TEFL, TESL & TESOL for Teaching English Abroad

Andrew Lynch

Last week we covered ‘CELTA or TEFL: How do they compare?’. This week, we take a closer look at TEFL, TESL and TESOL

If you’re here reading this article, then you’ve probably come across the likes of TEFL, TESL or TESOL. Although used interchangeably, there is often a misconception that these three terms are specific qualifications or certificates. This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

If you’re looking to teach English abroad, then it’s likely that you’ll need to obtain a teaching-related certificate. But how do you know which teaching certificate to go with? Here’s what you need to know.

What’s the Difference Between TEFL, TESL & TESOL?

●    TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language 
●    TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language 
●    TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

As you can see from the above, TEFL, TESL, and TESOL all relate to the type of English teaching being delivered, as opposed to a specific qualification or certificate. 

However, as the three terms are often used interchangeably, they effectively relate to the same thing. As such, if you come across an online or in-class course that offers a ‘TEFL certificate’, ‘TESL certificate’ or ‘TESOL certificate’ - they are all technically one of the same thing. 

With that being said, each of the above terms does have a specific objective that differs slightly from one another. We’ve broken this down in more detail below.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL)

Much like in the case of both TESL and TESOL, TEFL refers to teaching English to somebody that doesn’t speak English as their first language. More specifically, this is taught in a location where English isn’t spoken as a first language. For example, if you were to travel to Vietnam, Peru, or Thailand - then you would be teaching TEFL, as the native language spoken in your chosen destination is not English.

In this sense, you would be best advised to obtain a TEFL certificate or qualification. As you may well know, these come in a range of shapes and sizes. While some can be obtained purely online, others require in-class learning. Alternatively, you might decide to blend the two. 

Here’s where things get a bit more complicated. The specific type of certificate or qualification you will need to obtain will ultimately depend on the location you decide to teach in, and the type of academic institution you are applying to.

For example, if you were you to teach English at a public school in Vietnam, then obtaining a generic 100-hour online-only TEFL certificate will likely suffice. The reason for this is that demand for native English teachers is significantly higher than supply, meaning that the eligibility requirements are still somewhat low.

On the other hand, if you were to teach English at a private academic institution in Japan, then the requirements will likely be higher. In fact, the institution might demand a more prestigious teaching-related qualification.

TESL – Teaching English as a Second Language

Although the differences between TEFL and TESL are minute, there is one slight metric that sets them apart. As noted above, TEFL refers to teaching English in a country that does not speak English as a first language. On the contrary, although TESL refers to teaching English to somebody that doesn’t speak it as their native tongue, teaching is performed in a country that does speak it natively. 

For example, if you were to teach English to a Romainian native living in the US, then this would relate to TESL. Similarly, if you were living in Australia and teaching English to a Chinese national, once again this would refer to TESL.

Much like in the case of TEFL, there are a range of TESL qualifications and certificates that you can obtain with ease. This includes in-class learning, online-only, or a combination of the two.

TESOL - Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

A somewhat new breed in the English teaching spectrum - TESOL effectively covers both TEFL and TESL. In other words, the term was created with the view of proving English teachers with a greater level of flexibility. For example, if you wanted the option of teaching English both in a country where it isn’t spoken as a first language (such as China or Thailand), and a country where it is spoken natively (such as Australia or Canada), then a TESOL certificate might be an option worth considering.

However, we would argue that irrespective of whether you obtain a certificate linked to TEFL, TESL, or TESOL - all will stand you in good stead. 

For example, let’s say that upon finishing a 2-year assignment teaching English to students in China with a TEFL certificate, you then decide that you want to teach English to non-natives in New Zealand. It’s unlikely that the academic institution is going to ask you to obtain an additional qualification linked to TESL or TESOL.  

With that said, if demands for a specific qualification are made by the academic institution in question, then this is likely to be for a more prestigious qualification such as the DELTA or CELTA.

In order to explain why, we’ve broken down the key factors to consider when obtaining a qualification for your TESL, TEFL or TESOL teaching endeavours. 

What Qualification Should I Obtain?

So now that you know the difference between TEFL, TESOL and TESL - and that the terms are often used interchangeably, you now need to make some considerations regarding the specific qualification you intend to obtain. 

First and foremost, irrespective of whether you opt for a certificate that is branded as a TEFL, TESOL or TESL qualification, there is no universally accredited institution that offers such qualification. As such, there are now literally hundreds of companies that provide English TEFL/TESOL/TESL courses that come with a generic certificate. 

On the other hand, some course providers are more recognized than others, not least because they have built a solid reputation in the teaching English as a foriegn language arena. For example, the likes of the International TEFL Academy and the International TEFL and TESOL Training (ITTT) both offer in-class, online-only and blended courses that are likely to stand you in good stead. 

The overarching reason for this that the aforementioned course providers offer a solid training program that is directed and overseen by academic directors. Moreover, as there is no guarantee that you will pass the course, you don’t have the option of simply ‘turning up’ for the required number of hours and then receiving your certificate. 

Outside of established course providers, there are a number of alternative options that will allow you to receive a TEFL, TESL, or TESOL certificate with ease. Such providers - who typically operate on an online-only basis, simply allow you to complete the course in a matter of hours, irrespective of whether or not you understand the material. 

Although some teaching destinations will not verify the legitimacy of your chosen TEFL, TESL, or TESOL qualification - others will, so you are best advised to choose a provider with an established reputation. 

However, if you want to take things to the next level, then you might be best to consider a more prestigious teaching qualification that is recognized globally. For example, the Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, or simply CELTA - is one of the most recognized teaching English as a foreign language qualifications that you can obtain. 

Take note, not only will the course set you back in the region of £1,400 - it will require a full month of in-class learning (as well as home-based assignments).

TEFL, TESL & TESOL: The Bottom Line?

In summary, if you’ve read our article from start to finish, you should now know the difference between TEFL, TESL and TESOL. Although there is a slight difference in the specific type of teaching, the three terms are often used interchangeably. 

As such, when it comes to obtaining a certificate that will allow you to teach English, your focus should be on the specific course provider, as opposed to whether it relates to TEFL, TESL, or TESOL. 

Whilst we do have a dedicated TEFL jobs section to help our users navigate our site easier, all of our teaching jobs abroad are featured in our main teaching jobs area

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