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How to become an ESL teacher

At a glance

  • ESL stands for “English as a second language,” and ESL teachers help ESL students learn English.
  • To become an ESL teacher, applicants typically need a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license.
  • ESL teachers can work in a variety of settings, from public K-12 schools to community colleges.
  • University of Phoenix can prepare students for a variety of careers. Explore available online education programs to learn more!

English as a second language (ESL) teachers provide English education to non-native speakers. These students take classes to become more English fluent, or they may know multiple languages but want to learn English. Under the guidance of an ESL instructor, students improve skills in speaking, writing, reading and comprehending English.

Other forms of ESL methods include Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL), Teaching English as a second language (TESL) and Teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). Whichever learning method they employ, ESL teachers help students communicate effectively in English and achieve their language learning goals.

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Responsibilities of an ESL teacher

ESL and ELL (English language learner) teachers handle many responsibilities on a daily basis. They perform tasks like lesson planning, class instruction and student mentorship. ESL/ELL instructors also create and grade exams, use technology as needed and provide support for those who need extra help.

Here are a few other responsibilities an ESL instructor should be prepared to undertake:

  • Evaluate language progress and development
  • Use technology like language learning software, instruction videos and online grading systems
  • Maintain records of attendance, progress and results

It’s also important these educators are culturally aware so they can navigate relationships with students from other countries.

Staying informed about the latest teaching techniques is also helpful for all teachers, including ESL and ELL instructors. This might mean attending conferences, obtaining certifications or pursuing additional degree programs that help teachers better serve students.

Helpful skills for teaching English as a second language

These types of teachers rely on a variety of skills to help them connect with students, recognize opportunities for improvement and empathize with those who might experience challenges during the learning process.

Teachers might rely on the following skills while teaching English as a second language:

  • Patience
  • Communication
  • Resourcefulness
  • Adaptability
  • Creativity and problem-solving
  • Observation
  • Time management
  • Technological proficiency

By leveraging these skills and cultural sensitivity, ESL teachers can create a supportive, inclusive learning environment.

Where ESL teachers can work

An ESL teacher might find teaching opportunities in one or more of the following places:

  • K-12 public schools
  • Private language schools
  • Community colleges and universities
  • Online academic institutions

A number of these teachers work with adult students instead of children. While some ESL teachers working with adults are employed by colleges and universities, others work directly with adult education centers. In some cases, ESL teachers will also work privately with businesses to train employees.

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Some terminology used during ESL instruction might be specific to a particular work environment. For example, English as an additional language (EAL) students are multilingual. They may have chosen to focus on English as a second, third or fourth language.

Depending on the state in which you live, you might also recognize abbreviations such as English language teaching (ELT) and English as an international language (EIL). Those abbreviations represent how various states describe their students whose first language is not English.

Global opportunities for ESL teachers

ESL teachers can work almost anywhere in the world. Institutes, language schools and universities around the world offer ESL teaching positions to instructors who can help students learn English as a second language.

Technologies in messaging and videoconferencing can also allow these teachers to work remotely. As long as you have the right software and a strong internet connection, you can connect with students who live all over the globe. You can also answer students’ questions, grade coursework and provide student support while working remotely.

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Education requirements for ESL teachers

Each state has different education requirements for becoming an ESL teacher. Aspiring ESL teachers typically need to follow certain steps to become eligible for hire. These can include earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree, obtaining a teaching license and completing specific ESL certifications.

1.   Earn a bachelor’s degree

At a minimum, most ESL teachers must complete a bachelor’s degree before they’re eligible for hire. In most countries, this undergraduate degree must be issued by an accredited university that offers a combination of coursework and student teaching opportunities.

Many aspiring ESL teachers will complete a bachelor’s degree in education or in a closely related field. These programs teach fundamentals that help the teachers develop students’ academic, social and cognitive skills.

2.   Obtain a teaching license

After completing a bachelor’s degree, ESL teachers need to obtain a teaching license in the state where they want to work. The licensure process requires teachers to complete classes, pass exams and finish a certain number of professional experience hours.

Requirements for obtaining a teaching license vary by state. States issue their own teaching licenses. In some cases, one state’s teaching certification might be transferable to another state with similar license requirements.

3.   Endorsements for teaching ESL

ESL teachers can further improve their skills by earning an additional certification or endorsement. Some positions require this. Endorsements can provide new skills in ESL instruction and may improve earning power and expand your career potential. In many cases, teachers could be required to additionally obtain state-recognized certification or endorsements to teach ESL in an elementary or secondary school.

 Some common ESL add-on certifications or endorsements are:

  • TEFL certificate: Certification designed for teachers working with students in non-native-speaking countries
  • TESOL certificate: A range of certificates made for ESL teachers at various skill levels
  • Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA): Comprehensive programs that provide training in ESL teaching and theory, including language analysis
  • Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults (DELTA): An advanced certification for experienced ESL teachers, which includes further teacher development and assessment

Additional certification allows ESL teachers to stay up to date in their industry. Among other skills, ESL certifications teach instructors how to relate to students, implement modern teaching techniques, create exams and connect with learners who might need special attention.

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4.   Consider a master’s degree

Teaching ESL in a college or university environment often requires a master’s degree in education.

Master’s programs improve your knowledge of education fundamentals and reinforce skills like problem-solving, decision-making and research. Some postsecondary schools, particularly those overseas, require that ESL teachers complete a doctoral degree in education before they are hired.

Some institutions offer ESL-specific master’s degree programs, though this specialty isn’t always required by employers. More often, learners can become ESL teachers through a combination of education and professional experience.

A master’s degree helps deepen students’ proficiency in, and respect for, a particular career path. Master’s program graduates develop an appreciation for learning materials and learn new ways to apply research, communication and collaboration skills.

How to gain experience teaching English as a second language

There are many ways to gain experience teaching English as a second language outside of ESL teaching jobs, something that is often a requirement when becoming an ESL teacher. Some people work as substitute teachers. This role allows future ESL teachers to develop skills and gain exposure to various classroom environments outside of ELS teacher jobs, whether it’s part-time or full-time work.

Some students transitioning from another career field might gain experience through a teaching certificate. Online certificate programs provide education for learners seeking specific skills. Such curricula are particularly helpful for professionals who might already have a bachelor’s degree in another field.

Education programs at University of Phoenix

University of Phoenix education programs do not prepare students for licensure, certification or endorsement as an ESL teacher. However, UOPX offers online education degree programs and certificates that teach vital skills such as leadership, cultural awareness and more. Here are a few degree options to consider if you’d like to learn more about flexible courses with a fixed tuition that fit those with a busy schedule:

  • Bachelor of Science in Education/Early Childhood Education — This program teaches curriculum planning, instructional practice, student engagement and many other valuable educational skills.
  • Bachelor of Science in Education/Elementary Education — If you’re eager to teach at the elementary school level, this program will help build your instructional and leadership skills and provide background on essential learning strategies.
  • Graduate Initial Teacher Certificate/Elementary — This certificate is intended for students who have no teaching experience. It focuses on skills necessary for teaching at the elementary level.
  • Graduate Initial Teacher Certificate/Secondary — This certificate is intended for students who have no teaching experience. It focuses on skills necessary for teaching at the secondary level.
  • Master of Arts in Education/Elementary Teacher Education — This degree program is designed to prepare you for teacher licensure and will help you build confidence as a general studies teacher in an elementary classroom. This master’s program includes a clinical component (field experience and student teaching), allowing candidates to acquire the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to positively impact student learning and development.
  • Master of Arts in Education/Secondary Teacher Education — This degree program is designed to prepare you for teacher licensure and will help you build confidence as a single-subject secondary teacher. Skills taught are classroom management, lesson planning, learning strategies, technology integration and more.
  • Master of Arts in Education/Adult Education and Training ­— This program is a graduate degree program intended for students interested in working with adult learners in an educational or training environment. Students learn how to apply professional ethics to their leadership practices, evaluate community factors to address the needs of diverse populations and more.
Photo of blog author Michael Feder smiling.


Michael Feder is a content marketing specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program and a New Jersey native!


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