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If you’ve always enjoyed the English language and would like to teach, think beyond teaching Shakespeare and poetry in a high school—you could become an ESL teacher. 

ESL stands for English as a second language, so English as a second language teachers teach English to students who don’t speak English natively. Read on to find out how to become an ESL teacher, including opportunities for teaching adults and kids and working abroad.

What Is an ESL Teacher?

An ESL teacher teaches students English as their second language, which is very different from teaching English to students who natively speak English. While a non-ESL English teacher can assume their students will understand their instructions and can communicate verbally in English, this isn’t always the case for ESL teachers. 

ESL teachers may teach adults, teens, or kids; they may teach English classes online or in-person, in their home country or abroad, one-on-one or in a group setting. Wherever there’s a need for students to start learning or to improve their English, there is a need for ESL teachers.

Non-ESL English teachers may have some of the knowledge and skills required to be an ESL teacher, but there are other things you will need to know to teach ESL effectively. ESL teachers need to have a solid understanding of English grammar and how to teach it in an accessible way. They must also be able to understand the kinds of problems ESL learners have and to teach them without necessarily sharing the student’s first language.

While researching teaching English, you may come across the terms TESOL, ESOL, EFL, and EAL—these mean very similar things to ESL. TESOL stands for teaching English to speakers of other languages. ESOL stands for English for speakers of other languages. EFL stands for English as a foreign language. EAL stands for English as an additional language and refers specifically to multilingual students.

Become an ESL Teacher

Teaching English as a Foreign Language TEFL

What Do ESL Teachers Do?

On one hand, the answer to this question is obvious. They teach students how to speak English. But, on the other hand, ESL teachers do many different things depending on the level they’re teaching at and the environment they’re teaching in. 

Teaching ESL

ESL teachers teach in a variety of contexts including:

  • One-on-one tutoring of high school students in foreign countries via the internet to help them prepare for exams.
  • Group classes to new immigrants or refugees to help prepare them for life in an English-speaking country.
  • Classes for exchange students or intensive summer school participants.
  • In elementary, junior high, and high schools in foreign countries, to assist local teachers.
  • To students who are conversationally proficient but need to advance their skills for a business reason.
  • At universities in foreign countries for students of various levels who need to speak English for their degree.

Skills for Teaching English Language Learners

ESL teachers need to be aware of the common issues that trip up ESL learners. These vary depending on the student’s first language. Speakers of languages that are more closely related to English and use the same alphabet, like French or German, will have different issues to speakers of languages that are linguistically and historically very different, such as Japanese or Korean. 

ESL teachers don’t need to know their students’ first language, but they do need to thoroughly understand English phonetics, idioms, and beginner-to-advanced grammar in order to teach them effectively.

English Vocabulary

Teaching younger children often involves building vocabulary through the use of flashcards, songs, and games. After all, these learners don’t understand the concept of grammar in their own language, let alone a foreign one.

With older students, you may be able to ask them to learn lists of vocabulary on their own as homework. You can help them with pronunciation, but repeating vocabulary drills with teens or older students isn’t usually a great use of time. 

An exception is if you’re teaching English for a specific purpose, such as to corporate employees. People who want to learn English for business often have conversational skills already and want to brush up on the etiquette necessary for conducting business in English-language contexts. So, taking the time to review and explain vocabulary is often helpful for these students.

Conversational English

Adult ESL learners who aren’t studying for exams and don’t need to learn English for work are often motivated by becoming conversational in English. Many people around the world learn English to some degree at school, but this often puts a lot of emphasis on written English or grammar rules and neglects spoken English. ESL teachers can help students improve their spoken English, which includes pronunciation, common idioms, appropriate greetings, humor, and filler language.

How to Become an ESL Teacher

There are different ways to become an ESL teacher. Formal qualifications can help you secure better paying and more stable work and will often make you a better teacher.

Get a Degree

A degree in English, linguistics, education, or a related field will prepare you to become an ESL teacher, but ESL is not typically taught as an entire degree. Instead, graduates of a similar degree can take graduate programs or complete English as a second language teaching certificates. 

If you know you want to spend your whole career teaching ESL, consider a formal teaching degree with relevant ESL teaching add-ons.

Take Classes

If you’re interested in teaching ESL long-term, perhaps while traveling abroad, taking a few classes in English grammar and composition can sharpen your knowledge without the time requirement of a full degree. 

Get a Certification in Teaching English as a Second Language

TESOL certification is a good option if you’re committed to teaching ESL at home, in schools and colleges abroad. A TESOL certificate gives potential employers confidence that you have the right training and knowledge to be an effective teacher. 

Does it Help to Have Knowledge of a Foreign Language?

While you don’t need to know a foreign language to be an ESL teacher, it can certainly be useful. If you want to teach in a foreign country, knowing the language used in that country will help you communicate with your students. Be aware that in many ESL learning environments, use of a language other than English is discouraged.

But, knowing a foreign language as an ESL teacher will help you better understand the way English is constructed and will help you empathize with your students. You’ll know first hand how hard it is to learn a foreign language. It may make you more patient with your students as a result.

How to Teach English as a Second Language

An ESL teaching career can take many different forms. If you decide it’s something you want to do as a career or something only for the short-term, consider the option that best fits your preferred lifestyle.

ESL Online Teaching Jobs

Universities, colleges, and private English language schools in foreign countries often need trained ESL teachers who can work online. The down side: you will likely need to be available during their working hours. ESL online teaching jobs may include pronunciation, conversation, and providing feedback for written assignments. Teaching English online is a good option if you want flexibility or part-time work rather than a full-time teaching job.

In-Person TESOL Jobs

At home, in-person jobs may be available in colleges, community centers, or private language schools. The latter are especially common in cities that are popular destinations for foreign exchange students.

English as a Second Language Teaching Jobs Abroad

Some people are attracted to ESL teaching because of the potential travel opportunities. If you want to teach English abroad, you may work in a public school, university, or private language school. A huge variety of countries welcome ESL teachers for shorter or longer-term stays including Japan, China, Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and Spain. 

English as a Second Language Teaching Jobs Salary

The English as a second language teacher salary varies depending on the position and the location of the job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the average annual salary for an ESL teacher as $55,350 in 2020 for jobs in the U.S.

But, if you’re strategic about where you work abroad, you may be able to earn much more than that. The UAE and other countries in the Middle East are known for their high, tax-free salaries and providing housing for foreigners. Some ESL teachers relocate long-term for these kinds of jobs, while others commit to just a year or two.

Begin Your ESL Teaching Career

So what are you waiting for? Whether you love teaching little kids or executives, whether you’re looking for travel opportunities or to help immigrants closer to home, ESL teaching can be a rewarding career. It’s not easy. However, you’ll learn more about effective communication and global cultures. Enjoy the journey!

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