ESL Teacher Career Guide

English as a second language (ESL) teachers help non-native speakers in a predominantly English-speaking country learn to speak, read, understand, and write in English. They work in public or private schools, language academies, or teach private in-home lessons. They may also work or volunteer for community- and university-based programs. 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 English that is related to a certain industry such as technology or business.

ESL students span a wide range of ages, encompassing both children and adults. This guide provides further information on what ESL teachers do, how to become one, and the industry’s salary and job outlook.

Table of Contents

How to Become
Job Description
Salary & Job Outlook
Additional Resources
Frequently Asked Questions
Related Pages

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 TESOL 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 are 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, that includes a teacher preparation program.
  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 and would like to teach K-12 ESL classes may be able to qualify for a license by completing an alternative route teacher preparation program. Especially for those who have no prior education in teaching English, this may include earning a master’s degree in ESL, which prepares graduates to take the state exams and earn teacher certification. Depending on state requirements, other alternative routes may be available by completing a certificate and/or mentorship program plus a classroom-based internship. ESL degree programs typically include classes in the history of the English language, linguistics and etymology, and teaching strategies. Other ESL degree coursework includes teaching reading and comprehension skills to 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.

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.

ESL Teacher Job Description

An ESL teacher provides lessons and support to students who are learning English as a second language. In the public school system, ESL teachers work with students in the K-12 grade levels ,through one of two methods:

  • Pull-out approach: 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.
  • Push-in approach: Joining ESL students in the regular classroom and providing ESL instruction during regular class time

Depending on the size of the school, these small groups of English language learners (ELLs) may comprise students of different ages and grade levels who all need assistance with their English language skills. ESL teachers must learn and be able to use a variety of different instruction models, including but not limited to, sheltered instruction, communicative language teaching (CLT), total physical response (TPR), and direct instruction (DI).

ESL teachers use textbooks, audio, and 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.

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, 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. 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 about changing teaching methods and standards. As with most teachers, teachers of English as a second language may 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. Some adult students may have been highly educated in their native country, while others may have little formal education. ESL teachers working with adult students, especially in higher education settings such as community colleges or universities, will likely need to be familiar with instructional models such as English for Academic Purposes (EAP), English for Specific Purposes (ESP), and English for Occupational Purposes (EOP).

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.

ESL Teacher Salary and Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that as of 2022, the median annual salary for elementary, middle, and high school teachers (not including special education teachers) was $61,690, $61,810, and $62,360 respectively.1-3 The BLS group including adult basic education, adult secondary education, and English as a second language (ESL) instructors earned a median annual salary of $58,590 in 2021.4 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. Employment projections are positive for elementary, middle, and high school teachers, at 4% to 5% through 2031, but the BLS group that includes ESL instructors is projected to decline by 6% through 2031.4-7

Additional Resources

ESL Teacher Career Interviews

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

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What do I need to teach English abroad?

Answer: Requirements for teaching English abroad depend on the school that is hiring. Generally, K-12 English schools abroad look for someone with a college degree as well as K-12 certification in at least one US state. Adult English schools may be more flexible. 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. The word for this endorsement varies by state and may be termed ESL, ESOL, ENL, ELL, or TESOL. 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 EFL, which refers to the teaching of English in a non-English-speaking country.

Question: How are the skills of English language learners (ELLs) measured?

Answer: There are various test instruments used in the US to measure English language skills, including WIDA’s ACCESS for ELLs in K-12 schools, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Test of English Proficiency (TEP), and the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) Basic English Skills Test (BEST) Plus. For evaluating the skills of English learners abroad, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) of the Council of Europe offers a framework to measure language proficiency, with Common Reference Levels ranging from A1 (basic) to C2 (proficient). A variety of standardized assessments can be used to validate these levels, including the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), which are widely used for higher education and immigration, as well as the Aptis test, which is primarily used in businesses and organizations. See our TEFL Teacher Guide for more about international English language evaluation.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Elementary School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252021.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Middle School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252022.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, High School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252031.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Adult Basic and Secondary Education and ESL Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/adult-literacy-and-ged-teachers.htm
5. 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
6. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Middle School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/middle-school-teachers.htm
7. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, High School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm