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June 18, 2010

Getting Started In TEFL: Choosing A TEFL Course

The demand for English teachers around the world today is very high, as English continues to be the preferred language in many areas of life, from study and work to entertainment and travel. For the foreseeable future at least, you will never be short of a job if you choose English teaching as a career.

So, if you’ve heard tales from a returning teacher of the wonders of living and working in Thailand, Brazil or Morocco and you think it might just be the career for you, how, exactly, do you get started?

Well, the first thing to confront you may well be the minefield of acronyms, so let’s work through that first of all.

ESL stands for English as a Second Language. Add a T, giving TESL, and you have Teaching English as a Second Language.

EFL is English as a Foreign Language. Again, add a T, and you have TEFL, Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Traditionally, TEFL refers to teaching in non-English speaking countries, whereas TESL refers to teaching in English speaking countries, to non-native speakers living or working there. In practice, though, the two terms are often used interchangeably, and both are covered by the all-encompassing TESOL, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

During your training or job search, you might come across a host of other acronyms, asking you if you have experience teaching ESP or EAP, FCE or IELTS! Don’t be daunted by these – there is a link to the most common acronyms at the bottom of this article.

Now that you know a little about some of the jargon you’ll be facing, the next step is usually a qualification of some kind. The days of being able to secure an English teaching job solely on the strength of being a native speaker, although not entirely gone, are fading fast. A quick search on the internet for “TEFL courses” (we’ll stick with this acronym for now) will return a mind-boggling selection, of varying content, duration, and quality, and it can be difficult to know what to go for.

It might surprise you to discover that most TEFL courses are short. The most internationally recognised and accepted are the “CELTA” (there’s yet another acronym for you), run by the University of Cambridge, and the “Trinity Cert TESOL”, run by Trinity College, London. Both of these are 120 hour, classroom-based courses, and include several hours of observed teaching practice. In other words, they get you in front of students during the course so that you can put into practice what you learn. These courses are usually studied over a very intensive four week period, and involve a lot of work outside the classroom, preparing classes and writing assignments.

You’ll learn a good deal about teaching theory and methodology, and have some chance to put it into practice. You will learn some English grammar, but don’t expect to be an expert by the end of the course – this mostly comes in your first few years of teaching.

An increasing number of institutions offer courses of similar length and content to the CELTA and Trinity courses, and you will find that many employers will accept these.

Very generally speaking, the shorter and less classroom-based the course, the less accepted it will be by employers around the world. There are some high quality online courses available, for example, but by definition these do not allow for any actual teaching practice, and so are often viewed in a less favourable light by potential employers. Some courses compensate by teaching theory and methodology online, and including a short classroom-based component to put it into practice.

You can take a TEFL course in many different countries. Studying in Bangkok or Prague, for example, can give you the advantage of the centre’s connections with local schools when it comes to finding employment, and some course providers offer help with finding a job as part of the deal.

Another option is an MA in TESOL. As with most Masters degrees, these take one year or longer, and consequently tend to cover theory and methodology in greater detail.

So, to keep your options as open as possible when it comes to finding employment, the CELTA and Trinity Cert TESOL and equivalent courses, or longer MA courses, are perhaps the best options. But there are, of course, other considerations. CELTA and Trinity courses can cost upwards of US$2000. This may seem a big investment if you are not sure yet if TEFL is the career for you.

So a good first step is to have a look at some of the jobs available in countries where you are interested in teaching, to get an idea of the typical requirements. You could choose a shorter, cheaper course, if these are generally accepted where you want to teach, and then study for a CELTA or equivalent after a year or two, if you decide to pursue the profession further.

The availability of short, quick courses often raises the question of unqualified or underqualified teachers let loose on unsuspecting students! Here, the argument runs both ways:

Some maintain that a qualified teacher doesn’t necessarily mean a good teacher, and that communicative skills and enthusiasm are just as important in motivating students. Even the CELTA and Trinity courses are, after all, entry level courses, designed to start you off, with the idea that much of your learning will come from experience during your first couple of years of teaching.

Others argue that just as an unqualified teacher wouldn’t be allowed to teach at a secondary school in the UK or the US, why should it be any different in the TEFL field – students are paying to be taught by someone with solid training in teaching theory and methodology. And after all, as a teacher, you’ll feel better equipped and more confident when you step into the classroom in your new job.

It’s up to you which side of the fence you choose to stand on this one! But whether you study for a week or a year, it will in some measure prepare you for the next step in your TEFL career, when you walk in to the classroom for the first time in your new TEFL job.

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