The Ultimate Guide to Teaching English as a Second Language

Some people want to travel the world and see its wonders. Some people want to devote their skills to teaching students. If you’re one of the people who’d like to do both, then ESL teaching may just be for you. 

English as a Second Language is in demand all over the world, and you can combine your wanderlust with your service to the next generation in one rewarding career. Alternatively, you can also become an ESL teacher online and work from home, or get a job working in a local language school. But with the wealth of options available, finding the right English teaching job can sometimes seem overwhelming.

To make things easier for you, we’ve compiled everything prospective ESL teachers need to know in one useful guide. This article walks you through all the options available to you, the skills needed to do well in the field, likely prospects for work, and a few tips on how to get started.

What is Teaching English as a Second Language?

ESL means English as a Second Language, and is also commonly used to refer to teaching English as a second language. It can also refer to the qualification necessary to teach English as a second language. Teachers with such qualifications are in demand all over the globe.

Why?

English is one of the most widely-spoken languages in today’s world. It has the third-largest number of native speakers of any other language, and it’s also the number one most widespread second language spoken around the globe. One person in five can communicate in English, in almost any part of the world. Whether in the fields of media, business, or technology, the sheer prevalence of English means that there’s an incentive for almost anyone to learn the language to improve their work prospects.

Whether you want to travel to other countries to teach English, or are looking to connect with international  students online, there’s a healthy market for teachers who can pass an industry-standard 120-hour ESL qualification course and bring their expertise to English learners everywhere.

ESL, TESOL, TEFL: What do these acronyms mean?

  • 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

Where can ESL teachers work?

There are a variety of options available to people who wish to teach English as a second language, whether in person or online. People of all ages, careers, and abilities may wish to learn English, for any number of reasons. It may be for work, for school, to better interact with English-speaking people, or just for fun.

An ESL teacher might find work abroad teaching students in public schools or language schools. You may also find a post as a company’s in-house teacher, educating employees in business English. International schools and universities offer attractive opportunities to ESL teachers with sufficient qualifications. Similar opportunities exist just staying in your home country, especially in areas with large immigrant populations.

There are also online options. Online teaching companies offer English lessons taught by remote ESL teachers, allowing anyone with an internet connection to access the skill and expertise of an ESL-certified tutor. Alternatively, you might offer your services on an online teaching marketplace or go freelance to set your own terms when it comes to teaching students, like how much you charge per lesson and the hours you work.

Given just how useful English is, and how crucial it is in certain employment sectors, there will always be demand for English teachers, and an enterprising ESL teacher can easily find a niche that they can do well in.

The different types of jobs available for 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.

Language schools

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.

Public schools

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.

International schools

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.

Businesses

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. 

Universities

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.

Summer schools

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.

Here are some examples of online platforms where you can teach English online (most of which require TEFL certification for you to sign up):

  • Cambly
  • VIPKID
  • QKids
  • Preply
  • italki

Tutoring

One-on-one tutoring lets you tailor your learning method to the student. Your student 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.

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 English as a Second Language:

Good Communication Skills

This is the foundation skill that any teacher needs to have, no matter the subject. Teaching is 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 as a Second Language 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.

Adaptability

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 on your toes, 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 teach at an international school. 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.

Patience

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

Empathy goes hand-in-hand with patience and communication. As soon as you start teaching English classes, you’ll quickly realise 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 what you do, 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.

How much can you earn teaching English as a Second Language?

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 paycheque is still a valid concern. No matter what country you’re going to, we all have  to eat.

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 Wages 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 in 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.

How to become an ESL teacher

Every path to an English teaching job will be different, but there are a few important things that every prospective ESL teacher has to do, from earning their qualification to arranging the necessary travel documents. We’ll cover these below and advise as to how these landmarks can be achieved.

Get at least a 120-hour ESL qualification

ESL courses are measured in hours and the industry standard, required internationally, is 120 hours. Make certain that you acquire this qualification from a provider that is properly accredited and recognised internationally. 

TEFL accreditation means that your course provider is recognised by others in the industry as providing a quality standard of teaching. You can also aim for a more advanced qualification, like a CELTA or a DELTA course, which can help make you more attractive to employers.

Research job requirements

It’s important to do initial research into the career path you’re thinking about and, if you’re going abroad, into the country you’re considering moving to.

What sort of qualifications does the job require you to have? Will you need to secure documents to verify your eligibility? Do you meet the requirements to secure a visa from that country? Make sure you check online resources and ask other ESL teachers who have worked there previously, so you don’t come across any unexpected surprises when preparing to teach abroad.

Save for moving abroad

Going abroad isn’t cheap, and you’ll need to save up some funds beforehand for starter costs. Your employer may take care of some of the fees, but to be on the safe side, it’s best to have some extra cash set aside to cover moving costs.

Some documents may need to be legalised, and you may also require a criminal record check. You may need to cover visa fees and transportation expenses going to your host country. Medical insurance is also a must if your employer doesn’t cover it. 

Plus, don’t forget to keep back enough money to keep yourself running until your first month’s pay arrives. Sort out enough for rent, a security deposit, and your typical living expenses: food, leisure, transportation, etc.

Start applying for teaching English as a Second Language jobs

New country or not, you’ll eventually have to start hitting the pavement and looking for jobs. The best place to look for jobs may depend on where you’re going, and it’s also different if it’s in-person teaching versus online work that you’re applying for.

Some countries might not even have any online presence for their ESL jobs, requiring you to find work in the country instead. Arm yourself before you arrive in-country. Ask other teachers who have been there before to get tips on the best ways to do this, and don’t forget that a lot of information is on the internet, as well. We’ve compiled a list of TEFL job boards for you to help you find country-specific postings easily.

ESL FAQs

Is there a demand for ESL teachers?

Yes! There are over 2 billion English language learners around the world. There’s always going to be demand, and there are more ways to fill it than in the traditional classroom setting. Whether in person or online, you can always find students wanting to learn how to speak English.

Can I teach English as a second language without ESL certification?

You can teach without ESL certification by working on platforms like Cambly, which don’t require any degree or certification to become an English teacher online. But even with companies that don’t stipulate it as a requirement you will likely find they have a strong preference for an ESL certificate.

The vast majority of employers require an ESL certificate, and in some countries it’s even a specific requirement for a work permit. Without an ESL certificate or equivalent, you also won’t have access to jobs that pay the highest salaries.

How long does it take to get ESL qualified?

The industry standard for an ESL qualification is 120 certificate hours. Most courses are thus a minimum of 120 hours long. Online courses tend to be self-paced, so you may take less or more time to complete it, depending on how fast you work. 

The average time to complete a 120-hour online ESL course is 10 to 12 weeks.

How much does an ESL course cost?

This will depend if you’re taking it online or in person. Online, prices generally start between $200 to $500 for an accredited TEFL qualification. Fully in-person, such as the CELTA, you’re looking at $2,000 and upwards.

Is it necessary to speak another language to teach ESL?

You don’t need to learn your host country’s language to teach ESL overseas, as lessons are taught entirely in English. After all, immersion is one of the most effective ways to learn a language, and you’ll provide your students with an environment and an opportunity in which to speak English exclusively.

But picking up the local lingo can help you survive in your daily life, as learning the language will help you navigate the local landscape with a lot less difficulty. Plus, an extra language looks great on your CV!

Do you need a degree to teach English as a Second Language?

Some countries’ visa regulations require that you have a college degree, but you can still teach ESL without one. For example, Central and South America won’t ask for a degree, and neither will Cambodia, but check the regulations of your destination country before applying, just to be sure. 

Am I too old/young to be an ESL teacher?

There are no strict age limits for ESL teaching as a career, but your age itself may mean that you run into various labour laws, depending on the country you want to work in. You may be too young to legally work, or not yet have entered university, and thus not have a degree. On the other side of the scale, you may be too old to be eligible for a work permit. Always check your host country’s relevant laws and visa requirements to be sure.