Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) is one of the most in-demand and exciting opportunities for aspiring educators. As an ESL instructor, you can work almost anywhere in the world or with international students and immigrants in the United States. You may teach small children or adult professionals, and in many instances, jobs can be rather lucrative. If you want a career with flexibility and are interested in languages and foreign cultures, teaching ESL may be the perfect professional path for you.

Typical Requirements to Become an ESL Teacher

Minimum Education Level Bachelor’s degree
Recommended Major Field(s) English, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language (TESOL), Linguistics
Licensure/Certification Certification is not required but highly desirable
Minimum Work Experience Some teaching experience, as well as some volunteer and internship experience

Featured Schools

  1. Walden University – MS – Education: Teaching English Language Learners (K -12)
  2. Grand Canyon University – MA – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
  3. Northcentral University – Doctor of Education degree with a specialization in English as a Second Language (ESL)

Key Skills and Strengths

  • Grammar and Spelling: As an ESL instructor, you must have a solid grasp of spelling and grammar and usage rules. It’s important that you are able to recognize and explain why you speak and write the way you do.
  • Foreign Language Skills: If you have learned a foreign tongue, you have first-hand knowledge of the language acquisition process. This knowledge is invaluable when putting together your assignments and in-class activities.
  • Cross-cultural Sensitivity: Many ESL instructors begin their careers teaching overseas, so it is important, whether you teach abroad or at home, to be aware of and embrace the cultural differences between you and your students. Remember that students will have different learning styles, and each one may very well have unique expectation for teacher/student relationships.
  • Flexibility: It’s key to have the ability to go with the flow. Lesson plans may change based on the resources at your disposal, or the quickness with which the students grasp the lessons, and you need to be able to continue or change your plans accordingly.
  • Superb Teaching Skills: With ESL teaching, you may be thrown into a classroom with students who understand little to no English. You must be clever and patient, designing lessons that don’t depend on words to explain new concepts and vocabulary.

Bachelor’s Degree in ESL

A bachelor’s degree is the minimum starting requirement for ESL teaching. A degree in English, linguistics, or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) is ideal, but if your major is in another subject, you can still get an entry-level job if you have a 120-hour TESOL certificate.

Sample Courses

Courses in a TESOL bachelor’s program cover teaching skills, English language, and general linguistic theory, along with additional courses in cross-cultural studies. Here are two example courses you can expect in just about any program:

  • Principles of Linguistics: Most BA programs will give you a basic overview of linguistic theories. These include sociolinguistics, the study of how language and culture interrelate, and neurolinguistics, the study of language as a brain function. You will also learn grammar and the international phonetic alphabet.
  • Cultural Issues in the ESL/EFL Classroom: Teaching ESL often means working with multiple cultural backgrounds. Learning how to recognize and accommodate cultural differences is an essential part of most bachelor’s programs.

Master’s Degree in ESL

While a bachelor’s degree and a TESOL certificate are sufficient for a career teaching English, a master’s degree is highly appreciated by employers in the field. It opens new opportunities at prestigious universities and colleges, rather than just language centers and community colleges, and it usually offers a nice salary bump. A master’s degree will give you an edge in landing a more competitive position stateside.

Sample Courses

Once you arrive at the master’s level for ESL, your courses will be specialized and focus on specific sub-areas of linguistics and pedagogy, such as sociolinguistics or principles of language assessment. Training in research methods and curriculum design are also common, along with a regular teaching practicum.

  • Teaching Grammar: At the master’s level, courses delve into practical training for specific areas of language teaching, such as reading and writing or pronunciation. These courses examine the best practices of low level learners, as well as advanced speakers.
  • Computer Assisted Language Learning: Using computers, projectors, or Smart Boards is quickly becoming a key part of teaching ESL. This course instills future instructors with the knowledge and ability to teach the language and usage of computers.
  • Teaching Practicum: Often in exchange for a stipend, master’s students will teach at their college or university’s ESL center for several hours a week. This hands-on experience is especially valuable in a job search and usually an essential part of the best programs.

Work Experience Requirements

Getting your first ESL job will require some experience, though how much differs by where you hope to work. For example, many jobs in South Korea, China, or Japan pay well and accept teachers with only a few months of volunteer teaching experience, while most jobs in the Middle East or Europe want a few years of professional experience. If you want to work here in the U.S., you need to be a veteran teacher.

In general, because of the huge demand for native English-speaking teachers, many start their careers overseas. Just about every region of the world hires ESL instructors, and there is plenty of variation in experience requirements, pay rates, and demand. As a general rule, however, the more experience you have, the better the opportunities will be.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for unskilled teachers to earn their first in-class experiences here in the U.S. Many big cities have ESL centers offering free classes for immigrants, and they often recruit volunteer teachers with little to no experience. Volunteer tutoring is another great way to get started. Search and reach out to ESL centers, community organizations, libraries, colleges, and churches in your area; they may have need for volunteer tutors, conversation partners, or even classroom instructors.

Certification/Licensure Requirements

One of the best ways to launch an ESL career is by getting a 120-hour TESOL certificate; most employers will expect you to have one. There is no official licensing or certifying organization for ESL teachers, however, so there are hundreds of different programs out there, with great variation in quality and price. The first big difference between these certificate programs is whether they are online or in-person. For the most part, in-person certification courses are more respected by employers than online courses for an obvious reason: you get in-person practice. However, online courses could be a good choice if you already have experience in the classroom.

Beyond that, each certification course should be at least 120 hours long and ideally include a few hours of practice teaching. Courses are usually offered as intensive one-month, full-time programs or as part-time classes spread over several months. A certificate from an accredited college or university is your safest choice, and there are many excellent programs out there. The gold standard in TEFL certification is the CELTA, from the University of Cambridge, which is offered at locations around the world and is the most respected by employers.

Looking for a Teaching Job

The best way to obtain your first job is through the career support center where you are earning your degree or certification. Most colleges and ESL training centers have contact information for many schools and can help you craft an excellent resume and cover letter. These contacts will give you an advantage over applying online, where job posters can be overwhelmed with applications within minutes of posting their ads. Still, online is not a bad way to go either, thanks to the steady demand for native-speaking English teachers all around the world. Here are some of the most popular sites for landing your first job.


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