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

by Brett Montrose

TEFL, TESL, and TESOL are all English teacher training courses. Each of these qualifications, however, prepare instructors for a different type of teaching environment. Depending on your international teaching aspirations, one type of course may be a better fit than another. To make the most informed decision, choose the right certificate for you, and become a successful English teacher abroad, read on!

Teacher watching students color

Some 120- and 150-hour TEFL courses offer specialized electives, such as teaching English to young learners.

Keep in mind: If you are an aspiring English teacher, have an idea of where in the world you would like to teach, and a picture of the type of organization or school you’d like to be a part of in mind, it will be much easier for you to decide which English teaching certification course is right for you.

First off, let’s take a look at each type of teaching certification to find out what makes each one unique and valuable.

TEFL  - Teaching English as a Foreign Language

TEFL courses aim to equip teachers with the skill set required to teach English to students living in countries where English is not the native language. Therefore, during TEFL courses, you will learn to handle a classroom of students learning English as a second language in a place where English is not commonly spoken.

Due to the vast number of countries where this type of English language instruction is demanded and applicable, a TEFL qualification is the most widely recognized type of teaching certification in non-native English speaking countries around the globe. Additionally, earning TEFL certification from reputable institutions, such as respected colleges and universities, tend to be more highly regarded than TESOL courses. Education systems in non-English speaking nations all over the globe tend to fit the TEFL bill nearly every time.

There are plenty of non-native English speaking countries to consider calling home once equipped with a TEFL certification. China, Japan, and South Korea are in constant need of TEFL certified English teachers. Nations across East and West Asia, in parts of Africa and the Middle East, and throughout Europe and South America are also home to a myriad of schools and academic institutions that require qualified English instructors regularly.

A TEFL certification is relevant when applying for several different types of teaching jobs. In some circumstances, it may even be a required qualification, while in others it may be a significant resume addition. Jobs abroad available for TEFL teachers include ESL jobs, entry-level licensed teaching positions, experienced licensed teaching positions, and administrative roles.

Person using a tablet

Online options that function on mobile phones and tablets are great ways to complete your course while on-the-go.

Keep in mind: being TEFL certified could qualify you for higher paying teaching positions.

TESL - Teaching English as a Second Language 

Similarly to TEFL, TESL prepares educators to teach English to non-English speakers. The significant difference between these two certifications is the intended teaching location. TESL courses are geared toward teachers planning to teach English to speakers of foreign languages living in a native-English speaking country.

A TESL qualification is an advantage for teachers looking for work in English speaking countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and Australia. Whereas TEFL is more geared toward teachers planning to relocate temporarily or permanently abroad, TESL is a suitable course choice for those looking to expand their careers within their current home country.

Once TESL-qualified, teaching job opportunities may include language support teaching for students in public or private English schools or positions as an English teacher within private language schools.

TESOL - Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

TESOL courses have been designed more recently than both TEFL and TESL. A TESOL course draws on broader elements of each of the latter teaching certification to provide the base for teachers to teach in both non-native English countries and within English speaking countries.

Acquiring a TESOL qualification may be the best option for anyone unsure about future career plans. For those open to teaching abroad as well as teaching English at home, TESOL could be a good start.

Some job searchers may encounter barriers when equipped with a TESOL certificate, however. Since TESOL is a newer certification, it can be less highly regarded than a TEFL, as overseas curricula tend to favour TEFL qualified candidates. Some schools and organizations may also not recognize a TESOL certification as a valid ESL teaching certificate.

A word of advice to anyone considering a TESOL course: clarify what your employment goals are and ensure that TESOL is a better choice than both TEFL and TESL. Remember that TEFL and TESL courses feature more specific topics, based on the language learners you will be teaching. TESOL courses split their focus between teaching to EFL and ESL language learners and have the potential to make your training less specified.

A bit confused? Let’s get back to basics.

  • TEFL is for teaching English in non-native English speaking countries to speakers of foreign languages.
  • TESL is for teaching English in native English speaking countries to speakers of foreign languages.
  • TESOL is for teaching English in both non-native and native English speaking countries to speakers of foreign languages.

TEFL is the most widely accepted and highly regarded certification overseas of the three, and TESL and TEFL offer more specific and customizable certification courses than TESOL.

Teacher teaching the kids about the globe

English teaching courses can unlock opportunities for amazing global experiences.

All of these certifications will leave teachers with an equivalent level of qualification to teach English - what sets them apart is location and specificity of topics.

As a general rule, hiring bodies tend to seek candidates with at the very least, a 100-hour course certificate. A 120-hour (or longer) course is often the best option when wishing to increase your chances of being hired. Also keep in mind that there are TEFL, TESL, and TESOL courses available in both in-person and online formats, and that there are highly reputable courses in either format. 

This article was contributed by Teach Away, a teacher recruitment and placement service established in 2003. Teach Away places hundreds of teachers in jobs and schools around the world each year.