If you're thinking about teaching abroad, chances are you're also considering getting your TEFL certificate to help prepare you and qualify you for better teaching jobs. Often, online TEFL courses are the most flexible, and sometimes more affordable, option for teachers seeking overseas opportunities. But what exactly does an online TEFL course teach you?
Different online TEFL programs have their own unique curricula, but there are some basic elements you should expect to cover in your course. Below is a basic list of what you should expect to learn from an online TEFL course:
- How to plan a lesson
- Classroom management strategies
- Language skills and how to teach them
- Resources to build out your teacher toolbox
- Practice teaching lessons
- Extra: how to teach specific types of English (i.e. business English or English to young learners)
Now, what do each of those mean exactly? Read on for more detailed explanations.
(Before you dive in, be sure to check out our list of the best online TEFL courses too!)
How to Plan a Lesson
Perhaps one of the biggest aspects of a TEFL course is learning how to plan, structure, and execute a lesson plan. A large portion of the course will be devoted to learning how to sculpt lesson plans according to class size, ability, and language backgrounds.
After completing your TEFL course, you should expect to be able to build flexible lesson plans, identify individual needs and plan accordingly, and to establish learning objectives for your lessons. You'll know how to start a lesson, how to integrate activities that help practice a language skill with those that teach new ones, and ways to encourage your students to use English in the classroom.
Lesson planning is an essential component of any reputable TEFL course, online or on-site. For that reason, your online TEFL program should teach you both how to plan effective lessons and allow you to plan lessons during the course to practice the skills you're learning. Some, including the University of Toronto’s TEFL Online course, even offer lesson plan assessments and grades with feedback to create even better lessons in the future.
Expect to create lesson plans and get feedback on them throughout the course -- especially if you have a practice teaching (practicum) component incorporated into your TEFL course, you should be expected not just to plan a lesson, but actually put it into action and teach it!
Strategies for Classroom Management
Whether or not you have teaching experience, classroom management will be another vital section of your online TEFL course. Managing a classroom full of students -- especially when you don't necessarily share a common language -- is tough work and adapting your teaching space to best help your students grasp a new language will require you to have a sharpened and expanded skillset.
To really help you hone in on this skill, the classroom management module should include specific strategies for teachers to implement in classrooms made up of students with varying learning styles and levels. Though some of this will be along the lines of learning how to give instruction, breaking students up into groups / pairs, or recognizing when your class is ready to move on to the next step, part of this will include adapting your teaching style to different learners.
For example, your online TEFL course may outline these various styles using the Multiple Intelligence Theory, which covers interpersonal/visual-spatial, intrapersonal/musical-rhythmic, and logical/linguistic intelligence types. You will learn to take into account these different learning styles as you plan and run your lessons.
What Language Skills Are and How to Teach Them
This section should cover core aspects of language teaching: grammar, reading, writing, speaking, listening, and pronunciation. Generally, each lesson you teach should focus on teaching a combination of these language skills (for example, you may teach a pronunciation lesson using listening activities, or a grammar lesson using a reading/writing activity), and an online TEFL course will teach you both how to do so and what each means.
In regards to grammar, your TEFL course won't teach you every single grammatical aspect of the English language -- you could spend a lifetime doing that! -- but instead will give you a good overview and the tools necessary to learn enough about the grammar you teach your students. Meaning, you won't necessarily learn the difference between "present continuous" and "present simple" but you'll be given the tools to figure it out before teaching it to your students.
For those courses that do go in-depth with teaching you English grammar, topics like strategic grammar, verbs and tense, conditionals, and modal verbs will be key aspects of this unit. Many programs, such as Premier TEFL's Fast-Track Accredited Online TEFL Courses, focus much of their instruction on grammar and offer in-depth grammar guides as resources.
Building Out Your "Teacher Toolbox"
Your materials and resources education will help you to build an extensive and comprehensive toolbox of teaching materials. Your course should include both text-based and digital resources. You’ll learn activities and games for the classroom and how to apply software and the Internet to your lesson plans.
Practice Teaching (Practicum)
Perhaps one of the most helpful aspects of a TEFL certification course, but one of the more difficult ones with an online TEFL course, can be a practice teaching (practicum) component. It is possible that an online TEFL course will require this as part of the course, while others are delivered 100% online and will not. Some courses offer a bit of a hybrid approach, such as TEFLPros' 120 Hour Online TEFL Course, which includes over 20 hours of real ESL classroom footage, allowing students to learn from actual classroom situations without having to be physically present elsewhere.
Even amongst those TEFL courses that offer a practice teaching component, how it's actually executed can vary. Some teachers will have a teacher trainer watch their lessons and give feedback for a set amount of hours (usually 15 - 20) while others will be required to source and complete their own practicum teaching in their community.
It is important to remember that hours contributed towards a practicum as part of a TEFL course do not count towards hours of formal teaching experience when applying for jobs abroad, and not all employers require teachers to have completed a practicum as part of their TEFL certification.
Extras: How to Teach Kids, Business English, or More
It's very likely that the online TEFL program you choose will offer topics beyond the basics.
If your course is 120 hours or longer, you should expect to have the luxury of specializing in particular areas of your choice, and often the option to opt-in for a course add-on to learn more about a specific aspect of teaching English, like teaching young learners or business English.
For example, one of your sessions might focus on teaching English to young learners. This would introduce you to some of the different ways young learners absorb and learn new languages versus adult learners, as well as strategies, media, and activities that specifically address their unique learning styles, and a few extra classroom management tactics for keeping kids on point. It will also teach you how to adapt some of the core techniques you've learned so far to better suit younger learners.
How Will You Be Taught?
As a student of an online TEFL course, you’ll be using highly interactive audio, video, and written communication. You'll also have access to lots of handouts and course content available for download. A high-quality online TEFL course will offer a dynamic learning employment that provides the same level of interaction that would come with an in-class course.
Regular quizzes serve as checkpoints; TEFL students can use these to gauge their progression through the course. Graded tests and assessments will ensure students are qualified to graduate from the course upon completion. High-end TEFL programs may also use journal entries or other forms of written submissions that are graded and returned -- these work well to offer a layer of personalization to your TEFL experience.
Is There Anything Else You Should Look For?
Now that you have an idea of what you can expect to learn in a TEFL course, there are still a few other things to look for beyond the lesson topics. To start, you’ll want to make sure any online TEFL courses you're considering have a solid reputation and are recognized where you’ll be seeking employment -- this is extremely important since there's no one accrediting body for TEFL certificates. Rather, it's on hiring schools to ensure their teachers’ ESL certificates are legitimate and up-to-par.
You’ll also want to make sure that TEFL is, in fact, the course you’re looking for -- not TESL or TESOL. While TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language and refers to teaching non-native speakers in a foreign country, TESL stands for Teaching English as a Second Language and is applicable when students are learning a new language in a country where the native language is English. TESOL is a broader hybrid; it stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and can be applied to teaching in both native and non-native speaking countries.
What all that means is: if you're hoping to teach English in a foreign country where English is not the students’ native language then TEFL is for you.
A final box to tick before looking further into any courses is that your chosen course is at least 100 hours in length -- this tends to be the minimum length for commonly recognized TEFL qualifications. For an even safer and more widely recognized course, go for a 120-hour+ option.
Online TEFL Courses: A Growing Market
Online education has grown and improved so much over the past decade -- but nonetheless it's natural that you would have some questions as to what is actually taught in one of these online TEFL courses. Hopefully this article has helped to illuminate some of those questions, but if you still need some clarification, feel free to reach out in the comments below!
This post was originally published in November 2015, and it was updated in August 2020.