15 reasons to avoid a TEFL course
By “reasons to avoid a TEFL course”, I most certainly don’t mean to avoid all TEFL training. Any training is better than none, and there are well-known and well-respected courses such as the Cambridge CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL that are available and recognised all over the world. There are, however, plenty of courses that you probably should avoid, especially if you also have the option of taking a more respected one (and most people do).
A standard length for a TEFL certificate course is 100 to 120 hours of (usually face-to-face) training with six to eight hours of observed and graded teaching practice. If a school asks for teachers with a TEFL certificate or “CELTA or equivalent”, that is what they are expecting. If any of those things are shorter, especially the observed lessons, you really are not qualified to teach English. In fact, four weeks of training with observations that add up to just one quarter of a normal weekly teaching timetable is already incredibly short for a teacher training course, and most countries would be scandalised if their school teachers were only trained that much.
2. Lack of assessment
The cheapest and shortest courses often give you a certificate just for attending. That is not so bad I suppose, as long as the certificate is clearly marked as a Certificate of Attendance and the course is called something realistic like “Taster Course” or “Introduction to TEFL”. Such a certificate cannot, however, be used to show your teaching ability or knowledge, because none of that is tested on that kind of course. The same is true for courses who do demand written work from you, but in which everyone who sends it in passes. Many online courses work this way, with no-one looking at the essays that you send in and trainees being allowed to try the online quizzes over and over until they get them right. The most important kind of assessment is assessed teaching practice, and no decent schools will accept a TEFL certificate that doesn’t include this.
3. Mainly online or weekend courses
As well as a weekend or purely online course being almost worthless, schools which mainly offer these qualifications but also have a (less popular) four-week face-to-face course are usually to be avoided.
4. Entry requirements
In general the more difficult it is to get on a course, the better the course is. Having said that, the Cambridge CELTA and Trinity Cert TESOL are qualifications specifically for people with no teaching experience, so you are not expected to know all the grammar and jargon before you even start. A popular course provider will usually, however, expect you to do a pre-course or pre-interview task and start reading the titles that they recommend as soon as possible. Most schools also ask for at least a Bachelor’s degree, and ones which don’t should make it very clear to you how difficult it will be to find a decent job without one. The language level for non-native English speakers should be set at around IELTS 7.0 or Cambridge Proficiency.
5. Number of course providers
However good the training that you get on a course, if it is only offered by that one school you will spend the rest of your TEFL career having your qualification questioned or ignored. Some course providers might be well known locally, but few people only teach in one country or area for more than a couple of years. This is even true of qualifications which are offered by universities, and for that reason many universities offer the Cambridge CELTA rather than their own certificates.
It is difficult for anyone to understand the confusion that is TEFL accreditation, especially when the main guarantees of quality of the Cambridge CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL are their own names. This means that it is very difficult to be able to work out which other courses are of a similar standard. It is, however, possible to spot the dodgy courses by what they say about accreditation. Some courses don’t mention it at all, which is never a good sign. Others claim to be accredited by organisations that do not ever accredit TEFL courses, e.g. IATEFL and TESOL. In fact, any mention of organisations like these is just smoke and mirrors to convince you of quality which doesn’t exist. Other tricks include claiming to be accredited by an organisation that doesn’t list that school on its website, setting up their own accreditation organisation that only or mainly accredits themselves (look for how many schools the accreditation organisation website lists), using organisations that will say that they accredit anyone for a fee (look for lots of unconnected qualifications or qualifications like online degrees on the accrediting organisation’s website), and even listing accreditation organisations that don’t seem to exist at all! Any links to online universities or those apparently based in obscure island nations should also of course be avoided.
7. Overstressing trainee satisfaction/feedback
Having lots of unhappy trainees is often a sign of bad management and other problems, even though when that happens most complaints tend to be about accommodation, admin, airport pickups, etc. The main reason that the complaints tend to be about these other things is that most trainees obviously do not know enough about language learning and teaching to be able to judge a course academically, because if they did they wouldn’t need the training, and no courses would need accreditation when they could be judged by a trainee satisfaction survey! In summary, very little can be judged from trainee satisfaction, and the dodgiest course providers are often the ones who spend the most time trumpeting their happy “graduates”.
8. Rapid expansion
There is a good business reason for a rapid expansion of TEFL courses, which is that a course can never be internationally recognised while it is only available in a few places. The practical consequences of a new course springing up once every couple of weeks, however, tend to be dodgy local partners, trainers with little experience, overburdened admin staff who never get back to you, and the possible sudden disappearance of the course due to overambitious expansion.
You could perhaps blame Cambridge and Trinity’s complete lack of marketing efforts for the proliferation of dodgy TEFL certificate courses, but their rather staid efforts do at least match well with their statuses as exam boards and an organisation connected to one of the world’s top universities. The newer courses have no such worries about cheapening the idea of education, with special limited-time money-off offers, “free courses” that aren’t, affiliate marketing (paying bloggers to recommend their courses), stressing the beach nearby more than the training, paying you to recruit your friends, and spreading downright lies about other courses on their own websites or on TEFL forums. Examples of the barefaced lies include the false rumours that the CELTA is an advanced course and that a certain number of people have to fail it. I would avoid all companies who spread such fibs, as well as those who seem to spend much more time on marketing than academic standards.
10. Class sizes
A course which I saw a video of recently seemed perfectly happy to show the trainer standing in front of a hundred people with a microphone for their one week “Advanced TESOL Certificate”. Reputable courses will have no more than 16 trainees on one course (with at least two trainers), and will run two parallel courses if there are more people than that.
The normal name for a four-week TEFL course that is mainly for people with no teaching qualifications or experience is a “TEFL certificate”, e.g. the Trinity CertTESOL. In TEFL, a Diploma is a qualification for people with at least two or three years of relevant job experience and usually an initial teaching qualification. A Diploma such as the Trinity DipTESOL or the Cambridge DELTA can get you credit for an MA in TESOL, TEFL, ELT or Applied Linguistics. If an “Advanced Certificate” were a common name for qualifications in TEFL, it would probably mean the same thing as a Diploma. Some course providers, however, try to make their basic teaching courses sound important by giving them big names. Courses that do not stick to the definitions I have given here should usually be avoided.
12. A lack of staff
The biggest potential problem with lack of staff is a lack of tutors. Even with only 8 to 12 trainees in a course, there should be at least two full-time tutors so that you can get different perspectives on your teaching and there is always someone to go to when you have problems planning your lessons etc. If the tutors are also running around working in the regular school, answering every email, doing the airport pickups, etc, that is not a good sign. The same is true with the school owner answering every email and telephone call – you have to ask yourself if the school has more than one member of staff in it!
13. Infrastructure and materials
You would be surprised at the number of TEFL courses that have websites that are full of typos, and even totally incoherent sentences produced by SEO experts with minimal levels of English. You would think that they’d easily be able to find a native speaker who could correct the mistakes, being in the business of English teaching and all… This is never a good sign, and the same can be said for websites that haven’t been updated, have dead links etc. You might also be able to spot the same lack of quality and attention to detail in the course materials and videos that are available for public consumption, and you could ask them to send you a sample if you have any doubts about the course. If you get the chance to see their physical premises, a slackness in keeping the building in a decent condition can often be a sign of a deeper malaise.
14. Guaranteed jobs
Anyone with a well-respected TEFL certificate and a degree can find a job within weeks, as long as you are flexible about location etc. In fact, a native speaker with no TEFL certificate could find a job in a crappy school within weeks, if they wanted to. This means that schools which go on and on about how all their graduates get jobs are using up precious website space that probably should be for something more important and contentious like accreditation and true equivalence to the Cambridge CELTA. What are even worse are schools that actually offer you jobs at the end of (or as part of) your TEFL course. The reason why these jobs are there for you, and why many schools will pay for your training in order for you to work for them, is that they are jobs which no one would otherwise take. Expect to be teaching big classes with few materials and very little academic support if you take such a “guaranteed job”.
15. Financial stuff
Things to look out for include courses that are very cheap, being asked to make payments in the names of people rather than schools, and a lesser-known qualification being almost as expensive as the CELTA.
Thank you for the engaging and enlightening article. Big big help.
Warren Heunis says:
I did a level 5 TEFL and Teach Business English online courses and thought they were very informative. I enjoy learning at my own pace as I work part time. I did check the courses were certified with Ofqual etc.
I have no issue with who the course is done through as long as the correct standard of education is upheld. Anyway it’s not the education, that gets your foot in the door, more the experience.
OK. I agree there is totally the left side and totally the right side, and we want to be somewhere in the middle. If I don’t (or can’t) do the Trinity or Cambridge courses, then how do I chose a certified, accredited (!) complete course. I am a Dutch elementary teacher (BA in Education) and I’d like to complete my education with a TEFL diploma (or maybe even certificate). It’s a jungle out there and I am reading review after review. Can someone direct me to 2 or 3 quality, accredited, certified online (can be combined) courses?
A price-fighter can never be a good course. But I am sure there are quality online courses out there other than Trinity or Cambridge. Help is appreciated. Maartje
Mary Kennedy says:
There are three major TEFL course provider “chains”: Cambridge, Trinity and SIT. While they aren’t the cheapest, I’ve always believed the safest thing to do is to go for one of their locations (pretty much worldwide-ish). They are major operations with university and college backing, with reputations to protect.
It’s all well and good to know what one should NOT do. But what are the alternatives? Can anyone provide sites for unbiased and reliable reviews of the top TEFL programs? All the reviews I keep finding end up being sponsored by one of the programs — hardly unbiased.
I am actually writing an initial TESOL course for my company at the moment! I agree with many of the points of this article but I would also point out that everybody has to start somewhere, both as a tutor and as a company.
I have 20 years’ experience as a teacher, a BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature, PGCE, and several TESOL certificates. I think I can safely say that I have the knowledge and skills necessary to now train others in the basics of ELT.
Obviously, there is no substitute for actual teaching at the chalkface, but these days few people can afford the time or money for the Cambridge or Trinity exams. Introductory courses are a great starting point, in my opinion, and online courses and teaching are undoubtedly only going to continue to grow in popularity in the years ahead.
Yes, there are cowboys, sharks, and vultures out there but that’s always been true of any profession. Caveat emptor!
Clarence Covington says:
I’m researching in order to decide which course to take. I am interested in teaching English online. I found some helpful hints in both the article and the feedbacks.
Website space is not that precious.
A fairly balanced post listing the pros and cons of ESL teaching and courses to take and avoid. I completed a 120 Hour TEFL course and really enjoyed it. I learned a lot in two days, and over the six months of online training. There are plenty of good TEFL courses out there, so don’t be afraid to try. A short course (such as the one I mentioned earlier) will suit most people, as it means little expense but a good grounding in teaching ESL (and there’s plenty of work out there). A friend of mine is currently working in Vietnam, and I was recently offered a job in China. There are plenty jobs in Spain too. If you want to work in the UAE, or most of the Gulf/Saudi Arabia, you’ll need a CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL. Do your research and read reviews online, better still, speak to someone whose completed a TEFL and ask them if it let to any job offers. I work as a writer (W.M.Aslam) so learning more on English grammar was a win-win for me. I am glad I did the course, as I made some new friends too!
M J K says:
I am not a teacher at all, nor an American as is, one assumes, the earlier correspondent (Rupp Reed).
However, am fairly confident that ‘New England’ is properly spelled with capital initials (or ‘capitalised’ in North America).
Yes, even on a mobile, sorry, cellphone!
M J K.
Hi. I actually took an online course because I didn’t have the time to go to classes as my parents do not support my living as I am an adult. So online courses are also amazing. Do your research. Most people expect to have a teaching job getting out of school. I booked one without even finishing my online course and that course was amazing giving me 150 hours of study. It also taught me things people in class didn’t learn. Also nothing will prepare you for teaching ESL but teaching abroad and in various ethnic circles where English IS NOT the first language nor has it been taught in elementary schools. Online courses can be amazing! Mine was!
Hi. I actually took an online course because I didn’t have the time to go to classes as my parents do not support my living as I am an adult. So k mine courses are also amazing. Do your research. Most people expect to have a teaching job getting our of school. I booked one without even finishing my online course and that course was amazing giving me 150 hours of study. It also taught me things people in class didn’t learn. Also nothing will prepare you for teaching ESL but teaching abroad and in various ethnic circles where English IS NOT the first language nor has it been taught in elementary schools. Line courses can be amazing!
Chris Tavian says:
What a terrible article, grounded in opinion and bias. If you are looking to teach abroad TEFL can be a great, cheap, fun way to do this. Most countries will take a government regulated course with 120hrs or more on it.
Yes there are bad courses out there but also many great ones, this is nothing more than someone writing a contrary title to a blog to grab traffic. Really bad article written by someone who does not know TEFL. You will notice the only comments supporting this are from people who are not qualified or teaching.
It is rubbish like this that gives hard working TEFL teachers a bad name and prevents getting good teachers into schools that desperately need them. Not every country is able to qualify people to the same standard as the US or UK! “Glass half empty” should really get out there and do something instead of moaning! Get out from the keyboard and live a life!
Few good points, but they’re overshadowed by drivel. Super cynical and written by somebody intent on defeat. Possibly just outdated, but written like somebody that hasn’t been in a legitimate classroom.
What to avoid? says:
If one does not have the budget to complete a Celta or a reasonably priced TEFL, should one go for example, with “Full Circle 160hr TEFL”, obtain a job – if possible – and earn enough to do the Trinity TESOL or Celta as soon as possible? What would you recommend? Thanks
Andrea Presley says:
@Teresa He’s not saying “Don’t do a TEFL course.” He’s saying there are some bad TEFL courses out there and you need to avoid them, do the good ones.
Teresa Grant says:
Then what route do you suggest taking in order to teach in a different country than your own?
rupp reed says:
finally….a review/commentary that hits th nail squarely on the head !
Thanks, Alex, for your succinct and engaging breakdown of the fairly convoluted ins and outs of TEFL and its siblings.
Your insights are a light in forest , and I hope more people will read your article.
I, myself, am not tefl certified. I did sci teacher courses in new england, with lots of critique, editing, lesson planning and admin-style writing thrown in. by th time I finished w all that, I wz in no mood to do much else except just start work.
I now find, though, that TEFL cn be a very good add-on to the resume, IF u take the right course for what u really want to do. if not, it is indeed a farce, from what I’ve seen.
anyhow, good work with this article ! Plz forgive my grammar and spelling….cellph keypad, u know