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TEFL, TESOL, ESL, CELTA. Help! Which Certificate Do I Need to Teach English Abroad?

Updated on November 1, 2015
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Ava moved to China in 2012. As a TEFL teacher she coaches students through the speaking part of their English examinations.

Why teach ESL? (English as a Second Language)


Being able to teach English to non-native speakers is a fantastic skill which can take you to wherever there is a demand; basically many countries on several continents.

You can travel to a new place at the end of each teaching contract or fall in love with a place and stay for many years getting to truly know the people and the culture all while doing something which you love and being paid for it.

Bear in mind that teaching English as a Second Language will never make you rich in financial terms but the opportunities for personal growth and development while positively influencing your students and making lifelong memories are priceless.

TEFL, TESOL, ESL, CELTA. What exactly are they?

Shenzhen City, South China
Shenzhen City, South China | Source

This is what the acronyms mean

TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language

TESOL: Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language

ESL: English as a Second Language

CELTA: Certificate in English Language Teaching to Speakers of Other Languages.

These are the standard and internationally recognized qualifications specific to teaching oral English language skills.

You don’t need all of them, one is definitely enough and it shows potential employers at better run organisations with good pay that tutors are serious about their work and plan to do a good job.

Realistically speaking, it can be harder to find work as an ESL teacher if you’re a non-native speaker. This is an instance when having a TEFL qualification can be the extra tool that you need to get the job.

Having said that, I should also mention that there are plenty of employers who don’t require a TEFL qualification so it’s really up to you to decide if you want to undertake this self-investment prior to applying for a teaching job abroad.

Some people believe that having a TEFL qualification means the difference between an offer of a good paying job in a great place, or not.

Is there any difference between them?

Futian Business District, Shenzhen, South China
Futian Business District, Shenzhen, South China | Source

Essentially they all do the same thing which is give you a professional certification enabling you to teach English to non - native speakers who could be children or adults.

Just because you speak English doesn’t necessarily mean that you can teach it. You may be fine detailing the difference between the past, present and future tenses but could you fully explain and give an example for the pluperfect tense - a perfective tense used to express action completed in the past?

Not all students are complete beginners and some may ask you some very detailed questions about English grammar. After completing one of these courses you should be able to answer them competently which is what employers will expect from you; the knowledge that you can handle this, even if ultimately, you never have to.

TEFL, TESOL, ESL are all variations on a theme with similar training material, outcomes and cost. However, the CELTA aimed at a higher level of both teaching and learning, is significantly more expensive and more demanding of you as a learner. It’s mainly but not exclusively taught in England and, has a higher entrance requirement of an undergraduate degree, unlike the TEFL, TESOL or, ESL which only require you to have a good understanding of English.

Where can I get it?

Chinese ESL Students
Chinese ESL Students | Source

There is certainly no shortage of organisations which will give you ESL training. Some run two, three or five day courses. Others run courses at specific times of the year and, in addition, you can also do online courses.

Some of these will also give you job application advice, physical and on-line certificates and a letter of recommendation which can be handy if you have no former teaching experience. The trainers have usually worked abroad as ESL teachers and can answer any questions you have.

Some employers dislike online courses as this is a non-interactive route which doesn’t give you practical teaching experience. For this reason, many prospective ESL teachers will initially do a physical course in a classroom with an experienced teacher and then follow this up with an online course perhaps covering specific areas of grammar.

You could also travel to your chosen destination and do a course there, for example in Mexico or Thailand. This could obviously be costly as you’ll have to pay course fees, accommodation and food, in which case consider it a training holiday with a definite benefit and outcome. You may even find it easier to pick up a job immediately on finishing.

ESL training courses are offered and withdrawn constantly which is why I purposely haven’t listed any here in case they disappear by the time you read this article. A quick google search should show you what’s currently available in your area or online and where and how to access it.

How long will it take?


This depends on the path you choose. The Celta course lasts a year. Other ESL courses usually last about a week or just under, sometimes full a full intensive weekend. If you go for the online option it could last for several months.

What’s your personal timetable? How quickly do you want to be living and working abroad? One year? Two years? Six months? That’s the main factor to consider here.

Are ESL courses expensive?


Not necessarily. If you are unemployed there could be a discount. If you refer a friend you may get a two for one offer. It’s always worth asking about special offers and mentioning your particular circumstances.

Some online courses run special offers through Groupon, while others let you pay in installments. Some training organisations may ask you to pay to review their jobs board, however when you take and pass one of their courses, you can then view for free.

Why doesn’t my future employer pay?


It’s not really a practical option for them as they don’t know about you until they interview and or recruit you. Added to this is the fact that they will probably only hire you for a year or two before you move on, so they won’t be in a hurry to spend too much money on you. Plus paying for the qualification from a developing country would be significantly more than paying for it in the westdue to exchange rates.

As I mentioned earlier, when you undertake this yourself it’s the type of self-investment which signals to the employer that you’re serious about this particular career path, which, in essence is what they’re looking for.

How can I stand out from other job seekers with the same qualification?

ES Training Room
ES Training Room | Source

Good question but please don’t worry about this. Once you present your ESL qualification an employer will see you as halfway towards getting the job. On top of this you want to convey that you can encourage, motivate, influence and persuade your prospective students within a relaxed, understanding and upbeat atmosphere.

If you’re still in your home country a Skype interview will give you a chance to express these qualities. However if you’re already abroad and looking for work, you will be more than likely expected to do a demonstration class, again giving you a prime opportunity to show your stuff.

Final Thoughts


ESL training can be a lot of fun. You’ll be in a class with other learners of all different levels and from a variety of backgrounds, with one thing in common; the desire for a new direction.

A good organization will patiently answer all your questions and support you as you make the move. But who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy the class so much that you decide to become a trainer too and delay going abroad for a while.

Either way, be sure to do thorough research on exactly what’s being offered and don’t pay any money until you’re sure that this is the right course for you and that they offer a money back guarantee in the event that it isn’t.

As always, good luck! gives you ideas about other ways to earn a living in China


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