How to Become a Certified ESL Teacher: Degrees & Career Advancement

Oct 20, 2021

Research the requirements for ESL, or English as a second language, certification. Get a step-by-step guide for becoming ESL certified and read the job description of an ESL teacher. You can also take a look at the skills necessary for teaching ESL classes.

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Should I Become an ESL Certified Teacher?

Teachers of English as a second language (ESL) work with non-native English speakers to improve their understanding of American customs, reading and comprehension, and speaking of the English language. ESL teachers work with all levels of English learners and receive specific training and credentialing that enables them to work in school settings, with community programs, and for private companies. One of the most well-known ESL certifications is TESOL, or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. According to, in 2020 the median annual salary for ESL teachers was $44,483 per year.

Career Requirements for ESL Teachers

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; master's often preferred
Degree Field(s) Education, adult education, and bilingual education
License/Certification Varies by state; cross-cultural language and academic development (CLAD) certificates; optional certification for those with non-education bachelor degrees
Experience Student teaching
Key Skills Creativity; instructional, communications, and computer software skills; cultural sensitivity
Median Annual Salary (2020) $44,483 (For ESL teachers)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,

To be a certified ESL teacher, you need at least a bachelor's degree, but a master's degree is often preferred for teaching ESL classes to adult learners. Degrees are usually earned in education, adult education and bilingual education. Licensure and certification requirements vary by state. Some requirements include passing Praxis exams, earning bilingual authorization, and obtaining cross-cultural language and academic development (CLAD) certificates. ESL certified teachers need a variety of skills, including creativity, instructional skills, communications skills, cultural sensitivity, and computer software skills.

What Skills are Useful for Obtaining an ESL Teaching Certification?

In addition to meeting the specified requirements, those looking to earn an ESL certification should also demonstrate a range of skills and competencies related to language teaching. In particular, they should have in-depth knowledge of every component of language; not just speaking and listening, but also reading and writing.

How to Earn ESL Certification

The following are steps you can take to become ESL certified:

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

To obtain a teaching position, applicants are generally required to hold a bachelor's degree, though a master's degree is highly valued among many employers. Prospective public school or adult ESL teachers should take courses in linguistics and theories of second language acquisition. ESL teachers are not required to be fluent in a second language. Most teacher education programs require the completion of an internship, commonly known as student teaching. All states offer an alternative route to ESL certification for people who have a bachelor's degree in a field other than education.

Step 2: Obtain ESL Teacher Certification

Requirements for ESL certification vary largely by state. Teaching in a PK-12 school requires the specific ESL credentials to work with English language learners (ELLs). Obtaining a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate may provide more teaching opportunities. Many degree programs focused on education are now offering ESL endorsements.

Step 3: Maintain Your ESL Teaching Certification

To keep up with the latest research and improve their teaching skills, many adult literacy teachers take professional development classes. Public school teachers are also required to meet professional growth requirements to keep their teaching licenses current. Each state sets its own mandatory minimum hours of professional development and other ESL teaching certificate renewal requirements. Some states have several certificates and authorizations available for ESL teachers.

Step 4: Earn a Master's Degree

ESL teachers of adult students in colleges or universities may be required to obtain a master's degree. Master's degrees in adult education prepare prospective teachers to use successful teaching techniques and to work with students from various backgrounds. In some programs, teachers may specialize in adult basic education, secondary education, or English as a second language (ESL).

To stay informed about vital topics in the ESL teaching field, consider joining a professional organization, such as TESOL International Association, that serves teachers of students from diverse language backgrounds.

Step 5: Career Advancement as an ESL Certified Teacher

ESL teachers may have a variety of advancement opportunities depending on the program with which they are affiliated. As part-time teachers are often hired, a part-time position can advance into a full-time position as experience is gained. Depending on the program, there may be options available to advance to program director or program coordinator. There are also non-profit programs available that may allow the ESL teacher to move into designing program materials or work on the research side of the field.

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