ESL Teacher Careers

English language learners remain the fastest growing population in U.S. public schools, even with more than 6 million currently enrolled. It is expected that by 2025, English language learners will make up 25 percent of the U.S. public school population, creating an unprecedented demand for ESL teachers. Find out how you can become a certified ESL teacher in your state.

How to Become an English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher

In many areas of the United States, particularly in the southern and western portions of the country, a growing number of K-12 teachers in public school settings are becoming English as a Second Language (ESL) certified to meet the growing demand coming from English Language Learners (ELLs) in the area.

The Department of Education defines ELLs as students enrolled in an elementary or secondary school:

  • Who were not born in the United States and whose native language is not English
  • Whose level of English proficiency may deny them the ability to succeed on state tests and in English-led classrooms, or otherwise prevent them from fully participating in society

The Center for American Progress (2012) found that in the decade between the 1997-98 and 2009-09 school years, the number of ELLs in public schools increased by 51 percent, while the general population of students increased by just 7 percent.

Education and Training Requirements to Become an ESL Teacher

Individuals who want to learn how to become an ESL teacher may seek an ESL teacher degree through a state-approved teacher preparation program at the undergraduate or graduate level. Different programs are designed to meet the requirements for either an initial license or an add-on ESL endorsement.

Many, but not all, states offer ESL as a primary content area endorsement for initial licensure. However, it is more common for state’s to offer ESL as an additional endorsement for teachers already licensed and certified in a standard content area.

Qualifications to become an ESL teacher vary from one state to the next, as state boards of education are responsible for setting minimum standards for ESL primary licensure and/or additional ESL endorsements. Candidates must ensure they meet the qualifications and requirements for licensure or certification specified by their state board of education.


The Master of Arts in Teaching – TESOL online program from the USC Rossier School of Education prepares you to teach students of all ages in the U.S. and internationally, gives you the option to pursue a teaching credential, and can be completed in 12 months.

Capella University offers an online Master’s program in English Language Learning and Teaching designed to help educators advance their career in supporting diverse student populations. While it does not satisfy licensure requirements, the program can help you build the skills to use instructional strategies, emerging trends, and best practices to effectively teach English Language Learners and help students adapt to new cultural environments.

The Grand Canyon University offers a Master of Arts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Program.

Licensed educators seeking ESL certification may have a license in elementary education or a secondary education subject. Although many teachers seeking an ESL add-on endorsement at the secondary level are licensed in English or Language Arts, it is common for teachers of other subjects to seek ESL certification so as to best serve their multilingual classrooms.

Educators may pursue one of two ESL certificate programs: graduate certificates or independent certificates. Both types of certificate programs require candidates to possess a bachelor’s degree. Teachers that want to apply their ESL credits toward the completion of a master’s degree usually seek graduate-level certificates.
Independent certificates, on the other hand, generally consist of between 15 and 18 credits and are designed to focus on practical training and the different methods for teaching language to ELLs.

Providing High-Quality Instruction to English Language Learners

Although state boards of education set the requirements for becoming an ESL teacher within the nation’s public schools, ESL has its original roots in the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Common Core State Standards now address the needs of English language learners.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), which consolidated the Bilingual Education and the Emergency Immigration Education program, is now part of the Title III, English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act.

The Department of Education, through Title III, distributes funds to support ESL programs at the state level based on the number of limited English-proficient students enrolled.

The (NCLBA) does not dictate a particular method of instruction for teaching English, and it does not outline academic content for these programs. It is up to the district and schools to choose the methods of instruction that best meet the needs of the students, including methods of instructing in another language or in English.

The NCLBA does, however, specify that all states must establish English language proficiency standards and assessment, and all states must provide “high-quality instruction” to English language learners in reading, math, and other academic subjects.

It is up to individual states and districts to ensure they have highly qualified teachers in all classrooms, including classrooms with English language learners. This is usually done through ESL certification, a process through which state-licensed teachers achieve the training required to successfully teach ELLs in a classroom setting.

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