TESOL vs. TEFL: How to Choose the Path That’s Right for You

by Tobin Perry

If you’re preparing for a career teaching the English language, degree types like TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) vs. TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) can be confusing. In fact, they’re often used interchangeably, in part because of similar topic and terminology.

But they’re not the same, and if you’re exploring this career, you’ll need to understand the difference so you can pursue the right path to reach your goals. Here’s what sets each apart.

TESOL vs. TEFL: What’s the Difference?

Despite sounding similar, the two acronyms describe two different teaching contexts.

  • TESOL refers to teaching English to individuals and groups who speak another language. This can be either in the U.S. or abroad.
  • TEFL refers to teaching English in places where English is a foreign language. It’s particularly useful for those passionate about teaching English in multicultural settings.

TESL (teaching English as a second language—sometimes just ESL) is another acronym that often gets confused with TESOL and TEFL. ESL is particularly common for K–12 educational systems, and the acronym refers to teaching students who have a different first language.

TESOL/TEFL Career Paths

With more than 1 billion people studying English globally, career prospects for those wanting to teach English are at an all-time high. In the U.S. alone, more than 4.5 million public school students are English language learners. On top of this, more than 5 million households in the U.S. are considered “limited English proficient.” Not only is the job market considerable for English teachers today, but it will likely grow in the future, particularly in areas with significant immigrant populations.

While many of these up-and-coming jobs are in schools—elementary through college—English teachers are also needed in businesses, governmental agencies, publishing, and more. This variety of opportunities within TESOL/TEFL careers offers teachers places to thrive no matter what drew them into the field.

“Some people get into this career field because they love the English language,” said Mary Shepard Wong, PhD, director of field-based TESOL programs at Azusa Pacific University. “Others get into it because they love international students or learners from different cultures. Some love the experience of traveling or living abroad while teaching.”

Studying TESOL/TEFL at APU

Whatever decision you make as you’re considering TESOL vs. TEFL, APU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has opportunities to help you take the next step in this exciting career journey. These opportunities include:

  • TEFL certificate: This two-course certification provides the basic qualifications you need to get started in a career.
  • TESOL certificate: Students who follow this 18-unit route usually teach in the K–12 system, but they may also be looking to advance their skills (and get a raise).
  • Master’s in TESOL: This 33-unit master’s program provides students with the best value, as it opens up doors for teaching English as a second language at colleges and adult schools.

The programs build on each other, which means you can start with the TEFL certification and add additional courses later as you grow in your career.

“Start with the TEFL certificate to see if you enjoy this and discover if this is what you want to do,” recommends Richard Robison, PhD, director of on-campus TESOL programs at APU. “If you decide to stop, you have the certificate as a bonus for your resume. If you decide that teaching English is something you want to pursue further, you are two classes into your master’s program already.”

Regardless of which path you take, demand is high everywhere, opening a multitude of options at home and abroad. In fact, a certificate or degree in TEFL or TESOL may be one of the most mobile out there.

Want to learn more about TESOL vs. TEFL opportunities at APU? Check out APU’s TESOL programs for more information about degrees and certifications.