Choosing a TEFL Course

Rising demand for English teachers across Asia and throughout the world has created a booming job market. This in turn has spurred the growth in the number of training courses for English teachers. Training courses go by different names and acronyms, but they all aim at the same thing: To train the prospective English teacher so that they are prepared to teach English as a foreign, second or other language.

  • TEFLTeaching English as a Foreign Language — is the most common acronym by far for teacher training courses, and the one in predominant use in Thailand and throughout much of the world.
  • ESLEnglish as a Second Language — is a term used predominantly in North America, while
  • TESOLTeaching English as a Second or Other Language — is more popular in Australia.
  • CELTA is actually a brand name rather than a generic term, though in some countries it is used more often than TEFL. It originally was an acronym meaning Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults but subsequently renamed as Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

For the purposes of teacher training, the generic term TEFL will be used, whether the actual certificate brand name is a CELTA, an ESL, a TEFL or a TESOL. The main concern is not the name, but the content and quality of TEFL teacher training courses, for preparing English teachers.

Comprehensive Teacher Training Hallmarks

There are industry standards and common practices across most TEFL courses. Though necessarily brief (most commonly 120 hours), a TEFL course functions to provide a practical foundation for teaching English to non-native speakers. In choosing a course, emphasis should be on comprehensive training. Too often prospective teachers choose for convenience or low-cost, such as online courses. This limits the value of the training, and therefore preparedness for actual teaching.

A quality TEFL program is conducted in quality schools with a quality curriculum taught by qualified teacher trainers. Prospective TEFL trainees should seek out evidence of a quality school. TEFL programs should be conducted in schools licensed to perform teacher training, and should have a quality management system in place.

Some TEFL schools like to indicate affiliations with other brands in order to gain a kind of reflected legitimacy. Some TEFL websites resemble professional racing cars and motorcycles, with a variety of logos and stickers. In many cases, those affiliations are quite limited (perhaps only an agreement to resell another organization’s products or services), or simply misleading. It can be difficult for potential teachers to assess the quality of a training organization and a TEFL course.

It is best to focus on what the school actually has earned or achieved itself, rather than its affiliations. A quality school is necessarily licensed to perform teacher training by the Ministry of Education of the location in which it operates. A quality management system includes a quality management process and a quality auditing function (discussed further below).

Quality Curriculum

A quality curriculum meets or exceeds industry standards and practices (what a majority of programs provide). This includes:

  • Length of the training program (generally 120 hours);
  • Classroom-based program (necessarily higher value than online or hybrid courses);
  • A number of observed teaching practices in a variety of authentic teaching contexts (real schools), including a mix of student ages, class sizes and types of classrooms;
  • Cultural training and foreign language exposure (especially important for TEFL teachers who live and work in non-English speaking countries with significantly different cultures); and
  • Some kind of advice, guidance, and support for the job search.

Quality Teacher Trainers

Quality teacher trainers have experience teaching English as a foreign language, as well as experience training teachers on how to teach English as a foreign language. Both types of experience help contribute to being an effective teacher trainer. It is also useful to receive feedback from several different trainers when doing observed teacher practice. While an excellent teacher trainer can provide good feedback, getting that feedback from several different observers can be even more helpful.

The best teacher trainers are those who effectively model professional teaching. As teaching is a practical profession, effective knowledge is know-how. The best trainers are those whose behavior in training can be internalized and used to help guide the teacher in their own teaching in subsequent months and years. Quality teacher trainers have skills and tools which they will articulate, but more importantly will perform and model. While different teachers have different classroom styles, the highest quality trainers act as paradigms to emulate and learn from, and who inspire respect.

Job Support and Teacher Placement

A comprehensive TEFL program has some kind of job support or teacher placement. This should include guidelines on the process of seeking work (resume guidelines, school contact lists, general tips and tricks), alumni network or job mailing lists, etc. In the age of ubiquitous Internet, job websites and Facebook groups, finding job openings is less difficult.

Some prospective TEFL teachers are more concerned about job placement than quality training. Choosing a TEFL course should focus on comprehensive, quality training. As a practical vocation, a training course should train a prospective teacher for effective performance in the classroom, provide a foundation to develop as a teacher and professional, as well as advise the trainee in the best approach for securing a job. Getting employed as an English teacher is a straightforward process after attending a quality TEFL training course.

Evidence of Professionalism in TEFL Teacher Training

When selecting a course it is useful to look for evidence. Professionalism is evidence-based. For each of the hallmarks noted above, evidence should be available:

  • Evidence of current government licensing
  • Evidence of quality certification and auditing
  • Evidence of satisfied graduates, specifically regarding their preparedness to teach
  • Evidence of years of being in business as a school or training organization
  • Evidence of years of teaching, and of training teachers, by the TEFL trainers
  • Evidence of a diversity of authentic observed teaching practices
  • Evidence of job support

There is no reason that evidence of school, curriculum and teacher quality should not be present on TEFL course websites.

On the other hand, what does not constitute evidence of professionalism include the following:

  • Third party logos or discussion of some kind of relationship with professional TEFL organizations, such as IATEFL (these are usually only dues-paying memberships that have no bearing on the quality of the member organization);
  • Third party logos or discussion of some kind of relationship with Colleges or Universities (these are usually marketing arrangements and do not endorse the quality of the organization or the locally provided course, with the exceptional cases where the TEFL course counts as university credit at an institution);
  • Third party logos or endorsements by obscure TEFL Certification bodies (in many cases these bodies are not independent, but were created by the same organization in an effort to self-certify; in other cases, these bodies appear to certify or accredit, but have no standing, permission or recognition to perform that function);
  • Thai government, or other government seals or logos (it is actually illegal to use these Thai government seals and logos without permission, apart from their presence on official documents from those organizations).
  • Finally, note even with the logos and mentions, any or all of institutional or organizational relationships may in fact not exist. It is quite telling that IATEFL is claimed on a dozen or so TEFL providers in Thailand, but only three are actual institutional members from that country.

Quality Schools and Training Organizations

When it comes to institutions of higher education (colleges and universities), quality is easier to evaluate. Reputations are well-known, and national and international rankings published yearly. The hierarchy of organizational quality is more visible, and ranking of degrees by subject is also quite obvious. While there may be some dispute as to whether the number-one ranked English department is at Oxford or Harvard, there is no doubt that both are in the top tier.

Accreditation in the academic world is done by independent organizations that have watchdog and advocacy missions. Those organizations — staffed by faculty and administrators from a variety of institutions — advocate on behalf of faculty and students as well as the academic community. They hold education administrators accountable for providing learning resources and enforcing quality standards. These standards can include everything from student-teacher ratios to journal subscriptions and book collections in the library. Accrediting organizations are recognized by government agencies (state/provincial, regional, and/or national).

Accreditation is applied to an educational institution, and not to a degree program or a course. A given school is accredited to bestow certain kinds of certificates and degrees. Authorization flows from governments, to accrediting institutions, to certificate and degree granting institutions. In a sense, all authorities are institutional. Courses themselves are not accredited, except insofar as they are offered by accredited organizations.

TEFL Accreditation

TEFL courses have none of this accreditation infrastructure, except in the rare cases where a TEFL course also has university credit, or is a part of a larger college degree or curriculum (the vast majority are not). Indeed, many college and university affiliated TEFL courses are part of non-credit or adult education units, and are not part of the accredited academic departments.

Even then, the TEFL course is not accredited, rather it is merely a part of a curriculum belonging to an accredited institution (at best). As such, a TEFL course held on University grounds has no more weight than a TEFL certificate from any other TEFL course, given an equivalent course syllabus and other quality factors. The better terms to use with TEFL training courses are licensing and certification rather than accreditation.

TEFL as a Self-Governing Profession

TEFL training is an applied or professional course rather than an academic one. Typically, training is conducted at non-formal schools or loosely affiliated institutes, rather than within academic departments. This is true of most TEFL courses in the US and UK, including the venerable CELTA, which is run in association with (but not as a part of) Cambridge University, through which it derives its brand name.

CELTA is operated through the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES), a non-teaching department of the university that is not affiliated with any academic faculty at Cambridge. While UCLES oversees examinations around the UK and abroad, it is not responsible for any examinations administered at Cambridge University. One should view with some degree of skepticism the purported reputational brand value accruing to a TEFL certificate — be it Cambridge University or any other university affiliated with a teacher training course.

External Moderation and Course Auditing

CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL providers are akin to franchising/licensing arrangement which includes external moderation and course/organization auditing. Some amount of ongoing evaluation of adhering to course standards are conducted (and paid for) regularly. These are checks to ensure that the course trainers are following the course outline and that students are in fact learning the course curriculum and have earned their TEFL certificate. This is an attempt to enforce quality so that the brand value of the organization is not diminished by a shoddy affiliate or franchise using the name of the organization.

For example, in order for a TEFL training organization to award the CELTA, a range of criteria must be met, stipulating the size and scope of the on-site facilities1. Every CELTA is audited by an external assessor, though this comes with an increased price tag. UCLES justifies the expense of its courses by providing more curriculum oversight than TEFL courses without a quality management program in place.

Another established TEFL course with external moderation is the CertTESOL, conducted through Trinity College, an established and recognized testing company. As with the CELTA, any course providers of the CertTESOL have their curriculum and testing audited, with a commensurate increase in price for the trainee.

International Quality Standards Certification

The next level of quality assurance is an international standard of quality management, the most popular being the ISO 9000 family of quality standards. The ISO 9001:2008 is a set of internationally recognized standards that encompass quality assurance, customer satisfaction and standardization in an organization. ISO 9001:2008 certification means that the organization has quality management processes in place.

Externally moderated TEFL courses ensure curriculum and testing standards. International quality certification such as ISO 9001 include the entire organization and facilities, along with staff training and ongoing quality improvement. Increasingly schools and training centers are becoming ISO 9001 certified to increase the quality of the organization.2 This provides an equivalent, though more comprehensive quality management system than external moderation and auditing.

Government Licensing of TEFL Providers

Every country has its own standards for granting a license to perform TEFL Teacher Training, or any other kind of training, whether it be Thai Massage, Muay Thai Boxing or Automobile Driver Training. The Thai Ministry of Education (MoE) licenses both formal and non-formal schools and organizations which provide professional training, including TEFL courses.

In actuality, very few TEFL providers in Thailand have MoE TEFL training licensing, and others have only a general non-formal school license. Still other TEFL providers claim to have licensing through affiliation with a licensed school, though that may or may not be valid. TEFL providers with no school or training center licensing whatsoever are clearly in violation of the law, and the TEFL certificates they dispense are not following regulations set by the Thai MoE. Foreign staff at such organizations cannot be legally employed for teaching English or TEFL training.

There are other problems associated with TEFL courses that are not recognized by the MOE. For example, course participants who are injured or become ill while on the premises of an unlicensed school may find that their travel insurance does cover the claim. A TEFL certificate earned through a non-MOE-licensed organization may cease to be recognized (both in Thailand and abroad) if the school is later found to have been operating illegally.

Government licensing by the MoE is legal permission to engage in teacher training. Along with this licensing is the more basic status of being a legally registered, tax-paying organization in the countries in which one operates.

The Real Value of a TEFL Certificate

It is easy to view the TEFL certification process as a formality — part of a series of hoops through which a prospective teacher must jump before securing a teaching placement. This approach to certification misses many of the key benefits of a TEFL course, reducing the certificate to little more than a piece of paper. In truth, a quality TEFL course helps prospective teachers acquire the skills needed to thrive in a cross-cultural classroom setting.

A TEFL course provides outcomes that are essential to success as an English teacher:

  • Competent knowledge of English grammar
  • Ability to plan lessons and include appropriate grammar and phonology
  • Ability to assess the language needs of a learner
  • Understanding of teaching methods and their application
  • Practical skills needed to succeed in cross-cultural environments (both as a teacher and an employee)
  • Classroom management skills (which are different for different age groups)
  • Strategies for evaluating and reporting upon student performance
  • Experience of learning an unknown language, to gain the point of view of the students

Granted, there is only so much a 120-hour TEFL course can provide, but the main idea is that it lays a foundation on which skills are firmly planted and germinate, and can continue to develop.

TEFL Courses Train Teachers

Professional training is not simply an academic endeavor; rather it is a form of apprenticeship, a practical process. The goal of training is to develop skills. The goal of academic teaching, on the other hand, is to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge.

At first glance, this may seem like an obvious enough distinction. The problem arises when training teachers. Applying training principles to equipping teachers for an academic environment tends to muddle that distinction. As a result, many aspiring English teachers look to TEFL courses as a chance to brush up on their English grammar skills.

Aspiring electricians must have a thorough understanding electrical theory and relevant codes and ordinances. These can be taught through a traditional academic course. However, their training is nowhere near complete until they have spent time on the job with an accomplished professional. Simply put, there is no substitute for learning from an accomplished trainer gaining in-the-field experience. This is practical know-how, which is acquired by a combination of teaching, coaching, and learning-by-doing. The same is true for training in the English teaching profession.

The best TEFL courses are led by instructors who understand the dynamics of teaching. Every lesson they present involves conveying theoretical concepts in a live-action setting. Watching them present the coursework is much like the apprentice watching the electrician wire a circuit or troubleshoot a problem. Every hour in class with the instructor is an hour in the field.

Observed Teaching Practices are Central to TEFL Training

After having presentation skills modeled before them, TEFL trainees are ready for hands-on experience. Every quality TEFL training course includes observed teaching practice, allowing trainees to put their newly acquired skills to work in a real classroom environment.

The in-class observed teaching practice is the first taste of real-world teaching that TEFL trainees receive. For those eager to find work as an English teacher, this is an exciting juncture in their training. When searching for the best TEFL course, prioritize those that provide several hours of real-world teaching practice (six hours is the industry standard). The feedback offered by the observers at this stage is invaluable.

Accept no substitutes for authentic observed teaching practices. If a prospective TEFL course does not include several hours of in-class practice with real students, in authentic school settings, keep looking. There are plenty of reputable courses in Thailand that do offer this essential training tool.

Online and Hybrid TEFL Courses

As the international market for English teachers increases, there are more TEFL certification programs on the market than ever before. This includes a growing collection of online and hybrid (blended online/in-person) courses. Online courses can be less expensive, and more flexible than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

However, there are two problems with the online TEFL courses. The first boils down to a conflict of contexts. Unless trainees are planning on leading online English classes, they completely miss out on the opportunity to learn from their instructor’s presentation style. There is no in-class modeling. Instead, the online course ultimately amounts to little more than a 40-, 60- or 120-hour grammar review and lesson planning exercise.

Secondly, online courses are forced to create a workaround for observed teaching practice. This usually involves the student finding their own volunteer teaching position in the area where they are based. A supervisor at the school where they end up volunteering can sign off for them. Needless to say, the online TEFL provider is unable to monitor the trainee’s performance or provide feedback.

Hybrid courses have a similar dilemma, though perhaps half as bad. With less time spent in the classroom and a shorter period of time to acculturate to the new working environment, the trainee is simply not as qualified and misses out. In hybrid TEFL courses, in-person apprenticeship and teacher-trainee modeling that needs to take place is rushed. In addition, the in-country culture training and orientation that happens over a four-week period is truncated, less effective by half when given only two-weeks in which to take place.

In terms of preparing for a new profession, both online and hybrid options are shortchanging the prospective English teacher as well as their students.

Benefits of On-the-Ground Training

One of the advantages of completing a four-week training course in the region in which one would like to work is the ability to network. Well-regarded TEFL institutes often sit at the top of an extensive network of schools and language centers that are perpetually looking for new, qualified English teachers. Completing a reputable course and receiving a referral from the course director goes a long way toward securing a teaching placement in a target area.

Location is also an essential consideration when vetting TEFL Courses. For those who intend to teach English in Thailand, it makes sense to enroll in a course offered in Thailand, as this provides access to the local job market, as well as local culture training. Given the fact that many courses are offered across the country, enrollees are also wise to consider which city they prefer to network through.

The largest concentration of courses are available in Bangkok, where a dense population fosters the highest demand for English-language instruction in the country. Bangkok has one of the highest costs of living in Thailand, but the schools that hire English teachers offset this with some of the highest salaries for teachers.

Chiang Mai is second in terms of course availability. While much smaller than Bangkok, Chiang Mai lures TEFL teachers with its provincial, up-country location, laid-back atmosphere and lower cost of living. Even if Bangkok is the desired location for the first job out of the TEFL course, taking a TEFL in Chiang Mai has many advantages. Courses and local lodging are competitively priced. Commuting to the TEFL course is much faster and less expensive. And job hunting and networking is largely done over the Internet and by visiting schools, both of which are accomplished at the end of a TEFL course.

There are many prospective English teachers who are drawn to the beach — particularly to the islands of Phuket or Koh Samui, and the seaside resort of Pattaya. However, the relatively few teaching jobs that are available in prime beach-side locations are inundated with applications from qualified teachers. In addition, there is less of an opportunity for acculturation in an environment that focuses on tourist activities. Finding a job in these markets is difficult.

Local Culture and Language Training

Quality TEFL courses include some amount of foreign language instruction in the 120 hour curriculum. TEFL teaching does not rely on knowledge of the local, first language in order to teach. This means that teaching English in Thailand does not require any initial knowledge of the Thai language. By becoming a second language student using TEFL teaching methods, prospective English teachers become sensitive to the challenges their students face in the TEFL classroom.

The culture and etiquette of Thailand (manners, habit, custom and behavior) is quite different from that of Western countries. The food is different, the climate is different, the language is different. Of course there are significant similarities, but daily the foreign teacher is confronted by behavior that is different than what they generally expect.

Though each country’s culture is different from another, there are some similarities across Asian countries. Thailand and its neighboring countries are more similar to each other. Less related but still sharing certain cultural characteristics are the East Asian countries (China, Japan, Korea).

Of course, each country and culture has its own taboos and expectations. However, if one wants to teach in Asia, the cultural orientation and practical in-classroom advice found in a TEFL course in Thailand is extremely valuable. Simple things that teachers from the West would consider harmless and indeed meaningless can have a dramatically different meaning in Thailand and other countries.

Teachers have lost jobs when violating these behavior norms and taboos, such as proper hand gestures, tone of voice, use of the feet, throwing things in the classroom, etc.

In Search of a Good TEFL Course

To recap, a well-built course will include each of the following elements:

  • Curriculum that focuses on professional teacher training
  • Inclusion of a set of observed teaching practices in a classroom with real students in authentic school settings
  • Instruction by expert trainers with substantial English-teaching experience, and teacher training experience
  • Licensing through the local Ministry of Education
  • Quality management processes (external auditing/moderation or international standards quality management system)
  • 120 hour full-time, in-country training course
  • Local culture orientation and foreign language lessons
  • Job search support

It can be difficult to research overseas TEFL courses in Thailand before actually moving to the country. Every course claims to be the best on its own website. Likewise, each is only going to post positive testimonials from satisfied graduates. Whenever possible, try to find objective testimonials on third-party review sites that rank TEFL programs.

A good place to start is TEFL Course Review, a third-party review site that allows course graduates to rank TEFL programs all over the world.3 It currently includes 22 TEFL courses in Thailand, alone — with hundreds of others around the world. Ajarn.com is the top TEFL site in Thailand and also offers information and discussion for the TEFL seeker.4

Finally, no course is perfect, and people have different experiences. What matters most is that the qualification they provide is recognized, and that the coursework is both comprehensive and conducted professionally in a supportive environment.