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A Step-by-Step Guide to TEFL Certifications

TEFL Certifications

Updated June 15th, 2015

It's a common misconception about teaching English abroad, but just because you know how to speak English, doesn't necessarily mean you know how to teach it -- nor that you're necessarily qualified.

For teaching jobs abroad, you'll typically see schools and recruiters require all applicants to be native English speakers, have a college degree, and have a TEFL certificate at minimum. Even if having a TEFL certificate isn't a requirement for the job you want, you might still want to consider this investment.

If you're serious about pursuing ESL as a career, you should strongly consider an on-location program.

Any teacher will tell you that teaching ESL is hard work and should be taken seriously. A quality TEFL course will not only make you a better teacher, but will also increase your potential for earning a higher salary and open doors to work at better schools with more reliable folks. Now on to the much harder question, of all the TEFL course options out there, which one should you take?

Factors to Consider When Choosing a TEFL Course

Okay, so you know you want to get TEFL certified. Before starting your search, you'll want to answer these basic questions:

  • Do you want to get certified online or on-site?
  • If you want to get certified on-site, where should you get certified? In your home country? Or the country you want to teach in?
  • How much time can you commit to earning your certificate? Can you do a full month intensive course, or do you need to take your time and study part-time?
  • How much can you afford to pay? Most quality courses will be around $2,000+ USD -- can you pay this?
  • What do you want to get out of the course? Are you an experienced teacher who just wants to brush up on ESL teaching theory? Or are you a newbie who needs to learn everything from classroom management and lesson planning to theories and grammar?

We'll discuss these factors in more detail throughout this article, but having an idea of what you're looking for in a TEFL certification course will help you figure out which one is best for you -- and none of these questions are ones we at Go Overseas can answer for you!

What's Better: Online or On-site TEFL Courses?

Onsite TEFL

There are plenty of quality online and on-site TEFL courses out there, and both can train you on the basic methods and theories of teaching English as a foreign language. However, the major difference is that online courses are more flexible, whereas on-site courses are more hands-on, involved, and intensive.

It used to be that online courses wouldn't always have what we call a practicum component -- or, a section of the course where you practice teaching in front of an experienced teacher and get feedback.

This is changing though. As Marcella of CIEE TEFL says, "our course and some other online providers do, in fact, offer a hands-on assessed teaching practicum. Ours is 20 hours. It used to be a major drawback, but some of us online providers are working hard to make sure our trainees have a meaningful practicum experience."

In short, practicum is essential for newbie teachers -- it's where you grow the most as a teacher and get to test out those theories. It's not always as necessary for experienced teachers who want to supplement their prior education.

Overall though, whether you choose an online or on-site certification comes down to your personal goals. Online courses tend to be more affordable and flexible, but on-site courses, especially those in the country you want to eventually teach in, can help you build connections, network for jobs, and stay focused. Not everyone is independent enough to learn something new online and needs in-person instruction. We get that.

We also have a more in-depth article on the difference between online and on site courses to help you decide this question.

Online TEFL courses to consider

Like the name implies, these courses are completed online and at your own convenience. They primarily cover the theory of teaching and don't always offer any hands on classroom experience. Online courses are ideal for teachers who only want to achieve a basic understanding of teaching English as a foreign language in the convenience of their own home.

Course length varies from 20 to 120+ hours and may include a variety of teaching materials. Although a 20 hour course may suit your needs, most teachers -- especially newbies -- will want to look for something with at least 100+ hours, and preferably 120+ hours OR 100 hours of instruction and 20 hours of practice teaching.

On-Site TEFL courses to consider

These courses are completed in a classroom setting and should be led by a qualified ESL instructor. Course length varies from 20-hour weekend programs to 4-weeks of full-time training, or training stretched out over several months. Usually, practicum is a main advantage of these courses (though not all on-site courses have this, so look for it), but some students just learn better from in-person instruction.

If you get certified in the country you want to teach in, you'll also have an opportunity to land with a support network in place and network to find a job while you're getting certified. Look for job placement assistance as a perk for your TEFL course if this is one of the main draws for an on-site course for you.

If your goal is to teach English in Europe, I strongly recommended taking this type of TEFL course, as many schools in Europe do not recognize online courses. Also, as an American, it helps you find a school in person that will sponsor your visa.

Make Sure Your TEFL Certification is Internationally Recognized

I get a lot of questions in my inbox about TEFL certifications, but one of the biggest questions prospective teachers tend to have is whether or not the course they're looking into will be internationally recognized.

In general, if it's a reputable course, it'll be recognized worldwide. The whole point of getting TEFL certified is to teach in other countries. But there are also some duds out there, and we want to help you stay clear of those. This is especially important for online courses which are a dime a dozen with little to no industry regulation.

Although a 20 hour course may suit your needs, most teachers -- especially newbies -- will want to look for something with at least 100+ hours, and preferably 120+ hours OR 100 hours of instruction and 20 hours of practice teaching.

As Josh, a TEFL trainer at SIT said, "when I used to hire teachers, I wouldn't even give a resume a second thought if I didn't recognize the TEFL course provider. If I saw CELTA or SIT, I knew immediately that this person had quality instruction, but if I saw 'Joe's TEFL Course', I had no idea."

In short, make sure your organization is well recognized (SIT and CELTA aren't the only ones) and accredited or affiliated with an reputable university. Below is a list of reputable accrediting bodies to look out for:

Note: Wait, wait, what's the difference between TESOL, TEFL, and CELTA? -- these acronyms are confusing me! Basically, you can think of TEFL as the product, and CELTA as the brand. They're all essentially the same thing, but we have more details on the difference between CELTA and TEFL in another article for those of you who want more light shed on this question.

Look for Courses with at least 120+ Hours

Course duration is also important to keep in mind as some teaching jobs require at least 120 hours of TEFL training (typically 100 hours of instruction and 20 hours of practicum), if not more, in order to qualify. As we mentioned before, you'll also want to look for a course that provides a practicum, or practice teaching, component.

What's a Reasonable Price to Pay?

This leaves price. As you'll quickly discover, TEFL programs come in a wide range of prices -- the good news is that it is a buyers market and most are very affordable. Just keep your career goals in mind to make sure you're not taking a course that offers little longterm value, or overpaying for training you may not need.

For a quality course, you'll usually look at paying somewhere between $1,000 - $2,500 USD, though not always. For CELTA, you're in a sense paying for the name, and maybe that's worth it for you. Maybe it's not. Shop around.

Again, online courses tend to be less expensive, but quality online courses can definitely still be priced within that range. For example, CIEE TEFL's 150 hour online course costs $1,000 USD, and University of Toronto TEFL's 120 hour course costs $1,295.

Out of country on-site courses (especially in the country where you want to end up teaching) are another cost-saving option. For example, International TEFL Academy's Chicago course is priced at $1,995 whereas their Mexico classes are about $1,500.

A CELTA course in the U.S. can easily run about $2,500.

How Long Does it Take to Get TEFL Certified?

Typically, a TEFL certification course will last anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 months. Shorter, 4-week long courses will typically be full-time (30-40 hours per week) and are very demanding. A longer 3- to 6- month long course, however, will let you get certified part time and is a more realistic option for students who need to work or take care of other obligations while getting their certificate.

Most, but not all, online TEFL courses will let you go at your own pace. Meaning, you could take a full year to complete the coursework and get certified if you wanted.

Do I Really Need a TEFL Certification?

I'll level with you for a minute: you don't always need a TEFL certification to find a job. However, if we haven't already convinced you of the benefits of getting certified, here are a few specific situations where it will really, really, help you in the long run:

  • For government teaching jobs South Korea, China, or Taiwan, completing a 100+ hour TEFL course will increase your monthly salary by $100 in almost all cases. That's $1,200 over the course of a year, which should easily repay the cost of most online courses. Year two that's all profit.
  • JET is a highly respected program in Japan and it's almost essential to have a TEFL Certificate in order to pass through the application process.
  • Americans wanting to teach English in Europe will almost always need a TEFL Certificate to help get their foot in the door.
  • Most respected TEFL schools give their graduates lifelong access to their job placement services worldwide.
When should you NOT take a TEFL course?

As the ESL industry continues to move forward a TEFL Certificate is becoming an increasingly common requirement. However, there are some perfectly valid reasons why TEFL might not be necessary. If you're still unsure whether ESL will be your longterm career choice for example, or perhaps you already come from an Education background. Plenty of opportunities for adventure and travel still exist for non-TEFLers, but the downside may be that you can only find work at lower quality schools that offer minimal support.

Red Flags of a Bad TEFL Program

Unfortunately the TEFL industry is not without its unscrupulous characters that seemingly offer the world, but deliver nothing but frustration. $1000 is a lot of money to spend on a course that doesn't give you the skills you need, or give you the qualifications to apply for a great job. With this in mind I want to give you a few pointers to help you identify the good from the bad:

  • Not Accredited - Any program worth a grain of salt will be accredited. No accreditation? Move on.
  • About Page - Is it easy to identify and contact specific people from the organization when browsing their website? If not, you should ask yourself why they would want to hide their identities.
  • Course Length - Any quality course includes 100+ hours of training with at least six hours of assessed teaching practice. This is the recognized baseline of what you need to teach English successfully.
  • Alumni Network - One of the first things you should do is try and get in touch with an alumni from the program you are interested in. Ask them about the pros and cons of the program and how it prepared them to teach English abroad. Bottom line; did this program help them get the job they wanted?

Key English Teaching Acronyms

In this article, and likely others you have read on this topic, you may have noticed quite a few acronyms tossed around. Just in case there are still a few tripping you up and keeping you from completely understanding what you should be looking for in a TEFL certification, we've defined a few of the most common ones below:

Choosing a TEFL certification
ESL - English as a second language

We usually use ESL to talk about English language programs in countries where English is the dominant or official language. For example, immigrants or students studying English in an English speaking country, like the United States, would be ESL learners. Teachers would be ESL teachers.

EFL - English as a foreign language

If you're teaching English in a country where English is not the common or official language, like Japan, technically you're teaching EFL. Students in this situation often speak the same first language and only encounter English in their classroom. Reasons for learning English in this context may be for business travel, academic requirements, travel, etc.

TEFL - Teaching English as a Foreign Language

This term refers to the teacher training program or certificate for teaching EFL. It's often used interchangeably with TESL or TESOL. There's no significant difference between the three.

TESL - Teaching English as a Second Language

A general term that refers to many things. For instance, a TESL program refers to a program where students learn how to teach English as a second language. A TESL organization refers to a professional organization that represents teachers of English as a second language, for example, TESL Taiwan (national organization), TESL California (provincial) and TESL Prague (city). TESL may also refer to the teaching English as a second language field in general (e.g. “I work in TESL.”).

TESOL - Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages

This term is used in the United States and refers to the professional organization that represents teachers of English as a second language. You might also see "TESOL certification" used in place of "TEFL certification."

CELTA - Certificate in Language Teaching to Adults

This is a trade name TEFL certificate course developed in the U.K. by University of Cambridge. It is a highly regarded course and offered worldwide. The program trains people to teach English as a second language. DELTA is the advanced Diploma course.

YL - Young Learners

Not all jobs involve teaching kids, but if you do want to teach YL, or young learners, you might want to consider getting a special certificate for teaching English to young leaners. They learn differently than adults, so naturally, you'll learn different strategies and methods with this sort of course.

See also: 40 Other Important EFL/ESL Terms to Know

Ready to Find a TEFL Course?

If you've never taught abroad before, it can be hard to figure out where to start. Getting a TEFL certification, whether it's a TESOL or a CELTA, online or on-site, is a fantastic and necessary first step. Hopefully, our guide to TEFL certifications has cleared up some of your questions and any confusion about all the various acronyms we in the English teaching industry like to throw around.

If you're ready to start searching, we suggest heading over to our list TEFL Courses, along with ratings and reviews from past alumni, and use your new knowledge to find the perfect course to fit your goals.

Photo Credits: Sean Eshoo
Disclaimer: We have paid relationships with some of the companies linked to within this article.
Andrew Dunkle

After graduating with a lucrative degree in Art History, I decided to throw caution to the wind and teach English abroad in Taiwan. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made, because it was here where I met Mitch and together we founded Go Overseas.