ESL, ESOL, TESOL, TFL: What Are the Differences? Which is Right for You?

ESL, ESOL, TESOL, TFL: What Are the Differences? Which is Right for You?
The Editorial Team April 19, 2020

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Are you a caring individual who wants to help students grow academically as well as personally, and provide a more positive educational experience? Then teaching English language learners (ELL) might be the next step in your teaching career.

English language learners are the fastest growing population in U.S. public schools. As an area with extremely high need, teaching ELLs offers teachers an opportunity to expand their career and better serve the next generation of incoming students. In fact, it’s projected that by 2025 English language learners will make up 25 percent of the student population.

Let’s look at different options for teaching English as a second language.

What’s an ESL teacher?

Before we delve further into the requirements and differences of these certifications, it’s important to know that these designations are specifically for teachers who want to assist student populations whose first language isn’t English. These certifications qualify you to instruct students on how to speak, write, and read English.

Here’s a quick reference for what each of these certifications mean:

  • ESL: English as a Second Language
  • ESOL: English to Speakers of Other Languages
  • TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
  • TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language

All of these certifications are often lumped together under a general “ESL” category. ESL teachers serve a student population of ELLs. More specifically, this demographic involves students who were not born in this country and whose native language is not English.

Although many states offer ESL as a primary content area, it’s more common for teachers to obtain a traditional degree in a primary content area and gain an additional ESL certification. This allows for career options in the primary content area and in ESL.

ESL vs. ESOL: What’s the Difference?

ESL and ESOL are certifications that teachers and other individuals can obtain to serve student populations who speak other languages. The ESL designation is specific to teachers who will be teaching in a setting where a student’s native language is not English. ESOL is a category that accounts for speakers of multiple languages or who may have already had English education in their native country.

These distinctions are important because it affects the language acquisition process and teachers need to approach each student with a full understanding of their language capabilities.


The primary difference between these two certifications involves your career intentions. A TEFL certification is needed if you plan to teach English abroad. If you will be teaching English as a language to non-English speakers in their native country, this is the certification for you.

The TESOL is designed to provide more flexibility for teachers who are uncertain of their ESL goals. This certification allows you to teach ESL in your native country or travel to other countries to teach English as a second language.

Individuals and teachers wanting to teach English abroad will need to be certified in TEFL or TESOL. If you are certain that your future holds teaching English in another country, a TEFL certification is the way to go.

Getting Certified

Regardless of which student population and location you intend to target, getting certified would be a good move. Certifications illustrate your knowledge of student language skill assessment, instruction in grammar, and ability to practice conversation with students.

Not all ESL positions require you to obtain a teaching degree prior to getting certified, but many are designed for working teachers who are seeking to expand their credentials. Also, if you plan to work in a K-12 public school environment, you will need to have at least a bachelor’s degree (typically with an education or ESL focus, but not always).

Requirements for teaching English as a second language vary from state to state. In the case of TEFL certifications, you will also need to ensure your licensure is internationally recognized.

Almost all certifications require several hours of coursework where you learn to instruct and engage with English language learners. These are followed up by an in-class teaching practicum and state exams.

Most colleges offer these certifications as additions to a traditional degree program. Many can be completed in person, online, or as a hybrid approach.

Master’s Programs

If you are hoping to expand your knowledge and practice to a higher level, you may consider a master’s degree in ESL, ESOL, TESOL, or TEFL which will teach you skills beyond a certification program. Master’s programs offer more rigorous coursework and delve more deeply into the theory, pedagogical approaches, and language acquisition. Often, master’s programs are required for those wanting to teach adult learners, but requirements vary from state to state.

Teaching English language learners offers a fulfilling path for expanding your teaching career and helping a student population in need. However, make sure you check your state requirements before deciding on a program, then take the next steps to expanding your teaching and literacy skills!

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Categorized as: Degree Research