TEFL. TESL. TESOL. CELTA. What's the difference?
English language learning is a multi-billion dollar industry that has been employing teachers around the globe for decades. However, one challenge that has persisted throughout these decades is standardization of qualifications. The is a multi-faceted dilemma indeed, due partly to an overwhelming demand for learning English, coupled with a lack of qualified teachers. Beyond economics, standardization of qualifications has also been difficult due to varying standards and regulations for education qualifications in different countries. The rapid growth of online ESL education adds a new element to this confusion, as a plethora of TEFL courses have popped up, lacking legitimate accreditations.
Organizations invested in the ESL industry have attempted to bring about some standards. For example, it is now widely accepted across the industry that an acceptable ESL teaching qualification should be based on a minimum of 100 contact (study) hours. A course with 120 contact hours has become the preferred industry baseline.
Most ESL teaching jobs today will require candidates to have at least a university degree and a qualification to teach English. Some employers may express a preference to candidates with a CELTA, DELTA, or DipTESOL. All this can be confusing to aspiring ESL teachers, who aren’t sure which qualification to attain.
In this post, we are going to set the record straight, so you make a decision that is most relevant to your specific situation and goals.
Understanding the Differences Between TEFL / TESL / TESOL / CELTA
Teaching English as a Foreign Language
The TEFL certification is intended for individuals who plan to teach English in countries where English is not the first language.
Teaching English as a Second Language
The TESL certification is intended for individuals planning to teach English in Canada and other countries where English is the first language, to students whose first language is not English.
Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
The TESOL certification is intended for individuals who plan to teach English to students whose first language is not English, anywhere in the world.
Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults
The CELTA qualification is intended for individuals who plan to teach English to adult students whose first language is not English, anywhere in the world.
Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL)
The TEFL certification is intended to prepare individuals to teach English in countries where English is not predominantly spoken amongst the local population. ESL learners who have limited exposure to English in their home countries will have different challenges and motivations than those who reside in countries where English is widely spoken. The TEFL certification is primarily designed to ensure teachers are adequately equipped with the skills and tools needed to be effective in this context.
While the TEFL market is comprised of learners of all ages, a large segment is comprised of young learners attending school, college, or university. Young learners may be primarily focused on learning the mechanics of English, such as grammar and verb tense usage, because they are regularly tested on these aspects of English during their studies. University students will be more focused on excelling in standardized tests to be admitted into university, either at home or abroad. Thus, a heavy emphasis is given to learning English language structures in addition to speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
Adult learners tend to study a mix of general conversation skills, English for specific purposes (ESP), and Business English. Their motivation, naturally, will be driven by their careers or professions, or improving their conversation skills to be more adept in situations pertaining to their work and social interactions. In some cases, parents and even local English teachers themselves will study English to improve their proficiency, for the purpose of helping their children and students develop their language skills.
Due to the ESL market demographics and the emergence of online ESL study, the TEFL certification has gradually become the de facto qualification. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for TEFL and TESOL to be used interchangeably.
The TEFL certification is not regulated by a single international governing body, so it is highly recommended that you choose a legitimate TEFL certification, accredited to meet national education qualification standards, such as the UK Ofqual Level 5 TEFL certification. In the U.S.A., TEFL certifications accredited to meet the US Department of Education standards is recommended. These TEFL qualifications will cost in and around $500, and will typically take 4-6 weeks to complete online or in-person.
Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL)
The TESL qualification prepares teachers to teach newcomers to an English speaking country whose first language is not English. Thus, TESL qualified teachers typically work in schools or in language centers in their own (English-speaking) countries. The TESL certification is particularly relevant for teaching English as a second language in Canada, where TESL certifications are recognized and must be validated by TESL Canada for meeting Canadian national standards.
Individuals who complete the TESL certification will be working mainly with people who are recent arrivals to an English speaking country. This type of ESL learner will have very different motivations to ESL learners living in their own countries where they have limited exposure to English. Students learning English as a second language will have regular exposure to English, and will have a higher level of motivation to integrate into their new English-speaking environment.
If you intend to teach English as a second language in Canada, you will need to earn a valid TESL or TESOL certification. In countries such as the UK or Australia, TESOL certifications are also regulated and would be an equivalent qualification to the TESL certification in Canada.
Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)
The TESOL certification is intended to be a generalist qualification for teaching English to ESL learners students, whether they reside in a non-English speaking country, or in an English speaking country. In many respects, the TESOL is a hybrid of TEFL and TESL qualifications, and is often used synonymously with TEFL. Hence, you may notice many TEFL certification courses referred to as TEFL/TESOL certifications, and in this context, both TEFL and TESOL certifications are acceptable qualifications for teaching in a non-English speaking country or online.
However, there are still differences, the main difference being advanced ESL qualifications, which typically use the TESOL acronym in their designations, such as DipTESOL, or M.Ed. TESOL. These qualifications are not necessary for most ESL teaching positions, but may be required along with relevant experience for positions in government schools, universities, and international schools. Some employers in the Middle East also require teachers to be qualified teachers in their home country. These employers typically pay handsome salaries and benefits, which come with an expectation for highly qualified teachers. Naturally, these qualifications also require a higher level of academic as well as financial commitment.
Most people who complete an accredited and regulated TEFL certification nowadays, are in essence earning a TESOL qualification as well.
Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA)
CELTA was once the most respected TEFL qualification, as it was designed by Cambridge English, which is a part of Cambridge University in the UK. Like the TESOL, it is intended for individuals who plan to teach English in a non-English speaking country, as well as in a country where English is the predominantly spoken language. CELTA, however, is designed to prepare individuals to teach adult ESL learners. There is an extension to the CELTA for teaching young learners, but you must first complete the CELTA to enroll in the extension.
CELTA has for long carried with it a prestige, and many employers would consider candidates with a CELTA qualification more desirable. While some employers today still prefer candidates who hold a CELTA qualification, the availability of higher quality TEFL certifications that rival CELTA, coupled with a higher demand for TEFL-qualified teachers worldwide, have taken away some of the shine that CELTA once had. That is by no means to say CELTA is any less in value.
CELTA is, in effect, a TEFL certificate requiring at least 120 hours of intensive study, covering practical teaching skills, as well as their underlying theories. It also includes real-life teaching experience.
If you intend to only teach adult ESL learners, then you might consider completing the CELTA. However, without also completing the Young Learners post-CELTA extension, you would be missing out on the much-needed skills to teach young ESL learners, who represent a significant (currently the largest, and thus, most lucrative) segment of the ESL market.
Completing the CELTA costs between $1,800 and $4,000, so it is a serious commitment of finances, time, and effort. To complete the CELTA requires 4 – 5 weeks of full-time study, which means you will fully-committed to studying for the CELTA during weekdays and completing assignments during your evenings and weekends. There is a part-time study option, which takes anywhere from a few months to a year of self-study. The Young Learners extension can be taken by CELTA graduates, and requires one week of additional study at a cost of about $900. Altogether, this is a significant investment of anywhere from $3,000 – $4,000, depending where you complete the course. Thus, we don’t recommend the CELTA qualification for most people due to the relatively high cost when compared to an equivalent TEFL certification.
CELTA is a Level 5 qualification according to the UK Ofqual, and is offered through Cambridge English and its partners. It can also be taken as a blended learning course, combining online self-study and hands-on teaching practice.3
Which Teaching Qualification is Right For You?
Teaching English in a non-English Speaking Country
Most people planning to teach English in a non-English speaking country will be adequately qualified with a university degree and a TEFL certification based on at least 120-hours of contact time.
There may be other criteria to meet, depending on which country you intend to teach in.
One of the most common requirements in many countries where ESL teachers are in high demand is citizenship in a country recognized as native English speaking. This requirement may indeed be imposed through local government regulations on hiring ESL teachers and issuing visas.
Teaching English Online
If you plan to teach online ESL, then the required qualifications will depend on company that employs you. Currently, the largest market for online ESL is China, and most online ESL employers based in China require teachers to have a university degree as well as a TEFL certification. Recently, the Chinese Ministry of Education has tightened up the online ESL industry to bring it more in line with regulations for employing foreign ESL teachers to work in China.
Teaching English in an English Speaking Country
If you intend to teach English to ESL learners in Canada or in English speaking countries, you will need to check that the certification course you enroll in is regulated and valid for teaching in that country. Some countries or employers may require you to be a licensed teacher, in addition to having ESL teaching qualifications.
The Bottom Line
For most individuals, a 120-hour TEFL certification will satisfy the requirements of the majority of ESL teaching jobs. Always choose a reputable TEFL provider that is accredited and whose accreditation is government-regulated (such as an Ofqual Level 5 TEFL certification). Also check what the local requirements are in the country where you intend to teach ESL, as each country will have its own regulations and standards for employing ESL teachers.
Earn this qualification if you plan to teach English to students who live in a country where English is not widely spoken. You will either be living and working in that country as an ESL teacher, or teaching ESL to your students online.
This may be a TESL or TESOL certification, but your intention is to teach English as a second language to recent arrivals to Canada. You should enroll in a course that is recognized by TESL Canada.
This is usually interchangeable with a TEFL certification, and in some cases, a TESL certification. If you plan to teach in an English speaking country, check the required qualifications and TESOL certifications.
Take the CELTA only if you intend to teach adult ESL learners either in an English speaking country, or with employers who require a CELTA to work with them. A Level 5 TEFL certification is the same but more affordable.