Which is the best TEFL course for teaching online?

One of the biggest questions new online teachers ask is how to get qualified to teach English online. With the HUGE range of courses available, it can be very difficult to understand which is best for you. TEFL vs TESOL? CELTA vs Trinity certTESOL? Online vs in-person TEFL courses? And that’s not to mention the many fake courses and scams out there too – what is TEFL course accreditation and is that $20 “accredited” course actually legit?

I’m Katie, and as someone who has taught abroad and online, hired teachers for Abridge Academy’s online and overseas teaching programs, and created content for our own (now discontinued) TEFL courses, I like to think I’ve got a few insider secrets to share that will help demystify things for you.

So if you’re thinking about teaching English online but don’t know where to start, keep reading!

What is TEFL? How about TESOL?

Ok, these acronyms can be very confusing for the uninitiated!

TEFL stands for “Teaching English as a Foreign Language”. This refers to the teaching of English in countries where the native language is not English – for example, teaching Japanese kids in Japan how to speak English.

TESOL stands for “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages”. This refers to the teaching of English to learners whose first language is NOT English but who live in a native English speaking country. For example, teaching English to kids who originally came from Mexico but have now moved to the US.

This is an important distinction to be aware of, as the environment the student is immersed in will affect what language they pick up, the opportunities they have to practice the language outside of class, and their motivations for learning English.

In terms of qualifications though, the two acronyms TEFL and TESOL are used somewhat interchangeably and the course content is often the same. Some course providers even issue both a TEFL and TESOL certificate for their programs, and usually employers will not differentiate between the two.

↪︎ TLDR; Don’t worry, TEFL and TESOL courses are the same.

Are some TEFL courses better than others? What is TEFL accreditation?

Ooh ok, brace yourself – let’s open this can of worms…

When you search online for “best TEFL course” (which might even be how you ended up here), you’ll find hundreds of TEFL course providers telling you that their course is, in fact, the most popular, the most accredited, the most internationally recognised, etc. I’m gonna be honest – it’s probably not…

Firstly, be aware that there is no official universal TEFL accrediting organisation. In fact, some TEFL course providers have been known to set up their own “TEFL accrediting council” to accredit their own courses.

Sounds crazy? Well, literally anyone can set up an accrediting council – there are no qualifications required and no restrictions on whether or not you may have some conflict of interest (such as your own TEFL company that just so happens to need accreditation…). So, when an online TEFL course claims to be “accredited”, take that with a pinch of salt and do your research into the accrediting body.

Similarly, because the TEFL course industry is almost totally unregulated, there are no qualification requirements to become a TEFL course provider and make your own TEFL course. Of course, most courses are created by highly experienced and qualified teachers – but not all.

Finally, be aware that many TEFL course providers offer very generous affiliate programs for teachers and bloggers to recommend them. If a teacher on Facebook is recommending a particular course to you, just check if they might be making a little extra cash from that recommendation. There’s nothing wrong with affiliate programs of course (we use them ourselves to advertise our teaching materials and courses, and some of the links in this post are affiliate links), but just make sure you do your own research into course providers rather than blindly trusting a recommendation.

↪︎ TLDR; Short answer: yes. Be wary of online “accredited” courses.

Do employers care which TEFL course you do?

Well in terms of “mass market” online teaching with large online ESL companies… generally not. A TEFL certificate is a TEFL certificate, they don’t usually bother looking into which exact course provider you did it with.

Although most online employers won’t care though, many in-person ESL teaching jobs will ask for a better quality TEFL qualification than that $20 one you found on Groupon.

I can also say that from Abridge Academy’s point of view, our online teaching program is more niche (and higher paid) so we are very selective over who we hire. I personally have reviewed literally thousands of applications to narrow it down to only around 100 actually hired teachers. What is one of the key things I look at? Your qualifications. Most of our successful applicants have a government-issued teaching credential or higher level TEFL course.

Even if you’re just looking for an entry-level online ESL teaching job, I still recommend that YOU care – this is your training to help you become the very best teacher you can be.

↪︎ TLDR; Short answer: sometimes, but regardless – YOU should care.

Do I need a TEFL course to teach online?

Maybe you’re a native English speaker and even took exams in English at school – you’re an expert in the language! It can’t be that hard to teach, right…? 

There is a HUGE difference between being able to speak a language and being able to teach a language. It’s a bit like saying “I’ve flown on airplanes loads of times – I can be the pilot!”. Yeah, best not to get on that flight… 

So are you ready to teach English online? Let’s try a little quiz…

  • What is the past perfect tense and should you teach it before or after past perfect continuous?
  • How can you design tests to assess students’ English level against the CEFR standards?
  • How can you structure an online reading lesson to develop students’ comprehension and analytical skills? 
  • How can you engage kindergarten kids in vocabulary learning, while making sure your songs and games are actually effective?

Struggling a little? All these things would be covered in a basic TEFL course. Might be helpful to train up a bit before standing in front of a class of students…

In terms of job requirements, in the past it wasn’t that difficult to get an online ESL teaching job without a TEFL certificate. Some companies were just looking for native speaking teachers to offer conversation practice, no qualifications needed! 

However, the situation has changed a lot the past couple of years. It has become very competitive to get even entry-level ESL teaching jobs, so a TEFL qualification will not only help you feel more confident as a teacher, but also help you stand out (or at least not get filtered out) when applying for jobs. Many companies are also increasingly aware (perhaps driven by student feedback…) that teachers do need to be trained how to teach, even if it’s “easy” conversation practice (which, I assure you, is not easy). 

↪︎ TLDR; Yes, you need a TEFL course.

So, how to choose the best TEFL course?

As we have established, it’s a bit of a murky world out there! For the purpose of simplifying things, I am going to categorise courses as follows:

  • Gold-tier: CELTA and Trinity certTESOL – more expensive, usually in-person, most widely recognised.
  • Silver-tier: university-accredited or government-regulated TEFL courses – more affordable, high quality, but not so widely recognised.
  • Bronze-tier: budget online TEFL courses – cheaper and easier, but very mixed quality.

Before we jump into the details though, I would emphasise that as a new online ESL teacher you might not need to go straight for a CELTA qualification. It is definitely possible to get entry-level jobs with an online TEFL course. Once you have a bit more experience, employers will care more about that than your qualifications, and you can always up-skill later on if you need to.

CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL

CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English Language Teaching to Adults) and Trinity CertTESOL courses are very similar. Both:

  • Are accredited by top universities (Cambridge University and Trinity College London)
  • Are led by local course providers worldwide (in-person) and online. 
  • Are rated as “level 5” (same level as an undergraduate degree) on the UK Regulated Qualifications Framework by OFQUAL.
  • Consist of 120 hours of training: around 4 weeks full-time or 12 weeks part-time.
  • Include 6 hours of assessed teaching practice.

You can find a CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL provider on the Cambridge English website or Trinity College website.

If you want to get a job teaching overseas in a higher paying country, then these are the courses for you. Some big-name international language schools such as British Council and International House will only accept teachers with a CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL, and many other higher-paying schools also have the same requirements.

If you’re looking to teach online, then they will definitely help you stand out and open up some higher paying, more selective companies (once you have some teaching experience too), but realistically are not essential to get your first entry-level position.

↪︎ TLDR; Overkill for most entry-level online ESL teaching jobs.

CELTA equivalent university-accredited or government-regulated TEFL courses

A cheaper option is to take a course accredited by a university or a government-regulated TEFL course. These often claim to be “CELTA equivalent” and may have similar course content to the more expensive CELTA / Trinity CertTESOL courses. However, they are often not quite as widely recognised by elite employers. 

Examples of such courses include Level 5 TEFL courses (regulated by OFQUAL, the UK government Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) and university-led online TEFL / TESOL courses.

Popular level 5 government-accredited or university-led TESOL courses include TEFL.org, Premier TEFL, i-to-i, The TEFL Academy, The TEFL Institute of Ireland and Arizona State University (via Coursera).

If you are looking to get started teaching English online, then these are the kind of courses I would recommend. They will generally be high quality and teach you the skills you need, while being affordable and convenient to do online at your own pace. Most online employers, and indeed many in-person schools, will accept these TEFL qualifications for entry-level jobs.

↪︎ TLDR; Best option for new online ESL teachers.

Budget online TEFL courses

If you’re not ready to make the investment into a higher level TEFL course, and just want something quicker and cheaper for an entry-level ESL teaching job while deciding whether or not this is a long-term career for you, then consider taking a cheaper online TEFL course. 

These online courses can be very mixed quality – see the notes earlier on self-accreditation issues etc. However, there are a few gems out there – enabling you to get trained up even on a tight budget. 

Some popular budget courses include International Open Academy and MyTEFL. Another great place to look for bargains is Groupon. Even well-known and government-regulated TEFL course providers sometimes list big discounts on here. 

This could also be a good option if you are already a credentialed classroom teacher but need a TEFL certificate not for the training but just as a “tick-box requirement” for an online teaching job

↪︎ TLDR; Do your research carefully, a good option as a “tick box” job requirement.

Are free TEFL courses legit?

You may see some course providers offering “free” TEFL courses. Yep, that’s right – no need to waste $100s on a TEFL course!

Don’t be deceived – these are usually very low quality courses and will have hidden costs such as having to pay for the certificate (sometimes at extortionate prices – having put all the work into completing the course, you kinda have to pay…). 

↪︎ TLDR; Free TEFL courses are low-quality and have hidden costs. Avoid.

How to choose the best online TEFL course

Sometimes it can be a bit difficult to differentiate between a “CELTA equivalent” qualification and a cheap, low-quality course. And being totally honest, there’s a whole spectrum of options between these. If you’re looking to find a good balance between course quality and cost, or have found an incredible deal on Groupon and want to know if it’s worth your time, read on…

IMPORTANT: The industry standard duration for an online TEFL course is 120 hours. Do not waste your time and money on shorter “taster” courses – these are essentially worthless. 

As already mentioned, TEFL courses are not equal and there are a lot of scams / low quality courses out there. Here are a few questions to consider (feel free to email course providers and ask!) to help you choose the best cheap online TEFL course:

  1. Who wrote the course? What are their qualifications? Search them up on LinkedIn – do they look like professional, experienced and expert teacher trainers? 
  2. What else does the course provider sell? If they sell TEFL courses alongside dog grooming and hair care courses, are they really an expert in training teachers?
  3. Who accredits the course? Look up the accrediting body board members – any overlap with the course creators? What are the accreditation requirements? Is accreditation a one-off process, or do they require courses to be continually moderated for quality going forward? 
  4. Is the course government-regulated (e.g. by OFQUAL)? Are they linked to a university? 
  5. What format is the course in? Is it just passively reading information, or do they include training videos? Are there any live components such as Zoom workshops or webinars? 
  6. Will you be provided with one-on-one tutor support? Is this via email or video call? Are there restrictions on when you can access this?
  7. How is the course assessed? Simple automated quizzes or more in-depth written assignments? Is feedback provided on these assignments?
  8. Does the course include any real teaching practice? Will the course provider organise this or do you need to find a school for your own practicum? Is it online or in-person? Will you be given support and feedback during the practicum? 

These questions should help you identify where on the spectrum the course falls, between “low quality rubbish” and “CELTA equivalent”.

Has that helped?

So there we go – a summary of some key considerations to help you decide which is the best TEFL course for you to get started teaching online. Ultimately, it comes down to your goals and budget. Always do your research before spending your valuable time and money on a course. 

Did this help? Let me know in the comments!

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