There are a lot of teaching qualifications out there, and the choice of which one to go for can be confusing. As you may have noticed, the English language teaching industry is full of abbreviations and acronyms:
EFL, ESL, TEFL, TESL, TESOL, CertTESOL, CELTA… the list goes on.

This article will unpack these terms so that you can choose the best course for you with the right information as a starting point.


These terms relate to the language teaching industry itself. They are the various names given to the field of English language teaching to students who do not speak English as their first language.

ESL stands for English as a Second Language – the subject taught to those who want to study English in an English speaking country, or who will be traveling to an English speaking country to use the language they learn.

Example: An Asian student (say, from China) studying English in the US or Canada.

Similarly, EFL, or English as a Foreign Language, is the subject taught to students who live in their own (non-English speaking) country, generally studied at school or for purposes other than living and working in an English-speaking country.

Example: An Asian student (say, in China) studying English in China.

This distinction is very small, and these terms are often used interchangeably. More recently, EFL has been used less in favor of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), which encompasses any purpose for learning the language, and is a more objective term (some people don’t like using the word ‘foreign’ as it has some negative connotations).


One of the reasons you are reading this is because you would like to get into English language teaching of one kind or another. From a teacher’s point of view, we add a ‘T’ (for ‘teaching’), to describe the job itself. Whether you work in TESL, TEFL or TESOL depends on which of the above types of subject you teach, and what your learners are aiming to do with their English, as described in the first section of this article.

Many schools and employers in the industry refer to initial teaching qualifications in the industry as ‘a TEFL’. However, this is not a helpful term, as TEFL is a field or job type rather than a qualification. It’s a bit like saying that a qualified doctor has ‘a medicine’, or a farmer has ‘an agriculture’. Or, TEFL is a product and not a specific ‘brand’. When we talk about qualifications, we need another, more specific set of terms.

Certificates in TEFL / TESOL

An initial qualification in TESOL (or TEFL, if you like) will usually be referred to as a certificate. There are many certificates out there, ranging from short weekend or online courses which lead to certifications which may not be externally accredited, or may only be recognized by partner schools who work with the certificate provider.

This is what employers typically refer to as ‘a TEFL’. Depending on where you wish to travel and work, taking a course such as this represents quite a risk: without international accreditation, external assessment, and other quality assurance procedures, it is unlikely that you will be able to use such qualifications to get a visa to work abroad (depending on the country – always check the requirements for the country you plan to work in first).

Internationally recognized Certificates in TESOL

The Trinity CertTESOL and The Cambridge CELTA

If you want to be sure of a successful visa application almost anywhere in the world to travel and teach English, you should look for a certificate in TESOL which is accredited to an international level.

The two certificates which are most widely recognized globally are the Trinity Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CertTESOL) and the Cambridge Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA).

Both of these qualifications are accredited at level 5 of the UK Ofqual list of Regulated Qualifications (the RQF), which means that they are graduate certificates, and hold the same weight as an entire second year of a bachelors degree.

What is a ‘level 5’ qualification?

Just because a certificate is called ‘level 5’ does not make it an internationally accredited level 5 qualification. Some training providers have named their qualifications ‘level 5’ by some unclear system, though their certificates do not appear on the Ofqual framework at all.

Be wary of any course provider which does not show some accreditation body’s badge on their site, and be sure to check the validity of that body by doing some other searches and finding out who they are.

Anyone can form an official-sounding accreditation system and accredit their courses (yes, this happens too), and this does not mean anything or guarantee the quality of a course in any way. Necessarily, do your research and look for a course that carries some weight, and check if it is registered on the Ofqual framework.

Difference between a CertTESOL/CELTA, and a ‘TEFL’?

The main difference you will notice between internationally accredited courses and others is the price – a CertTESOL or CELTA course will typically cost you around US$1200 to US$2000 (or £1000 to £1600), while other TEFL courses will cost much less.

This is because the workload necessary to ensure the quality of delivery and to standardize assessment is quite high – the level 5 accreditation requires that there is external assessment delivered directly by a member of the validating body (Trinity College or Cambridge ESOL), wherever in the world the course is held.

This is expensive but makes for a much more academically objective statement of outcomes for trainee teachers. On both of these courses, you know that the level of quality in training, and therefore the level at which you will be teaching, as a result, will be higher than on other ‘TEFL’ courses.

Also Read: For a more detailed comparison, visit this page: CertTESOL Vs. CELTA – What’s the difference

A higher initial price pays off in the end, and you can use these qualifications as a second passport to take you anywhere in the world to travel and teach.

This article was originally published in Oct-2019 and was last updated in Dec-2019.

Author: Tom Garside

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