teacher helping elementary student in her classroom

What Is a TESOL Certification?


With populations growing in number — and becoming increasingly diverse and globally connected — it’s not uncommon to meet someone who’s not a native English speaker. People from non-English-speaking countries who migrate to the United States for work often bring family members – including children who attend schools and are given labels like English Language Learners (ELL), English Learners (EL), English as a Second Language (ESL), or even First Language Not English (FLNE) students. These students’ English instructors are also given labels, such as “ELL teacher.”

If you plan to teach English to students whose primary language is not English, you must be qualified to do so. Many ELL or ESL teachers pursue a TESOL degree or certification program.

What Is a TESOL Certification?

TESOL stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. The acronym represents the academic certification itself, as well as the international organization that advocates for best practices in TESOL education. You’ve likely seen other acronyms like TEFL and TESL that refer to teaching English to non-native speakers, so how is TESOL different?

TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. This certification prepares you to teach English in another country to students who don’t speak it. Some TEFL programs allow you to complete your coursework overseas, and will help place you in a teaching position once you’ve completed your certificate program. TESL – Teaching English as a Second Language – is a separate certification that qualifies you to teach English to non-native speakers in the United States.

There is a lot of overlap. You sometimes see online job listings for “TEFL/TESOL,” as if the acronyms are interchangeable. But the TESOL program actually encompasses both TEFL and TESL. Getting a TESOL certification equips you to teach both in the U.S. and overseas where English is being taught to people of a different native language. This means that having TESOL certification can potentially open more doors to employment.

How Does TESOL Certification Benefit You?

Just because you’re a native English speaker doesn’t mean you understand how to teach the language to a non-native speaker. To be an effective teacher, you must have specialized, research-based skills and instructional practices and understand the language learning process. As students struggle with their learning, you must also be patient and show that you understand what a challenge language learning can be.

TESOL International Association points out “6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners”:

  1. Know the students you’re teaching. The more you know their backgrounds and interests, the better you can engage with them.
  2. Make the classroom environment conducive to learning. Do whatever you can to make your students feel comfortable.
  3. Use scaffolding and other lesson aids that maximize student comprehension. This includes facial expressions, modeling, and visual media.
  4. Continually assess comprehension and adapt lessons accordingly. Assessments can be as simple as students giving a thumbs up or down to communicate whether or not they comprehend the material.
  5. Regularly monitor progress and provide feedback. Gather data so you can track student achievement. 
  6. Foster a strong learning community among your colleagues. When teachers collaborate and are professionally engaged, their teaching improves.

You’ll notice that these basic principles are applicable in any classroom and content area. But these are especially important in situations where there’s a language barrier. Learning a new and difficult language can feel like climbing an incredibly steep hill.

You will be a more effective teacher to English learners if you work towards becoming proficient in another language yourself. It isn’t a prerequisite to pursuing TESOL certification, however, you will benefit from the experience. Not only will it help you empathize with English learners, but it will also help you engage in a language and culture that’s not your own.

Do You Have to Be TESOL Certified to Teach English Learners?

You must be specially certified in order to teach English to students of other languages, but requirements will vary depending on your state and the type of school. Certification in TESL may be sufficient for some teaching positions in the U.S., while other positions may require that you have at least a master’s degree in TESOL. California, for example, requires you to have a bachelor’s or higher degree and complete an approved Education Specialist Credential program for teaching English learners. 

Some positions may require that you have a degree in a related field — like English, linguistics, or education — not just a TESOL certificate. Elsewhere you may be expected to have an advanced degree specializing in TESOL. As with any career goal in education, check the state requirements where you plan to teach.

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What Are My TESOL Certification Options?

If you’re passionate about teaching English learners and are wondering how to get a TESOL certification, you have options. Which one you choose depends on teaching requirements in your state and the level of education you wish to acquire.

  • TESOL Certificate only. If you want some training on how to teach English learners, but don’t need a state-approved teaching credential, this option might appeal to you. Some colleges and universities offer 15-20-unit programs, with courses in teaching and assessing English as a second language, TESOL strategies, and include a short practicum. These serve as an introduction to TESOL. A certificate by itself, without teacher training, isn’t applicable to a state credential. However, this type of certificate could be useful if you want to teach children or adults outside the public school system as part of a nonprofit or study abroad program.
  • Bachelor of Arts in TESOL. This degree program includes courses in English language history, linguistic theory, cultural anthropology, child development, advanced grammar, language development, and foreign language courses equivalent to a minor in that subject. There is also a professional education component that includes student teaching.
  • Education Specialist Credential in TESOL. The EdS in TESOL is not as common as a master’s in TESOL. An EdS typically requires more units than a master’s degree, and culminates in a project or internship rather than a thesis — though the latter may be an option. Coursework includes curriculum and assessments, teaching English grammar, reading and writing, culture and diversity, leadership, and statistical research.
  • Master of Arts in Education — TESOL. This 30-unit program includes courses in methods of teaching a second language, designing curriculum and assessments, teaching English grammar, reading and writing, and technology. There is also a practicum component for future TESOL teachers consisting of a project that applies techniques and concepts learned in coursework.
  • Doctor of Education in TESOL. This 51-unit  TESOL program expands on the skills in the master’s program. Coursework digs deeper into language structure and development, teaching practices in reading, writing and grammar, listening and speaking to second language learners, and examining related social and cultural issues. A significant portion of the program is dedicated to research, and to planning and preparing your dissertation.

For finding the certificate program that’s right for you, TESOL International Association makes available the English Language Professional’s Resource Guide. There you can browse for institutions that offer TESOL certificates, degrees, and majors.

Cheaper and Faster is Not Better

Because there are multiple options for both degree programs and institutions offering certification, it’s difficult to answer how much certification will cost. If you spend a few minutes searching online for “TESOL certification,” you’ll quickly see how many options are out there. Many accredited colleges and universities offer both online and in-classroom TESOL degree programs, but may have higher fees and take a couple of years to complete. Websites claiming fast and cheap certification are suspicious. It’s possible to get a “TESOL certificate” online with only a high school diploma, $200, and 120 hours of your time, but that certificate will be of little use if you’re seeking a state-issued teaching credential. Again, research your options carefully.

TESOL Certification Is Needed More than Ever

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that the number of ELL students in U.S. public schools continues to rise. The latest available figures (fall 2016) show that 9.6% of the nation’s public school students are ELL. California had the highest percentage (20.2%), followed by Texas (17.2%) and Nevada (15.9%). 

In all, there are about 4.9 million ELL students in U.S. public schools. One encouraging piece of NCES data shows the percentage of public ELL students by grade level (K-12). The highest percentage of ELL students are in kindergarten and first grade (16.2%), and the bar graph clearly shows the numbers gradually decreasing toward 12th grade. This is great news, because it means that ELL students are achieving English proficiency as they age. It also highlights the positive effect teachers have on English learners, and why TESOL certification is necessary.

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Alliant International University is an accredited institution offering TESOL degree and certificate programs. Request information online, or speak with a representative at (866) 825-5426.


  1. “ESL, ELL, or FLNE? How to Describe Students Whose First Language Isn’t English,” America’s Promise Alliance https://www.americaspromise.org/opinion/esl-ell-or-flne-how-describe-st…
  2. “ESL Teacher Training and Degree Programs,” ESLteacherEDU.org https://www.eslteacheredu.org/education/ 
  3. “Frequently Asked Questions about Careers in TESOL,” TESOL International Organization https://www.tesol.org/docs/pdf/2466.pdf?sfvrsn=2
  4. “The Difference Between TESOL, TEFL, TESL and CELTA Certificates,” ESL Conversation Questions https://www.eslconversationquestions.com/difference-between-tesol-tefl-…
  5. “The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners,” TESOL International https://www.tesol.org/the-6-principles/
  6. “Beginning Your Career,” TESOL International https://www.tesol.org/enhance-your-career/career-development/beginning-…
  7. “Education Specialist Instruction Credential,” California Commission on Teacher Credentialing https://www.ctc.ca.gov/docs/default-source/leaflets/cl808ca.pdf?sfvrsn=…
  8. “English Language Learners in Public Schools,” National Center for Education Statistics https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgf.asp

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