ESL Teacher Career Guide

English as a second language (ESL) teachers work with non-native speakers to help them learn to speak, read, understand, and write in English. They may work in public or private schools, language academies, or teach private lessons out of their home or the homes of students. The term ESL is just one way to refer to the field. Other related terms, which vary by region, state, district, and/or school, include:

  • Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD): Used in the US to describe English language learners.
  • English Language Learners (ELL): Refers to learners typically found in K-12 environments.
  • English Language Teaching or Training (ELT): Mostly used in the UK; same meaning as ESL.
  • (Teaching) English for Academic Purposes (TEAP or EAP): Teaching students how to write formally, give presentations, and perform academically in English.
  • (Teaching) English as a Foreign Language (TEFL or EFL): Teaching English in a non-English-speaking country.
  • Teaching English as a New Language (TENL or ENL): Used in some states instead of ESL.
  • (Teaching) English as a Second Language (TESL or ESL): Teaching English in a country that is primarily English-speaking.
  • (Teaching) English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL or ESOL): Acronym created in part to be more inclusive than ESL, which assumes English is the second language, when in fact, English may be the third or fourth language.
  • (Teaching) English for Specific Purposes (TESP or ESP): Teaching of English that is related to a certain industry such as technology or business.
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL): An English language test required of international students who want to study abroad in a country where English is spoken.

ESL students can be found in all age ranges, from children to adults. This guide provides further information on what ESL teachers do, how to become one, and the industry’s salary and job outlook.

ESL Teacher Job Description

An ESL teacher is responsible for providing lessons and support to students who are learning English as a second language. Often ESL teachers use a real-life context to help students grasp the complexities of the language. ESL teachers must be adaptable, creative, and sensitive to the cultural differences expected when working with students from different cultures. Sometimes, those who teach English as a second language also act as mentors, advisors, and liaisons to students and families who are just getting established in a new environment. In the public school system, ESL teachers may work with students of all grade levels (K-12), often pulling ESL students out of the regular classroom to a designated area, where they work with them in small groups or one-on-one to improve their English skills. Depending on the size of the school, these small groups may comprise English language learners of different ages and grade levels who all need assistance with their English language skills.

ESL Degrees and Programs

ESL Teacher Requirements & Common Tasks

Teachers of ESL plan and deliver lessons and assess students on their progress, strengths, and weaknesses. They might teach an entire class or, more commonly in the public school system, teach students in small groups. ESL teachers organize activities and administer and grade tests. They may work with children or adult students of varied ages from diverse backgrounds. Some adult students may have been highly educated in their native country, while others may have little formal education. A flexible teaching style that adapts to varied student needs is a valuable skill for an ESL teacher. Excellent communication skills are also important.

Besides instructing students in the subject of English, ESL teachers must prepare lesson plans, complete related paperwork, and stay informed with changing teaching methods and standards. Because of the increasing use of technology in the classroom, ESL teachers need proficiency in computers and various classroom technologies. As with most teachers, teachers of English as a second language often spend nights and weekends grading papers, planning their lessons, conducting activities, and meeting with parents and other school faculty. Teachers of adult learners specifically may be required to teach classes outside of regular working hours, since adult students often work during the day.

Teacher Quote: “Bilingual routes include: acquiring two languages early on in the home; acquiring a second language in the street, in the wider community, in the nursery school, elementary, or high school; and, after childhood, learning a second or foreign language in adult language classes and courses or by informal interaction with other…While younger learners tend to achieve higher levels of proficiency in practice, older learners tend to learn faster. While there may be no critical periods for language learning, there are times when there will be greater opportunities (e.g. in school) and varying levels and types of motivation.” –Colin Baker and Wayne E. Wright, Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 6th ed.

How to Become an ESL Teacher

All states require that public school ESL teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree, which may be in English as a second language or a related subject. Prospective ESL teachers must complete a state-approved teacher preparation program either as part of their bachelor’s program or as a stand-alone program following graduation. A master’s degree is not usually required to be an ESL teacher, but may be pursued by those who already have a bachelor’s degree in something else or for already licensed teachers looking to specialize in ESL. Education and training with a focus on teaching, linguistics, or second-language acquisition is preferred. In public school districts, ESL teachers are required to obtain state teacher certification, commonly with an ESL, ESOL, ENL, or ELL endorsement. If you have not yet received a bachelor’s degree and are not yet a certified teacher, the typical path to this career is as follows:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in ESL or TESOL or a related subject, such as linguistics.
  2. Complete a student teaching internship in an ESL setting as part of your program.
  3. Take your state’s tests for teacher licensure with an endorsement in ESL.
  4. Apply for your teaching license.
  5. Begin applying to open positions for ESL teachers.

Those who have a bachelor’s degree in another subject but would like to teach K-12 ESL classes may be able to qualify for a license by earning a master’s degree in ESL preparing graduates to take the state board exams and leading to teacher certification. ESL degree programs include classes in subjects dealing with the history of the English language, the way that the language has changed and is still changing, and strategies on how to teach the language to people whose first language is not English. Other ESL degree coursework includes teaching reading and comprehension skills and successfully teaching students from diverse cultural backgrounds. ESL programs also instruct students on how to integrate teaching English with other subjects, such as science, mathematics, and history.

ESL Teacher Salary and Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual salary for elementary school and high school teachers is $58,600 and $60,320 respectively.1,2 It also reports that adult literacy teachers, a category that includes adult ESL teachers, earn an average median salary of $53,630.3 The related BLS category of Adult Basic and Secondary Education and Literacy Teachers and Instructors reports a median salary of $52,100 per year.4 Wages are directly affected by job location, training, education, and experience, as well as available funding for ESL programs. Job openings for ESL teachers may be more abundant in states with larger non-native English populations, such as New York, Florida, California, and Texas. While the BLS doesn’t provide projections specifically for ESL teachers, it does estimate a 3% increase in elementary school jobs and a 4% increase in high school teacher jobs by 2028.1,2 Adult literacy teacher jobs, including those in ESL, are expected to drop by 10% through 2028, citing changes in government funding for these types of programs.3

ESL Teacher Career Interviews

  • Texas ESL Teacher Trainer and Founder, Kid World Citizen, Becky Morales

Helpful Skills and Experience

Prior experience working with ESL students can help prospective ESL teachers stand out. A master’s degree in ESL or a related field may also help and may demand a higher salary. Like all teachers, those who teach English as a second language should have good organizational skills, excellent communication and presentation skills, and sound decision-making skills. ESL teachers who will be working with children should have patience and be able to remain calm and fair. A love of children and a nurturing personality may also be helpful.

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What do I need to teach English abroad?

Answer: Requirements for teaching English abroad depend on the school hiring. Generally, English schools look for someone with a college degree, although it is not always necessary. Many employers prefer TEFL or TESOL certification such as the Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA) from Cambridge. Previous teaching experience and some knowledge of the language spoken in the country in which you hope to work can also be helpful. For more information on how to become a TEFL teacher, read our TEFL teacher career guide.

Question: Do you need an ESL endorsement to be hired as an ESL teacher?

Answer: The requirements for ESL teachers are set by the state department of education and in many cases an endorsement is required. Check with your state’s department of education for details.

Question: What is ESL?

Answer: ESL stands for English as a second language and it refers to the teaching and learning of English of students whose first language is not English. As described above, ESL typically refers to the teaching of English in a primarily English-speaking country, as opposed to TEFL, which is the teaching of English in a non-English speaking country.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, High School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Adult Literacy and GED Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/adult-literacy-and-ged-teachers.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Adult Basic and Secondary Education and Literacy Teachers and Instructors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/adult-literacy-and-ged-teachers.htm