ESL, ESOL, TESOL, TFL: What Are the Differences?

Do you have a passion for helping students to grow both academically and personally? Would you like to provide a positive learning experience? Teaching English language learners (ELL), might be your next step in your teaching career.

English language learners make up the fastest-growing population in U.S. public school systems. Teaching English language learners is a great way for teachers to grow their careers and help the next generation of students. It is projected that English language learners will comprise 25 percent of the student body by 2025.

Let’s take a look at the different ways you can teach English as a second or third language.

What is an ESL teacher?

Before we get into the details of these certifications and their differences, it is important to understand that these certifications are only for teachers who wish to help students whose first language other than English. These certifications allow you to teach students how to write, speak, and read English.

Let’s take a look at what each certification means.

  • ESL: English for Second Language
  • ESOL English for Speakers of Other Languages
  • TESOL Teaching English to Speakers Of Other Languages
  • TEFL Teaching English as an Additional Language

These certifications are often combined under the general “ESL” category. ESL teachers teach ELLs. This demographic includes students who are not native English speakers and were not born in the country.

While many states offer ESL in their primary content areas, it is more common for teachers who have a traditional degree in a primary area to also earn an additional ESL certificate. This gives you the opportunity to pursue a career in ESL and primary content areas.

ESL vs. ESL: What’s The Difference?

ESL and ESOL are certificates that teachers can get to help students who speak another language. The ESL designation applies to teachers who are teaching in a language other than English. ESOL refers to speakers of multiple languages who may have had English education in their home country.

These distinctions are crucial because they affect the language acquisition process. Teachers need to be able to understand each student’s language abilities and approach them with respect.


Your career goals are the main difference between these certifications. If you intend to teach English abroad, a TEFL certification will be required. This certification is required if you plan to teach English in another country.

The ESL certification is designed to give teachers more flexibility if they are unsure of their ESL goals. This certification allows you ESL in your country, or travel abroad to teach English.

Teachers and individuals who want to teach English abroad must be certified in TEFL or TESOL. A TEFL certification will ensure that you can teach English in another country.

Get Certified

No matter what student population or location you are targeting, becoming certified is a smart move. Certificates show your ability to communicate with students and demonstrate your proficiency in language skills assessment and instruction in grammar.

While not all ESL positions require that you have a teaching degree before becoming certified, many of them are for teachers in the field who want to improve their credentials. You will also need a minimum bachelor’s Degree if you want to work in a K-12 school setting. This is usually with an ESL or education focus.

The requirements for teaching English as an additional language differ from one state to the next. You will need to make sure your TEFL certifications are internationally recognized.

Nearly all certifications require a lot of coursework. Here you will learn how to teach and engage with English language learners. These are then followed by an in-class teaching practice and state exams.

These certifications are offered by many colleges as an addition to traditional degrees. Many of these certifications can be taken online, in person, or hybrid.

Master’s Degrees

A master’s in ESL, TESOL or TEFL may be an option if you want to increase your practice and knowledge. Master’s programs are more intensive and cover more of the theory, pedagogical, and language acquisition. Master’s programs are often required by those who want to teach adult learners. However, requirements vary from one state to the next.

You can expand your teaching career or help a student in need by teaching English language learners. Before you decide on a program, check the requirements in your state. Then, take the next steps towards expanding your literacy and teaching skills.