Becoming an ESL Teacher

The United States continues to be seen as a land of opportunity for those living in other countries – a place for their children to have a better life than they did. America continues to welcome immigrants from all over the world, and promotes children attending school here, a world-class education. Helping students receive language education equates to easing the transition to fluent English. The educators who foster these opportunities are specialists in English as a Second Language.

Bilingual education is critical to students. As our world continues to promote worldwide trade, learning a multiple languages becomes essential for world business. While fluency may develop over time, consistent exposure to these languages through formal ESL education may help the loss of learned material. Educators and teachers who continually encourage bilingual language are building a path of opportunity for all.

The abbreviation ESL stands for “English as a Second Language.” The abbreviation TESOL stands for “Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages” and both terms are often used when discussing bilingual education.

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Education requirements for teachers vary widely depending on the state you live in, and the age or grade you want to teach. Adding the ESL endorsement or qualification to your license or certification is a different process depending on where you are.

While all states require a bachelor’s degree in order to become a teacher, few require that the degree be specifically in teaching ESL. There are few bachelor’s programs available in this specialty nation-wide, master’s programs in this field are more common. While a school district would likely be pleased with a candidate with a master’s degree, they are generally not required. A degree in education with an emphasis in students learning English is encouraged, and many schools offer minors in ESL or ESL certificate programs to supplement another degree.

Some states do not require that a degree is in education, but instead require the candidate to complete a graduate program for teacher credentialing or certification. Bachelor’s degrees in linguistics, English or cultural or ethnic studies might naturally lead someone to a graduate teacher education program with an emphasis in teaching ESL.

Teaching practices for ESL instruction are different for different ages. Younger children need different teaching approaches than older children, and adults learning ESL are different than children. Each state will determine if your education and training need to be specific to the age you teach or if your certification or credential can be applied to multiple populations.

Many states require that an education be received at an accredited university in order to apply for a teaching license or certification. Check with your state’s teacher education or licensing board, or your state’s board of education, to ensure that the program you’re considering will meet the requirements.

Adding the ESL or TESOL qualification to an existing teaching license or certificate, sometimes called an “endorsement,” may require taking a certain number of course hours in English as a Second Language, passing qualification examinations sponsored by various testing agencies, or demonstrating other state requirements for competency.

2. Pass the Necessary Examination

Most state require a teaching candidate to pass certain examinations in order to receive their teaching license or certificate. Examinations come in two types:

  • Basic Skills Tests – these examinations are designed to test proficiency in basic curriculum such as English, mathematics and reading. They may also test basic teaching practices and theories.
  • Subject Area Tests – these exams are given to assess competency in specialty area where an individual wants to teach.

Teachers who want to work with the ESL population may be required to pass examinations specific to ESL subject material. Praxis, a national testing organization utilized by many states to administer and score teacher competency exams, offers an examination for English to Speakers of Other Language and your state may use this examination as part of its teacher licensing process.

3. Get Your Classroom Experience

Despite the fact that a degree in teaching ESL is generally not required, you will want experience with the unique demands of this subject before you step into a classroom for the first time.

All teacher education programs that are accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education ( require a period of student teaching.A student teaching experience is a partnership with a mentor teacher to allow a teaching student to gradually increase their participation and responsibility in a classroom to prepare them for their career as a teacher.

The student teaching experience is part of a program’s curriculum. The experience counts as credit towards graduation, and is overseen by a coordinator through the teaching program. Generally, a minimum GPA is necessary before a student can move into their student teaching experience, and some programs require passing competency tests before the experience can begin.

There are usually several student teaching experiences throughout the course of a teacher education program, and while it is likely that you will have part of this experience in an ESL setting, it is also likely that you will have experiences with other populations. NCATE requires that student teachers have some exposure to special needs children as part of their experience, and you may have some fieldwork with ages or grades outside your primary area of interest.

The student teaching experience is designed to give a future teacher exposure to the basic principles of teaching and education, including:

  • Lesson planning
  • Information delivery
  • Applying education practices in a classroom environment
  • Parent-teacher communication
  • Inter-professional communication
  • Data recording and distribution
  • Testing

Additionally, the ESL teacher will learn to apply the principles of student language production, linguistic theory and cultural integration.

4. Get the Right Teaching License or Certification

All states in the US regulate teaching in the public schools. In some states, the document you need to teach is called a license, in others it’s called a certificate, and in a few it’s called a ‘credential.’ While a general teaching license or certification is require of all teachers, including ESL teachers, a teacher who wants to work with the ESL population may need to pursue special endorsements or qualifications as part of the licensing process.

In general, a teaching license requires a specific education that includes teacher education and preparation, and passing the necessary tests. Once those two criteria have been met, the candidate can complete the state’s application process.

While each state establishes its own procedure, it’s common to see the following steps for licensure or certification:

  • Complete the state’s application
  • Mail certified copies of your transcripts to the state board
  • Send testing scores to the state board
  • Complete a background check
  • Register your fingerprints with the state
  • Send letters of recommendation
  • Pay an application fee

However, ESL teachers may have more alternative routes to licensure or certification than is common for some other subject areas. Districts are struggling to balance the expectation of quality with an urgent need for teachers who can address the special needs of students learning English. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires that states ensure that teachers are “highly qualified” in the subject areas they teach. In order to meet the needs of ESL students, some states are offering more ways for a teacher to demonstrate his or her qualifications.

There are several organizations that offer certification specifically in the area of teaching ESL. Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. ( and the American TESOL Institute ( both offer certifications in this area. The National Board for Professional Teaching standards ( also offers a certification in English for New Learners. Some states allow these certifications to supplement a bachelor’s degree and meet the majority of the education requirements. Check with your state to find out if alternative licensing options for ESL teacher are available where you live.

5. Stay Current With Your Teaching Education

Most states require continuing education as part of the license renewal process. In addition to meeting the requirements for license renewal, staying current with education theories and research in your field is important. A teacher wants to stay relevant and engaged, and keeping abreast of the latest information about teaching helps a teacher stay motivated.

In addition to using continuing education to stay current, an ESL teacher can enhance their qualifications with additional credentials. Completing the certifications offered by TESOL, Inc., The American TESOL Institute, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards can often be used to fulfill continuing education requirements, and may count as education advancement for salary ladders. Most school districts offer pay-scale adjustments for teachers who have pursued more advanced education and training.

Finally, connecting with other professionals in the area ESL helps a teacher stay up-to-date in the profession and find camaraderie in their field. TESOL, Inc. offers membership for professionals in addition to their certification programs, and there are other organizations like the National Association for Bilingual Educators ( that have a mission of supporting teachers in ESL studies. These organizations offer publications, workshops and conferences to allow an educational professional who gives children the gift of language proficiency a rich and rewarding career.