British English teachers, but has expanded over the decades to take in assistants from nations including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland.

If we’re talking East Asia, we can’t ignore the EPIK programme. If you’ve got a BA degree and at least 100 hours of TEFL training, South Korea offers year-long contracts in schools across the country in order to improve English language teaching for both students and teachers.

In France, TAPIF fulfills a role for English speakers looking for assistant teaching jobs abroad. The Teaching Assistant Program in France – to give its full title – accepts applicants to work in schools across France, or “​​the overseas departments of France such as French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion”.

The British Council also sends willing language assistants worldwide. Their ELA programme has sent thousands of prospective TEFL teachers to 14 different destinations across the globe. It’s paid, too – and you can head out for either 6 months or a year!

The Pros and Cons of being an ELA

So now you know what an ELA does, and where you can go to do it. What are the advantages and disadvantages, then, of being an English Language Assistant, and how will it impact your career in the future?

Pros of being an ELA

Fundamentally, being an ELA is excellent experience for eventually becoming a TEFL teacher. If you like, you can consider it akin to work experience, but you’re paid to do it, and it allows you to travel the world.

The travel element is another clear advantage of the ELA experience. If you’ve successfully applied for a programme which covers travel expenses, then all the better. Typically, you’ll work 12 to 20 hours a week as an ELA, giving you ample time to explore your surroundings.

Furthermore, the ELA is excellent for your CV. An ELA placement means you’re already familiar with classrooms abroad, you’re more than willing to relocate, and you’ve got a clear understanding of the responsibilities a TEFL teacher has.

It’s a great way to make contacts in the TEFL world. A good experience with a company and a school means you have tangible links for when it’s time to apply for TEFL jobs. At the very least, a recommendation from a good school will send you on your way. In the best case scenario, you’ll eventually return to the school where you had such fun, and work there permanently.

Also, it’s largely cost-effective to be an ELA. Generally speaking, ELAs are paid, and while you won’t be competing against Richard Branson for a private island, you’ll surely be well-compensated in most ELA roles. That means the overheads aren’t nearly as expensive as they would be for a volunteering role, for example.

Cons of being an ELA

Like everything else, though, there are draw-backs to the ELA experience.

Primarily, it’s not a teaching job. ELAs are enormously useful to teachers, and a great resource to English learners. However, as previously explored, your duties and responsibilities aren’t the same as a TEFL teacher’s. 

Therefore, being an ELA doesn’t give you the same level of experience as jumping straight into teaching. For example, a volunteer teaching role will probably prepare you as well, if not better, than being a classroom assistant. 

Also, it might be cost-effective but there are still expenses. Countries have their own licenses and regulations in terms of child protection, so you’ll probably need to apply for and purchase the rights to a child protection certificate. Travel insurance is unlikely to be covered, and though your flights might be reimbursed, it does mean you’ll more than likely have to pay for them in the first instance.

Then, factor in cost of living and whether your wages (if applicable) from being an ELA stretch far enough.

Is the ELA experience right for you?

All things considered, you’re far more likely to find someone who’d wax lyrical about the ELA experience than anyone who’d warn against it.

It might not be direct teaching experience. However, being paid to travel abroad and take part in the learning experience of tens, even hundreds of kids? That’s valuable for your CV, and it shows how willing you are to make a career in TEFL.

Having TEFL certification is a major plus – in fact, it might be a deal-breaker for several programmes – so be sure to find out what each programme or school requires in advance. However, if you have all the right certificates, and you want to earn an income while learning the ropes, the ELA experience is hard to beat.

Whether it’s Spain, Japan, France or elsewhere, former ELAs have gone on to long and exciting careers in TEFL teaching. 

It’s an exciting avenue for the intrepid explorer, and a great way to learn a language, develop transferable skills, and build a fantastic CV.

Find out more about the different types of English language teaching jobs out there.

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