English as a Second Language Teacher  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotEnglish as a second language (ESL) teachers have the opportunity to help students of any age learn English and leap over language barriers.

ESL teachers teach English, including reading, writing, listening and speaking skills, to people whose first language is not English.

Their students may not know English at all, or may not speak, understand and write English with the same ability as a native English speaker.

dotESL teacher is the most common term in the U.S., Canada and Australia. The term "English to speakers of other languages" (ESOL) teacher also refers to this career. In the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand, the term ESL has been replaced by ESOL

ESL teachers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are school teachers who have the extra skills to teach students who speak limited English. Sometimes having certification to teach ESL can create job opportunities for teachers. For example, school teachers with ESL certification are able to teach English language learners (ELL) and limited English proficient (LEP) students. The numbers of students in these categories keep growing.

ELL students are learning English. They take English language assistance classes in the school system. These classes can include ESL, high intensity language training and bilingual education classes.

In the 2003-04 school year, 3.8 million American students used ELL services (11 percent of all students), according to the U.S. Department of Education.

dotLEP students have a first language that is not English and have difficulty speaking, reading, writing or understanding the English language.

In the 2003-04 school year, 63 percent of public schools had students who were designated as LEP (11 percent of all students), says the U.S. Department of Education.

The volume of students needing help to improve their English language skills can only mean one thing: opportunities for ESL teachers.

There are also opportunities in government-sponsored programs for non-English speaking immigrants or migrant workers.

dotKate Goodspeed is an ESL teacher for the Colorado Refugee ESL Program at Emily Griffith Opportunity School. "There is such a large population in Denver needing ESL instruction that there are many schools in churches and community agencies that start up programs," says Goodspeed. "They sometimes just operate with volunteers. This is a good way to see if you'd like to teach ESL."

Community colleges also have classes set up for ESL programs. Some private schools have intensive English programs for international students who come to the U.S. to improve their English skills.

Sashwat Koirala is an ESL teacher a private school that welcomes students from over 100 countries worldwide.

"My favorite thing about teaching is that my classes have so many people from different cultures," he says. "Students are often really grateful that you're teaching them English."

The main responsibilities of ESL teachers include lesson planning, creating the syllabus, teaching, marking, designing tests and final exams. Although students and schools want ESL teachers to be native English speakers, and many schools will not hire applicants with a foreign accent, there are opportunities for those who did not learn English as their first language

"Bilingual programs here desperately need folks who speak English well and are fluent in Spanish," says Goodspeed.

Branka Jankovic is a teacher at a college. She has succeeded in the field despite the fact that English is not her first language. And she's glad she has. "It is an active and dynamic job which requires a fair amount of standing and moving around the classroom," says Jankovic.

At a Glance

Help others master English

  • You'll have students from around the world
  • This can be a surprisingly physical job
  • The qualifications you'll need will depend on where you want to teach