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How to Become a Certified ESL Teacher

Research the requirements to become a certified ESL teacher. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in education.

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Do I Want to Be a Certified ESL Teacher?

Teachers of English as a second language (ESL) work with non-native English speakers to improve their reading, comprehension and speaking of the English language. ESL teachers work with all levels of English learners and receive specific training and credentialing that enables them to work in school settings, community programs and private companies.

These instructors typically work with adult learners, who are generally disciplined and responsive in their studies. It may be more difficult to obtain full-time work in this field, however.

Job Requirements

Typically, public schools and some government-funded literacy programs require ESL teachers to have a postsecondary degree, along with teacher certification. They may earn their degree in education-related specializations. The following table contains essential requirements for ESL teachers:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree is required to work in public schools; adult literacy programs usually require ESL teachers to have a bachelor's degree****
Degree Field Education, adult education, bilingual education**
Licensure/Certification Varies by state; some requirements include passing PRAXIS exams, earning bilingual authorization and obtaining Cross-Cultural Language and Academic Development (CLAD) certificates**
Experience Entry level****
Key Skills Creativity, instructional skills, communication skills, cultural sensitivity****
Computer Skills Spreadsheet software, data entry software, educational software and equipment***
Additional Requirements Pass background check if planning to work in a public school****

Sources: *California Teachers of English to Speakers of other Languages, **Commission on Teacher Credentialing, ***O*NET Online, ****U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

To obtain a teaching position, applicants are generally required to hold a bachelor's degree. Prospective public school or adult ESL teachers should take courses in linguistics and theories of second language acquisition. ESL teachers are not required to be fluent in a second language. Most teacher education programs require the completion of an internship or residency, commonly known as student teaching. All states offer an alternative route to certification for people who have a bachelor's degree in a field other than education.

Success Tip:

  • Gain work experience. Employers of adult ESL teachers often prefer workers who have some teaching experience. Candidates can gain teaching experience by teaching children or adults.

Step 2: Obtain Certification

Requirements for ESL certification vary by state. The certification process for teaching K-12 students commonly includes passing a state licensing exam, completing an application, submitting college transcripts, taking a drug test and undergoing a criminal background check. Obtaining a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate may provide more teaching opportunities.

Step 3: Seek Professional Development

To keep up with the latest research and improve their teaching skills, many adult literacy teachers take professional development classes. Public school teachers are also required to meet professional growth requirements to keep their teaching licenses current. Each state sets its own mandatory minimum hours of professional development and other certificate renewal requirements. Some states have several certificates and authorizations for ESL teachers.

Step 4: Earn a Master's Degree

ESL teachers of adult students in colleges or universities may be required to obtain a master's degree. Master's degrees in adult education prepare prospective teachers to use successful teaching techniques and to work with students from various backgrounds. In some programs, teachers may specialize in adult basic education, secondary education or English as a second language (ESL).

Success Tip:

  • Join a professional organization. To stay informed about vital topics in the ESL teaching field, consider joining a professional organization, such as TESOL International Association, that serves teachers of students from diverse language backgrounds.
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