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TEFL vs TESOL vs CELTA—What’s the Difference? And Which is the Right Course for You?

If you’re a novice (or even experienced) English teacher trying to jump-start your career, you may find it hard to pierce the fog of jargon surrounding the industry. You know that you need some training, and you’re willing to invest—but how do you choose the right course for you?

The TEFL and TESOL Umbrella

Of course, all of these terms are acronyms: Teaching English as a Foreign Language (Tefl), Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (Tesol), and Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA). The difference between them is that the first two are umbrella terms that include all courses that aim to help people learn the business of teaching English as a foreign language.

As such, the CELTA is both a Tefl and a Tesol course, but, quite obviously, it isn’t the only one of these out there. There are literally dozens to choose from, in both online and face-to-face formats, and the quality of these courses varies depending on the training center and the course itself. So what makes the CELTA stand out from all of these other courses?

The CELTA Difference

What sets the CELTA apart are the following attributes that most other courses don’t share:

  1. Six hours of teaching practice with personalized feedback each time you teach. Since oral feedback is collegial and communal, candidates not only benefit from feedback on their own lessons, but also feedback on their fellow candidates’ lessons. This is in addition to written feedback that goes into detail about how candidates can improve their lessons in the future. Regardless of a teacher’s experience or skills, CELTA trainers will always find the right way to help candidates take the next step towards improving the learning experience for their students.

  2. Guided lesson planning for each of the lessons taught on the course. Just as with feedback, this is also both personalized and collegial. Candidates plan their lessons with guidance from trainers, and both contribute and listen in on the lesson planning process for all the other candidates in their teaching practice group; in a TP group of 6 candidates, they will participate in planning almost fifty lessons in a single month!

  3. Criterion-based assessment of teaching practice. Whenever candidates teach, their trainers evaluate their lessons using a set of over thirty criteria points, which are published and freely available in the CELTA syllabus. This means that anyone who passes the CELTA course has met each of these criteria at least once. For employers, this is important: they know exactly what they are getting when they hire a CELTA trained teacher.

  4. External assessment. Each CELTA course which is run worldwide is assessed externally, that is, by an assessor who works directly for Cambridge University. It is their job to visit (in person or virtually) every course, speak to the candidates, read a selection of their portfolios, watch them teach, and watch the trainers assess the candidates’ lessons. The purpose of their visit is to ensure that the various centers that deliver the CELTA course are following course provision guidelines, and that candidates are being assessed properly. They are a guarantee of transparency for both candidates—who know that their trainers aren’t assessing them too stringently—and for employers, who know that candidates aren’t receiving certificates or grades that they don’t deserve.

  5. Vetted and qualified trainers. Only approved trainers are allowed to work on CELTA courses. Cambridge CELTA trainers must possess a DELTA (or equivalent), show that they are committed to professional development in ELT, and must then shadow another approved trainer for an entire course. At the end of that course, that trainer-in-training is assessed by an external assessor, who decides if that trainer has the skills, training, knowledge, and disposition to be a CELTA trainer. Trainers must work on courses regularly—at least one course every two years—and they must take part in standardization exercises every year, in order to maintain their status.

  6. A Level 5 Ofqual Qualification. Ofqual is the official education government body for England and Wales. As such, they have established a scale of educational qualifications, with A levels and Baccalaureates at Level 3, and Bachelors degrees at Level 6. At Level 5, the CELTA is officially considered, by Ofqual and the UK, to be the equivalent of a Foundational Degree.

  7. The Cambridge name and international recognition. These last two points go hand in hand. The fact that this is a course which was designed, and is administered, by one of the world’s top universities, is a guarantee of quality and transparency for the world’s top ELT employers, as well as numerous governments. Consequently, more and more countries (such as Vietnam and China) are requiring that foreign English language teachers have a 120 hour Tefl certificate such as the CELTA as part of the visa approval process for foreign teachers. In many countries, including Gulf countries, there is a two-tier system in English language education, one for teachers with a CELTA, with a higher pay grade and better conditions, and those who don’t have one.

The final, and most important difference (for me) between the CELTA and other courses doesn’t get a bullet point, because it is in fact quite subjective. As a teacher and teacher trainer with over 25 years of experience teaching EFL and training teachers in more than a dozen countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America, this writer has developed high standards for the courses he works on. More than any other teacher training course, I am personally satisfied that the CELTA delivers excellent results, specifically because those results are built around the trainees themselves, their level, their background, and their personality. The CELTA is a rigorous course that delivers a guaranteed minimum to all candidates, but leaves room for both weak and strong candidates to extend themselves to the maximum of their ability.

I have stayed with the CELTA course throughout the years precisely because I have witnessed, first hand, teachers transforming their practice from teacher-centered, traditional methods to student-centered methodologies that allow both the students and the teachers to express themselves, learn and teach interactively, and above all, enjoy the classroom experience. This kind of transformation is the reason I got into teaching in the first place, and it’s the reason training candidates on CELTA courses is a worthwhile endeavor for me.

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