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Teaching English to someone who is completely unfamiliar with the language can be a foreign experience. Even if you’re a native English speaker and have taught English to other native speakers, the added language barrier can create a new dynamic that may take specialized skills. Certifications like TESOL and TEFL exist to give prospective teachers the skill set needed to teach English to people of all ages, of all different backgrounds, at home and abroad.

The acronyms TESOL and TEFL are often used interchangeably, and despite many similarities, they do have distinctly different meanings. 

Keep reading to find out more about the difference between the two and a breakdown of the factors that’ll help you decide which one is right for you.

The Difference Between TESOL and TEFL

TESOL and TEFL certifications prepare you to teach English as a foreign language (students in other countries) or as a second language (students in the United States). But when considering TESOL vs TEFL, the biggest difference for an English language teacher is that despite their obvious overlap and similar job opportunities, each certification program is geared toward certain careers. 

The TESOL program often prepares people for teaching in the US (though that doesn’t have to be the case if you don’t want it to be). TEFL programs work in the opposite way—you’re more prepared to work abroad (but, again, you can still teach in the US).

Earn your TESOL degree at Alliant International University today!

What is TESOL Certification?

TESOL is an acronym that stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. The main focus for your language teaching is to help students learn the English skills they need to communicate in daily life when everyone around them is speaking English.

Having the specialized skills of teaching English to non-native speakers will prepare you to assess language development of your students and adapt your lesson plans to ensure their success. Since this style of teaching requires a distinct set of skills, you’ll need specific accreditation in order to pursue TESOL careers.

Certifications and Careers

TESOL certification typically leads to teaching English to non-native speakers who are living in an English speaking country.1 For that reason, TESOL jobs usually require or recommend formal education, like a bachelor’s degree.2 However, the level of education depends on the state you’re in and the position you’re applying for.

Here are the options for TESOL certification, undergraduate, and graduate degrees:

  • TESOL certification – To get the certificate only, it will usually take about 120 hours. Even without teacher training, this certificate will allow you to teach all age ranges outside of the public school system (private companies, tutoring, nonprofits, or study abroad programs).
  • Bachelor of Arts in TESOL – Faster than a normal bachelor’s degree, this program will cross off both your certification and formal education requirements in as little as a year. To be a TESOL educator in a public school system, you are required to have a bachelor’s degree and state licensure, according to the website Study.
  • Master of Arts in Education (MAE) in TESOL – This degree will allow you to teach across all age ranges and school settings, from private language schools for children, to adult education centers, and community college language programs.
  • Doctorate in Education (Ed.D) in TESOL – With this degree, you will have the same teaching opportunities as you would with an MAE in TESOL, but also have the option to focus on the administrative side. If you want to be a director of an English as a second language (ESL) program or develop classroom materials for TESOL-related programs, this is your degree.

What is TEFL Certification?

TEFL is an acronym that stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. These programs are intended for people who plan to go abroad and teach students whose native language is not English. You’ll learn the skills to teach English with a bigger emphasis on academics, teaching students about grammar, vocabulary, reading and listening comprehension, and speaking in an academic environment.

This is important because many students will need to pass English exams in order to get into universities. Rather than learning about day to day life, they need to be able to read texts and write essays just like any other academic subject.

Certifications and Careers

TEFL certification typically leads to teaching English to non-native speakers in their own country of residence, but can also open the door to being an ESL teacher in the US. A major difference between TEFL vs TESOL is the education—TEFL is only offered in a certificate form (needing 120 hours). Education requirements are often less than TESOL jobs, since jobs overseas are in high demand and have a quicker turnover rate due to outside factors like visas.

Which is Better: TESOL or TEFL?

You may still be wondering, which is better, TESOL or TEFL? With so much overlap between the two, it can be hard to get a clear idea of whether or not one certificate is better than the other. That’s because there is no clear winner—the better option is what’s best for you. It depends on what you want to do with your certificate, and other deciding factors like your academic goals and financial situation.

What You Want to Do With Your Certificate

The first things to consider when deciding which type of certification program is a better fit for you is your educational and career experience and future goals.

These are some aspects that will help your deliberation process of TESOL vs TEFL:

  • Education – Are you looking to get a bachelor’s degree? Do you already have one and are looking for a master’s or doctorate? If so, TESOL is the preferred option.
  • Time commitment – If you’re looking for a short-term position as a teacher—perhaps as a summer job, a temporary reprieve from your usual routine, or to work and travel—you’ll probably want a TEFL. If you see yourself teaching English for the foreseeable future, you’ll want a TESOL, and one with a master’s or doctorate at that.
  • Area of expertise – With a TESOL, you’ll teach using English in day to day life, and with a TEFL, you’ll teach academic skills. But if you’d rather not teach altogether, and care more about creating the materials and class plans for other teachers to use, you’ll want a Doctorate in Education in TESOL.

Time and Money

When it comes to time and money, there’s a huge discrepancy between TESOL vs TEFL. This is due to the method of instruction (in-person vs online), teaching practicum, and whether or not a university level degree is included.

Here is a breakdown of the factors that affect the cost and length of the program:

  • Method of instruction – Online classes can sometimes be cheaper than in-person classes.3 Besides not having to hold the class in a physical location, online programs typically don’t include teaching practicum, which also cuts down on costs (with the exception of online TESOL degree programs). Not having teaching practicum can pose a problem depending on the requirements for certain jobs.
  • Length of course – TESOL and TEFL courses are usually 100 or 120 hours, with an additional six to eight hours of teaching practicum. This usually takes students between two weeks and six months to complete. A bachelor’s in TESOL can take anywhere from one to four years, a master’s will take at least 18 months, and a doctorate will take at least three years. Typically, the more hours required, the more expensive it will be.
  • Type of organization – A big factor in price is who’s offering the course. Universities and colleges that offer TESOL and TEFL programs can be more expensive than private companies, but they also offer financial aid opportunities that companies don’t. 

Note: Some companies offer certificate-only courses at an incredibly low rate. But if the price is too good to be true, the certificate might be too good to be true as well.

State Certification

Most TESOL and TEFL certificate-only and degree programs don’t include your teaching credential, meaning that you will have to seek an additional certificate upon completion. This is not to be confused with the teaching practicum, which is simply the observed hands-on experience at the end of some programs. It's the certificate that grants you the ability to teach in your state’s public school system. Private schools oftentime prefer to hire certified teachers.

All states require you to reach their minimum education requirements first, which usually includes a bachelor’s degree. If you have no desire to receive a bachelor’s degree, you may want to go down the TEFL path and teach abroad instead, because your options may be limited with just a TESOL certificate.

Making the Choice to Teach

Whether you’re leaning toward the TESOL programs to teach in the US or the TEFL programs to teach abroad, making the choice to teach at all is a great decision. 

Worldwide, people are learning English not just as a hobby but because the political and economic systems worldwide have made it almost a necessity. In 2020, it’s estimated that over two billion people worldwide speak English.4 Three years ago, 1.5 billion people were English speakers, however, according to Babbel, the vast majority of those people are non-native speakers—and many of those English language learners are in the United States.5

Becoming Certified at Alliant

If you’re looking for a TESOL certificate or degree program, Alliant International University offers online classes and on-campus evening classes in San Diego, California. With flexible scheduling, financial aid opportunities, and hands-on experience, you’ll have minimal stress during the certification process and get to focus on helping students. 


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