TESOL, TEFL or TESL – What’s the difference?

When it comes to teaching English as a foreign language, there are several different acronyms and terms to negotiate. Is it TESOL, TEFL or TESL? Do the differences matter? Find out more!

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We’ll confess: it’s easy to be confused by an industry with so many acronyms. Whether it’s TEFL, TESOL, TESL, TEFOL, ESL - it’s sometimes hard to know which is the best route to pursue if you’re keen to teach English abroad.

So, what does it all mean? Does a person need a qualification for every form of English teaching? If I qualify as a TEFL teacher, say, can I partake in TESOL? What's the difference between TEFL and TESOL - it's still teaching students at language schools and the like, right? From the outside in, it’s not exactly obvious what’s going on.

That’s where we come in. We decided it was time to shed some light, just in case anybody was getting confused. Teaching English, whether as a foreign language or to speakers of other languages, shouldn’t be the end goal of a word puzzle!

So, just to make sure you aren’t too baffled by all the different acronyms, let’s dive into what means what.

What is TESOL? 

Let’s start with TESOL. The most commonly used term for teaching to non-English speakers within the USA, TESOL has become sort of an umbrella term. It stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, which can mean teaching abroad or helping those who don’t speak English in an English-speaking country.

Nowadays, you might hear it used interchangeably with TEFL or another similar acronym. Worry not: if you’re speaking about TEFL and TESOL, you’re broadly speaking about the same pursuit: to teach English to language learners.

What is TEFL

It’d be a bit embarrassing for us at The TEFL Org if we didn’t know what TEFL stood for. Thankfully, we do: it’s Teaching English as a Foreign Language. This term is more commonly used for teaching English abroad, however, it has applications within English-speaking countries, just like TESOL. 

With the advent of the TEFL boom worldwide, and with home learning and reliable internet being so commonplace, you might have seen TEFL being used as an umbrella term around the world. A TEFL qualification is the same as a TESOL qualification, broadly speaking. Anyone who wants to hire English teachers isn't going to be too concerned about the difference in acronyms.

Read more to know what is TEFL.

What is TESL?

This stands for Teaching English as a Second Language. It’s much the same as TESOL in that it is teaching non-native English speakers. So, again, the basic principles are the same; it’s the act of teaching English to those who don’t speak or write it as their native language.

Again, if you want to become an English teacher, and you've completed a TESL qualification from an accredited provider, chances are you can still teach overseas just the same.

TEFL vs TESOL - what's the difference? 

TEFL is more commonly used to refer to teaching English to non-native English speakers in non-native English-speaking countries, while TESOL is teaching English to non-native speakers in both non-native and native English-speaking countries. However, both tend to be used interchangeably. 

In practice, the skills needed for all three of these disciplines are the same, as you are still training someone who wants to improve their level of English – no matter their first language, or where you are teaching. In essence, you'll have an English teaching certification and can teach abroad to English language learners once you've completed a certification course.

TEFL/TESOL methodology is designed to get across concepts such as grammar and vocabulary in an effective way to students who don’t speak the language. They pick up these language components through an immersive class that’s conducted entirely in English, as this is the most effective way of learning a new language.

With the courses from The TEFL Org, you will have an in-depth study of these methodologies and will learn just how to plan and deliver the best English lessons you can.

What’s more, our courses will certify you in both TEFL and TESOL, so no matter where you choose to teach you can do so with confidence.

How do you get TEFL or TESOL certified? 

Nowadays, getting TEFL/TESOL certified couldn’t be easier. TEFL-certified English teachers are growing in numbers, and there are plenty of TEFL course providers out there to help you get started in the world of teaching English.

The industry standard - that is, what employers expect - is 120 hours of TEFL training. Those 120 hours are self-paced, and can be completed in your own time. However, most reputable course providers will give their students extra time if needed. Why 120 hours? Well, that’s the internationally recognized sign that a prospective TEFL teacher has done enough training and learned enough teaching theory to succeed. You can read this explanation about TEFL hours and levels for more.

Employers are far more likely to look kindly on a CV that includes 120 hours (or more!) of officially recognized TEFL training. Especially if that training comes from an accredited TEFL provider. It’s crucial for a TEFL course provider to have accreditation from a number of proper regulators. TEFL Accreditation shows that external bodies have ratified the courses and the materials from a provider, and deemed them to be of a suitable standard.

Signing up is easy. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world - as we’ll get to - because TEFL/TESOL courses are available online and in-person, in a range of different locations. It’s as simple as choosing a course that best suits you. Take a look at our best TEFL certificate page for a better idea.

What’s the actual content of a TEFL/TESOL certification program? Well, we can’t speak to other course providers and what they offer. For example, though, The TEFL org's 120-hour course includes an English Language Teaching Methodology module, a Video Observation module, a Grammar and Language Awareness module, a Telephone Teaching module, and a Teaching Large Classes module. 

There are, of course, different kinds of modules and different kinds of courses. If you want to add to a 120-hour certification, you can be TEFL/TESOL certified in specific ways. For example, you can become TEFL certified in teaching Business English, which has specific applications for learners from emergent economies. 

Or, you can become versed in teaching TEFL/TESOL for specific circumstances. The TEFL Org’s Exam Preparation certificate gives teachers the skills for helping students pass exams like the IELTS or TOEFL, which can be significant in gaining employment or a visa in the future.

Online TEFL/TESOL certification 

Online TEFL certification has become far easier to attain, due to the number of options and high-quality courses on the market.

With the online marketplace opening up more and more in recent decades, it’s no surprise that online learning - and online teaching - have entered the educational sphere in a really significant way.

What do you get on an online TEFL/TESOL certification? Well, you get exactly what you’d expect, only from an online classroom, or one-to-one Zoom tuition. Like in the classroom, your TEFL certification course ought to be taught by current or former TEFL/TESOL teachers, and contain fundamentals such as TEFL methodology and grammar.

Additionally, your course provider should be properly accredited. With newer TEFL course providers opening up online, it’s important to be discerning about the kind of accreditation they have. More established TEFL course providers will have a list of impressive accreditors, including Distance Education Accrediting Commission, Ofqual and the British Accreditation Council - all of whom have approved The TEFL Org’s online courses.

Online teaching also makes it easier to join those Advanced Courses we covered earlier,  such as Business English, which has specific applications for learners interested in world trade, or Exam Preparation, which helps students from overseas or in English-speaking countries to pass important English proficiency exams. Typically, these aren’t as readily available in person.

When you’re online, it’s important to notice the real TEFL course providers from the fakes - something that isn’t as common in person. 

These might be courses that are inordinately cheap. These Groupon courses and the like will often promise the earth for under $100, but they’re full of hidden fees, aren’t properly accredited (or anything like it!), are under-funded and don’t give students ample time to actually complete the course without paying extra - often for a great deal more than first advertised.

If you’re careful, though, online TEFL or TESOL qualifications are just as good as studying in person. Given the nature of study these days, and the globalized economy we live in, it shouldn’t be any surprise!

In-person TEFL/TESOL certification 

So you’d rather get TEFL certified in person? Thankfully, after the worst of the pandemic, in-person TESOL training is very much back on the cards. 

In-person TEFL classes can range from short weekend courses to more fully-fledged course programs. Much like they do online, these classroom sessions cover everything from grammar and punctuation rules and syntax to preparing for actual teaching.

Lesson planning and classroom management are big building blocks, with the in-person experience allowing students to have a fully realized idea of what it’s like to teach English in a schooling environment.

Ideal preparation for teaching abroad, a proper in-person course will mean you’re certified for both TEFL and TESOL, with different employers using different acronyms. 

How much does it cost to get certified? 

In the TEFL industry, much like anywhere else, you really do get what you pay for.

If you’re looking for a cheap Groupon course that promises the earth - as we’ve covered - it won’t take you very far. Not only that, but those types of courses have hidden fees all over the place, including certificate printing. If you’re looking for a TESOL certification that means much, a discount course won’t cut it.

Typically, Level 5 or 120-hour TEFL qualifications are well worth the money. The TEFL Org, for example, offers a Level 5 TEFL course for $280-640, while 120-hour online courses normally fall between $200-430. 

CELTA courses, meanwhile, are taught more like postgraduate study. Typically, the price range for these is $2,700 and can be taught either part or full-time. DELTA courses are pricier, normally costing over $3,000.

Extra TEFL/TESL training, though, isn’t too expensive. Once you’ve achieved your industry-standard TESL certification (120 hours or more), you can top up your qualifications with Advanced TEFL courses, which tend to cost around $80. This can include exam preparation, teaching young learners, online teaching, and other specific niches of the TEFL industry.

You can read this guide about TEFL certification cost.

If you’re learning from a respected institution or company, with accreditation and a reputation for high quality, it’s probably best to consider a TEFL course as something akin to postgraduate study, albeit over a shorter period. Most TEFL course providers will also give you access to a Jobs Centre, which lets TESOL certificate holders apply for opportunities across the world. 

Not only that but there’s also normally a thriving alumni scene, with teachers who have years worth of experience and new teachers alike sharing tips; whether that’s about location, techniques, further learning or a whole raft of other topics. Course providers should also provide a range of media, from videos to blogs and articles about the world of English teaching, providing you with plenty of information about what happens once you’ve qualified.