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ESL Teaching Requirements: Do You Have to Be Bilingual?

Written by: Wilson College   •  Apr 19, 2024
A Tesol Teacher Standing Next to Two Students Who Are Working on a Laptop.

ESL Teaching Requirements: Do You Have to Be Bilingual?

The rich diversity that characterizes the U.S. is reflected in many ways. For example, people who live in the U.S. speak various languages. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2022, approximately 22% of people ages 5 and older spoke a language other than English in their homes. 

Because people in the U.S. speak a wide array of languages, our educational system needs to meet the needs of students who are English language learners. Equipping educators with the skills and expertise necessary to teach English as a second language (ESL) helps to ensure that all students can receive a good education and reach their full potential.

Teaching ESL can be a rewarding experience for many educators, and importantly, you don’t have to be bilingual to work in the field. Anyone considering enrolling in a TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) master’s degree program can benefit from learning about ESL teaching requirements and how to begin working in the field.

What Does an ESL Teacher Do?

When working in schools, ESL teachers help students learn how to speak and write in the English language, but that’s not the full extent of their responsibilities. ESL teaching is about both teaching the English language and promoting overall academic achievement. ESL teachers teach or assist in teaching an array of subjects to students who speak languages other than English. For example, ESL instruction can be woven into courses such as math, science, history, or social studies.

An ESL teacher’s responsibilities include the following:

  • Designing courses tailored to ESL students
  • Developing goals for ESL students
  • Customizing educational processes to incorporate different types of learning styles
  • Creating lesson plans
  • Assessing students’ progress
  • Meeting with students and their parents

Schools are not the only working environments for people with ESL expertise. Individuals who are trained in ESL can work for organizations that offer adult education courses, instructional design organizations, or even higher education institutions. ESL instructors can also work as private tutors.

Requirements to Become an ESL Teacher

To begin working as an ESL teacher in a school, an individual needs to acquire certain credentials. The requirements to become an ESL teacher are outlined below. While being bilingual can help in working as an ESL teacher, individuals don’t need to be bilingual to work in the field.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step in becoming an ESL teacher is to earn a bachelor’s degree. For example, completing a bachelor’s degree in education, English, or teaching English as a foreign language can establish a solid foundation for a career as an ESL teacher. 

Step 2: Obtain Certification to Work as a Teacher

As is required for all aspiring teachers, individuals who want to become ESL teachers must obtain the required state certification or licensure to work as a teacher. Teacher certification and licensure requirements vary across states, so it’s important to research the requirements in the state where you want to work as an ESL teacher.

Step 3: Gain Expertise in ESL Instruction

Individuals need to obtain ESL expertise to work as ESL teachers. One of the best ways to acquire that expertise is to complete a TESOL master’s degree program. These programs offer students the opportunity to acquire key knowledge and skills in areas such as:

  • Addressing individual learning needs and styles while teaching ESL
  • Understanding the connections between language and culture
  • Using applied linguistics and learner strategies
  • Providing TESOL instruction and conducting student assessments
  • Designing ESL educational programs

Step 4: Obtain the Required State ESL Teaching Certification or Endorsement

States typically require ESL teachers to obtain specific ESL certifications or endorsements that supplement their regular teaching certificate. Those requirements vary across states, so it’s important to research the requirements in the desired state of practice. For example:

  • In Pennsylvania, ESL teachers need to obtain a Program Specialist ESL certificate
  • In Texas, ESL teachers need to obtain an ESL Supplemental Certification or a bilingual education certificate
  • In Arizona, ESL teachers need to obtain an English as a Second Language PreK-12 Endorsement

Key Skills for ESL Teachers 

In addition to satisfying the requirements to become an ESL teacher, ESL teachers  cultivate strong skills in areas such as the following:

  • Interpersonal communication. Effective interpersonal communication skills can help ESL teachers motivate students and instill in them a desire to learn.
  • Cultural awareness. ESL teachers can enhance their ability to teach students if they’re well versed in their students’ cultures and traditions.
  • Problem-solving. Individual ESL students can learn best in different ways, so ESL teachers need to take the time to analyze and identify the educational approaches that work best for individual students.
  • Collaboration. ESL teachers need to be able to collaborate well with other teachers and coordinate on providing instruction to English language learners.
  • Ability to support students’ mental health, social, and emotional needs. ESL students come from a wide range of backgrounds and sometimes can face stressors such as feelings of isolation. Therefore, it’s beneficial when ESL teachers can support their students’ needs in those areas.
  • Relationship building. When ESL teachers build relationships with students’ families and promote family engagement in students’ learning, this can help ensure students’ success. It also can be helpful for ESL teachers to build relationships with community organizations that support ESL students and that can offer them specific resources that they need.
  • Innovation. It’s good for ESL teachers to think outside the box and develop innovative approaches to ESL instruction. For example, they can develop educational games, offer specialized student counseling services, or match ESL students with mentors.

Satisfying ESL Teaching Requirements Can Lead to a Fulfilling Career

Meeting the requirements to work as an ESL teacher can position individuals for rewarding careers that enable students to improve their lives. Teaching students to become proficient in the English language and helping them achieve academic success is a great way to make a meaningful difference. 

Individuals who are interested in pursuing careers in ESL instruction can explore Wilson College Online’s Master in TESOL degree program to learn how it can help them reach their professional goals. Tailored to teachers who are certified to teach in pre-K through 12th grade, the program offers flexible coursework and the opportunity to acquire expertise that can set the stage for career growth.

Start working toward your ESL teaching goals today.

Recommended Readings

ESL Resources for Teachers

The Role of Teachers in Customized Learning Environments

What Is a Master in TESOL?


Arizona Department of Education, English as a Second Language, PreK-12 Endorsement Information

Handshake, Explore Job Roles: ESL Instructors

Indeed, How to Become an ESL Teacher

Pennsylvania Department of Education, Educating English Learners

Pennsylvania Department of Education, Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Pennsylvania

Texas Education Agency, Bilingual/ESL Certification Pathways

U.S. Census Bureau, Language Other Than English Spoken at Home in United States Is 22.0%

U.S. Census Bureau, Most Americans Speak Only English at Home or Speak English ‘Very Well’

U.S. Department of Education, Newcomer Toolkit

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