Teaching English as a Second Language: Is It Right for You?

Immigrants flock to the shores of the United States for many reasons, but not all of them come here with a knowledge of English. This robust demographic presents a great opportunity for an individual with a strong command of the English language and some basic teaching skills to earn some money and make a positive impact in the lives of these newcomers. Teaching English as a second language (ESL) to adults can be challenging, but also extremely rewarding. The barrier to entry is generally lower than other types of teaching, and there are a wide variety of settings to suit different instructional styles and levels of experience.

Entering the Field

While most states require advanced degrees and specialized certificates to teach K-12, teaching English as a second language (ESL or English for Speakers of Other Languages – “ESOL”) to adults is significantly easier to break into in most areas. Requirements vary by organization: Community colleges, government-run schools, and privately operated schools may all have different standards for instructors. Your state may also have a say in teacher credentialing as well.

Typically, an instructor for an adult ESL class must have at least a Bachelors degree in English or some related field (communications, education, etc.). Community colleges may require a master's degree. All organizations prefer candidates with prior teaching experience, even if it is only substitute or teacher's assistant work. Some states require fingerprinting and continuing education of some kind for teachers. Requirements vary so widely that your best bet for teaching English as a second language to adults is to find a school you'd like to work for and ask them about the guidelines in your area.

Types of Settings


The main goal when teaching English as a second language in a “functional” class is to improve each student's ability to function in the English-speaking world. These classes focus intensely on reading, writing, and speaking proper English for application in everyday situations such as the workplace, supermarkets, restaurants, the doctor's office, and government offices.

Grammar and syntax lessons are common, as are vocabulary-building exercises. These kinds of classes also borrow heavily from “real-world” sources such as newspapers and photocopies of actual documents that students will run into in their outside lives, such as job applications or medical information forms.

Roleplaying is another common practice, wherein students will pretend to interact in a variety of ways mimicking real-world situations. Students usually undergo regular evaluations to measure improvement in their speaking, writing, and comprehension skills. Classes are typically grouped by skill level, but mixed-level classes are not unheard of.


“Conversational” classes focus on exactly that: spoken communication in English. Typically, these classes are more casual than their functional counterparts. Teaching English as a second language in a conversational setting can be a great way to break into the field, as conversational classes tend to be smaller and more intimate, focusing on getting students involved in talking with each other, instead of the broader instruction associated with functional classes.

Grammar, syntax, and diction are all extremely important to conversational classes, but they are generally taught in a less formal manner, with an accent on results instead of on rote memorization of grammatical rules. Vocabulary building is equally important here, though instructors typically rely less on documents like those used in functional classes.

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