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How to Become an ESL Teacher

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Cynthia Kilpatrick first began teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in 1997, and she has been an assistant professor in linguistics and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at the University of Texas at Arlington since 2009. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Lee University, a Master of Linguistics from the University of Texas, and a PhD in Linguistics from the University of California, San Diego. 

In addition to teaching ESL, Cynthia taught Spanish at the middle school level for two years in Texas. She has taught ESL at Brookhaven College and El Paso Community College, in addition to spending a year as a language and teaching consultant for the Center for Teaching Development at the University of California San Diego. Cynthia’s extensive background in teaching does not stop there, though. She has also taught English to children and teens in Guatemala and Papua New Guinea. When she is not teaching, Cynthia writes a TESOL blog and is happy to answer questions about teaching ESL and TESOL there.

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What is ESL?

ESL is a general acronym for English as a Second Language, and it refers to students, often living in the United States or another English-speaking country, who are learning English after having learned their mother tongue. It encompasses all age levels, from K-12 to adult education. In addition to ESL, related acronyms are EFL (English as a Foreign Language), ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages), TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), and TESL/TEFL (Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language). All of these have a focus on English Language Learners (ELLs).

What do you find most interesting about teaching ESL?

I love the variety of students, cultures, interests, and abilities. It guarantees that I won’t be teaching exactly the same class over and over again.

What is your least favorite aspect of teaching ESL?

My least favorite aspect of teaching anything is always the grading. I enjoy informal assessment, but I'm not as big a fan of assigning grades.

Are there subfields of teaching ESL that students might not be aware of?

There are a number of subfields, many related to English for specific purposes (think things like business English, etc), but there are also many academic English programs, often run through universities, for international students; the goals of these programs are significantly different from those in many community-based adult programs like the ones you might find at local churches, libraries, and even in continuing ed. In addition, teaching K-12 versus teaching adults has different requirements and certifications, and students should be aware of that as they choose their programs.

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in ESL teaching?

Many of our graduates work in community colleges and in non-profit organizations that work with English language learners. Some head overseas and teach English internationally. Many ESL teachers also work with English language learners in K-12 schools.

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career as an ESL teacher, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor's degree?

This really depends on the goal of the student. For those who want to teach as adjuncts at community colleges, a master's degree is generally desired unless the courses are offered through continuing ed. But for those interested in teaching K-12, a bachelor's degree with certification to teach (including an ESL credential) is sufficient. Prospective K-12 ESL teachers should inquire into the credentials required in the state in which they will be working. For those who are interested in teaching overseas, a TESOL certificate is often required, but it may be earned as an undergraduate, a graduate, or a stand-alone certificate.

What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in an ESL teaching program?

Successful teachers in general have the ability to step outside of themselves and focus on their students, rather than on themselves. Getting up in front of a class for the first time can be a daunting experience, but getting over that hurdle and then really discovering who you are as a teacher is a necessity in becoming successful in the classroom.

What electives would you recommend that a student in an ESL teaching program take?

As you can see in my bio, my formal training is in linguistics, though I've had plenty of coursework in teaching methods and second language acquisition. I think that having a good grasp of the structure (syntax) and the sound system (phonology) of English is really important for teachers to be able to understand the kinds of errors that learners make. So I'd definitely recommend courses such as pedagogical grammar and pedagogical phonology. For teachers who find themselves nervous in front of groups, I also think that a public speaking course is ideal.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in an ESL teaching program?

The best “study tip” I can offer is to get some experience working with English language learners. Find a community program (churches, public libraries, non-profit organizations) that offer ESL classes, and ask if you can volunteer. If you aren’t comfortable in front of a class yet, ask about working with an individual one-on-one. If you prefer to work with children or teens, find out if the local high schools need after-school tutors. The more you work with ESL students, the more comfortable you become with them, and the better you understand their needs and how to help them find success.

Do you think ESL teaching is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

There is a lot of content information that could be learned online, but I feel that a traditional classroom environment is preferable. So much of learning to teach, especially to teach ESL, is seeing it done, talking to others about what to do in different situations, and getting feedback on your own teaching and presentations. While those things could be done online, being able to have a face-to-face discussion with other prospective teachers is immensely helpful.

What subjects should a prospective student of teaching study before entering a formal program?

Obviously, a prospective ESL teacher is going to need to have a good grasp of English if they are going to be teaching English reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Linguistics classes can be really helpful in learning the structure of English as well as becoming familiar with the structure of other languages. In addition, any courses or clubs that help learn public speaking skills are great. Toastmasters is a great program for people who want to develop these skills without taking a formal course. As mentioned above, getting some experience with ELLs will help students know what they still need to learn, and that may be more helpful than studying a particular subject.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of ESL teaching?

First, know your students. Figure out who they are and what they are interested in and capitalize on that knowledge in the classroom. Be open-minded and willing to try new things if what you attempt doesn’t turn out the way you intended. Reflect on your successes (and failures) after class and think about how to make that lesson better next time. Don’t stereotype your students based on your preconceived notions of their culture; instead, get to know them as individuals and show them that you value who they are.

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