Why the TEFL certificate doesn't actually exist

Why the TEFL Certificate Doesn’t Actually Exist

Why TEFL Doesn't Exist

“I want to teach English, but first I have to get the TEFL certificate”.

If those in the English teaching industry received a dollar for every time they heard that sentence, they’d be extraordinarily rich, indeed.

There’s probably no other industry worldwide with as many acronyms – from ESL to ELT, CELTADelta and TESOL – but there’s one that’s used far above the rest.


Let me spell it out for you. T-E-F-L. Often pronounced like ‘teffell’, these four little letters stand for ‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’. A well-known piece of industry jargon to describe a general concept which, to those hoping to break into the industry, has transcended into something else entirely.


“I want to teach English, but first I have to get the TEFL certificate”.

Here’s the thing, TEFL hopeful: there is no the TEFL certificate. Just like the abominable snowman and spare seats on the London tube, it quite simply does not exist.

In truth, there are variations of TEFL certificates; from crash-course, online training, to more widely-recognised certificates such as the Cambridge CELTA or Trinity TESOL. All vary greatly in terms of quality, content, validity, and recognition, but – to the uninitiated – they all seem one and the same.

Unfortunately, the countless companies that spring up every day, offering ‘internationally recognised’ TEFL courses accredited by shady third-party agencies, know this.

Just like the CELTA is the well-known acronym for Cambridge’s teacher training course, such companies are coining ‘TEFL’ as an abbreviation for their lesser-born variety.

And that’s where budding English teachers get caught.

If you’re looking to break into a new industry, the first port of call is normally a job search. You want to gauge the level of opportunity, the amount of demand, and exactly what an employer is looking for.

Put yourself in the shoes of a prospective English teacher, for a moment. It’s at this point in their research they come across the minefield of complex abbreviations, which, despite their subtle differences (TEFL, TESL, ESL) mean much of the same thing.

Laptop TEFL Studies

“Teach children, teens or adults in China”.

That’s a line taken straight from an ad on the first page of results on a major English teaching job search platform.

“Generous salary, excellent benefits, supportive management. Candidates must be TEFL qualified.”

So, doing as the prospective teacher would do, I type ‘get TEFL qualified’ into Google.

The first page of results, both paid and unpaid, bare strikingly similar titles: TEFL training, TEFL certificate, TEFL qualification.

This TEFL must be a well-known certificate, assumes the potential teacher, and sets about clicking on the first link.

“Our certificates in TEFL and TESOL are world-renowned and our courses prepare trainees for the teaching profession in their home countries or abroad”, the first website claims.

“By holding [our] certification… potential employers can see that you’ve completed the reputable TEFL course.”

This site, along with many others, spruik lists of outside accreditation agencies, each confirming that their particular TEFL certificate is the crème de la crème.

But, digging a little deeper, I find that most of these agencies will put almost anything on their books – for a fee, of course. One such accreditation body, despite verifying various TEFL companies, also offers training in interior design and cat physiotherapy.

Plus, the freshly-graduated TEFL trainee, home-printed certificate in his hot little hand, is then expected to pay another fee (on top of the $1,500USD he’s already forked out for the original course), to get his piece of paper officially verified.

There is no one governing body, worldwide, trusted to verify TEFL courses. While some have the advantage of bearing big, weighty names to guarantee their quality (Cambridge and Trinity among them), others could have been written in some guy’s mum’s garage. Quite literally.

Anyone with a laptop and an internet connection could write an English teaching course, throw in the words ‘recognised’ and ‘respected’, and pay an outside accreditation agency for the use of their web banner.

Sure, there are times when certain TEFL courses are helpful (as a first initiation, or a refresher for the already-initiated, for example), but for the most part, they’re a collection of PDF files and empty promises.

The English teaching industry is so inundated by white noise, it’s hard to ascertain exactly what stands, and what falls down in a stiff breeze.

TEFL Student Retirement

“I want to teach English, but first I have to get the TEFL certificate”.

Back in the mind of the teaching hopeful, again. He’s finished ‘the’ TEFL course, feeling secure in the knowledge that it’s recognised and certified.

Until, of course, he’s pipped at the post by candidates bearing the high-valued Cambridge CELTA, Delta or Trinity TESOL.

Turns out, TEFL means so much more than just a singular certificate. It’s an umbrella term, and one that perhaps casts a little too much shade on the inner-workings below.

It’s time to shine a light on the truth: the TEFL certificate doesn’t actually exist.

IALC Quality English IATEFL

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