Becoming an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher might just be the greatest career move you ever make.
In 2022, it’s estimated that 1.35 billion people speak English, with 360 million of those using it as their primary language. That’s a lot of people who need help getting used to pronunciation, verbs, adjectives, nouns, writing and speaking in sentences, and lots more.
Naturally then, with such a huge potential audience, there’s a considerable market for ESL teachers across the world. Whether it’s students trying to get through English lessons at school, those aiming to get into the world of business (where English is widely spoken) or people trying to get to an English-speaking country, there’s a significant need for ESL teachers pretty much everywhere!
How to become an ESL teacher, then? What qualifications does a person need, what age requirements need to be met, what skills are most vital to develop, what employment opportunities are there, and what kind of living can someone make?
Let’s dive into the world of becoming an ESL teacher – how to become an ESL teacher, what it leads to, and just how rewarding a career it is.
What is Teaching English as a Second Language?
On the surface, teaching English as a second language is a pretty self-explanatory concept. You’re teaching English. In many respects, it is that simple.
ESL teachers instruct students who do not speak English as a first language. They conduct lessons and create a stimulating learning environment while considering students’ differences and needs.
For a newcomer though, there’s a lot of industry terminology that can be extremely confusing. What, for example, is the difference between ESL and TEFL? What’s TESOL? And why is it important to know the difference?
Some terms used in the industry are umbrellas for wider concepts. For example, TESOL covers both teaching English as a foreign language, and as a second language. Both might seem interchangeable and they are often used in such a way. However, it’s important to know the differences between the phrases before launching into the world of teaching English abroad.
Here, then, is a guide to the acronyms of the ESL world:
- ESL: English as a Second Language
- TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages – An umbrella term covering both of the next two terms
- TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language – Teaching English in a location where it is not the native language spoken (e.g. teaching English in Spain to Spanish speakers)
- TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language – Teaching English to non-English speakers in a location where English is the native language (e.g. teaching English in America to Spanish immigrants).
- CELTA: Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages – A teaching qualification provided by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES)
- DELTA: Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages – An advanced teaching qualification provided by UCLES
ESL teacher requirements
At this point, it’s important to consider what’s required to make it as an ESL teacher. It’s often advertised as a way to change career and embrace something totally new – but won’t you need a degree in education or some teaching experience to get into the industry?
Well, no. That’s not the case. In fact, there are many cases in which you won’t need any kind of degree at all to become a certified ESL teacher. English language skills, and an enthusiasm for the English language and teaching students are the key building blocks.
What you do need is an ESL qualification – we’ll get to those shortly – and a range of interpersonal and career skills to get you off to a solid grounding in teaching English.
Let’s discuss what’s needed to become an ESL teacher; it might just surprise you!
ESL teaching certificates
To kick-start your ESL adventure and start teaching students, you need a teaching certificate. Not just any teaching certificate will do, though.
The industry standard is an 120-hour qualification. Studying for 120 hours means you’ll be able to get to grips with lesson planning, learn essential theory, be able to co-ordinate a classroom and, crucially, teach all the aspects of English that a learner needs. If you’re unable to commit to a classroom environment and want to work to your own schedule, there are fantastic online courses available for any budding second language teacher.
There are also advanced courses, which take your ESL teaching credentials to the next level. Plenty of English learners are interested in learning Business English, for example, in order to progress their careers – there’s a course for that. In other cases, you might feel you need extra qualifications teaching young learners – there’s a course for that, too. Or, it’s about exam preparation, which many English learners need to either move to an English-speaking country, or get ahead at work, and needless to say, there are extra qualifications for teaching that, too.
There are important things to consider before you start an ESL course. Firstly, are you getting it from an TEFL accreditation provider? There are standards bodies in the ESL industry which will give accreditation to high-quality course providers, such as the DEAC and OFQUAL.
Secondly, what’s affordable? While TEFL certification from Groupon certainly have initial price appeal, they’re rarely accredited, nor do they provide adequate tutor support, materials or curriculum to truly get you where you need to be. They’re also full of hidden costs, including the certificate itself. ESL courses from quality providers can be more on the expensive side, sure – but it’s much better to pay once and be assured of quality than to waste money on something that won’t get you an ESL job.
Reviews and reputation are so important when looking for a quality ESL course. If you want an ESL certification that means something, check out independent review sites such as Trustpilot, where ex-students have reviewed the different courses on offer.
What skills do you need to teach ESL?
An ESL teaching qualification is a necessary start since you’ll need one to access the majority of the English teaching jobs listed above.
However, a recognised ESL certificate isn’t the only thing you should have. You’ll also need to draw on other skills that you will have learned from your ESL course or other employment experience to help you stand out from the crowd, especially when you’re applying for sought-after roles.
In addition to a TEFL certification, here are some “soft skills” that you’ll find indispensable when teaching to ESL learners.
Good Communication Skills
This is the foundation skill that any teacher needs to have, no matter the subject. Teaching is about communicating your knowledge to your students in an effective and learnable manner, so without good communication skills, all your other great attributes as an ESL tutor will fall by the wayside.
Teaching English arguably requires even better communication than other teaching roles. This is not only because your students may come from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, but also because the goal as an ESL teacher is to provide an immersive experience of the language – something which is difficult to do without an excellent grasp of English and the way people use it to express themselves.
As a teacher, nothing will ever go exactly to plan. There’s always going to be something that life throws at you to keep you guessing, so what counts is how you pick up your plan and keep going.
This goes for individual lessons as much as it does for dealing with a new environment, like when relocating overseas to start a new job. If you’re going abroad, you’ll need to acclimate to a wholly different environment from the one you grew up in. Similarly, all students are different, so you’ll need to adapt your approach and your methods as necessary. It’s best to understand which approach fits which situation if you want to achieve the greatest results possible for each student.
Language learning can be a fraught process for both you and your students. You’ll hear your students make lots of mistakes as they go through the learning process.
Some might also not be learning at the same pace as others, and you’ll often find that what’s easy for one person might not be so easy for another. It’s important to keep your cool even when a student’s struggles might be frustrating you.
If one approach isn’t working, a different way of approaching the topic might serve better, or the student might simply need time to process what they’ve just learned. You don’t want to snap or otherwise show a negative reaction to a student, as this can discourage them from learning – this is where patience really is a virtue for an ESL teacher.
Empathy goes hand-in-hand with patience and communication. As soon as you start teaching English classes, you’ll quickly realize that many of your students are struggling with nerves and uncertainty when it comes to learning and speaking in a different language. It can also be difficult for them to understand a different way of thinking when learning English terms, so understanding your students’ challenges will help their learning process go much easier.
Plus, if you can form a connection with your students, they’re more likely to trust you, feel at ease with the learning process, and perform better in their classes. Once you’ve gotten to know them better by building a rapport, you can also better adjust your teaching style to suit their individual learning needs.
A love of learning and sharing knowledge
As an ESL teacher, you’ll probably learn nearly as much from your students as they will from you.
If you love your work, that’ll be reflected in your enthusiasm and the learning environment you create in your classroom, and that’ll make your students all the more eager to learn from you. Once they catch that passion and love of learning and knowledge from you, the job of teaching quickly becomes a lot easier.
Plus, teaching English as a Second Language isn’t always easy – you’ll need to truly be passionate about it to stay dedicated to this line of work, even when you’ve had a tough day or are far from home.
ESL teacher salary
You may love teaching or the English language itself, but even if you’re not looking to earn massive amounts of money, the size of your monthly salary is still a valid concern. No matter what country you’re going to, everyone has to pay bills, eat and generally keep things ticking over.
Of course, your wages will depend on precisely where you’re working. We’re going to look at our two main prospects, teaching abroad and teaching online, to see what factors will affect how much you can expect to earn as an ESL teacher.
While exact amounts will vary depending on your specific job placement, here are some general guidelines to help you get an idea for ESL salaries in various roles:
ESL teacher salary abroad
When you’re teaching English as a Second Language in a foreign country, your rate of pay will depend on where you’re teaching, your qualifications, and your experience. The good news is that, for the most part, as an ESL teacher, your pay will be good enough to live comfortably on, as salaries are typically adjusted to reflect the cost of living in the destination country.
Still, you should always compare the offer with the usual cost of living in that country to see the actual worth of your salary.
Your qualifications and experience will also affect how much you’ll be paid. The major factor here is ESL teaching experience. Experience in teaching other subjects may help you get considered above other applicants with no experience at all, but your prospective workplace will want to know just how good you are at teaching English, and pay you accordingly based on proven track record.
Other qualifications that can affect your pay include your degree and the quality of your ESL qualification. If you have a Bachelor’s degree and the industry standard 120 certificate hours, your earning potential can be higher than someone with only one or the other.
ESL wages online
These days, English teaching online is a viable and potentially lucrative career, and you have several options available to you. Therefore, your salary depends on how you go about teaching online, such as whether you’ll work for an online teaching company or work as a freelance English tutor.
If you’re going with an online teaching company, it’s pretty similar to an in-person ESL teaching job. Some, like VIPKID, assign you groups of students to teach in a virtual classroom setting, and even provide detailed curriculums and teaching materials for you to follow in your lessons. Others, like Cambly, let you teach purely one-on-one sessions, and you can either use their library of English teaching materials, or create your own lesson plans as you go. The pay varies per platform and depending on your level of experience, but generally starts at around $10/hour.
However, going freelance may also be an attractive prospect. Not only will you be able to charge your own rates (typically from around $25/hour) and set your own hours, but you’ll also have a better capacity to tailor your lessons to your students. Plus, the startup costs are fairly low.
Consider which avenue is better suited to your preferences before you decide to start teaching English as Second Language online. Working as a freelancer means you can potentially earn a higher hourly rate, but it may also be more difficult to find students, meaning you could end up working fewer hours per day and earning less overall.
Above all, don’t forget to consider your living expenses. If you’re going full-time, your total teaching rate will have to be enough to cover all your living needs. You might not instantly get enough students to achieve that rate when you’re just starting out, but it’s important to set a target so that you can better plan your hours and budget your expenses.
Check our comparison table of requirements and salaries of online teaching companies
ESL teacher jobs
As we said right at the start, there is a gigantic proportion of the planet learning English, for all sorts of different reasons, from infants to adult learners.
For many, it’s at school, where English lessons are a mandatory part of the education system. Others take up English in higher education, or to advance their career. In some cases, people take up learning English in order to pass exams like the IELTS to move to an English-speaking country. Or, others have had to move to an English-speaking country in times of political strife, and need to learn the language in order to get by.
More simply put, there are a litany of reasons to become an ESL teacher, and a smörgasbord of kinds of students who need help learning the language.
The different types of jobs available to ESL teachers
The classic picture of an ESL teacher may be the young graduate who goes abroad to teach children in another country, but that’s far from the only option available. There is a wide range of jobs and other opportunities available to ESL teachers, and we’ll explore these options below.
For those who’ve just received their ESL qualification, a good place to start may be a private language school. You get a diverse range of learners, from young children to adults of all ages, and an equally diverse range of reasons for learning English.
You’ll generally find yourself working in the morning or evening, outside of typical school or work hours, and you’ll devote your time entirely to teaching English without any further headaches. You can hone your teaching skills and gain some experience here, even without needing to travel outside of your home country.
A teaching post at a public school is often an option, especially since some governments offer placement programmes for ESL teachers. These programmes, like South Korea’s EPIK or Japan’s JET programme, offer security and benefits that can make a move abroad a much easier experience than it would normally be if you planned everything on your own.
In a public school ESL post, you’ll usually teach teenagers or children in a typical classroom setting. Pay will depend on your host nation, but what’s truly valuable here is the teaching experience, as well as exposure to another culture. For that reason, this route is highly recommended for those new to teaching.
Working as an ESL teacher in an international school can be challenging, but also extremely rewarding. Your students will come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, and while they may all be learning English, they may take different paths depending on what languages they already speak.
However, the qualification requirements are generally high and the competition is stiff for these positions. Most international schools will require a teaching degree along with your TEFL qualification, so you’ll need to come prepared. If you get accepted, however, international schools are excellent and well-paying ESL employers, and your time there will look very good on your CV when applying for future English teaching roles.
One particular niche that isn’t always considered by ESL tutors is teaching business English. Good language skills are necessary for a company to expand in an international market, and since English is so common, many foreign companies invest in training their staff to speak English.
To work as an ESL teacher for a private company, you’ll need familiarity with business English, which can be very different from everyday English, and you’ll also deal with a narrower range of topics. Your students will be working-age adults who need proficiency in business English. It’s a role that can demand particular qualifications, but the pay and benefits of being a company’s in-house English teacher are generally very competitive, compared to language academies.
The best-paying and most prestigious TEFL job in an academic setting is a university post. However, the requirements for getting hired for such a post are steep. You’ll often need extensive experience in teaching ESL, and, depending on the university, further qualifications. For example, having a master’s degree or DELTA is not an unusual requirement for university jobs. You’ll need to be sure that you meet the qualifications before applying, so check the job description at your institution of choice to see what they ask for.
If you teach ESL at a foreign university, you’ll deal with college-aged students, which is an age group some teachers may find easier to communicate with than younger children. You typically will also be given greater freedom to design your own curriculum, with little interference from college administrators. Finally, a university post looks impressive on your CV when applying for other ESL jobs in the future.
If you’re just starting out teaching English as a Second Language, a summer school or language camp might be your best option. These are particularly ideal if you don’t want to commit to a full year of teaching just yet. The contract length typically runs from a few weeks to several months, depending on the school or the camp.
While summer camps don’t offer as competitive a salary as language schools do, they will typically include food and accommodation. This can therefore be a useful way to spend part of the year between full contracts or build up experience before going to a full-time teaching job. It’s also a great option for those who are still in education themselves, and only have free time to teach English during the summers.
Teaching English online
If travel isn’t an option, there’s always the internet. The online world offers a lot of options for the enterprising ESL teacher. You can go with an online teaching company, which is simply a language school that operates online. Or, you can get on an online teaching marketplace, which will let you connect with students for a small fee, while you handle your lesson planning and materials.
You can even do it all yourself and go freelance. The workload is entirely on you if you choose this route, but you’ve got the most freedom to work as you please.
One-on-one tutoring lets you tailor your learning method to the student. Particular ESL students may be looking for a particular variety of English, like hospitality English or academic English, and doing it one-to-one will let you focus entirely on what they need.
You can even do this in between any of the other jobs above, depending on the schedule that you work out with your student, and you can do it in any country (as long as your visa permits it). Tuition entirely depends on who you’re tutoring and your own level of experience, so you and your student can arrive at a rate that works for both of you. You can also do it in person or online, using one of the online teaching platforms listed above.
ESL teacher resources
Once you’ve qualified, and you’ve marked out the kind of job you want, it’s important to consider what teaching resources you want to use.
Nowadays, it’s not just about a blackboard and chalk. There are a whole host of teaching resources available to ESL teachers that will help to organize classes, keep ESL students engaged, and expand a pupil’s knowledge.
So, what are some of these resources? Where’s best to get started?
ESL teacher resources for online teaching
Online classes are a fantastic way for ESL teachers to either get started or carve out their own businesses. Adaptable, flexible and suitable for both big classes and one-on-one tutoring, online classes can be an absolute gift.
Initially, you want to set up an account with Zoom or Microsoft Teams, in order to conduct calls online with student groups. Google Docs is another must, for students to hand in work, but also to set assignments and dish out tasks. A payment service like PayPal, too, is absolutely crucial – unless you want to work for free. Then, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. It’s a good idea to set up the kind of learning experience you want. Google Classroom is great for this, as it does exactly as it says in the name. It’s easily integrated with Google Docs and the Google Calendar, meaning that students can stay on top of everything they need to, and teachers can maintain a schedule. Edmodo is a great app for students and teachers to keep in touch, to address issues such as homework, illness or questions about language.
If you’re looking to make your own graphics, Canva is a great place to start, especially if you’re looking to add colour and spark to your presentations.
Video, whether in the classroom or the virtual classroom, is always a good idea. Whether you’re looking for English grammar rules written as rap songs, or showing students how to learn conversational English from pop culture, we’ve put a very handy list together here!
ESL resources for classroom teachers
The gap between online and in-person learning is virtually non-existent these days, but there are some great resources for building confidence as an ESL teacher.
If you’re looking to brush up on grammar so you’re not caught out (it can happen!), resources like Grammar Monster and the British Council have a wealth of tests, activities and reading guides. For lesson planning and physical resources, you’d do far worse – if you don’t us saying so – than looking at The TEFL Org. If that’s not enough, Teaching English has thousands of worksheets and valuable materials.