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TEFL Accreditation & TEFL Levels Explained
What is TEFL accreditation really all about? Find out about TEFL certification levels and understand what possessing a level 5 TEFL certificate means for your TEFL career.
Written By: John Bentley | Updated: June 29, 2023
Written By: John Bentley
Updated: June 29, 2023
The question of accreditation and standards for courses to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL for short) is frequently raised and can be one of the most confusing issues confronting those searching for a quality and reputable certification course for teaching English abroad.
Questions typically raised include:
- What TEFL accredited courses do I need?
- What accreditation is needed for TEFL?
- Why are the majority of TEFL schools offering a 4-week (20 days) full-time course for $2,000 yet others are offering a 2-day weekend class for $350?
- What's up with those Groupon TEFL classes offered for $69 and are those just as good as the expensive classes?
Confusing, right? Just know that it all pertains to the quality of the training you wish to receive. Our hope here is that after reading this article, you'll understand accreditation and TEFL levels better. That way, you'll be able to choose your accredited TEFL certification course with confidence.
Ready? Let's dive in.
First, watch this quick video:
Second, let's address a few questions:
- How Do You Know If a TEFL Course is Legitimate?
- What is TEFL Accreditation?
- Why is It Important to Hold an Accredited TEFL Certification?
- What are The Basic Standards for an Accredited TEFL Certification Course?
- What Are Some Notable TEFL Accreditation Organizations?
- TEFL Levels Explained
- Do TEFL Certification Courses Need to Be Ranked and Accredited in The U.K.?
- Government Oversight of TEFL Accreditation Organizations
- Ensuring that a TEFL Certification is Actually Accredited
- Things to Keep an Eye Out for in TEFL Accreditation Organizations
- Why do Schools Avoid Going to The trouble of Gaining Accreditation?
How Do You Know If a TEFL Course is Legitimate?
To know if a TEFL course is legitimate, you will want to focus on researching two main areas: academics (such as accreditation and industry standards met by the course) and job support provided after you receive your TEFL certification. Accreditation, standards and TEFL levels are what we will walk you through in this article.
Read more: 7 tips for finding accredited TEFL courses
What is TEFL Accreditation?
TEFL accreditation is a method of quality assurance for educational and professional certifications that incorporates review and approval from a recognized independent organization in the field.
Why is It Important to Hold an Accredited TEFL Certification?
TEFL schools need to be externally accredited for the same reason universities are accredited: to ensure that quality and ethical standards are maintained and to recognize professional acceptance and recognition in the international job market.
Reputable schools around the world will not typically hire English teachers who do not hold an accredited TEFL certification.
Accreditation ensures that your certification course meets quality standards in the level of instruction, the quality of the curriculum, the inclusion of a practicum (also known as hands-on live practice teaching), the extent of training, and other areas.
It ensures that the TEFL certification you earn is independently reviewed and monitored by recognized experts in the field to maintain the quality of the program.
At the end of the day, you will work as a professional English teacher giving 5-6 classes to as many as 50 to 100 paying students a day who have put their trust in you to train them to teach English to improve their lives and to enhance their educational and professional opportunities.
If you care about your future students, you will seek to receive the professional TEFL training you need to become a professional-level English teacher.
What are The Basic Standards for an Accredited TEFL Certification Course?
There is no single organization that is universally regarded as the official accrediting body for TEFL certifications.
However, reputable accrediting bodies, language institutes, ministries of education and recognized bodies within the field require that accredited TEFL certifications meet certain standards.
Watch: What Are International Standards for a TEFL Certification?
Side note: You may have heard of the British Council, which claims to be "the world's largest English language teaching organization". There are 70 British Council Teaching Centers in 53 countries that provided 1,189,000 hours of instruction to 300,000 learners in 2006/07 (last known date of statistics). The British Council does not accredit TEFL schools nor give endorsements. There are no such things as British council accredited TEFL courses.
In essence, the world of English teaching agrees to the below standards, which are recognized by leading accrediting bodies and thousands of language schools worldwide for professional-level TEFL Certification:
- At least 100 hours of coursework and training;
- At least 6 hours of live practice teaching and observation involving actual ESL students (these hours are not peer-to-peer teaching and role-playing is not a substitute);
- Externally validated by a reputable examination body (usually a university or a recognized examinations board) and/or accredited by a national accrediting body such as Ofqual in England (or Department or Ministry of Education in other countries);
- The course instructors hold at least a Master's Degree, in TEFL or in TESOL (British course level), or a DELTA. The background of the instructors should be in TESOL, Linguistics, and Education with ESL emphasis or an equivalent amount of training. Experience with at least 8 years of teaching in an international context is also accepted.
Meeting the standards listed above should be one of your top criteria when selecting a TEFL certification to professionally teach English abroad.
NOTE: There are many TEFL courses that do not meet these standards.
- Two-day or even two-week classes;
- Any class that does not incorporate a live practicum with actual ESL students;
- Classes not taught by university-level instructors with extensive credentials and English teaching experience.
Those courses will not be properly accredited and the certifications they provide through their courses will not be recognized by the vast majority of reputable language schools around the world. While any training is better than no training, taking a course that is not accredited will limit your job opportunities teaching English abroad.
Another important opinion to look at: TESOL.org
TESOL.org is the world’s largest ESL organization and also recognizes 100 course hours and live student teaching as standard requirements for a professional TEFL certification.
What Are Some Notable TEFL Accreditation Organizations?
Some (but not all) accrediting bodies that are widely known as internationally recognized accreditation organizations for TEFL certification include TQUK, ACCET, IATQuO, and universities (as part of their formal curriculum) such as Cambridge University (UCLES) for their CELTA course and Trinity College for their Trinity Certification.
TEFL Levels Explained
The U.K. system of Accreditation
Many language schools and institutes in Europe that employ English teachers use the U.K.'s national system of accreditation. In the U.K., the system of rankings is used for TEFL and other credit and non-credit-bearing courses.
The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Services (Ofqual) maintains a ranking system known as the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF). Rankings are 1-8 based on content and hours. Level 4 is the standard of a 100-hour TEFL course with 6 hours of practicum and is typically the equivalent of a freshman-level university course. By comparison, Level 8 is equivalent to Ph.D. coursework.
TEFL/TESOL accreditation begins at Level 3. Such a class may incorporate 100 hours of training, but no practice teaching, and will be used primarily for volunteer work. Level 3 on the RQF scale is equivalent to a high school-level course (in the U.S. system).
Levels 4 and 5 are the professional levels sought by most prospective employers, including the British Council, and will include live practice teaching and at least 100 hours of coursework. A level 4 and 5 would be equivalent to a university-level class for a first or second-year student, e.g. 101 or 201 level class.
A level 5 class also has the distinction of requiring at least 168 hours of guided classwork.
An example of what is listed on a TEFL certification may look something like this:
170-Hour TEFL course: 150 hours content, 20 hours practicum. TQUK Accreditation, RQF equivalent Level 5.
This states the number of content hours and student teaching, the accreditation organization and the oversight body giving legitimacy for the content hours. In Europe, in particular, some schools or countries that are familiar with the U.K. system may require a RQF Level 4 or 5 certification to employ English teachers professionally.
Do TEFL Certification Courses Need to Be Ranked and Accredited in The U.K.?
A TEFL certification program does not need to be accredited in the U.K. by the British grading system as the majority of TEFL schools are not UK-based. As long as it meets the internationally recognized standards for hours of coursework, practice teaching, and qualifications of instructors, and as long as it employs a curriculum that is externally accredited, a TEFL certification course can provide you with the internationally recognized credential that you need to teach English abroad.
Government Oversight of TEFL Accreditation Organizations
Some governments maintain official standards for certification to teach English in that country.
Accreditation in Canada:
The Canadian government via TESL Canada maintains strict guidelines regulating TEFL/TESOL (they use the term "TESL" or Teaching English as a Second Language) certifications to teach English domestically in private language schools.
Here is an approved list of TEFL schools in Canada that offer certifications that will qualify you to teach specifically in Canada (in addition to other citizenship requirements). This does not mean other TEFL schools in Canada do not meet the international standards to teach abroad but the requirements are very similar to the British Council's.
State accreditation in the U.S.:
State boards of education in the U.S. do not accredit TEFL certification courses for teaching English abroad. Most private language schools in the U.S. seek to employ experienced teachers and many will recognize an internationally accredited TEFL certification course and will value international teaching experience.
Additionally, an ESL endorsement from a state body is not the equivalent of an internationally accredited TEFL certification though it can enhance your credentials.
USA State Continuing Education Units (CEU)
Many states require that licensed teachers earn continuing education units. Some states or school districts may recognize a TEFL certification course for CEU, but that recognition is not the equivalent of accreditation for TEFL certification.
Continuing Professional Developmental Units (CPDU)
Non-education professionals (e.g. accountants) may take many different types of professional classes and often need to get a CPDU credit for company reimbursement. Individual states assign these values and a TEFL certification course may qualify for CPDu credits.
Again, because a TEFL class is recognized for CPDU credit does not mean that it is internationally accredited or that it meets the recognized international standards listed above.
Accreditation in the U.K.:
The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) is the governmental department in the UK responsible for maintaining and regulating educational standards, exams and certifications.
The purpose of Ofqual is to maintain standards and confidence by ensuring that regulated qualifications and accreditation are only offered by recognized awarding organizations, which have demonstrated their commitment and ability to maintain exceptionally high standards of quality when developing, delivering, assessing and awarding qualifications.
Ensuring that a TEFL Certification is Actually Accredited
In the wild world of the Internet, many schools will say that they are accredited, and certainly some are – others are less than honest.
How can you tell?
Look to see if there is a link directly to that accrediting body's website. When visiting the website of an accrediting body, look to see how long the body has been in existence and how many professional-level certifications they have actually accredited. Believe it or not, some programs set up their own “accrediting body” or a website for a faux accrediting body to make it look like their course is accredited. If you go to a website for an accrediting body and they’ve been in existence for only a year and have only accredited a handful of courses or programs, chances are that their accreditation isn’t widely recognized.
Also, when looking at various TEFL courses, ask yourself, "Can I really gain a professional-level certification by taking a two-day course, or a self-taught online class with no qualified instructor or practicum?" The answer is "no."
Is a TEFL Course Offered at a University Accredited?
The short answer: It depends — if a TEFL training class is given for academic credit at an accredited university and fulfills the international standards regarding coursework and the incorporation of live practice teaching, it will likely be recognized as reputable. The certificate should also be externally validated by a reputable TEFL organization.
When a TEFL course held at the university is not officially affiliated with the university:
Be aware that just because a TEFL course is held at a university classroom, it does not mean that it holds the accreditation of that university, or that it is in any way endorsed by it.
Some independent TEFL schools operate “roving” TEFL classes held around the country and very often, they simply rent a classroom over the weekend and use the university name, i.e. TEFL certification at the University of Kansas. This falsely implies the university is running the class which it does not. When inquiring about classes offered at universities, ask directly if the university actually runs the class and if it is listed on the official university website.
Some universities may offer a TEFL class as a non-credit course in their adult education program. These courses may or may not be endorsed by their ESL departments or meet international standards; it is something to investigate.
TEFL programs whose certifications are accepted for graduate credits at universities offering a Master’s Degree in TEFL/TESOL should be considered credible. While this is not the same as accreditation, these matriculation agreements prove the university department has examined and signed off on the coursework and that the university considers it valid. Make note that some MA programs do not incorporate live student teaching, which is considered vital by most schools and language institutes around the world seeking to employ English teachers.
In conclusion, any serious TEFL certification program held on the premises of an institution of higher learning should have a direct affiliation with that institution and/or be independently validated by external bodies within the field of TEFL. Furthermore, if there is an ESL Department, that department should vouch for and/or guarantee the quality and academic credibility of the program.
What IS NOT an Accreditation?
Associations and Memberships:
Many TEFL organizations will list and post logos on their website of organizations and educational bodies for which they hold a “membership”. This in itself is completely legitimate and shows professional associations, but such memberships and recognitions are not the same as holding a valid accreditation. Be aware that many TEFL schools without accreditation will list all of these logos with the intention of implying that their course is accredited (as the potential student will probably be satisfied with a lot of professional-looking associations).
You must be aware that memberships, endorsements and recognitions are NOT the same as accreditation. A school or company will become a member of a group simply by paying dues, such as receiving a monthly magazine subscription to the organization – it has nothing to do with their course being independently validated or meeting the standards of accreditation.
Also, note that the Better Business Bureau in the U.S. also does not “accredit” TEFL certification courses. Their use of the term "BBB Accredited" is for their purposes of a BBB accredited business which is a paid membership in their organization for review and has nothing to do with the field of education.
- Being a member of TESOL.org is not any endorsement whatsoever.
- Being a member of NAFSA is not an endorsement or accreditation.
An organization may offer a "membership subscription" and also an accreditation, but there is a big difference.
Things to Keep an Eye Out for in TEFL Accreditation Organizations
- How long has the accreditation body been operating? A few years, a dozen years or a hundred years?
- Who is providing the oversight or endorsement of this accrediting body?
- Is it the state or federal government or a long-established nonprofit with decades of experience and a recognized reputation?
- If there isn't another entity overseeing an accreditation organization it may not hold much weight.
- How many other schools and professional certifications (not just TEFL) are accredited by this organization? Is it 10 or is it 100, 1,000?
- Who are the members of the advisory board? If they include the owner, professors or "advisors" of one of the TEFL companies it's probably a phony accreditation.
- Check the real physical location which is verifiable:
- Is there a physical address for the accrediting body?
- What about a local phone number (not just a toll-free number)?
- Some "accrediting bodies" will attempt to hide the fact that they were actually created and are owned by the TEFL school itself.
- Does their website look professional?
- Does the accreditation site list its standards, procedures, and review process for schools?
- Research the accreditation URL address and see how many sites are linked to it - simply plug the URL into a Google search. An established and reputable company will have many links to it.
- Many language schools that provide TEFL training will offer language classes that are accredited. Just because their language classes are accredited does not mean that the TEFL certification classes are accredited or meet the standards set by the British Council. In many cases, schools make it appear on their website and in literature as if the accreditation for the language classes also applies to the TEFL training.
Why do Schools Avoid Going to The trouble of Gaining Accreditation?
1) Money – It's the driving force of many business decisions and some schools will pay the price for the highest quality and others will not.
Costs associated with accreditation include submission fees for accreditation, annual dues, fees paid for each certification issued, fees for the examiner to visit a site and others. A quality TEFL training program will make the necessary investments to offer an accredited TEFL course.
Professor salaries – Accreditation boards want to ensure that instructors hold a high level of education and experience, an MA/Ph.D. or a Diploma, DELTA and many years of English teaching experience. Experienced professor salaries come at a cost. High-quality instructors command a significantly higher wage than trainers without the necessary educational credentials and experience.
Student-teacher ratio – A standard maximum student-teacher ratio is 12 students per instructor for an in-person class. Schools that pack 20-30 students in a classroom to keep their costs low are not following many accreditation standards.
2) Time – The process of accreditation typically takes six-twelve months and entails volumes of paperwork. Even after the process is complete, an accredited TEFL course requires extensive record-keeping and auditing of documents, tests, exams, course materials and more, all of which require time and money.
3) Course content does not meet international standards – Many TEFL companies offer weekend in-person courses that do not have enough content to be accredited (100 class hours). Some companies also offer cheap online classes that are not taught by qualified instructors and do not incorporate a practicum or an accredited curriculum. Such outfits operate on a business model based on high volume with high profits and low salary time for their instructors and classroom rental.
4) Student teaching time with ESL students - It takes considerable time, money, and resources to organize live practice teaching with actual non-native ESL students for each TEFL class. Some TEFL schools will tout their “student teaching time,” which is in fact solely role-playing with fellow TEFL class participants (not a combination of practice with co-students and ESL students). Unfortunately, you cannot fake not understanding English and pretend to be a student. Role-playing alone is not a satisfactory equivalent of “live” English teaching either.
It is equivalent to a doctor not seeing real patients during their residency for 3 years after medical school, but simply “playing doctor” on fake patients pretending to be sick, have broken bones, or need an operation. Role-playing can be a valuable teaching tool, but it is not a substitute for live practice teaching with actual ESL students and will not be recognized by accrediting bodies as a valid practicum.
5) Graduation rates - TEFL accreditation organizations want to know a school’s graduation rate to verify that a TEFL training school is not simply taking people’s money and then failing them or allowing them to drop out.
6) Oversight - Some TEFL training programs simply do not want to go through the expense or inconvenience of subjecting their curriculum to external analysis. They may think they are “just that good” and that they don’t “need anyone to tell them.” In reality, they usually just don’t want to pay the financial costs of accreditation or risk the embarrassment of learning that their curriculum does not meet international standards. This is the same argument factories use in “self-policing themselves” with the dumping of their pollutants, they “don’t need a government organization telling them what to do” because they will do “the right thing” themselves.
Note: Some TEFL courses are not designed to provide a professional-level certification nor do they claim to be. Many courses are designed to supplement a full TEFL course or to provide an introduction to the field. In other cases, TEFL courses may be designed to provide basic ESL training to volunteers (e.g. a weekend TEFL course to go volunteer for 3 weeks in Ghana). Any training organization offering shorter or cheaper TEFL classes that do meet professional standards should state clearly what the benefits and limitations of those courses will be.
All this being said, a TEFL school could offer a quality class and not be accredited. However, you run the risk of limiting your employment opportunities and obtaining work visas in some countries by taking such a class. Some schools in some countries that require a 100 or 120 hour TEFL class by government law will accept any TEFL certification regardless of the content or accreditation from anyone. But at the end of the day, taking an accredited TEFL course will avail you of far more opportunities and prepare you to be a better teacher.
It's a long and windy road to choose a quality training institution in any field. By knowing the right questions you will be better equipped to make an informed evaluation that leads to the right decision for you.
International TEFL Academy believes in full transparency. We seek to demystify the TEFL industry and fully educate those wishing to teach English abroad. We hope to empower you to make the best quality decision regarding which TEFL school to choose and receive the highest standards of training to make your dream of living and teaching abroad a reality.
Read more: ITA's Vision Statement
John Bentley is Co-Founder & Senior Writer for International TEFL Academy (ITA), the world leader in TEFL certification for teaching English abroad. A graduate of Harvard University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, John is a recognized expert in the field of TEFL. His articles have appeared across the field's top websites, including GoAbroad.com, StudyAbroad.com, InterExchange, GoOverseas.com, Adventure Teaching, & many others. He has also spoken as an expert on Teaching English Abroad & TEFL certification at major conferences like MeetPlanGo and Lessons from Abroad (LFA) in Portland & San Diego.
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