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What is TEFL?

With so many different acronyms and names, the world of TEFL can be a bit confusing. Let The TEFL Org guide you through the world of teaching English!

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With so many acronyms, types of ESL teaching certifications, and opportunities across the world, it’s sometimes hard to understand what everything means when it comes to TEFL. 

For example, what actually is TEFL, beyond a pleasing-sounding acronym? Is ESOL the same thing? What about TESOL, and how long is my TEFL/TESOL/ESL qualification valid? What do I need to teach abroad? What is a TEFL certification? It’s a minefield - make no mistake about it.

So, here at The TEFL Org, we decided it was time to clear a few things up when it comes to Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Otherwise, how can our potential students be clear about what they’re trying to qualify for?

Is TESOL the same as TEFL? 

Frequently, the acronyms TEFL and TESOL are used interchangeably. TESOL stands for Teaching English as a Second Language and is often used to refer to teaching language learners within an English-speaking country, as well as abroad. Generally speaking, TEFL and TESOL courses are the same.

Enrolling in a TEFL or TESOL course will enhance your abilities for comparable responsibilities. It's important to understand the distinctions between TEFL and TESOL to differentiate them.

Is ESL the same as TEFL?

Again, ESL and TEFL are often used as synonyms. ESL stands for English as a Second Language, which technically isn’t the same as TEFL. However, it’s not uncommon to hear ESL as an umbrella term for teaching English as a foreign language.

We’ve compiled everything prospective ESL teachers need to know in an article on how to become an ESL teacher

What is TEFL? 

TEFL, short for Teaching English as a Foreign Language, is all about teaching English to people who may have some, little, or no knowledge of the language. This could involve teaching abroad or online, covering basics for beginners or refining grammar and language skills for those more advanced. 

The TEFL qualification can open up various opportunities, like teaching English in different parts of the world, starting your own tutoring business, or volunteering locally. It can also mean helping students prepare for exams like IELTS or TOEFL, which are important for those planning to move to an English-speaking country. 

In a nutshell, TEFL is about teaching English in new communities or assisting others with language skills in your own community.

What does TEFL training involve? 

A TEFL certification course covers a range of different topics. English can be extremely hard to learn; it’s a deeply idiomatic and idiosyncratic language with all kinds of grammar, punctuation, and syntax rules that aren’t found in other languages. TEFL training, then, involves mastering those elements - and more - to ensure you can teach English to the appropriate level, so you can get to teaching English abroad.

There are different hours involved in a TEFL certification course. An industry standard course, the kind that will almost guarantee employment teaching English abroad, lasts for 120 hours. There are courses that go on for longer, and there are also advanced courses, including topics such as Business English and teaching young learners, which can top up your skill set. The foundation, though, is a 120-hour course.

A TEFL course should involve guidance from an experienced tutor, and potentially some practical training (whether digitally or in-person). Ideally, it’ll be an English teacher with experience in delivering classes overseas who is conducting the lessons and providing the tutoring. If you’re spending a decent amount of money on a TEFL qualification, you want to ensure that there is more than adequate tutor support. 

With so many quirks and rules, English can be hard to teach initially, just as it can be hard to learn. However, a TEFL certification course, and the process of earning a TEFL certificate, should give you everything you need. By that, we mean you should have enough time to learn the material. You should have excellent one-to-one tutoring and all the facilities you need to succeed, all included in the cost.

Some courses, although rarely the online TEFL courses, may provide a practicum - a practical teaching rehearsal if you like - but these aren’t strictly necessary. A good TEFL course will have you ready for teaching regardless. 

TEFL fact and fiction

There are plenty of myths and half-truths in the TEFL industry, sadly. Whether it’s misconceptions and assumptions about TEFL courses or mixed information, some people don’t feel as though they can get involved with the world of Teaching English as a Second Language or Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

It’s actually far more accessible than you might think. Let’s bust a few myths that trip people up when it comes to teaching English.

Do you need another language? No, not for a TEFL course. There’s no getting around the fact that being a polyglot can only help, especially if you travel to a foreign country and know the language. However, you don’t need to be fluent in a range of languages, just skilled in English. 

Even if you're not from a nation of native English speakers, you can still complete any number of TEFL certification courses. Online TEFL teaching means that English language instruction is an industry open to all, wherever you're from. TEFL certification online is a booming new industry, and it's just as useful for getting a job teaching English abroad as any in-class offering.

What if I’m too young or too old to teach? There’s another prevalent myth about TEFL: it’s a young person’s game, a gap-year pursuit between school and college. That just isn’t the case.

Sure, a great number of English teachers abroad are in their 20s and 30s. Counterpoint: so what? There are plenty of great reasons to teach English, and there’s value in both youthful exuberance and in experience. Fine, you are extremely unlikely to be able to teach until you’re at least 18, and there are some upper age limits for teachers in certain countries, but there are more opportunities than there are barriers. You can teach English online or teach English abroad at most ages.

Do you need a teaching qualification? Not to become TEFL certified, no. To take a TEFL course, it’s not required to have a teaching qualification of any kind to get started. For many, TEFL is about exploring options within a new career arc. One of the USPs of the TEFL experience is that anyone can do it, should they have the enthusiasm and the time to learn how it’s done. 

Do you need a degree? Not always. In much the same nature as our previous discussion on teaching qualifications, a TEFL certificate wouldn’t be the game-changer it is if you had to have a degree to get involved. However, in terms of actually teaching abroad, and qualifying for a working visa, some countries and employers do insist on a degree.

To teach English to a high standard abroad, and to get TEFL qualified, you don’t need to have graduated from anywhere.

What is a TEFL certificate?

A TEFL certificate is a crucial qualification often demanded by employers when hiring English teachers. Typically measured in hours, the industry standard for TEFL qualifications is around 120 hours, so it's advisable to enrol in a course with at least this duration. 

The primary purpose of a TEFL certification course is to equip individuals with the essential skills needed for teaching English as a foreign language. Fluency in English does not necessarily translate to effective teaching for English language learners, and a TEFL certification ensures that educators are well-prepared to meet the unique challenges of language instruction.

What does TEFL certification mean?

What TEFL certification can do for an individual is really quite something.

A good TEFL certification course should let you complete the material within a time frame that suits you. However you choose to do it, though, what you can achieve after just 120 hours is genuinely staggering.

Foremost, a TEFL qualification means you can teach English as a foreign language. However, there’s so much more to it than just that. It means you can travel overseas and guarantee yourself a job teaching English to young learners, secondary school pupils, adults, the elderly - whoever needs it. TEFL certification is a ticket to the rest of the world, in a sense, where employment opportunities are widespread. When it comes to English language teaching, we hate using clichés; but the world really is your oyster.

It also means you can teach English online, which is just as exciting. All you need is a strong internet connection and a TEFL qualification to get going, either for a company or for yourself. If you have that entrepreneurial spirit, you can quite easily set up shop and build a client base as a tutor. Or, if you prefer to work within an established infrastructure, there are plenty of excellent English Teaching companies that are looking to take on all kinds of new applicants.

Fundamentally, though, what it means is a new skill set. A TEFL certification is objective proof of your ability to teach written and verbal English. It’s also evidence of an ability to step up to new challenges, be decisive in your career, and be adaptable to adding new attributes to your repertoire. Employers, needless to say, will be impressed if you've completed a TEFL certification program!

Becoming TEFL certified really is worth it - becoming TEFL certified (whether through online courses or an in-person TEFL course) means you can totally change the course of your life and your career.

What TEFL qualification do I need?

When it comes to TEFL courses, the choices are expansive. There are arguments between, for example, Level 5 TEFL courses and 120-hour TEFL courses. The value of advanced courses, for example, has also come into focus over recent years.

The level 5 versus 120 hours debate comes up most often. So, to break it down, let’s consider the choice.

We would recommend a 120-hour over a Level 5 if you have a minimum of a BA degree in any discipline, you have some previous teaching experience, you’re a native English speaker with a passport from Britain, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa and you’re seeking work in a country with high demand for English teachers

Meanwhile, we would suggest taking a Level 5 TEFL certification course over a 120-hour if you do not have a degree, you have no previous teaching experience, English isn’t your first language - or you don’t have a passport from the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa - you’re aiming to work in a country with a competitive jobs market or online and you don’t feel very confident about teaching quite yet.

“Need” is, of course, subjective, but if you’re looking to carve a niche for yourself as a teacher, an Advanced TEFL program could be exactly what your CV requires. For example, if you’re teaching English abroad in a country with an emergent economy, Business English is a great idea. If you want to coach students through exams, an Advanced TEFL program on exam preparation would fit the bill perfectly. 

It’s worth trying a free TEFL course as a sampler if you’re not sure about what TEFL program it is you need to do. TEFL Org has detailed information on all the TEFL programs we provide.

Where can I get a TEFL qualification? 

Nowadays, especially in the post-pandemic era, you’ll find that online TEFL program providers have upped their game. The most reputable and accredited TEFL course providers have a strong online presence, as well as the facilities to create a cohesive and comprehensive distance-learning experience. However, the same providers also tend to offer excellent classroom TEFL courses, which are now opening up again after the pandemic. So, whether you want to study from a distance, or up close - or both - the options are absolutely there.

The TEFL Org, for example, offers a fantastic range of courses, along with a helpful, interactive learning experience, which gives students the chance to communicate directly with tutors and classmates over the duration of their TEFL course. There are also classroom TEFL programs available, in locations like Ireland, the UK, and Spain.

Make sure the course provider you use has accreditation from a number of recognized bodies, like OFQUAL and DEAC. Accreditation is important: it means that regulatory organizations have deemed the course offerings to be of significant value and that the course provider meets regulatory standards and practices.

How long does it take to get TEFL certified?

120 hours of TEFL program training is the industry standard, and it’s typically specified on job adverts. This is seen as the minimum amount of training required to get started teaching English. As a rule, 120 hours of TEFL study will generally get you appropriately prepared, whether you end up teaching online, or you teach English abroad. On average, a 120-hour TEFL certification takes six weeks for those who are dedicated and have ample free time.

Taking a TEFL certification course with fewer hours puts you at a serious disadvantage. Employers won’t look at an applicant, generally speaking, if they don’t meet the required 120 hours. Realistically, you won’t have learned enough.

There are Groupon and discount courses that promise TEFL certification within a very limited window of time. However, these courses don’t sufficiently prepare potential teachers, and many participants taking these courses will find that there are plenty of add-ons. Typically, that’s materials or time, which means that these discount courses become prohibitively expensive.

How much does a TEFL course cost? 

There’s a lot of variation regarding the cost of a TEFL course.

At the higher end of the scale, CELTA and DELTA courses are likely to cost thousands. CELTA is not a post-graduate course, but DELTA is, and naturally, it accrues higher levels of expense. However, you don’t need to spend quite that much.

A high-quality TEFL course, of 120 hours or more, should be in the $400-800 range. If it’s from an accredited provider, you can be assured that the quality of the course, the materials being used, and the people running the TEFL course are of an excellent standard.

There are eye-catching, discount courses out there, but be careful. Groupon and discount courses won’t provide the level of detail and care that a more established TEFL course provider will. Often, low-price TEFL courses promise TEFL certification within a small number of hours. Simply put, you can’t prepare yourself adequately to teach English abroad in less than 120 hours, minimum. 

Additionally, low-cost TEFL courses might seem like a money saver. However, whether it’s the certificate itself, course materials, or deadline extensions, what can seem like a cost-effective course ends up costing hundreds more than initially advertised.

How long is TEFL certification valid? 

A good qualification doesn’t expire. Much like a degree, a High School Diploma, or any other worthwhile qualification, nobody is going to take it away from you years later.

An accredited TEFL certification should prepare you for teaching English abroad as a life pursuit, whether English is your native language or not. If you're on the right TEFL certification course, your qualification will last a lifetime, and whether you teach English online or you're travelling around the world, the memories will, too!