Major Differences Between TEFL, TESL and TESOL


From its origins in Old Saxon to the spread through colonies through the trappings of empire, to becoming the lingua fraca of the whole world, the English language has come a long way indeed.

English is a West Germanic language, first spoken by Anglo Saxon invaders in Britain in the 5th century, to Old English in the 13th century, to Middle English in the Shakespearean period, to modern English today.

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In middle-and-lower income countries with high incidents of poverty today, speaking English is seen as a step up the social ladder, an aspirational must-have for countless millions.

Thus, it is no surprise that the instruments through which English is propagated, the vast network of courses, teachers, night classes etc are doing stupendously well in those parts of the world where English is not the first language. 

 As such career prospects for teachers teaching English are sky high and those courses which teach trainers how to teach English are doing extremely well. 

In this context, it is important to know the differences between the various courses which have been tailor-made to teach English, both in English speaking countries and non-English speaking countries.

The first of these courses is TEFL, the most common and widely used training course which imparts teaching skills in the English language. TEFL refers to teaching English as a foreign language in countries where English is not the predominant native tongue.

Yet another of these certifications is TESL, which refers to teaching English as a second language in English speaking countries for those in such countries who are non-native speakers of English there.

The third and final certification we will refer to is TESOL, which stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, which is a generic name in the sector of teaching English that encompasses both TEFL and TESL.

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TEFL, TESL, TESOL certify one to teach non-native English speakers English and offer the same level of qualification to teach English.

TEFL, TESL or TESOL which one trumps the others

Qualifications for teachers in all three certifications

Qualification requirements vary from country to country and among employers within the same country. Sometimes it is possible to teach without a degree or certificate. Some institutions require the candidate to be a native speaker of English with a MA in TESOL. A university degree in English language and literature can often be vital. Other institutes consider proof of English proficiency, a university degree and a basic teaching qualification to be sufficient. However, institutes are sometimes more concerned with the interpersonal skills of candidates than their qualifications. Acceptance to an institute often depends upon demands for teachers and the trainers previous teaching and life experiences.

Pay and conditions worldwide 

Pay depends greatly on education, training, experience, seniority and expertise. Employment conditions vary among countries, depending upon the level of economic development. The Middle East is often cited as one of the highest paying countries for TEFL teachers. However, better qualifications are needed here – at least a CELTA certificate and two years of work experience.

Differences between TEFL, TESL and TESOL

Now let’s take a look at the definition and salient features and differences of TEFL, TESL and TESOL certifications in a comparison of the three in elaboration.

1.First difference – who is the course for?


A TEFL certification certifies one to teach English in countries where English is not the first language of communication such as China, Korea, and Japan. This certification is the most widely used and recognized certification to teach English around the world. 120 hours of TEFL training is the most commonly accepted training duration by employers offering the best salaries around the world. However, some employers accept 100 hours of training as the minimum requirement. A TEFL certification is a training course required by English language teaching institutes across the globe. However, TEFL does not refer to a single company certification or institute. It is rather an acronym. There are multitudes of institutes and training programs with differing quality and expense which teach this certification around the globe.


This is a training program for candidates who may reside in English speaking country but who are not native or fluent English speakers. These would include students, workers and immigrants to countries like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. TESL training is most relevant to those wanting to teach English within their home country. The primary difference between TEFL and TESL is where English is being taught. TEFL enables one to teach English in non-English speaking countries where the first language of communication is something other than English. TESL, on the other hand, is used to teach English in English speaking countries to non-native speakers of English.


TESOL is referred to as teaching English to non-native English speakers in native English-speaking countries. This is the connotation of TESOL in North America. If candidates want to earn a Masters degree for teaching English in their local public-school system, the go-to certification would be TESOL. 

This certification is relatively newer. It also allows flexibility to one in terms of whether English is taught overseas or in traditional English-speaking countries. Also, while TESOL covers a broader range of topics, it teaches these topics in lesser detail than TEFL and TESL. Sometimes TESOL courses are not as widely recognized and may not match with existing curriculum plans.

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2. Second Difference – Course focus

A TEFL course will train one as to how to teach English who have very little chance of learning English in their home country. A TEFL course may include units that prepare one to teach abroad such as resume writing and teaching destinations. A TESL course is the most sought after degree in the world and qualifies one to teach English as a Second Language to students whose first language is not English. A TESOL course prepares one to teach English to non-native English speakers. EFL and ESL classrooms require English language teaching strategies taught by TESOL.

3. Third Difference—Where can one teach?

A TEFL certification enables one to teach overseas in countries where English is not the predominant or native language such as China, South Korea, Japan etc. A TESL certification enables teachers to teach in private native English Language Schools in English speaking countries. A TESOL certification is used for domestic teaching in native English speaking countries but can also be applied overseas.

4.Fourth Difference – What type of teaching job does one get?

A TEFL certification enables candidates to use their training in various paid and unpaid volunteer teaching positions abroad like ESL Instructor, Certified Teacher and administrative jobs. A TESL certification enables candidates to work in native English schools as an instructor in private language schools to immigrants in English speaking countries, or as a language support teacher. Similar to TESL, TESOL training imparts in its holders a competitive spirit for domestic teaching job.

Also check- TEFL Certification Course in Chennai

5. Fifth Difference – What are the benefits of these courses?

A TEFL certification is highly sought after and recognized as a certificate that enables one to teach abroad in countries where English is not the first language. A TESL certification is recognized by organizations that validate ESL teacher training programs that match the training standards of host country. Governments in countries such as Canada, USA, UK govern and regulate TESL certifications.

6. Sixth Difference – Important considerations

It’s very important to choose a TEFL training program that will be recognized by international employers and has been developed by a university or institution of repute. This is especially so because there is no single international governing body to accredit TEFL certifications. A TESL certification must be validated by TESL organizations that validate English teacher training programs that meet national standards. TEFL and TESOL are often used interchangeably. However, TEFL and TESOL have some major differences. TESOL certification is not as widely recognized internationally as TEFL certifications. TESOL also can be incompatible with some overseas curriculum plans. 

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7. Scope of applicability

Grammar, vocabulary, reading, listening comprehension and speaking for academic purposes is the focus of TEFL students. Candidates may prepare short speeches or perform skits. However, the purpose of speaking exercises is to focus on the proper use of grammar and punctuation. For candidates studying English as a foreign language, academic language is important because it is what enables candidates to need to read texts, write essays and pass English exams that will get them into universities. Tesol teachers, on the other hand, help candidates use English to communicate in their daily lives in an English-speaking country. Going shopping, ordering food at a restaurant, preparing for job interviews, making small talk is all a part of this. Meanwhile, TESL has become less popular in recent years. English may be the TESL learners third, fourth or fifth language. Thus, TESOL is preferred above TESL because it is more precise.

8. Differences in price 

TEFL, TESL and TESOL certifications vary greatly in cost. Some courses will be labelled as TEFL/TESL and TESOL others TEFL/TESOL. Whether the course is a combination of all three or TEFL only greatly affects the price tag, since courses that combine different teaching methodologies provide you with greater teaching skills.

Certain factors affect the price of the course. Is the class online or in-person? In-person courses are more expensive than online courses. The length of the course affects the prices. The longer the course the higher the price. The course conductor also affects the price. Universities and colleges that offer these 3 courses of training charge much more than private online companies.

Whether a teaching practicum is included or not also affects the price. If it is included the price will go up but the value of the course will also go up.

Online courses are the cheapest and cost between $500 and $1000. These types of courses will offer a TEFL/TESOL/TESL certificate with the option to add on more specialities like business English, teaching young learners, grammar and test preparation. Online courses don’t have teaching practicums and if they do candidates will have to pay higher.

In-person programs cost between $1000-$2000. Some companies offer a majority of the curriculum in person and an online grammar section. Besides, TEFL or TESOL course classes also offer teaching practicums.

9. Differences in intensity between TEFL, TESL, and TESOL.

The intensity of the course varies greatly irrespective of whether you chose a TEFL, TESL or TESOL certificate.

Several factors determine the intensity of the course. How the course is offered is one of them. Online programs can be done from anywhere and at your own pace. So, they are less intense. In-person courses require much higher commitment levels and sap your energy. Both may include the loss of assignments and tests. Who offers the course is also another crucial factor which affects intensity. The course curriculum of TEFL, TESL and TESOL may be more or less vigorous depending upon the company or institution offering the course. Who your instructors are is another vital factor. This is up to chance. Some instructors are better and more intense than others. So, who your instructor is greatly influencing your experience. Online courses, too, have instructors that offer feedback on written assignments.

10. Differences in length between TEFL, TESL and TESOL

Six to eight weeks are the maximum duration for most TEFL, TESL and TESOL courses. Some online advertisements for programs also state that these programs can be concluded in just a week or two if candidates put in the extra effort required. However, some candidates enrolling in these programs may have families to look after or maybe working part-time. A lot of candidates don’t have ample free time to complete the program quickly. In such a scenario it is best to find a more flexible program that candidates can complete at their own pace.

11. Differences in value between TEFL, TESL and TESOL

Candidates looking to work overseas are better off by applying for a TEFL certificate, while candidates planning to teach English language learners in their home countries may be better off with a TESOL certificate. The best value gained may however be from a combination course such as TEFL/TESL or even TEFL/TESL/TESOL because of the flexibility they offer to candidates. These types of programs train teachers to help students to improve both academic English skills as well as everyday English required in day to day living. A program that includes both skillsets could allow teachers to teach English abroad and also work with English learners upon returning to their home countries. Eventually, the choice between opting for TEFL, TESL or TESOL programs depends upon your professional and personal goals.

12. Choosing between a TEFL, TESL or TESOL certificate

It can be tricky to figure out the certificate that candidates require. Also, candidates need to know they are getting good value for their money. It is best to study the visa requirements for English teachers in the country you want to teach in. Every country has different policies for work visas. Before taking the plunge several steps need to be taken into consideration. Candidates have to decide where exactly they want to teach. If they want to teach in a country where English is not the primary or first language, they are better off with a TEFL rather than a TESOL certificate. Candidates also need to research the visa and qualification requirements for teachers. It is a good idea to go to the chosen country’s embassy’s website and look at what they say about working visas, especially for foreign teachers. Job ads posted by employers in countries where candidates want to teach need to be scrutinized very carefully to see what skill sets they are looking for in prospective teachers. 

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In sum TEFL, TESL and TESOL are all wonderful certifications for those looking to teach English. Which one of these trumps the others depend upon your individual and professional goals as well as your differing circumstances, aka, whether you want to teach overseas or back home, among other factors. One thing is clear. English is the lingua fraca of the whole world and an aspirational must-have for countless millions around the world wanting to climb the social ladder, the job prospects for English teachers across the globe is sky-high. The demand for them will only increase as non-English speaking countries like China and Korea look to reform their population’s English skills for business and commercial purposes in the race to not get left behind. However, choosing both the right certification and the right time to undergo them are crucial choices that determine the difference between success and failure. To all those wannabe English language teachers out there – the sky is the limit. Reach for it with both hands.

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1.     Which course is better TEFL or TESOL?

It depends upon several factors. Choosing between TEFL and TESOL depends upon your budget, how much time you have available and where you want to teach English. TEFL programs are better for teachers who want to go abroad to teach students in a country where the primary language is not English. On the other hand, training in TESOL is generally recommended for teachers who plan to work with learners who are non-native English speakers residing in an English-speaking country.

2.     What can you do with a TESL certificate?

A TESL certification will allow teachers to work in native-English schools as a language support teacher, or an instructor in a private language school to newcomers or recent immigrants, in an English-speaking country.

3.     Is TEFL hard to pass?

With the necessary money, getting qualified as a TEFL teacher is surprisingly easy. One pays between 100 to 300 Euros, downloads one’s course and complete one’s modules. One has unlimited attempts to pass and when one does, one receives his or her certificate. Passing the TEFL exam is not hard. But there are face-to-face interviews and strict admission requirements which are tough to crack.

4.     Can you teach English in China without a college degree?

No, you can’t. In China, although you don’t have to have any teaching experience or a formal teaching credential, you will require a Z visa to teach. Nowadays, the Chinese government is regulating Z visas with stringency. Also, you will need to have a TEFL certificate to teach English in China. Many Chinese provinces require you to have completed a 120-hour TEFL course. Having this is the best way to make yourself competitive for the highest number of positions. 

5.     Can English be taught after completing IELTS?

No that is a misnomer. While there is no certificate or license required to teach English with IELTS, most IELTS teaching English positions are at schools which only employ teachers with a minimum of a Celta. More prestigious employers such as the British Council will sometimes require a Delta degree. A TEFL certificate is often accepted in place of the CELTA, while a Masters degree in TESOL will do away with the need for Delta.

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Adit Mathai is a former journalist and has worked with reputed organisations like the Outlook Publishing Group, The Financial Express and Business World. These days he is an avid foodie, tech buff, blog writer and likes to travel around the world.

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