What is TEFL and Where do I Start?

What is TEFL all about and how do you get started in it? If you’re completely new to TEFL, start here.

Keith Taylor
English on blackboard

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the first stages of finding out what TEFL is all about. Maybe you’ve heard of others doing it or seen it mentioned somewhere.

Or maybe you’ve been thinking about how you can travel and earn money at the same time, and have heard that TEFL is one way to do this.

Well, wherever you heard about TEFL, this article will tell you what it’s all about.

So let’s start at the beginning, with a definition.

What is TEFL?

TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

What does that mean exactly?

The “Teaching” part: Everyone has their own experiences of teaching, and of what makes a good teacher. These ideas and experiences will probably influence your own style of teaching if you go down the TEFL route. As for the actual techniques and mechanics of teaching, you will learn these if you take a TEFL certification course (more on this later).

What about the “…English as a Foreign Language” part?

Everyone has a first, or “native” language (called your L1 in TEFL). According to Babbel, about 360 million people around the world have English as their first language. This means that for at least 7 billion people, English is not their first language.

For these 7 billion people, if they learn English it is most likely their second language (or L2, in TEFL-speak). Your second language is the one that you learn next, for whatever reason, after your native language. I say “most likely” because it may well be the third, fourth or fifth language. In Morocco, for example, the first language is normally either Moroccan Arabic or Berber and the second language is French, making English the third language, or maybe even the fourth, after Spanish.

With this in mind, let’s get back to our definition. TEFL means teaching people how to communicate in a language (English) which is not their native language. It is, quite literally, “foreign” to you if you don’t know how to speak it.

From that definition comes EFL (TEFL without the “T”). This is what your students learn – English as a Foreign Language.

The demand for English as a Foreign Language

A lot of teaching English as a Foreign Language is done in the school system in different countries. But the amount and quality of that teaching varies, depending on how much of a priority it is given.

As a result there is a huge demand for English language teaching outside of the school system, and it is this demand which has given rise to the vast TEFL industry which now exists. The size and scope of the industry in any particular country comes from a combination of two factors:

  1. The real or perceived need for English in that country
  2. The gap between what is taught in schools and the level and standard of English required to meet that need.

…And that need is normally very high.

Why? Because English is, at the moment, the dominant international language. It is the language of international business, where speaking English is becoming an essential skill for business success, even a basic requirement to secure a job in many cases. It is also the language most likely to be spoken when two people who don’t share the same native language meet. One very powerful reason for this spread and dominance of English is the global spread of American popular culture, which brings English language with it.

So, even if children leave school with a basic command of English, this usually falls far short of the level they will need to study in English, maybe travel abroad to study in an English speaking country, secure a job that requires English, and so on.

The TEFL industry

And that’s where the TEFL industry comes in.

It starts with teaching English as a foreign language to kids, whose parents recognise their children’s future English needs and want to give them a head start.

It continues with students, hoping to pass an English proficiency test to enable them to go and study in the USA or UK, or simply taking an English course in their own country.

And it continues again with business people who need English to get a job or get ahead in their industry, or work with international colleagues.

At each of these stages there are institutions within the TEFL industry to serve that need. There are private language schools in just about every country in the world. There are summer schools in English speaking countries, where students from around the world come for a few weeks to improve their English and maybe take one of the many exams to validate their English level. There are state-run programs giving classes to immigrants, voluntary organisations teaching English in disadvantaged communities, universities offering English as a Second Language courses, thousands of freelance teachers giving private classes…

Read more about getting started in TEFL:

What are some different TEFL contexts?

So that, ultimately, is what TEFL is: Teaching people to communicate in English according to their needs and the context they’re in.

Here are just a few of the thousands of different teaching contexts you could find yourself in as a TEFL teacher:

  • A group of 7 year old children in a private language school in Vietnam. Their parents and guardians have decided to invest in extra English for them outside of school.
  • A one-to-one class with the production manager of a company in France, at her place of work. The company has just started working internationally and she needs to communicate more effectively with her future colleagues in specific business situations.
  • A group of 10 university students in Brazil at a language school. They need to prepare for an exam that allows them to go and study in the USA.
  • A small group of retired adults, paying to learn some English to help them when they travel.

Any reason you can think of for a person or group of people to use English is a possible context for TEFL. This is most often in non-English speaking countries, but there is a huge market for teaching in English speaking countries too. We mentioned the examples of summer schools and English language programs for immigrants. Another example is courses run by universities in English speaking countries for foreign students who need to improve their language skills before starting their course.

(In English speaking countries, you might find these programs referred to as ESL – English as a Second Language. This is, to all intents and purposes, the same as EFL, but have a look at this article on TEFL acronyms for the subtle differences in meaning!)

TEFL is very varied, and as a TEFL teacher you have to choose what suits you best. When you first start out this choice is normally more limited. If you want to teach in Indonesia, for example, the chances are that your first job as a newly qualified teacher will be working full time in a private language school, with a fair amount of that time spent teaching kids. If you go to Indonesia with a few years of experience under your belt, this experience may give you more options in terms of jobs.

TEFL teaching

What’s life like as a TEFL teacher?

If you look at a lot of TEFL course provider websites, they will have you believe that life as a TEFL teacher is spent travelling around and seeing the sights of whichever country you’ve chosen, with a bit of teaching here and there to pay your way. There can be some of this – the opportunity to earn money while seeing the world is, after all, why a lot people get into TEFL in the first place.

But TEFL is a job, and with that comes everything that comes with any other job. There may be performance reviews, pay disputes, bits you love and bits you hate, good days, rubbish days and office politics. Above all, you’ll be expected to perform well at the job you’re being paid to do.

But the thing about it is, it may not feel like a “real” job, simply because you’re in a different country, experiencing a different culture. And that’s one of the things that makes it so appealing.

So what does a typical TEFL job involve? Well, in the most common type of TEFL job for newly qualified teachers – working full time for a private language school – here’s what you may be expected to do:

  1. You’ll be allocated a timetable of classes, according to the school’s schedule, and be expected to plan and teach these classes. A typical number of actual teaching hours in a week is about 25.

    These classes could be scattered throughout the day, or organised in a block each day. A school I worked for in Jakarta blocked all classes from 3pm-9pm each day. So I’d teach 3-4.20pm, 4.30-5.50pm, 6-7.20pm, and 7.30-8.50pm. I’d typically go into the school at about lunchtime to plan my classes for that day. This meant I had the mornings off, but of course I didn’t finish until 9pm.

    At a school I worked for in Barcelona, classes could be at any time in the day between 8am and 9pm. These were mainly business classes, often on the client’s business premises. Typically I would work a kind of split shift, maybe with a class or two early in the morning, a long break in the middle of the day, and a couple more classes between 6pm and 9pm.

  2. You may be expected to carry out some admin work, like placement testing of students (seeing which level they are so that they can be put into the right group) or writing reports, and participate in social activities for students organised by the school.
  3. You might be expected to attend some teacher development workshops led by the Director of Studies (your boss) or a more senior teacher, and have some of your classes observed, again by the Director of Studies or a senior teacher.

That’s pretty much it, but you can read more about what to expect in your first TEFL job in this article.

The further you stray (in a good sense) from this fairly protective language school environment, the more non-teaching stuff you’ll have to do. For example, if you’re working as a freelance teacher you’ll be finding clients by yourself, marketing and advertising your teaching services, deciding your pricing, maybe dealing more with administrative aspects and so on.

Routes into TEFL

So how do you become a TEFL teacher in the first place? What are the ways in?

Route 1: Just go and teach

One way is to just get out to wherever you want to be and start teaching! This is certainly a possibility, but I don’t normally recommend it, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, without some kind of teaching qualification, you’ll find it very hard to find work. Gone are the days when just being a native English speaker is enough of a qualification to find a teaching job. It may still be possible in some countries, but your options will be extremely limited and you may end up working “under the table”.

Secondly, you might ask yourself if it’s fair for your potential students to pay to be taught by someone unqualified. Now, just to be clear: Having a TEFL qualification doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher, and vice versa. Over the years I’ve come across some highly qualified but very average teachers, and some brilliant but not very qualified teachers. But, all other things being equal, I think I’d prefer to be taught by someone who has studied their trade at least a little…

If you have some teaching experience in another context, perhaps in the state school system in your own country in another subject, then this will stand you in good stead and may to some extent substitute for a TEFL qualification. But in most cases I would recommend route 2…

Route 2: Take a TEFL course

– What is TEFL certification?

A TEFL certification course trains you how to teach, and equips you with a qualification at the end of it. Taking one will vastly improve your chances of finding work and getting some level of enjoyment and job satisfaction from TEFL. There is relatively little regulation or standardisation in the TEFL industry, and as a result the number and range of different types of course you can take is staggering: There are a lot of courses to choose from.

– Which TEFL course should I take?

So how do you choose?

You essentially have the choice between taking an online course or a classroom-based one. Online courses tend to be cheaper, but generally carry less weight when it comes to finding employment. But there are a lot of factors to take into account when choosing between the two types, and also when choosing a specific course and course provider, so it’s worth taking some time to research courses properly. In this article I look in detail at the six most important questions to ask when choosing a TEFL course, and I would definitely recommend reading it before you decide on a course.

When you’re ready, have a look at all the courses available in our database of TEFL courses.

Ready to get qualified?

Check out our 4-week, fully accredited TEFL courses at School of TEFL. These courses qualify you to teach anywhere in the world or online, and come to you from the same awesome and dedicated team behind Eslbase. Start your TEFL journey with us!

Find out more about TEFL

Check out some of the other articles in this guide to learn more about TEFL.

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Keith Taylor

Keith is the co-founder of Eslbase and School of TEFL. He's been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years, in Indonesia, Australia, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Poland, France and now in the UK.

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  • JamesJex

    This is changing though. As Marcella of CIEE TEFL says, “Our course and some other online providers do, in fact, offer a hands-on assessed teaching practicum. Ours is 20 hours. It used to be a major drawback, but some of us online providers are working hard to make sure our trainees have a meaningful practicum experience.”

  • Samy

    Thank you so much for this awesome article. Excellent information.

    • Keith profile photo
      Keith Taylor

      Thanks Samy, I’m glad the article was useful for you.

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