TEFL - Frequently Asked Questions


What's with all this EFL, ESL, TEFL, TESL, TESOL, ELT etc?

Confusingly, the English language teaching world has a bewildering array of abbreviations and acronyms, many of which mean the same thing, and most of which have no official significance.

ELT stands for English Language Teaching (or English Language Training - take your pick). This is a blanket term that covers all forms of English language acquisition, whether for native- or non-native speakers.

EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language and involves the acquisition of English by non-native speakers.

ESL stands for English as a Second Language and involves the acquisition of English by non-native speakers.

ESOL stands for English for Speakers of Other Languages and involves the acquisition of English by non-native speakers.

EAL stands for English as an Additional Language and involves the acquisition of English by non-native speakers.

TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language and involves teaching English to non-native speakers.

TESL stands for Teaching English as a Second Language and involves teaching English to non-native speakers.

TEAL stands for Teaching English as an Additional Language and involves teaching English to non-native speakers.

TESOL stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and involves teaching English to non-native speakers.

The acronym TESOL is also used by an American teachers' association, the full name of which is "Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.".

Are there any differences in the above terms?

Theoretically, EFL is for non-native speakers learning English in a non-English-speaking environment (typically learners in their own countries). ESL is for non-native speakers learning English in an English-speaking environment (typically students on a language holiday or immigrants in an English-speaking country). There are some theoretical differences in the way that English is taught and acquired in these different situations, though with the growth of technology and communication many of these differences are becoming increasingly academic. In practice, many teachers make little distinction between the two terms, or are even aware of the distinction. It might be said that by and large British teachers, for example, instinctively use the term EFL, while North American teachers instinctively use the term ESL. The term EAL seems to be an attempt at political correctness, neatly avoiding the nasty inference of "foreign" while accepting that many learners may well be on their third, fourth or fifth language.

Is it necessary to speak a foreign language?

In general, today's communicative approach to teaching English requires that the teacher speak only in English. Speaking a foreign language is therefore of no particular value. Indeed, if you are teaching a class of students who have ten different mother tongues, as is not impossible, even your fluency in say three foreign languages would have little relevance. The ability, therefore, to speak a foreign language is not a requirement for teaching English. Having said that, some experience of learning and speaking a foreign language will help you understand language in general and how we learn it, as well as help you learn more about English - especially English grammar - itself. If you are teaching in a foreign country, some knowledge of that country's language and culture can also make your life easier and enrich your experience.

Are there any age limits for TEFL?

Yes and no. This depends very much on the country, the culture, the school, the type of students the school may have, the principal's dogmas, and legal requirements. It can work both ways. Some schools actually prefer more mature teachers, especially if their clientele are mainly business people. Others consider - rightly or wrongly - that younger teachers are more "dynamic". Some countries are so desperate for teachers that age is irrelevant. EFL teachers can be any age from 18 to 80, though it has to be said that it is more difficult to find employment under 21 and over 50. Also, some countries have compulsory retirement ages of around 60 or 65. But in general, don't let the question of age put you off. With a good TEFL certificate, you will find employment somewhere.

What if English is not my mother-tongue?

If you have a good TEFL certificate, not being a native speaker should not be a problem. One of the entrance requirements for any serious TEFL course is the ability to speak (and write) English fluently. Thus anyone - native- or non-native speaker - with a good TEFL certificate should be on a level footing. Having said that, some governments grant work permits for teaching English only to native speakers. Non-native speakers who have not taken a serious TEFL course can still find employment, but may encounter resistance and will certainly need to demonstrate a very high degree of fluency.

Can I make a real career out of TEFL?

Yes, if you want to. There are many opportunities for long-term or permanent positions, or for advancement to Director of Studies or administrative positions. Other possibilities are teacher training and materials writing. But a real career in TEFL almost always requires at least a heavy-weight TEFL certificate (for example Cambridge ELT or Trinity) and for more senior positions a TEFL diploma or degree or similar.

Getting Trained

I am EMT (English mother tongue). Do I really need a special TEFL certificate or training?

First of all, a TEFL certificate - especially a recognized one - will open a lot of doors. Secondly, with the experience gained by working for a TEFL certificate you will be well-equipped to teach under many different conditions. You will have much more confidence, not to mention competence. However, some schools do accept untrained teachers. Be prepared to accept a lower salary without training, and perhaps to be taken advantage of. If you are serious about a TEFL career, especially in more competitive countries, you would be well advised to get yourself a good TEFL certificate.

How quickly can I get a TEFL certificate?

Very quickly, comparatively. Even the world's most widely acknowledged TEFL certificate - the Cambridge CELTA - takes only 4 weeks if you do the intensive course. The Trinity CertTESOL takes a similar time, and there are many other TEFL certificate courses that can be accomplished in 4 weeks. Most of these courses can also be done part-time over, say, a year or 18 months. You will also see some courses that take less than 4 weeks, but they may not be accepted by all employers. In general, most accredited courses consist of a minimum of 120 hours and 6 observed teaching sessions.

Are there any distance-learning TEFL courses?

Yes there are. But you should recognize that an important component of any serious TEFL course is teaching practice with real, live students. Institutions that offer onsite TEFL training often also offer language courses to students, and so have a ready pool of guinea-pigs for their trainee teachers. One disadvantage of distance TEFL courses may be the difficulty of arranging teaching practice. However, online TEFL courses are increasingly accepted, with Cambridge now offering a "blended" CELTA course which is part online and part onsite.

So which TEFL certificate is best?

It's important to realize that the simple terms "TEFL" and "TESOL" have no official significance whatsoever. Consequently, the terms "TEFL Certificate" or "TESOL Certificate" do not of themselves endow a certificate with recognition. The best TEFL/TESOL training courses are externally validated, i.e. they are vetted and checked by a body that is officially recognized - such as UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate). A good question to ask any course provider, therefore, is: "Is your course externally validated, if so by whom and if not why not?" Three widely recognized certificates are the Cambridge CELTA, the Trinity CertTESOL and the SIT TESOL Certificate. See also: 10 Misleading Claims By TEFL Course Providers

How do I find a TEFL course?

You can look in the TEFL Course Database, which lists TEFL-type teacher training courses worldwide, including distance courses. Or check out any local British Council office, university or language school, many of whom offer TEFL courses or may be able to advise you. ELT magazines and newspapers such as the EL Gazette also carry listings or advertisements for TEFL courses. If you are in a really out of the way spot and simply cannot find something suitable, try asking on one of the TEFL forums such as the TEFL.net Forum.

Getting a Job

Are there really any jobs for me?

Yes, there are. Rightly or wrongly, the whole world wants to learn English. People everywhere, especially young people, are convinced that speaking good English is their passport to a successful career. What is more, they are being encouraged in this by many governments. Worldwide, there are many more TEFL jobs than there are qualified EFL teachers to fill them (though it should not be forgotten that English is also taught by perfectly competent non-native teachers). EMT (English mother tongue) teachers and other qualified teachers are in high demand in virtually all parts of the world. However, English teachers may find it more difficult to break into other English-speaking countries. And in general, schools in Western Europe express a preference for teachers with an EU passport as working papers are then automatic.

So where are all these jobs?

Everywhere. Though you must realize that economic conditions in individual countries do impose restrictions on supply and demand. Virtually all parts of the world - Latin America, Asia, Eastern/Central Europe, Western Europe - welcome qualified English teachers. Africa has some demand, but less so. There is, of course, also demand in English-speaking countries such as the UK, USA and Australia.

Which countries pay best?

If making money is your chief preoccupation you'd be better off becoming a lawyer and going into politics. There are no really rich pickings in teaching, though there are other compensations. However, in comparative terms the highest paying jobs are in Western Europe; the oil-producing countries of the Arabian Gulf; and in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Some jobs within the English-speaking countries may also be reasonably well paid.

Must I have a university degree to teach English?

A degree is often not required to teach EFL/ESL. The more important qualification is some kind of TEFL certificate. Experience can also count highly. The snag is that in many countries, especially in Asia and the Middle East, a working permit will not be granted without a degree. So a degree is more to satisfy the country's authorities than the language institute's real requirements. With a TEFL certificate, it is certainly possible to find work without a degree, but you should check the country's legal requirements in advance - or be prepared to work illegally, which is not unheard of.

Can my partner go with me?

You can usually take your wife or husband with you if you have been offered a legal job with visa and working permit. However, she or he may not be allowed to work and you may find it difficult to support a dependant on a teacher's income. If, however, your partner is also an EFL teacher, you could probably both find work in the same school or town.

What about taking children abroad?

With a legal job you can usually obtain a resident's visa for your children, though again you may have difficulty in supporting them on a teacher's income. There would also be the question of their education, which in many cases would prove exorbitantly expensive.

Should I find a job before going abroad?

Very much up to you and the country in question. If you like adventure, and have a good TEFL certificate - and perhaps a degree for working permit purposes - you might jet off with the reasonable confidence of finding work when you land. If you are a little more staid, or nervous, or cash-strapped, you might do better to fix it all up before leaving. This is six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. Employers in some countries actually prefer to see the whites of your eyes and are not interested in talk of video-conferencing or Internet interviews. Other employers may have agents in your own country and prefer to recruit in that way.

How do I arrange a job from home?

First of all, watch the job advertisements and contact possible employers. Check out job offers on Tefl.NET Jobs Board and other job sites. You can also post your CV/resume in various online resume banks to let employers know that you are available for work. For advice about preparing an effective CV/resume and covering letter, check out 7 Resume Tips.

How do I know that a foreign employer is reputable?

If you are employed by an international organization such as the British Council or International House you probably already have some knowledge of that organization's status and reputation, or can easily verify it. For less well known institutions, try looking on Internet forums for more information or ask the employer to put you in contact with existing or past employees.

Is there a specific time when most jobs start?

Generally speaking, teaching EFL is a year-round business with no particular calendar or holidays. Even if schools employ teachers at the start of their "academic year", teachers leave or additional clients arrive unexpectedly so job opportunities arise during the course of the year. It is true, however, that in Europe there is a particular demand for teachers to start in September or October.

How long a commitment will I have to make?

Most good employers will expect you to sign a contract for at least one year, especially for a job arranged in advance with airfare and accommodation. For a few government-sponsored programs like the Peace Corps, longer is required. However, if you are in the country itself, you can often work on a monthly basis if it suits you better.

Do I have to get a work permit and residence visa?

To work legally in a foreign country you need a work permit, with which you can then get a resident's visa. You should be aware that working in a foreign country without a work permit is usually a criminal offence in that country and you render yourself liable to imprisonment, fines and/or deportation. Having said that, many EFL teachers do work illegally in many parts of the world.

So how do I get this work permit?

You won't get any work permit without a job, or at least a firm job offer. Once you have that, your employer will normally sponsor you and take care of the necessary paperwork.

Working Conditions

Who will I be teaching?

This depends to some extent on the school, but in general all kinds of people are learning English. You may be asked to teach students of all ages, of all levels, in groups or one-to-one, general English, business English, exam preparation and so on. The more flexible you are in this respect the more hours you will probably get. Schools are usually quite sensitive to their teachers' capabilities and will try to match you to the most appropriate students.

What are typical working hours?

Schools in most countries will expect you to work five days a week, with 20 to 25 contact hours (plus preparation time). Depending on your contract - full-time or hourly - you may have something like 6 or 8 weeks of paid holidays (if you're paid by the hour you may get no paid holidays, just a higher hourly rate). In some of the better paid Asian countries such as Korea or Japan you may be required to teach much longer hours and receive less time for holidays. You should be aware that though it may not seem much, 25 contact hours a week is actually more than enough for most human beings, and anything over that - especially on a long-term basis - can be quite strenuous.

How much will I be paid?

Not enough! :-( Don't enter TEFL for money's sake. It's difficult to quantify earnings as they vary so much from country to country and are in any event relative. In most places, with a reputable employer, you will earn enough to get by comfortably in local terms. However, very few countries or jobs will allow you to live well and save money. In general, you need to consider the cost of living of the country you are in. For example, a miserable pittance in Eastern Europe may in fact allow you to live better than a relatively high monthly salary in Japan.

What currency will I be paid in?

Almost always you will be paid in the local currency.

Will I earn enough to send money home?

Unlikely, unless you are particularly frugal. In the Middle East and some Asian countries, you may be able to save worthwhile amounts of money to send home. Elsewhere, you are unlikely to be able to save much, if anything, and may in any case find that exchange controls make it impossible to repatriate your savings.

What happens with taxes?

If you are legally employed you will usually be taxed at source and pay taxes and other relevant charges to the local government.

What about accommodation?

You are more likely to have accommodation arranged and perhaps paid for or subsidized if you secure a job in advance with a contract of one year or more, especially for jobs in Asia or the Middle East. You may find, however, that you are expected to share such accommodation with other teachers.

And travel? Will the school pay for it?

Again, for contracts arranged overseas in advance, travel is often paid for. It is much more difficult to get travel subsidies for jobs that you sign up for on the spot.

Will I have health insurance?

Many countries outside Europe and North America have little or no national health service and you will need to check with the school whether they provide private cover, or be prepared to pay a little extra to sign up for a local healthcare programme.

What about private lessons?

In general, employment contracts exclude the possibility of taking on private students without prior permission from your employer. However, if your regular teaching is going well, many employers will not prevent you from taking on private students (as long as you find them yourself and do not take them from the employer).

What if I really don't fit with the job or the country?

Most employers know that an unhappy teacher is a bad teacher. If you are genuinely unhappy with your position, they will often allow you to quit as soon as they can find a replacement. If, however, they have incurred costs such as travel or visa arrangements, you may be required to repay some or all of those costs. In general, you should thoroughly research the job and country you are going to in advance to avoid such a situation.