It’s perhaps no surprise that one of the most popular jobs for native English speakers abroad is teaching their mother tongue, but choosing a certification for this career option can make it feel like you’re drowning in a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms: TEFL, TESOL, TOEFL, TESL, CELTA… How are you to know the difference and, more importantly, how are you to know which one is right for you and your career?
When I was 22 years old, I decided to become certified to teach English after having finished my undergraduate degree. I had been living in France for two years and had recently spent time living in Spain. My intention was to complete my training before moving to Argentina to teach English, but I wanted a certificate that would be recognized should I decide to return to Europe – or even go to Asia!
I had a decent budget thanks to help from my parents, and as I knew that I could commit to a full-time program. The question was which one to choose? When it comes to choosing between TEFL and CELTA, the first thing to know, right off the bat, is what these acronyms stand for:
While at their roots, each of these acronyms means something slightly different, in practice, the first three are often used interchangeably to refer to any certification program that trains an English speaker to teach their language to others. CELTA, meanwhile, is the name of a very specific one of these programs sponsored by Cambridge University; think of CELTA as a brand of TEFL, TESOL, or TESL program (which, for the sake of succinctness, I’ll refer to as “TEFL programs” here).
Because any school offering the CELTA must adhere to strict standards and employ teachers that have been certified by Cambridge, it is often perceived as being the most prestigious of all TEFL program options -- in fact, you’ll sometimes see job offers for English language teachers citing the CELTA specifically as a prerequisite to be hired.
That said, CELTA is far from the only worthwhile TEFL certification. Many other programs offer equivalent standards -- and some even go above and beyond a CELTA course. The main difference is that while with a CELTA, the quality of the course you’re paying for is pretty much guaranteed, with a TEFL, you’ll need to do a bit more research to make sure the program is offering what you’re looking for.
To help you decide which one is right for you, let’s break down the difference between CELTA and other TEFL programs.
CELTA requires students to complete 120 hours of class time and six hours of student teaching (practicum) with real ESL learners. Most CELTA courses are offered on a full-time basis and take four weeks to complete, but some CELTA schools offer part-time CELTA certification, which can be completed in up to three months.
TEFL programs vary greatly: they can be as short as one intensive weekend, or about 20 hours of class time, and as long as several months, with up to 300 hours of class time.
The duration of the program will certainly be a factor in deciding which course you take, but bear in mind that however long it takes you to earn your certificate, a worthwhile program will require at least 100 hours of class time (completed on-site or online) and at least six hours of teaching practice before awarding you your certificate.
Most CELTA courses require students to attend the full-time, month-long course, which means six-hour days and a heavy homework load besides, including lesson planning for your practicum and four written assignments. A month-long CELTA program, then, is a full-time commitment. It’s tough to do much of anything else (including getting much sleep) during your CELTA.
Even as a part-time student, a CELTA certification is quite intense, as the coursework assumes that participants already have a firm grasp of English grammar concepts, something that’s not a given even if you’re a native speaker of the language. If this is not the case for you, you may need to do supplementary work while completing the CELTA course.
TEFL courses range in intensity; some are completed at least in part online with class time relegated to weekends, which can give students the flexibility to continue working while completing the course.
Some TEFL courses also don’t require students to complete their practicum with actual English language learners, but choosing this type of course can be problematic: not only is working with actual students an important part of learning to teach, but many potential employers around the world will not accept anything else -- such as teaching practice with fellow student teachers standing in for ESL students – as a valid practicum.
Price is often the deciding factor for students who opt for a TEFL certification other than a CELTA. CELTA can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000, depending on the school. This is in part because of the prestige of the program: it is recognized internationally, and schools hiring teachers know exactly what the program entails. In addition, because not everyone who attempts the CELTA achieves the certification, if a person looking to hire a teacher sees the CELTA on someone's CV, not only does the person know what the prospective teacher has been taught, he or she also knows that the teacher has succeeded in completing the rigorous coursework.
TEFL courses, meanwhile, can cost as little as $200. While some TEFL courses are just as expensive as CELTA, the vast majority are not, making them a far more attractive option from a financial perspective.
While the price of a CELTA tends to be steeper than that of another TEFL certification, it may be worth it. Here are some reasons you may want to opt for a CELTA, in spite of the price:
That said, here are a few instances in which a CELTA may not be the right choice for you:
CELTA is far from the only great TEFL program; other well-known TEFL-accrediting bodies include Trinity, ACCET, and CIT. In addition, there are many TEFL programs that aren’t accredited by any of these institutions that fulfill the standards required by CELTA: well-trained teachers, at least six hours of practicum with real ESL students, and at least 100 hours of classroom work.
When I was choosing a TEFL program, I felt a bit lost: there are dozens of different programs on offer in Paris at several different price points. Because the CELTA popped up again and again on calls for teachers in Argentina -- and because money and time were no object for me at the time -- I didn't hesitate in choosing the CELTA.
Not only did I gain valuable knowledge about English as a language, but the CELTA teaching tools and practicum experience gave me a good deal of confidence in the classroom and set me up for professional success.
However, the CELTA name proved to be much less essential than I thought it would be. I didn't end up teaching in Argentina, but I did teach in France and in the U.S. The CELTA name certainly opened a few doors, but many of my colleagues had attended other training programs and were just as talented -- and hirable -- as I was.
At the end of the day, the CELTA is far from the only program that can give a prospective teacher confidence, experience, and skills. Do your homework and seek out a reputable TEFL program (with a practicum with actual ESL learners), and you’ll likely be getting a great education regardless of the name of the certification program you choose.
Ready to get started? Here are some program options to consider:
Popular CELTA Programs
Popular TEFL Programs
This article was originally published in January 2015, and was updated in April 2018.
Emily is an American writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured
in The Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Atlas Obscura, and Rodale's
Organic Life, among others. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @emily_in_france.
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