How to Navigate the Path to Become an ESL Teacher

The number of English language learners (ELLs) in U.S. public schools reached 4.8 million in 2015, up 1 million since 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics' page about English Language Learners. As the number of students who speak English as a second language continues to grow, so does the need for teachers and educators who are certified to teach them.

Who Are English Language Learners?

English language learners are students whose first language is not English. More specifically, they’re “students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, who often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and who typically require specialized or modified instruction in both the English language and in their academic courses, according to the Glossary of Education Reform. The term ELLs is often used synonymously with bilingual students, English learners (ELs), or limited English proficient (LEP) students.

Who Teaches English Language Learners?

English language learners are taught by ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers who earn their master’s or certification in ESL, TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) or a related area. Part of the job of ESL teachers is to assess the English language skills of each student and help ensure that the proper instructional supports are provided to help them acquire content while reaching English proficiency. ESL teachers work with students of all ages, but the majority are employed by middle schools and high schools. The job market for ESL educators is expected to steadily grow over the next decade, according to the Glossary of Education Reform.

How to Become an ESL Teacher

The first step to becoming an ESL teacher is to earn a bachelor’s degree and take courses related to ESL certification. In some states, it is helpful to earn a masters to become an ESL teacher. ESL teachers do not need to be fluent in a language other than English but do need to complete the degree and certification requirements of the state in which they wish to teach. There are a number of acronyms associated with ESL teacher certification, which may cause confusion. Below is a breakdown of important acronyms to remember.

TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language

Teaching English as a second language in countries where English is the primary language.

TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language

Teaching English as a second language in non-English speaking countries.

TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

Teaching English to all students whose native language is not English. This is the umbrella category under which TESL and TEFL fall.

Certification requirements to become an ESL teacher vary by region. Check with your local schools for the most up to date requirements.

Careers for ESL Teachers

There are many career paths for teachers with certification to teach English language learners. Many teachers choose to teach ESL in K-12 public schools. Others choose to work internationally teaching English as a foreign language in universities or private language schools. Many foreign governments also hire ESL teachers to teach public school students. Other people tutor English language learners of all ages, independently or with a private company. The publishing industry also hires writers and editors to produce ESL content for educators. If you enjoy leadership and have significant teaching experience, you can work toward running an English language program in a school or international institution.

Resources for ESL Teachers

Here are some resources to support ESL teachers at various stages of certification:

  • TESOL International Association has a directory of degree and certification programs and connects TESOL educators for networking.
  • Lantern Fish offers worksheets, games and activities for ESL teachers working with younger students.
  • ESL Galaxy provides ESL teachers printable flashcards, worksheets and games for elementary school students.
  • Busy Teacher has more than 16,000 printable lesson plans and worksheets for ESL teachers.
  • Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Library offers many listening exercises for ESL students organized by level of difficulty.
  • GoAbroad features articles for those who want to teach English internationally.
  • Teaching Houseadvises how to find an ESL teaching job, with a useful job database.

Because there are multiple paths to becoming an ESL teacher, do your research, connect with online resources and programs, and see if a master’s degree in teaching is the right next step in earning your TESOL certification.

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