How to Become an ESL Teacher

Updated March 30, 2023

Working as an ESL teacher, teaching non-English speakers how to speak English, can be a highly rewarding career. Aspiring ESL teachers have the option to teach students in their own country or abroad, and many have the flexibility of working remotely, via their computers, from wherever they choose. Learning about the different responsibilities and requirements for this role can help you evaluate whether this career path may be right for you. In this article, we discuss what an ESL teacher does, the steps you can take to become one and the most common requirements. We also answer some of the most frequently asked questions about being an ESL teacher.

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What does an ESL teacher do?

An ESL teacher educates students whose first language isn't English. They may work with students or adult studies of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds. ESL, which stands for English as a second language, involves instructing students on reading, writing and how to converse effectively. They often use real-life context to help students better understand the complexities of the language. ESL teachers who work in the public school system may work with students of all ages, often taking them from their regular classes to work with them individually or in small groups to improve their English-speaking skills.

ESL teachers are responsible for preparing lesson plans, customizing their lessons to accommodate differences in learning style and preparing progress reports. These teachers often spend evenings or weekends grading papers, meeting with parents or other members of the school's faculty or planning lessons. ESL teachers who work with adult learners, in particular, are often required to work outside of business hours to accommodate the working schedule of their fully employed students. They need to be flexible in their teaching style to effectively work with students of all levels. Some of their primary responsibilities include:

  • Presenting educational material to students

  • Remaining knowledgeable about differences in culture

  • Evaluating student progress

  • Helping students overcome difficulties whenever possible

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How to become an ESL teacher

Here are the basic steps you can take to become an ESL teacher:

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree.

  2. Consider training in a second language.

  3. Obtain ESL training.

  4. Obtain a license.

  5. Consider a master's degree.

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

All ESL teachers are required to hold a minimum of a bachelor's degree, preferably in education, writing, English or teaching English as a foreign language. Students should complete coursework on topics like how to motivate adult learners, developing lesson plans, working with people with learning disabilities, teaching diverse cultures and using technology to teach.

2. Consider training in a second language

While this isn't a required step, it's highly preferential for ESL teachers to learn a second language. Aspiring ESL teachers could pursue a certificate, undergraduate degree or master's program in another language to better equip themselves to communicate with non-English speaking students.

3. Obtain ESL training

After completing their bachelor's degree, teachers must complete an ESL training program. This will teach them how to assess a student's language skills, practice conversational skills and teach English language grammar. It will also allow them to meet the requirements for licensure.

4. Obtain a license

As with other teachers, ESL teachers need to have a license to qualify for a professional position. Because the requirements can vary internationally and by state, it's important to research the requirements for your geographic location.

5. Consider a master's degree

While not required, a master's degree can increase your employment opportunities and qualify you for more advanced, higher-paying positions. Coursework that you might explore in a master's program includes literacy development, linguistics and academic English.

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Common requirements for ESL teachers

There are a number of requirements for ESL teachers, including:

A bachelor's degree

Most schools prefer that teachers hold a four-year degree in education or another closely related field.

TEFL/TESOL certification

These certifications are the most commonly recognized qualification for teaching English to non-native speakers. TESOL is designed for teaching English to second-language speakers in an English-speaking country, while TEFL is for those who will be teaching ESL in a non-English speaking country. Many positions, however, will treat the certifications as equivalent.

Computer literacy

ESL teachers often are required to teach classes online and therefore must be proficient with a computer.

Strong written and verbal communication skills

To help students master the English language in both written and oral form, ESL teachers must have exceptional written and verbal communication skills.

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FAQs about becoming an ESL teacher

Here are a few of the most common questions about being an ESL teacher:

Are ESL teachers in demand?

The projected career outlook for adult literacy and other similar careers, such as ESL teachers, is projected to be six percent, approximately the same rate as all other occupations.

How much does an ESL teacher make?

The national average salary for ESL teachers is $18.97 per hour and ranges from $960 to $29.75 per hour.

What are the top skills that ESL teachers need to be most effective in their roles?

There are a number of skills that ESL teachers need to be successful, including:

  • Interpersonal communication: A successful teacher should have a positive attitude and be able to motivate students to inspire them to want to learn the language better.

  • Cultural awareness: ESL teachers must be sensitive to cultural traditions and differences.

  • Foreign language skills: This isn't required, but students can often learn better if the teacher has learned the language of the students they are teaching.

  • Problem-solving skills: Because every student learns differently, ESL teachers must be good problem-solvers to find effective methods for teaching students when they are having trouble understanding the material.

  • Time management: Teaching ESL classes effectively requires teachers to be able to manage their time effectively as they manage a schedule, plan classes and move through the material in a timely manner.

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