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What is ESL? A Comprehensive Guide to the World of Teaching English

Learn what ESL means and the opportunities for teaching English as a second language around the globe.

If you have a passion for connecting with individuals from diverse backgrounds and want to acquire a skill set that can open doors to professional opportunities both locally and globally, then teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) might just be the perfect career choice for you! With over 1.5 billion people worldwide learning English and more than 5 million students enrolled in ESL classes in American public schools, the field of teaching English offers a wide range of possibilities and is one of the fastest-growing sectors in international education.

As an ESL teacher, the possibilities are endless. You have the opportunity to teach English to professionals in Madrid, inspire and empower high school students in Tokyo, and make a lasting impact on the lives of young learners and adults in your local community. But that's not all - with the power of technology, you can even reach students halfway across the world through teaching English online! Imagine the incredible connections you can make and the lives you can change by helping people learn English. The world truly becomes your classroom when you embark on a career in teaching English as a Second Language.

What is ESL?

ESL stands for English as a Second Language. It refers to the teaching and learning of English by non-native speakers. ESL programs focus on language skills, including speaking, listening, reading, and writing, to help individuals communicate effectively in English-speaking environments.

ESL encapsulates the dynamic field of teaching English to non-native speakers. Much like its counterparts, Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), ESL opens doors to a myriad of professional opportunities for teaching English abroad and in native-English-speaking countries. 

Understanding the Terminology: ESL, TEFL, TESOL, and TESL

In the vast landscape of language instruction, the terms ESL, TEFL, TESOL, and TESL often intermingle. Essentially, they share the common goal of teaching English to non-native speakers. While TEFL and TESOL are generally interchangeable, on a more technical level, TESOL is the term applied to the teaching of English to non-native speakers in native English-speaking countries. It refers to those who will earn degrees and teach ESL in the field domestically in the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and the U.S.

"TEFL" is the term most commonly used when referring to teaching English in foreign, non-native-speaking nations. TESL also refers to the teaching of English in native English-speaking countries. 

Read More: TEFL, TESOL, TESL, CELTA, DELTA: What's The Difference?

Is There Demand for ESL Teachers?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), ESL learners number over 5 million students and comprise about 10% of the entire student body in U.S. K-12 classrooms. In addition, more than one billion people are learning English worldwide. So demand for ESL teachers is very high across the board.

Why is Demand So High for English Language Instruction?

In today's globalized and digitalized economy, English has established itself as the primary language for international commerce, education, travel, the Internet, health services, and many other fields. Learning English has become essential for individuals worldwide, offering them enhanced personal, educational, and professional opportunities.

Even in non-English speaking countries, English proficiency is often a requirement for high-paying jobs and admission into top university programs. Millions of people also aspire to study, work, or immigrate to English-speaking countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, where achieving a high level of English fluency is crucial.

What Are The Benefits of Teaching ESL?

ESL teaching offers numerous benefits, both professionally and personally.  As a fast-growing field with worldwide demand, it provides opportunities to make a sustainable income almost anywhere in the world. Furthermore, it enables you to make a positive, life-changing impact on the lives of your students.

Global Career Opportunities

With the demand for English teachers growing exponentially, ESL teaching opens doors to exploring the world. From Asia to Europe, Latin America to the Middle East, there are abundant opportunities for aspiring teachers. Because demand is high and so widespread, no field may offer more opportunities to work overseas for a native or fluent English speaker than teaching English as a second language (ESL). So, if you want to live abroad and travel the world, getting TEFL certified and teaching ESL is an option you should consider.

Read more: Teach English Abroad Overview

Cultural Immersion

Whether you teach in your country or abroad, teaching ESL allows you to interact with people from a wide array of cultural backgrounds. It presents a unique opportunity to broaden your horizons and establish meaningful connections with people in your local community and from across the globe.

Personal Growth and Development

As an ESL teacher, you will develop essential skills such as communication, group management, public speaking, organizational skills, adaptability, and cultural sensitivity. These skills are not only invaluable in the classroom but also transferable to various other professional settings. 

Read More: What are the Benefits of Teaching English Abroad?

An ESL Teacher and his young students in South Korea

How Much Can I Earn Teaching ESL? 

According to GlassDoor.com, the average salary for an ESL teacher (which requires university-level TESOL training for teaching in public schools) is $50,953 in the United States. Teachers with a Master’s Degree in TESOL and experience will typically make more

Based on factors such as qualifications, experience, and training, individuals with a TEFL certification or another qualification for teaching ESL have the potential to earn between $20 and $80 per hour teaching outside of the public school system. These opportunities can be found in the private sector as tutors or teaching adult students in private language institutes.

How Much Can I Make Teaching ESL Abroad?

English teacher salaries around the world for those with a TESOL or TEFL certificate (or a degree in TESOL) vary greatly depending on the country, the type of school, and other factors. Countries where ESL teachers make the highest salaries (and often receive benefits like free airfare, health insurance, and housing), include Asian nations such as South Korea and Japan, as well as Persian Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. 

Native speakers with advanced credentials such as a degree in education, a degree in TESOL, and a teaching license from nations like the U.S. or U.K. may qualify for ESL teaching positions at private international schools or universities that can pay $50K - $100K and often include benefits like housing, annual home leave, and health insurance. 

Read More: How Much Can I Earn Teaching English Abroad?

How Can I Teach ESL Abroad?

A TEFL certification is a globally recognized credential that certifies an individual's qualification to teach English as a foreign language, typically in non-native English-speaking countries. Whether in a foreign country or online, this certification is often a prerequisite for ESL teaching positions. 

You can also teach English abroad if you possess a degree in education or TESOL.  However, even if you are an experienced teacher with advanced credentials, if you don't have specific experience in the field of teaching English as a second language, taking an accredited TEFL course will provide training and a recognized qualification you need to get hired by legitimate employers worldwide. 

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Do I Need Teaching Experience or an Education Degree to Teach ESL Abroad?

You do not need prior teaching experience or even a college degree to take a TEFL certification and teach English abroad, though many jobs have specific requirements for more advanced credentials, and some countries have national requirements for a degree or a teaching license, especially for more advanced ESL teaching positions.  

Read More: What are the Basic Requirements for Teaching English Abroad?

How Does TEFL Certification Work?

Accredited TEFL certification programs provide comprehensive training, encompassing at least 100 hours of coursework and a practicum involving live teaching with non-native English speakers. These programs, guided by qualified instructors, adhere to standards set by independent organizations within the field. Job search guidance is a valuable component, ensuring that certified individuals are well-equipped for the ESL teaching landscape.

Read More: Accredited TEFL Courses Offered Online & Around the World   

Navigating TEFL Certification Course Options

TEFL certification programs for teaching ESL abroad and online are available both in-person and online. Completion of these programs results in the award of a TEFL certificate, a testament to an individual's readiness to teach English globally. When choosing a program, accreditation becomes paramount, guaranteeing high-quality training and adherence to educational standards.

An accredited TEFL certification school will provide training from a highly qualified instructor covering the skills and tools you will need to work as a professional English teacher. Professional-level TEFL courses must meet certain standards and include live practice teaching. These standards include:

  • At least 100 hours of coursework (equivalent to a four-week intensive, full-time in-person TEFL class);
  • At least 6-20 hours of practicum (live practice teaching and observation with actual non-native English speakers and NOT role-playing with fellow TEFL classmates);
  • An accredited curriculum from a recognized, independent organization within the field;
  • Instruction provided by a qualified instructor (who has an equivalent to a Master's Degree in TESOL or a related field);
  • It is also recommended that you take your TEFL certification course from an organization that provides comprehensive job search guidance.  

Read More: Why Accreditation for TEFL Certification is Critical

Can I Earn A Valid TEFL Certification Online for Teaching ESL Abroad?

The rise of online education prompts the question: Can online TEFL certification be recognized by employers worldwide? The answer is affirmative, provided the online course is accredited and meets professional standards. However, caution is advised, as some online courses lack essential components such as a practicum, diminishing their recognition in the ESL job market.   

Read More:  Award-Winning Part-time & Intensive Online TEFL Course Options

a female ESL teacher with her ESL students

What are the Requirements to Teach ESL in American Public Schools?

Requirements for obtaining a teaching position in ESL at a U.S. public school can vary depending on the state and school district. Generally, a bachelor's degree is required, preferably in education or TESOL. Individuals without a TESOL degree will often need to obtain a certification that includes ESL-specific training.

Expert Tip: Are you considering a career as an ESL teacher but uncertain if it's the right path for you? Gain practical experience by enrolling in a TEFL certification course and teaching English in a foreign country for a year or two to determine if teaching is your calling. Obtaining a TEFL certification is more cost-effective and less time-consuming than pursuing an additional degree in TESOL at the university level. Moreover, if you decide that teaching abroad isn't your passion, you'll save yourself from the expense of obtaining a master's in TESOL, while still experiencing the opportunity to work, live, and travel abroad!

Can I Teach ESL Online?

YES! With the explosion of online education, especially in the wake of the COVID pandemic, teaching English online has become a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry. This has created innumerable opportunities for those with a TEFL certification or a degree in TESOL to make income while impacting the lives of students around the globe.

Many certified ESL teachers overseas and in their home countries teach English online part-time as a way to supplement their income as an English teacher at a local school. Others teach English online full-time, which gives them the chance to move more frequently from country to country. Indeed, they can earn an income while teaching English online from anywhere as long as they have a strong Internet connection. Most teachers are able to make at least $10-$20 (USD) per hour to start.

Read More: Teaching English Online Explained

An online ESL teacher at his desk with laptop

Can I Make Money Tutoring ESL?

Like teaching English online, private tutoring and giving private lessons in ESL have become a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry. Across the globe, it is common for parents to invest heavily in private lessons to help their children get ahead in their English studies.  Likewise, many business professionals in sectors ranging from tourism to health services also take private language lessons to maximize their potential.

Many ESL teachers will recruit students for private tutoring on their own - essentially setting up their own tutoring business.  Others may get students assigned to them from a language school or website that matches students with teachers. Most first-time English teachers can make $10-$20 an hour, though rates will vary depending on the local market.  Teachers with more experience and advanced credentials can earn substantially more.

One of the most profitable areas for tutoring ESL is providing test preparation for English language proficiency exams. Each year, over 12 million individuals take English proficiency exams to qualify for employment, study abroad opportunities, and university programs that require English language skills. Due to the high stakes involved in passing these exams, prospective test takers often invest significantly in specialized training that guides and supports them in achieving success. In numerous countries, qualified tutors can earn $35-$55 or more per hour by offering private lessons for test preparation.

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