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TEFL, TESOL, TESL and CELTA: Making Sense of Teach Abroad Terms

I remember when I first started looking into teaching English abroad. I already had an English degree, which seemed like a good start, but I knew it took more than this to get teaching jobs in foreign countries. So I started doing research online. I imagined there would be some kind of official website that led me to the one kind of certificate required to become an English teacher, but it didn’t turn out to be so cut and dry. Instead, I found myself lost in a sea of unfamiliar teaching terms (TEFL, TESOL, TESL, CELTA)  that all seemed to have roughly the same mix of letters, but were slightly different. Sound familiar?

Now that I’ve taught abroad in a couple of countries and been an advisor for others doing the same, I want to help you make sense of the many teach abroad terms you will encounter in your own research.

Let’s start with TEFL.

This is the most common term you’ll see, and if you want to teach overseas in a non-English-speaking country, this is what you will be doing: Teaching English as a Foreign Language (English is a foreign language to a student learning it in Japan, for example). TEFL certification is simply the training that prepares you to become this kind of teacher. TEFL is a very general “umbrella” term that includes a lot of different kinds of courses, like online TEFL courses or classroom-based TEFL courses, as well as specific brands of TEFL courses, like CELTA (more on that later).

You might also see the term TESOL.

What is TESOL? TESOL stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. TEFL and TESOL are used interchangeably for the exact same certification, but the term TEFL is more commonly heard in the U.S., whereas in Europe the term TESOL is more common. Just remember that schools that hire teachers will make no distinction between the two. You might see an ad for a teaching job that requires “TEFL/TESOL certification,” for example. They are the same thing.

It’s also worth noting that TESOL rather than TEFL, is the term used for advanced university degree programs in this field. So those who are considering a master’s degree in teaching English as a foreign or second language (see ESL below)  would earn an MA in TESOL, not an MA in TEFL. (Are you considering an MA in TESOL? Find out if it’s worth it for you.)

So then what the heck is TESL?

Take the out of TESOL and you’ve got something totally different, and it won’t apply to you if you’re planning to teach abroad. TESL stands for Teaching English as a Second Language, and that means teaching English in an English-speaking country (Cuban immigrants learning English at a language center in Florida are learning it as a second language). There is no “TESL certificate” per se, and most people who teach ESL are either TEFL certified and have returned home from teaching abroad, or have studied ESL as part of an education degree on a path to becoming a public school teacher.

Then there’s CELTA.

Earlier I mentioned that there are certain brands of TEFL certification; CELTA is one of them. The CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is a well-known and highly respected classroom-based TEFL course that was developed by the University of Cambridge in the UK. Cambridge standardized their course, so wherever you take the CELTA– from Medellin, Colombia to Denver, Colorado– the certificate you receive is the same.

Here at Bridge, we offer the CELTA, and we also have our own brand of TEFL certificate, called the IDELT (International Diploma in English Language Teaching). The curriculum, like many classroom-based TEFL courses, is based on the CELTA, and it is considered equivalent to the Cambridge certificate. Whether you take the IDELT in Santiago, Chile, or here in Denver, the certificate is the same.

So which one do YOU need?

Well, that depends. The vast majority of people who get certified to teach English abroad these days do so via an affordable (around $400 – $500), convenient online TEFL course. The growing acceptance of online TEFL certifications has opened the door to just about anyone who wants to teach abroad.

However, if you are planning to teach in a particularly competitive market, such as Europe or the Middle East, I advise you to take a classroom-based TEFL course, such as the CELTA or IDELT (or another brand of intensive, classroom-based certification).

Or, if you are like me, and simply prefer to learn “hands-on” rather than online, you might choose a more expensive ($1700- $2500) classroom-based TEFL course, even if you are going to a region where it is not required (I taught in Central America first, where online TEFL is accepted, but I took a classroom-based TEFL course anyway).

Does that clear up the confusion a bit? To narrow your search for the right TEFL/TESOL course down even further, read about TEFL certification cost.  

Jennifer is from Tampa, Florida, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in both English and psychology. After a short career in social work, she gave in to wanderlust, got TEFL-certified, and moved abroad to teach English. She has taught students of all ages at language centers in Costa Rica, Morocco, and Spain.