What is an ESOL teacher?

What is an ESOL teacher?

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ESOL stands for "English to Speakers of Other Languages," but there are many similar acronyms. For example, ESL stands for "English as a Second Language." These terms are often used interchangeably, but they all generally refer to the same thing -- An ESOL teacher is someone who teaches English to students who grew up speaking a different language.

According to Face the Facts USA, there aren't enough ESOL teachers to go around. In most public schools, there is only one ESOL teacher for every 150 students. Compare that to the usual ratio of one teacher to fifteen students, and the need for more ESL teachers becomes clear. Students who are interested in ESL programs should keep in mind that this is a promising career with numerous options for employment.

Sometimes the best way to learn about a new career is by talking to someone who has already walked that path. Kristie Shelley, Vice President of Lingual Learning, has worked as an ESOL teacher and now runs a company dedicated to the professional development of ESOL teachers.

About the Expert

Kristie Shelley, Vice President of Lingual Learning, has worked as an ESOL teacher and now runs a company dedicated to the professional development of ESOL teachers.

How do you become an ESOL teacher?

Shelley: I went through the traditional route of receiving my teaching credential, with the addition of what is called a CLAD certification for the state of California. CLAD stands for Crosscultural, Language, and Academic Development. Through this certification you are required to take courses that focus on strategies and approaches for Second Language Learners.

I actually taught at an elementary school. Every student in my classroom either spoke Spanish or Vietnamese at home -- every lesson I taught had an ESOL spin. Many state credential programs include the option for adding a certification for teaching Second Language Learners. When one wants to pursue ESOL in the terms of teaching adult education or abroad, there are many ways to get certified, like through private courses, but potential teachers can often be trained and certified by the future employer.

What are the preferred skills of an ESOL teacher?

Shelley: There are many skills and qualities that will help a teacher of Second Language Learners. First and foremost you need to respect each student's first language. You can often use their knowledge and skills in their first language to your advantage, like when working with cognates. Second, having the ability to make every moment an opportunity to advance language takes practice and skill, but can be achieved. I looked at every lesson I taught as an opportunity to advance my students' English skills. Whether we were doing math, science, or music, there was always a chance to grow their language input and output. I think having learned another language yourself can have its advantages -- you've been in your students' shoes!

How is becoming an ESOL teacher different than a traditional grade school teacher?

Shelley: A teacher that is going to work with Second Language Learners needs to receive advanced training beyond the basic credential you would receive as a traditional classroom teacher. An ESOL/ESL teacher would need to learn many levels of language learning from basic skills, language nuances, to advanced academic language. A traditional grade school teacher typically does not have to focus on the BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALPs (Cognitive Academic Language Proficency) when they have all students in their class speaking the native language -- in this case, English.

Is there a difference between the acronyms: ESOL, ESL, TEFL, TESL?

Shelley: They all have the same goal, to help Second Language Learners become fluent and functional in a target language. TEFL and TESL, TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) are often used internationally. ESL (English as a Second Language) and ELD (English Language Development) are often used in the US education system. ESOL is also a term used in US education systems, but it is often used for adult education too.

Are ESOL teachers more in-demand abroad or in the U.S.?

Shelley: This is becoming a rapidly growing field everywhere. We have US public schools that are finding higher and higher populations of Second Language Learners every year -- and in some cases they started with a zero population. It is also an area of international demand. It is safe to say if you have training and experience with ESOL you will have job security in the US education system and abroad.

Why would you recommend someone to enter this career field?

Shelley: It is amazing to watch someone learn a new language over time and become confident in communicating. It is rewarding to know you are making a difference in this student, which translates into making a difference in the world. Being bilingual or multilingual opens doors, opens communication, and promotes the cause of peace. When one learns a new language and culture, he/she often feels connected and has the power to bridge gaps between cultures.


  • Limited-English students test public schools, August 12, 2013, http://www.facethefactsusa.org/facts/limited-english-students-test-public-schools
  • Interview with Kristie Shelley, June 22, 2015
  • Adult Literacy and High School Equivalency Diploma Teachers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/adult-literacy-and-ged-teachers.htm#tab-4
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