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What Is a TEFL Certificate & What Can I Do With One?

“What is a TEFL certificate?” is one of the most frequent, recurring questions from prospective new teachers who are just getting into the worldwide English as a second language (ESL) industry.

Let’s get into what TEFL and TEFL certification means, and why it matters in 2024.

What TEFL Means

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If you have aspirations to teach English as a foreign language abroad, then earning a “teaching English as a foreign language” (TEFL) certification is a must. Getting TEFL-certified opens up opportunities in the ESL (English as a second language) industry that would otherwise remain closed, as many schools and/or visa-issuing authorities require that candidates have a TEFL certification.

What is a TEFL Certificate?

Here’s an example of the TEFL Hero 120-hour TEFL certificate, accredited by ACCREDITAT

A TEFL certificate – which, again, stands for “teaching English as a foreign language” – is a basic professional credential that more and more schools require of all their teachers.

Multiple entities offer certification courses of varying quality that train teachers to effectively provide English instruction to non-native English speakers abroad. Some courses are entirely online (like TEFL Hero’s), some are in-person, and others use a hybrid model.

Most TEFL courses integrate the following elements into their curricula:

  • Lesson-planning. You’ll learn how to create a lesson plan that flows well, holds the students’ attention, and ultimately produces measurable results
  • Classroom management. You’ll learn the basics of classroom management – which, if you’ve ever actually tried to teach in a real-world setting, is extremely difficult (especially with younger learners and/or large groups)
  • Accommodating diverse learning styles. Students have different learning styles. An effective teacher provides instruction that accommodates all of them.
  • Academic teaching theories. There is a large catalog of research into teaching/learning theories that have practical applications in the classroom.
  • Cultural sensitivity. Thriving in a foreign classroom requires the added skill of handling thorny cultural issues. This element, in particular, is found only in TEFL courses and not TESOL or TESL.

TESL, TEFL, TESOL – What’s the Difference?

If you’re new to this space, you’ll notice very quickly that acronyms abound. They can be disorienting – often unnecessarily so!

Such is the case with a trio of acronyms:

  • TESL (teaching English as a second language)
  • TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language)
  • TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages)

Here’s the kicker: they all mean pretty much the same thing! These terms are largely interchangeable; there isn’t any notable difference between them save for one.

Courses designated as TESL, TEFL, and TESOL all use the same methodology (more or less), cover the same materials, and have the same objective of training teachers to deliver instruction to non-native English speakers.

For further explanation, take a look at this helpful YouTube video by Mad English TV (no affiliation with TEFL Hero):

The only difference between TEFL and TESL/TESOL is:

  • TEFL is designed to train participants to teach English to non-native audiences in foreign, non-English-speaking countries, whereas
  • TESL is geared towards non-native speakers residing in countries that predominately speak English (such as the United States).
  • TESOL focuses on non-native speakers both living in non-English-speaking countries and in English-speaking countries, incorporating elements of both TEFL and TESL.

Because there is often confusion regarding the semantics and because TEFL certification is oriented towards non-native speakers in foreign countries, some employers do insist on TEFL certification over TESL and TESOL. For these reasons, I would advise pursuing a TEFL certification if you want to teach abroad.

Standard TEFL certification is also frequently confused with other common credentials in the ESL industry, particularly:

CELTA and DELTA are significantly costlier than standard TEFL certification courses. Unless you are deep into an ESL career and trying to break into the elite echelons of the industry, I wouldn’t recommend these over TEFL. See a more detailed breakdown of these two certifications in our guide CELTA vs TEFL: Costs, Requirements, and Career Options

Who Requires TEFL Certifications?

Any teacher who wants to teach English as a foreign language in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, or any non-English-speaking country should get TEFL certified. There are some schools that accept you to teach English abroad without a TEFL certification, but they will often look for other measurements of teaching success such as past experience. 

That said, TEFL certification is most advantageous for candidates who:

  • Do not have a bachelor’s-level degree
  • Did not major in English or education in college
  • Are not native speakers
  • Have no previous teaching experience

What Can I Do with a TEFL Certificate?

TEFL-certified ESL teachers earn more money, get more job offers, have easier times getting visas, and perform better in the classroom than their peers without certification.

Once you earn a TEFL certificate, a slew of new job opportunities opens up – with higher salaries and greater benefits – like this one at a Japanese university that requires certification.

Choosing a TEFL Certification Program

There are lots of options on the web, as TEFL programs have proliferated in recent years along with the mushrooming global ESL industry.

Let’s explore some criteria by which you should judge any TEFL course you are considering.

First, we have various instruction methods:

  • On-demand. On-demand courses, like TEFL hero’s 120-hour online course, are conducted entirely remotely. There is no live instruction element, so the pace at which you work through the course is up to you. You could theoretically (although I wouldn’t recommend it) complete the course in a single sleepless weekend, or space it out to fit your busy schedule across several months.

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  •  Live online. Live online courses, like this one from International TEFL Academy, feature human-facilitated instruction provided via the internet. These courses are more interactive and personal than on-demand programs. On the other hand, they typically cost more because of the human labor involved.
  •  In-Person. Believe it or not, once upon a time, in-person courses like this one from TEFL.org were the norm. The downsides are that they are significantly costlier than either live online or on demand TEFL courses, they are generally more time-consuming, and it’s harder to fit them into a packed schedule.
    On the other hand, they are more effective for learners who thrive on interpersonal exchange as they are more personal, and many include a practicum element (live, supervised teaching experience) that is lacking with online courses.

Here are more criteria you should use to assess the value of a TEFL course: number of hours and specialties.

TEFL courses are often designated an assigned number of hours required to complete the course – 40-hour TEFL course, 100-hour TEFL course, etc.

TEFL courses can be:

  • 40 hour
  • 100 hours
  • 120 hours
  • 150 hours
  • 180 hours

40 and 100-hour courses are usually insufficient to meet employer demands, whereas 150 and 180-hour courses are overkill. 120 hours is the industry standard.

Your final consideration is your chosen specialty, if any. Most TEFL courses are all-purpose but certain TEFL courses cater to a niche within the ESL industry – for example, teaching English to adult learners. If you already know the age group you would like to teach, you might look for a TEFL course that caters to that demographic.

TEFL Certificate FAQs

Let us answer some frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding TEFL and TEFL certification.

Is it worth getting TEFL certified?

Getting TEFL certified is absolutely worth it, as you will be able to demand higher pay. See our full thoughts in our dedicated post Is a TEFL Certification Worth It? 

Is it difficult to get a TEFL?

No. Self-paced online courses like TEFL Hero’s can be completed on your own time at your own pace from the comfort of your home.

Are there any free TEFL courses?

Yes. TEFL Hero’s certified 40hr Online TEFL course is totally free.

Does a TEFL guarantee me a job?

No. Some courses offer placement following completion of the course, but those programs are usually much more expensive than simple certification courses without placement.

The Bottom Line on TEFL Certification

 Here’s the bottom line on What is a TEFL Certificate:

  • Take a TEFL certification course if you plan to teach English to non-native English speakers abroad
  • TEFL certification is not required for all English-teaching positions abroad, but it is for some and provides a competitive edge for all
  • TEFL, TESOL, and TESL are interchangeable acronyms that mean essentially the same thing
  • 120 hours is the ideal for TEFL course length
  • Online, on-demand TEFL courses are the most affordable option compared to live online and in-person alternatives 

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