ESL Teaching Certification


Teaching english as a second language (ESL), teachers work with non-native speakers to help them learn to understand, speak, read and write in English.

It’s often said that America is the “great melting pot” of the world, and with so many cultures and demographics interacting with each other on a daily basis, this title is well-earned.

America was built by a nation of immigrants, and communication between cultures has never been more important than it is today.

While it isn’t the only language spoken in the country, English is the dominant language in the United States, with more immigrants each year working to learn the sometimes confusing language.

To help facilitate the learning of this language, English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers help their students to understand the challenges, complexities, and tricks behind the English language. They assist with language development, listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills, and help new immigrants assimilate to American culture.

ESL teachers must display a deep understanding of the English language and teaching methods to effectively teach their students.

As proof of their complete knowledge of the English language, these teachers must first earn certification.

What is ESL certification?

Certification as an ESL teacher is a guarantee that a teacher is prepared to successfully impact the lives of his or her students.

Important Grammatical features in English
  • Noun Systems
  • Complex Clauses
  • Conjunctions
  • Embedded Quotations
  • Passive Constructions
  • Conditionals
  • Causative Structures

The certification process requires applicants to meet a rigorous set of standards. Education programs and educator testing based on these standards examines a potential teacher’s qualifications. They include tests on content knowledge, as well as effective teaching practices. For more information on your state’s teaching certification standards, visit the map of state teaching certification requirements.

The certification process is different in each state, but generally includes an examination and review of a potential teacher’s experience. One of the best ways to prepare for the certification process is through hands-on experience, so potential teachers are encouraged to explore student teaching opportunities.

So what topics must teachers understand to meet the certification standards?

Understanding of English content

Combining other topics with language learning

For many of America’s immigrants, learning the basics of the English language impacts the learning of other school subjects. Traditional teaching approaches dictate students learn a language fully before approaching more complex school topics.

But this approach leaves immigrant students behind their native English speaking counterparts in school. In fact, learning a language can sometimes take up to seven years before a language proficiency is established.

Click here to read more about combing topics with language learning…

The certification process tests teaching on their overall understanding of linguistics and English language. This includes domains of language such as listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

To pass certification, teachers must demonstrate an understanding of all of these topics.


Potential teachers must understand the concepts behind receiving, attending to, understanding, evaluating, and responding to sounds and messages in the English language. English is filled with important grammatical inflections on words, such as inflections used in past tense and plural words, so potential teachers must identify these features to pass certification.

To effectively teach their students, ESL teachers must have an understanding of the essential components of language that allow their students to follow directions, understand explanations, take notes, and interpret conversations. This involves basic grammar and vocabulary instruction that leads to further English language development.

Teachers understand the phonological features of English that students must understand to effectively listen to instructions. For example, teachers must know the ways sounds combine to form words, contractions, hesitations, and words like “second” and “first” that signal the organization of instruction.

To pass certification, teachers must show they understand conversational patterns, and learning strategies such as repeating and paraphrasing new class material to students in order to clarify meaning.

With a thorough understanding of how English language students begin to listen for key elements of the language, potential ESL teachers are prepared to meet the standards of the certification process.


Potential teachers must also demonstrate their understanding of the basic components of speaking English. This includes essential language features students must develop to effectively communicate with native language speakers.

The certification process tests teachers on their understanding of pronunciation, including components like syllable structure, intonation patterns, consonant clusters, and vowel diphthongs. Potential teachers must also understand that there are aspects of a student’s native language that might complicate or influence his or her learning of English.

During certification, teachers must show their understanding of vocabulary words, and how to correctly implement them in the classroom. Often, this involves grouping vocabulary words into content-specific sections and segments dictated by topics, settings, and specific audiences.

For example, during Thanksgiving, a teacher might take the opportunity to instruct their students on Thanksgiving-related vocabulary and terminology like “giving thanks.”

Teachers should be able to identify challenging words and examples of word usage that their students must learn. They need to obtain extensive knowledge of word meaning and use, and understand multiple meanings and connotations of certain words.

Because speaking is not only done through words, but also through body language, teachers should also understand how facial expressions, gestures, rates of speech, and pauses in speech change a sentence’s meaning.

In addition to listening and speaking, new English learners must understand how English is represented in the printed word.


To pass certification standards, potential teachers must demonstrate an understanding of the linguistic principles behind reading the English language. To show this, potential ESL teachers should understand the types of grammar, vocabulary, and letter-sound relationships used in English.

Teachers must show an understanding of the precise words likely to cause difficulty to English learners, and address them during classroom instruction. For example, some English learners have difficulty understanding “th” or “ph” words during classroom reading.

ESL teachers should display knowledge of decoding skills, and the typical conventions of English. These include analysis skills for prefixes and suffixes, as well as knowledge of transitional markers like “after,” “next,” and “therefore.”

Certification also tests teachers on their abilities to select meaningful and connected texts for students to read. This includes analyzing the appropriateness of texts based on spelling and sound of words, in addition to difficulty of text.

While working with students to improve their English reading, teachers must also display an understanding of the relationship between pronunciation and spelling. For example, some words sound very different from the common English conventions and are considered special cases.

Once students have an understanding of how reading, speaking, and listening are interconnected, they can also begin to write English.


To earn certification, teachers must demonstrate knowledge of teaching handwriting, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and capitalization features that make up the written English language. Certification tests teachers on their knowledge of the difficulties and challenges involved in the writing process, so teachers must develop an understanding of effective teaching styles.

Writing helps students develop coherence, establishing themselves as authorities and effective learners. Potential teachers must understand how writing allows students to present evidence, convey humor and politeness, and avoid needless repetition.

Potential teachers must show an ability to analyze student word choices related to levels of formality, style, and tone. They must understand how vocabulary is used to produce increasingly complex and grammatically correct sentences in order to pass certification.

Certification tests teachers on their knowledge of features of writing, such as thesis statements, paragraph structure, purpose and effectiveness of introductions, conclusions, and effective use of transitions. They must explain and analyze these language characteristics.

Earning certification

A career in teaching is a long and rewarding career path that will allow you to grow and learn more about the people who make up this country. And because the education of individuals who make up this country directly correlate to their quality of life, standards for certification determine whether teacher candidates are properly prepared to take on the responsibility of educating.

If you’re interested in learning more about your state’s certification process, choose your state from the map of state teaching certification requirements.

Combining other topics with language learning

For many of America’s immigrants, learning the basics of the English language impacts the learning of other school subjects. Traditional teaching approaches dictate students learn a language fully before approaching more complex school topics.

But this approach leaves immigrant students behind their native English speaking counterparts in school. In fact, learning a language can sometimes take up to seven years before a language proficiency is established.

But one study notes that this disconnect does not need to occur, and that core subjects in school can be combined with language learning to help these immigrant students.

In “Integrating Inquiry Science and Language Development for English Language Learners,” published in The Journal of Research in Science Teaching, authors note that many language learners could benefit from subject integration.

In the article, authors Trish Stoddart and others note that language functions like describing, predicting, hypothesizing, reasoning, explaining, and reflecting are directly related to the processes used in learning science.

For example, the word “would” sometimes is a difficult word to use for beginning English learners. During science experiments though, many hypotheses begin with a question such as “What would happen if I….”

Showing students how the vocabulary they learn is applicable in real-life situations spurs them to continue learning.

Stoddart writes that introducing language learners to the scientific method provides a contextualized use of a new language to learners that stretches beyond simple vocabulary memorization. It also allows these students to begin to develop science knowledge and skills that will apply later in their educational careers.

For example, during an English learning class, students might begin to identify bone structures and body parts. The teacher can use this as an excellent time to make observations about different bones, and teach the students vocabulary about the body.

This allows the students not only to learn new English words, but also teachers them scientific knowledge.

While currently school curriculum typically splits language learning from other content areas, Stoddart suggests that applying language learning to other content areas would have positive effects for both language learning and learning of other subject matter.