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How to Become an English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher


Reviewed by Kaci Ratzlaff, teacher of English language learners

Immigration to the U.S. has doubled since 1990, with many new arrivals not being proficient in English. This has created a high demand for English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers at every educational level. If you enjoy learning about different cultures and helping others succeed, this may be the job for you.

Acronyms Explained: What are ESL, ELL, ESOL, and More

  • English Language Learner or English Learner (ELL/EL): Students enrolled in ESL programs may be called by one or both of these terms.
  • English as a Second Language (ESL): This term often refers to the discipline of teaching English to non-native students or students exposed to another language through close family or their home setting.
  • English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL): Used interchangeably with ESL in many cases, ESOL is rising in popularity because the term is inclusive of English language learners who are already fluent in more than one language.
  • Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL): TESOL can refer to three things: the field of teaching ESOL, a type of master’s program or certificate, or the professional association known as TESOL International.
  • Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL): TEFL is mostly used outside the U.S. to identify English language learning programs in countries where English is not a primary language.

English Language Learner Teaching Jobs and Job Descriptions

Nearly five million English language learners, or 9.6% of all students, study in U.S. public schools as of 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This amount is up from 8.1% of students identified as English language learners in 2000. About 16% of kindergartners are ELLs, compared to only 4% of high school seniors. The reduction of ELLs in higher grades is partially due to students gaining proficiency over their years in second language programs. Other factors may include a need for high school students to work to help support their families and students entering at the high school level without having a path to graduate depending on prior education gaps and school district policy. This means that the students may not be learning in a traditional high school setting and instead are enrolled in alternative schools or adult education programs offered by non-school institutions or, unfortunately, that they have dropped out of school. In 2017, only 66.4% of ELL students graduated from high school, compared to an overall average of 84.6%.

All states teach students who speak English as an additional language, but percentages vary significantly. According to data from the NCES, approximately 21% of all public school students in California identify as ELLs, while Nevada, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Alaska, Kansas, and Washington all report at least 10% of their students enroll in ELL classes. In states like West Virginia and Vermont, fewer than 2% of public school students are ELLs. Though the programs are commonly associated with Spanish speakers, and it is the most common first language of these learners, it is not alone. Students come to the United States from all over the world. While nearly all languages are represented in American schools, other frequently spoken languages include Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Nepali, Portuguese, Russian, and Somali.

When working with ELL students, it’s essential to be aware of the unique challenges this population faces. While ELLs may have the same academic skills and knowledge as their English-speaking counterparts, they hold this information in a different language. They will also often be socially adept for their age, but their social norms may differ from those of their American classmates. Because of this, they may struggle to understand peculiar English language rules, take extra time to discern regional dialects, and find it challenging to master the idea of homonyms, idioms, or other unique concepts. They are also adapting to social norms in their new home. Encouraging and empowering teachers can help these learners build confidence in their growing skills.

Becoming an ESL Teacher at the K-12 Level

ELL teachers hold the dual goal of ensuring ELLs achieve grade level (or higher) abilities in academic subjects while also increasing their English language skills. In general, ELL teachers at this level focus on instilling four key skills related to English: listening, speaking, reading, and writing (ESEA, page 15). However, states and districts may include additional standards students in ELL programs must meet to test into a higher level or entirely out of their second language programs. For instance, Pennsylvania requires students to not only achieve academic standards but also earn at least a C or higher in all core subject areas and a score of Basic on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. At the same time, Tennessee expects proficiency in all areas of language as supported by WIDA ACCESS scores.

It isn’t necessary to be bilingual to be an excellent ELL teacher, since your goal is to get your students to master the English language—plus, you may have students who speak many different languages.

There aren’t federal guidelines outlining how ESL must be taught, but federal law does prohibit discrimination against ELLs and requires ELL programs to be adequately developed, funded, and evaluated. Within that framework, states and local school districts develop their own curricula. ELL teachers working in one of the 40 states, territories, or federal agencies participating in the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium have access to a wealth of resources designed to improve their ELL instruction.

A student’s age or the amount of time they’ve been in the U.S. often tell you little about their English language skills. Some may have been in the country since birth, yet they need to start with basics. Others may have arrived recently but possess prior knowledge of the language. Regardless of the grade level you teach, you always start with testing to identify the needs of each learner. Students qualify for support based on English reading, writing, and speaking/listening screening tests.  Other students with another language may display English proficiency in all areas and either not qualify for the program or be exited due to sufficient progress.

It’s also important to remember, just as with native English speakers, students possess different abilities. It can be substantially more challenging to get needed supports in special or gifted education for ELLs because of the language barriers the students and their parents. ELL teachers often act as advocates for these students and families to ensure they get the resources they need.

Adult Second Language Education

Unlike K–12, there isn’t a governmental mandate to teach ESL to adult learners, in no small part because the U.S. does not have an official language. However, the American Institutes for Research publishes English Language Proficiency Standards for Adult Education that can help ESL teachers of adult learners craft a meaningful curriculum and identify various levels of proficiency along the way.

Working with adult ELLs requires sensitivity, as some of these students may worry about losing their culture if they focus on speaking in English rather than their native tongue. When done well, ESL assists learners in navigating the social and professional worlds—not forcing assimilation.

Also, unlike public K–12 education, many adult ESL classes cost money. Though free options may exist at local community centers, colleges, or even through school districts, these may not fit with an adult student’s schedule. If that’s the case, interested parents with children in K–12 ESL classes can ask their child’s teacher for resources.

Regardless of whether you are teaching K–12 or adult ELL students, a common challenge is helping students learn to converse with native English speakers. One option for teachers looking to help students develop conversational English skills may want to consider checking out a book called Stage by Stage: A Handbook for Using Drama in the Second Language Classroom. This publication examines how theatre can be used to teach these skills in a safe, low-stakes environment—and the teacher needs no theatre training to use the ideas. Skills like improvisation may allow them to “expect the unexpected” in conversation.

Career Outlook and Salary for ESL Teachers/Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages

Before pursuing an ESL position, it’s understandable that you’d want to make sure the career offers stability and a livable wage. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect data specific to ELL teachers, but teacher pay averages are mostly based on years of service and levels of education, not on subject matter (except for special education teachers).

While it’s a well-known fact that teaching positions don’t pay exceptionally high salaries, loan forgiveness programs can help individual teachers enter the profession without mountains of debt. Loan forgiveness program requirements vary by subject area, so take time to understand each before applying. In addition, universities may have grant programs available to provide certification and training for these high need teaching positions.

Elementary teacher$58,230

ESL Teacher Salaries
Middle school teacher $58,600
High school teacher $60,320

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Degrees for Becoming an ESL Teacher

ESL teachers go through several steps before setting foot in the classroom. Each state sets its own requirements, so check in with your Board of Education to learn what is required. We look at some of the more common steps below.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Education

Considering today’s second language education needs, many bachelor’s degree programs require coursework in TESOL. If you are interested in being an ESL educator, you may be able to take additional coursework in this area and earn a second language certification—though be sure to check with your chosen institution to ensure this option exists. Second language coursework emphasizes an understanding of linguistic theories, English language structure and grammar, sociolinguistics, ELL instructional practices, and current issues and trends. Degree seekers also consider how diversity and culture affect students participating in second-language learning outside their home country. A few standard classes include:

  • Foreign/Second Language Curriculum and Teaching Materials
  • Applied Linguistics for Second Language Learning
  • Listening and Speaking in a Second Language
  • Language Learning in a Global Context

The degree typically requires the completion of approximately 120 credits and a student-teaching placement at an approved educational facility. Most students can graduate in four years if studying full-time. It is rare for bachelor’s degree programs in education to be offered entirely online, but there are some hybrid options in addition to on-campus studies. Regardless of your path, you must complete student teaching in person.

Those who have a bachelor’s degree in education may also often add on an English to Speakers of Other Languages certification simply by taking an exam, such as the Praxis, that covers linguistic and instructional knowledge and abilities relating directly to this population.

Master’s Degrees in ESL Teaching

In a master’s degree program in ESL, students build on the concepts and principles covered in an undergraduate program and engage in original research. Many ESL master’s degree students are teachers who have already spent time in the classroom, either as an ESL teacher or another type of educator, and want to expand their expertise (and potentially raise their pay). Some graduates may wish to continue teaching, while others pursue roles focused on research, program administration, or curriculum development.

Master’s programs typically require 30 to 48 credits and take two to three years to complete if attending school full time. Some degrees focus on building professional practice and often require learners to participate in a practicum or other experiential learning component. Others focus on exploration and expect students to research and write a thesis. Common courses include:

  • Language Assessment of ELL Students
  • Teaching Methods
  • ELL Research Skills

Master’s in education degrees are more commonly available online than bachelor’s degrees, and it’s often possible to continue teaching full time while you study.

Doctorates in English as a Second Language Education

Doctoral programs in ESL come in two forms:  Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) or Doctor of Philosophy in Education (Ph.D.). The Ed.D. is a practice-based professional degree designed for educators who want to continue working in the field to affect change and influence policy. The Ph.D., conversely, is a research-based degree focused on preparing graduates for high-level research and/or postsecondary teaching roles.

These programs also differ in terms of degree requirements. An Ed.D. typically requires three years of full-time learning and concludes with some advanced fieldwork component.The Ph.D. requires between four and six years of full-time study and culminates with a full-length dissertation focused on understanding a unique topic in the discipline.

Courses commonly covered in these programs include:

  • Dialogue and Difference in the Multicultural Classroom (Ed.D.)
  • Technology-Based Language Teaching and Materials Design (Ed.D.)
  • Ethnographic Research Methods (Ph.D.)
  • Critical Examination of Curriculum in Context (Ph.D.)

ESL Alternative Certification

Alternative certification programs are for those who work in fields other than education and want to switch to teaching. In ESL, this path is especially popular with those who taught English abroad. While these overseas language schools often do not require teaching credentials—only English fluency—they often provide invaluable experience to those who complete them.

An ESL alternative certification program fills in the academic blanks needed to receive licensure and meet state board of education requirements. Although you’ll still need to take several college-level courses to receive certification, these programs take less time than a traditional degree and lead to similar outcomes. Teachers with alternative certification generally have the same job prospects and pay as those with education degrees. Common classes include:

  • Bilingual Instruction for Content Areas
  • Foundations of ESL Education
  • Classroom Management for ESL Teachers

Graduate Certificate in ESL Education

Designed for teachers already working in the classroom who want to switch to a new subject, graduate certificates build on existing knowledge of classroom management, educational principles, and working with diverse learners. With an understanding that graduate certificate candidates already possess a firm understanding of these topics, certificates instead focus on ensuring they gain the tools needed to teach ELLs effectively.

Most ESL graduate certificates require between 18 and 24 credits and take approximately one year to complete. Most states accept these credentials and allow existing teachers to transition into an ELL classroom. Graduate certificates can be completed online or in-person and consider the busy schedules of teachers when setting attendance requirements. Common classes include:

  • Language Structure and Acquisition
  • Working with Parents in Language Minority Education
  • Assessment and Evaluation of ELL Students

Educational Specialist Degrees for Second Language Educators

Educational specialist degrees fall between master’s and doctoral degrees, allowing you to target a particular area of interest. Programs frequently fall into the categories of school psychology, leadership and policy, curriculum development, and specific areas of teaching. Educational specialists in second language education often fill a gap for schools or districts with a high need for teachers in this area. They may remain as classroom teachers, but they will often develop second language programs, curricula, and provide instruction in the area to other educators.

Online Programs for English as a Second Language Teaching

Thanks to the expansion of distance learning opportunities over the past decade, there are numerous online TESOL programs designed for students who would rather learn in the comfort of their homes than visit class multiple times per week. Instead of listening to lectures, conversing with peers and professors, and turning in assignments within a brick-and-mortar classroom, learners accomplish all these tasks in a virtual classroom.

Online degrees from regionally accredited schools carry the same weight as campus-based programs and will not hurt your job prospects. Prospective students should note that some schools mandate periodic campus visits to take part in residencies or other degree requirements. Check with admissions administrators at individual institutions to learn about specific requirements.

Gaining Practical Experience in Teaching ESL

To become a teacher of any sort, you generally must participate in a student teaching experience, internship, and/or practicum. The specific practice requirements vary by location, so check with your state board of education to learn more.

Generally speaking, student teaching experiences last at least one semester and require you to take on some of the same responsibilities as licensed teachers, but under supervision. You will be assigned a mentor teacher to help you through the process, and you will meet with fellow students in an internship class to compare experiences and learn from one another.

If you are focusing on ESL, be sure to communicate with your academic advisor so you can find a suitable location for your teaching experience.

Obtaining Licensure or Certification to Teach English to Speakers of Other Languages

To receive licensure/certification, applicants must meet several requirements. Individual states set their own requirements, so always check with your board of education before beginning the process. After earning a qualifying degree and completing student teaching, there are typically a few more steps to landing a teaching job.

If you want to work as an ESL teacher, you often must sit for a subject-specific exam, such as the English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Praxis exam. Because you may be working with minors, you must also pass a background check. Lastly, you must pay any fees associated with earning a license/certificate. Check with your licensing board to find out the cost.

While some states do have reciprocity agreements, it is a myth that teachers can easily move to a new state and start teaching. It is not uncommon for teachers who move states to take an exam, additional coursework, or meet other requirements before beginning or early on in their teaching careers in their new locations.

Resources for Current and Future ESL Teachers

  • ESL Galaxy: A completely free resource for and from teachers, ESL Galaxy provides printable materials, interactive lesson plans, activities, and information designed to support K–12 ESL teachers.
  • ESL Games World: A lifesaver for those days when you can see your students’ eyes slowly glossing over, ESL Games World provides free and fun games to be played online or on paper.
  • National Association for Bilingual Education: NABE serves more than 5,000 members based in the U.S. and abroad through an annual conference, research symposium and institute, advocacy efforts, publications, leadership opportunities, and a marketplace for educational products.
  • National Council of Teachers of English: Whether teaching elementary, middle, secondary, or college classes, NCATE offers resources, community groups, events, and research to help educators continue building their skills and network.
  • Newsela: Newsela provides reading materials, separated into five skill levels, to help students understand the subject matter. This is a paid service.
  • Reading A-Z: A paid service, Reading A-Z can help you find reading materials at your students’ levels.
  • Rosetta Stone: A language learning platform, this helps people learn all languages—including English. This is especially helpful for newcomers to the language. Rosetta is a paid service.
  • TESOL International Association: Created in 1963 as the first professional organization devoted to teachers of English to speakers of other languages, today, this group provides support to nearly 50,000 members. The group offers access to industry publications, certificates and education programs, career support, funding, and other resources.

Meet the Expert



Kaci Ratzlaff

Kaci Ratzlaff has been teaching for over 17 years. Her experience includes teaching general education classes and ELL students at both the elementary and middle school level. Kaci holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, an endorsement in English as a second language, and a master’s degree as a reading specialist. She currently teaches ELL students at a public middle school in Olathe, KS.