Celebrate Reading!

A recent survey of Japanese children produced the depressing result that about half of children read books for “zero minutes” per day. That number of non-readers starts at about 30 percent for students in the first three years of elementary school. By high school, two-thirds of students do not read books at all.

This result is especially worrying because so much evidence exists that reading extensively strongly improves language development and academic results. Kids who read do better in almost everything.

MY has a class that fights against this trend. MY’s Tadoku lesson is an extensive reading class for young learners. In MY’s Tadoku classes, students spend 50 minutes weekly reading for pleasure books that they choose.

Why do I like Tadoku?

I trace one reason that I like Tadoku back to my experience in elementary school. My favorite class time (after P.E.) was the time that we called “Sustained Silent Reading.” It was a lot like Tadoku–we picked our own books and read on our own. There were no tests. There was one simple rule: read.

A Tadoku class for young English language learners is different from extensive reading for native speakers.

A Tadoku class for young English language learners is different from extensive reading for native speakers. English learners can read at varying levels of English, usually much lower than the levels of native speakers. Books have to be carefully graded to the appropriate levels of the students. However, the benefits of reading can be similar for native speakers and language learners alike.

Books offer excellent contexts for meaningful langauage. Reading builds vocabulary and grammar, turns people into better speakers and writers, builds general comprehension and understanding of the world, and develops learner autonomy. Children grow when they read. The huge gains in English ability, general knowledge, and confidence among our Tadoku students are many of the reasons why I like MY’s Tadoku class.

Tadoku students in profile

In this blog post, I am profiling two of MY’s Tadoku students, Reota and Mae. Reota is a junior high school student in second grade who has been in the Tadoku class at MY for about six years. Mae is an elementary school first-grader who joined the Tadoku class this year in May.

Reota chose to continue in the Tadoku class in junior high school because he enjoys reading in English. According to Reota, he does not read for pleasure much in Japanese, only in English. Reota enjoys the realism of the books that he reads in English. Reota’s favorite book series currently is the Atama-Ii books, which are long, choose-your-own-adventure novels.

After reading, Reota often gives a brief oral summary and book review to his teacher. It’s O.K. not to like a book. The goal is to share with others about our reading and explain why.

Over the years, Reota has read over 10,700 English books in the Tadoku class. Although he has lost count of precisely how many words he has read, this adds up to well over one million words in English. This huge input of English has improved Reota’s comprehension and turned him into a much stronger English speaker.

Mae is in our first-year elementary class. She is still in the process of learning simple phonics and combining single letters into short words. In Tadoku, she practices reading many letters and sounds that she has not studied yet. Mae uses audio recordings of the books to read along a second time after trying herself. After reading or between reading, she plays games using the books that she has read. Alongside her classmate, with a little support from her teacher, Mae challenges herself to read as much as possible every week.

Mae usually reads five or six new books every week. Doing this weekly for four months, she has read 61 books and over 3500 words. In comparison, Mae’s classmates in her regular Finding Out class just read their first book in English the same week that Mae finished her 61st book in Tadoku. What a huge boost to Mae’s vocabulary, grammar, and reading skills!

Mae enjoys the variety of books that Tadoku offers. She likes being able to choose her own reading material. While Mae likes some books and dislikes some others, she does not have any specific series or category of books that is her favorite. Mae also reads at home in Japanese on her own and with her mother. Every week she is building reading skills in two languages!

Opportunities and skills

Anyone can read for pleasure on their own, but it can be hard to make time for reading. Building a library of foreign language books at many levels at home can also be challenging and expensive. Public and school libraries may not have a wide variety of books in English. Students on their own often don’t know what levels of books to choose. Without a teacher, many students may struggle to develop reading-related skills on their own. MY’s Tadoku classes give students these opportunities.

Reota and Mae offer snapshots of the two ends of MY’s Tadoku program. MY’s Tadoku class offers students like Mae and Reota the chance to enjoy reading and build language skills and general knowledge about the world. These skills and knowledge will benefit them in school and as English speakers for many years to come.

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Why teach phonics?

Why do we teach phonics?

Because it works.

Earlier this month, I attended David Paul’s one-day “Teaching English to Children” course in Tokyo. (David authored the Finding Out series that MY English School uses in our elementary-age classes. We have him scheduled to present at MY this year in October.) I attended David’s seminar previously in Sendai about six years ago. Attending a second time after several years was a good experience. Sometimes we need a refresher in the basics.

One point that David stresses in his seminar is that we should teach reading using phonics because phonics works. Phonics is proven. It’s tested. Phonics gets results. It gets better results than any other system. Kids of all backgrounds learn to read best when they start with well-taught phonics.

In the couple weeks following David’s seminar, two news items popped to my attention underscoring the point that phonics works:


The first is a news article dated from last month about the Gulf States of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. This article offers a lot of hope: Mississippi raised its 4th grade reading level from second-to-last in 2013 to 21st in the nation in 2022. How did Mississippi accomplish this? By emphasizing phonics.

For those unfamiliar with education in the United States, education is determined and administered at the state level. Federal funding sometimes coerces states into following certain national standards, but states are generally able to set their own curricular and teaching standards.

For decades, Mississippi’s educational system has been the butt of jokes. When I was a student in my home state of Idaho, Idaho’s educational achievement was middle-of-the-road, but our educational spending per student was 49th in the nation. The one state below us? Mississippi. “At least we’re not Mississippi” and “Thank God for Mississippi” were common refrains.

No longer!

Leaping 28 places in state rankings in less than a decade makes it hard to joke about Mississippi anymore. Using a similar approach, Louisiana and Alabama have made similar gains and were two of only three states to see gains in 4th-grade reading skills during the three years of the pandemic. Other states are taking notice of that success. Phonics works.


The second item is a mix of good news and bad news. The National Council on Teacher Quality this month released its findings on elementary reading instruction in the United States.

The bad news? There is plenty:

  • Only 60 percent of American kids are literate by 4th grade.
  • 72 percent of teachers report using teaching methods for reading that have been debunked by science.
  • Only 25 percent of university teacher preparation programs adequately address five core components of reading instruction.
  • 71 percent of teacher preparation programs give less than two hours of instruction about teaching reading to English language learners.
  • 88 percent of programs provide no practice in teaching reading to English langauge learners.
  • 58 percent of teacher preparation programs devote less than two hours of instruction to supporting struggling readers.
  • 81 percent of programs provide no practice opportunities on teaching struggling readers.

In short, America is not effectively training teachers how to teach reading, and too many kids are not learning how to read.

The good news? With emphasis on the science of reading (with phonics as a core element), the United States could raise that 60 percent literacy rate to 90 percent within a few years.

Phonics is making gains. Mississippi set itself on a firm path a decade ago. Other states are doing the same and getting similar positive results. It’s simply a matter of will. Will states, schools, and teachers choose to teach using the proven method?

Sadly, there remains considerable resistance to phonics in American universities and among some educators. The misguided “Reading Wars” have left a terrible legacy in the United States. Teachers too often don’t know how to teach reading. Kids too often don’t learn how to read.

The Science of Reading

Academic and scientific fields have given themselves many black eyes in recent decades. The “whole-language” approach to reading is one example of this from education. Across many fields, however, science is flailing. “Science” as a term is frequently bandied in almost cult-like ways, aimed at discrediting anyone who disagrees. However, when 60 to 80 percent of published, peer-reviewed research is irreproducible, it throws up a question what it means to “follow the science.” People posturing rhetorically that they “follow the science” or “stand behind the science” are too often misrepresenting the science that they claim to stand behind. Consequently, trust in science and expertise is declining.

For me, the label “the science of” anything raises my suspicions. Is this posturing? Or is there real knowledge here to learn? When I hear “science of reading,” alarm bells ring. Given the mess created by whole language and balanced literacy approaches in the 1980s and 1990s, skepticism toward experts about reading is justified.

This said, reading has a science behind it. On the practical side, we have decades of experimentation in the classroom. On the neuroscience side, recent brain research has helped us understand the brain mechanics of reading. Reading and the teaching of reading are heavily researched, with clear answers about the best approach and practices for teachers and students. The NCTQ’s report neatly summarizes the five components of the science of reading:

  1. Phonemic awareness: The ability to focus on and manipulate the individual phonemes in spoken words.

Why are children’s storybooks full of funny-sounding nonsense words? These are often books meant to be read by parents to children (not decoded by children themselves). Dr. Seuss’s ABC remains deeply burned in my mind:

Big G, little g, what begins with G?
Goat and googoo goggles, G…g…G!

What are googoo goggles? Aren’t they just glasses? Why not use “glasses”? And the letter before that? What the deuce is a Fiffer-feffer-feff? Repetitive phonemes twist into words to produce utter nonsense.

The point is to build phonemic awareness. “Googoo goggles” plays with the phonemes, encouraging pre-literate children to do the same.
Likewise, why are rhymes important to young children? Because kids learn to match sounds and change words by manipulating individual phonemes. Children may not be able to decode the letters written on the page yet, but the ability to play with sounds displays phonemic awareness.

  1. Phonics: The relationship between the sound of spoken words and the individual letters or groups of letters representing those sounds in written words.

Phonics is the first stage of literacy, where written letters and words begin to form and match with spoken language. Phonics is not the end of reading. It is a tool for reading and a middle stage of reading. Decoding words using phonics offers nascent readers the best opportunity for matching what is written with the spoken vocabulary that they already know, in hope of then comprehending meaning. Phonics allows them to approximate pronunciation, opening the door to asking questions about vocabulary that they don’t know. Various context cueing, guessing, and other whole-language techniques simply fail to provide students the accuracy and speed of phonics decoding.

  1. Fluency: The ability to read a text accurately and quickly while using phrasing and emphasis to make what is read sound like the spoken language.

Teachers and students often refer to fluency imprecisely with respect to reading. What people often mean by “fluency” is closer to comprehension or sometimes speed. It is remarkable how little attention fluency can receive in reading lessons.

I am often guilty of this. I have spent dozens of hours helping an individual student produce clear phrasing and emphasis of a written text for a speech competition. In regular lessons, however, do my students read like fast-paced robots? Too often, yes.

Written language is meant to capture the rhythm, flow, and expression of spoken language. If students don’t read with the correct phrasing and emphasis, they are not learning to read well.

Reading fluency deserves more attention in teaching.

  1. Vocabulary: Knowledge about the meanings, uses, and pronunciation of words.

Reading is not a single skill or a collection of purely skills. Skills like decoding and phrasing are important components of reading. However, reading also requires content knowledge. This means learning vocabulary.

  1. Comprehension: Constructing meaning that is reasonable and accurate by connecting what has been read to what the reader already knows.

Comprehension is our ultimate aim when reading. To comprehend, a reader needs the previous four components of reading, plus adequate understandings of grammar and context, plus the ability to reflect upon all this and connect it to the reader’s existing schema. Whew…that’s a lot wrapped up in one component.

What does this mean for EFL teaching?

I teach in Japan. The above reports are from America. Teaching in America is to native speakers or in an ESL environment. Teaching in Japan is in an EFL environment. Does the teaching context make a difference for reading and phonics?

Yes and no.

EFL is a different context for learning reading, especially in a country like Japan that does not share the same alphabet with English and where children typically get little English exposure outside lessons. In this respect, teaching phonics is even more critical.

Japanese children start with a different schema from native English speakers. Their existing phonemic awareness is of Japanese kana phonemes. English phonemes are not going to map well onto their existing schema. How are Japanese children supposed to play with sounds that they do not yet know? Teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension in this EFL context forces teachers to adapt from how teachers of native-English students teach. Regardless, the NCTQ’s five elements for reading programs still apply:

  • Japanese children need activities to develop English phonemic awareness.
  • They need phonics in order to match sounds to written letters and develop strong decoding skills quickly.
  • They need the accurate rhythm, emphasis, and phrasing that come with fluency.
  • Their vocabulary needs to grow steadily in breadth and depth.
  • Japanese children need the comprehension skills to make sense of texts and connect what they read to what they already know.

How we employ teaching techniques in EFL to achieve these goals may change. The target components of good reading instruction remain firm.

In my experience, sadly, most public education in Japan skips past phonemic awareness and phonics, or gives them cursory attention at most. Fluency instruction is similarly more miss than hit. The overbearing focus remains on vocabulary, grammar rules, and narrow comprehension of the current text in isolation. These shortcomings in public education offer opportunities for private language schools. Phonics and good reading instruction help students grow.

How does your school’s teacher training and reading time match with the NCTQ criteria for science-based reading instruction?

How about the TEFL certificates that teachers at your school have taken? Do those TEFL certificate programs teach science-based reading?

How do your students learn phonemic awareness? How well are they using phonics to bridge between sounds and written letters? What are you doing with students to develop their reading fluency? If you teach at a private language school in Japan, there is already heavy emphasis on vocabulary in public school–how do you deal with vocabulary? Are your students adept at comprehending passages to the level that they connect new ideas with what they already know?

These are a lot of questions to reflect on, which provide lots of opportunities to grow as schools and as teachers.

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Moving forward on MY’s TEFL certificate requirements

What to do with TEFL certificates? We have decided why we want teachers to be TEFL-certified. We have done our homework to understand positive trends and warning flags in the TEFL certificate field. But what TEFL certificates will MY English School accept? How will we decide?

MY English School decided nearly a decade ago to accept OnTESOL’s 250-hour diploma as MY’s recommended certificate for teachers. We have also routinely accepted the CELTA and any higher degrees in related fields. So what is MY doing differently moving forward?

The answer to that question is complicated. What are we doing differently? Not much…and a lot. At this time, what TEFL certificates does MY accept with certainty? OnTESOL’s 250-hour diploma and the CELTA. For any other certificates that teachers bring to us, we will review them case-by-case.

If this sounds essentially unchanged from MY’s stance a decade ago, it is. However, in taking time to understand the TEFL field better, we have also taken a step toward a more robust review process. We hope this process will ensure better certification standards and practices.

Knowing our purpose & principles

Knowing who we are as a company and why we do what we do has helped shape MY’s discussion about TEFL certificates. During the past two years, MY’s Leadership Team and staff have worked to articulate MY’s purpose and principles. These efforts set common ground for our strategy on TEFL certificates.

Why does MY exist as a company? Our answer: “We grow success.” Whether we are considering our students, our teachers, or the company, we grow success. This is MY’s purpose. This is the reason we exist as a company.

What does this mean for TEFL certificates? Whatever decisions we make about TEFL certificates, our choices should grow success. This includes helping our students grow by having better quality teachers. It includes our teachers growing professionally. We grow a strong community of professionals. We grow a culture of learning. We grow success as a company. If we are not growing success in all these areas with TEFL certificate decisions, we are falling short of MY’s purpose.

How do we grow success? MY’s principles guide us:

  1. We start with questions. Questions allow us to understand the situation before rushing to find solutions. Moving forward, this means asking a lot of questions about TEFL certificates and accreditors. (See, for example, our lists of red flags in the previous post in this series.) For MY’s discussion about TEFL requirements, this meant asking:
    • Why should MY require a TEFL certificate?
    • Why did we choose the OnTESOL 250-hour diploma as MY’s preferred certificate over a decade ago?
    • Why is that certificate still a good option for many teachers, and why is it now not a good option for some?
    • What has changed in the TEFL certificate industry in the past decade?

  1. We are always learning. This principle is part of the reason for requiring a TEFL certificate at MY. MY’s teachers are always learning. Quality TEFL certification is a step toward learning. TEFL certification is also not the end of learning. We keep creating opportunities to grow professionally once certified.

    “We are always learning” also informs how we approach TEFL certificate decisions. We have done our homework on the TEFL field, but there remains a lot we do not know. The field is always changing. Each time we review a new accreditor or TEFL certificate, we approach it as a learning opportunity.

  1. We assume positive intent. Assuming that others are acting for good reasons can be hard when the TEFL field is littered with bad actors. Why is this TEFL certificate provider blatantly lying about its accreditation? Once we have verified externally that a TEFL certificate’s claims are false, we have concrete reasons not to assume positive intent from that provider any longer.

    With prospective teachers, however, how should we react to previously acquired TEFL certificates that they bring to MY? If a certificate is rejected by MY, so be it. We will explain in detail to the teacher our concerns with the certificate and why we cannot approve it.

    We do not want to fall into the trap of blaming teachers for obtaining bad certificates. We will not point fingers for failing to notice the same flaws that we see. We will not assume that a teacher chose this certificate out of a desire for something cheap and easy. We will continue to assume that a teacher obtained this certificate with good reasons in mind.

  1. We are proactive and accountable. The TEFL certificate field is far too vast for MY to proactively identify and review every possible TEFL certificate so that we can transparently show teachers exactly what is approved and what is not. I doubt any language school has resources to devote staff almost full-time to TEFL certificate review. What would be the point?

    MY is proactive about communicating our purpose, principles, and standards for TEFL certificates. We aim to be as transparent as possible about our process and our decisions. We have staff at multiple levels in MY’s structure who will hold each other accountable for those decisions.

  1. We do what’s best for MY. MY is not only the company’s bottom line financially. MY is also our students, our staff, and our company culture. For every decision, including about TEFL certificates, we aim to do what is best for all of these as a whole.

Two tiers of certification

One significant change at MY moving forward is that we will accept two tiers of certification: Preliminary and Extended.

Extended MY Certification is essentially what MY has always accepted for TEFL certification. We require a quality, recognized, approved TEFL certificate. Extended Certification earns a significant salary increase. We do not regard Extended Certification as an end point for professional development. Certification is a starting foundation, on top of which we will add MY training and other professional development opportunities outside MY.

In addition, we also recognize that many teachers come to MY with other certifications that may not meet MY’s standards. MY may still reject some certificates, but, from the perspective of teachers and students, the certificate is not what is important. What we seek are quality teachers. A hard-working teacher may still gain knowledge and skills even from a subpar certificate. Certificates that do not meet MY’s quality standards may still have some value. If we can see that a certificate offers a basic introduction to TEFL, it may earn Preliminary MY Certification for a smaller salary increase.

Topping up

With two tiers of certification, MY teachers need a path from Preliminary Certification to Extended Certification. Enrolling in a second introductory TEFL course that covers much of the same ground, even if in more breadth or depth, may feel tedious or unproductive for teachers. Most TEFL providers also offer specialized short courses (usually between 30 and 60 hours in length). Many of these specializations, such as teaching young learners, teaching business English, leadership & management, or teacher training) could be highly relevant to MY teachers. MY has begun reviewing specialized short courses as “top-up” options to raise certification status from Preliminary to Extended without having to take an approved full TEFL course from the start.

Robust review (doing the work of accreditors)

MY continues to recommend OnTESOL’s 250-hour diploma and the CELTA for our teachers. When incoming teachers already possess other TEFL certificates, our Leadership Team has reviewed those certificates and decided our approval or disapproval. What we have lacked is a robust review process. Generally, I think that we have arrived at good decisions about certificates, but our process was made easier by starting with narrow standards.

MY lacked a clear framework that would still allow us to make good decisions after opening our TEFL certification to two tiers. We did not want to accept every advertised 120-hour certificate for Preliminary MY Certification, but how do we go about determining yes and no? Our staff are not trained accreditors. Yet the situation needs us to perform the role of accreditors.

One step forward has been building a color-coded list of accreditors that MY can use internally to assist our decision-making:

  • Accreditors we reject. When we see certificates with this accreditation, we should always reject these certificates immediately, with minimal review.

  • Accreditors we may accept. In some cases, these are potentially good accreditors that we have not reviewed yet. In other cases, they exhibit good points, but they may also raise some concerns about quality or their review process. We need to subject these to robust review.

  • Accreditors we probably will not accept. We may opt to submit certificates with these accreditations to robust review, but these accreditations likely will not carry much weight in our decisions. In some cases, they are legitimate memberships and certifications that are not actual accreditation. In other cases, they seem likely to be sham organizations that we need more research to verify.

Little by little, we may move a few accreditors from the white and yellow categories to the blue and red. Some will remain permanently in that middle zone. In a previous post, we have already looked at red flags for accreditors. In addition, good accreditors:

  1. Evaluate curriculum content
  2. Set standards for course hours
  3. Evaluate instructor quality
  4. Assess student outcomes
  5. Evaluate business and management practices
  6. Actively assess the program periodically, not rely solely on self-reporting or give a one-time endorsement
  7. Offer transparent, meaningful criteria and standards
  8. Publicly list the organizations, programs, courses, or certifications they accredit
  9. Are accountable
  10. Avoid conflicts of interest

As much as possible, MY seeks reliable accreditation frameworks to assist our decisions about individual TEFL certificates. When an accreditation does not fully earn our trust, we are left to become the accreditors.

Acting as accreditor for a TEFL certificate will be difficult. As much as the detailed standards of TESL Canada or the CELTA have helped set expectations for course hours, curriculum content, instructor qualifications, student outcomes, business practices, and so on, we lack many of the tools and resources of accreditors. We may contact a TEFL provider with questions, but we lack the full cooperation of the provider in opening their books and courses for us to audit. TEFL certificates that fail to offer transparency will struggle to gain our approval.

For TEFL certificates that do not have any accreditation? Should MY choose mostly to ignore them? The time and other resources needed to review these certificates make them almost certainly not worth our while.

Rejecting all unaccredited certificates is unfortunate in some cases. MY will likely exclude a handful of very good TEFL certificates. If a TEFL certificate providers, having seen the messy TEFL accreditation landscape, has foregone gimmicky accreditation as a marketing tool, that is understandable, even laudable. At the same time, how can a language school discern the value of that certificate to teachers? Good accreditation is not a gimmick. Good accreditation helps us make better decisions. TEFL certificates that do not opt into valid accreditation have decided that MY and MY teachers are not part of their client base. That’s O.K.

At the start, our approved and rejected lists remain short, essentially unchanged from the past decade. With each new certificate teachers bring to us, we expect our lists of accreditors, certificates, and top-up short courses to grow. These lists will improve transparency and flexibility for our teachers, and they will help maintain MY’s quality instructor promise to our students.

Who decides?

With a general framework for TEFL certificate approval decisions in hand, MY’s Leadership Team struggled with a final question: Who at MY will review and decide about TEFL certificates? Who applies the standards?

We considered existing teams at MY: Leadership Team, Hiring Team, Professional Development Team. In each case, TEFL certificate review would, at times, be a substantial distraction from these teams’ primary functions.

We settled on an ad hoc committee of three or four people drawn from MY’s Hiring Team, Professional Development Team, and managers. The committee can meet only when needed without significantly disrupting the pressing work of an entire team. The ad hoc committee can draw perspective from several groups at MY, who all have a stake in holding the committee accountable.

Following months of work to understand the TEFL certificate field better, this may sound like a depressingly bureaucratic response–what is MY doing to address the TEFL certificate question? We formed a committee.

This said, we are optimistic that we are moving in the direction that is best for MY’s students, teachers, and company culture. Our next step is to begin training this committee to act like accreditors. Several current and incoming teachers are already seeking the committee’s review. We are handing the committee good tools and entrusting this small group to care well for MY’s principles.

This ends our four-part blog series on the TEFL problem. How to handle TEFL certificates remains far from a settled question for employers and teachers. We look forward to continued debate and to further changes and developments in the TEFL field.

Part 1: The TEFL Problem
Part 2: Why TEFL?
Part 3: Three Bright Spots in the TEFL Industry (and a lot of red flags to watch for)
Part 4: Moving forward on MY’s TEFL certificate requirements

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Three Bright Spots in the TEFL Industry (and lots of red flags to watch for)

The TEFL certificate industry has many good teacher trainers and rigorous certificate programs. It also has an alarming number of frauds and diploma mills. Once we step beyond widely respected names, teachers and employers need to be alert to the many warning signs that a certificate is of lower-than-advertised quality, if not outright fraudulent. However, there are some respectable bulwarks within the industry. We start with three of these bright spots:

University Qualifications

University certificates and degrees remain the most respected qualifications for English language teachers. Qualifications from established, brick-and-mortar universities especially display above-and-beyond commitment as a language teacher.

Want to teach at a university? Invest in a university degree.

Some universities offer a B.A. in TEFL/TESOL. It is a narrow degree that an undergraduate student is probably wise to combine in a double major, but such a degree stands out on a language teaching resume. Is a B.A. enough to teach at a university? Rarely, and a teacher is usually competing against a strong field of M.A.s and Ph.D.s for jobs.

Advanced university degrees offer professional training in research methods and teacher training methods, in addition to language theory and teaching methods. An M.A. in TESOL is a big investment, and a Ph.D. in Linguistics is a huge investment. The time and financial costs (both tuition and also often lost wages during the years required to complete the degree) can be immense, but these are the degrees held by committed language teachers seeking university positions.

As strong as university qualifications are, they are often not the best option for MY teachers. A MY teacher who gets an advanced degree is usually aiming to move into university teaching. Although many universities offer courses and degree programs online, barriers of geography, cost, and time can make university degrees impractical or inaccessible. Attending an in-person university program in an English-speaking country may force a teacher to quit employment. Certifications and specializations offer cheaper and less time-consuming options, while university degrees are expensive and normally take years to complete.


Single-course TEFL certificates developed to meet demand in the language-teaching industry. Private language schools and government teaching programs import large numbers of native speakers to teach English in countries around the world. Most such teachers do not have TEFL-related university degrees. Advanced university degrees are priced with a future university salary in mind, which can put them out of reach for many language school teachers. TEFL certificates exist to provide entry-level professional certification at a cost and time commitment accessible to most teachers.

The CELTA has become the closest thing to an industry standard among TEFL certificates. Cambridge English Assessment sets the CELTA course syllabus and rigorously regulates CELTA training centers. The 120-hour rating that Cambridge sets for the CELTA’s guided learning time has become the most common type of TEFL certificate offered around the world. Mirroring the CELTA/DELTA, Trinity College London’s CertTESOL/DipTESOL sets similar standards, with 120 hours as the entry point. Nearly every basic certificate from virtually every TEFL certificate provider is now advertised at 120 hours.

The real value of the CELTA is in its quality, consistency, and recognizability, which the rest of the TEFL industry mostly fails to replicate.

Above basic certification, there remains wide variation on course hours in the TEFL certificate industry. Courses can be found at 130 hours, 150 hours, 168 hours, 170 hours, 180 hours, 196 hours, 200 hours, 220 hours, 240 hours, 250 hours, 300 hours, 370 hours, 400 hours, and more.

What do these numbers mean? TEFL certificate providers are inconsistent with how they count course hours. Some, such as the CELTA, use “instructional contact hours” or “guided learning hours.” The hours of self-study during the course are not counted, and so CELTA’s 120 hours requires closer to 200 hours from a student. Other TEFL certificate courses use “total study time” or “time to completion,” which includes all hours spent by the student.

How accurately does a number reflect course content? A 120-hour TEFL course could be equivalent to another provider’s 200-hour course…or it might be on par with some other 40-hour or 60-hour short course. Even when courses are transparent about using “guided learning hours” vs. “total study time,” it is almost impossible to know what methods each provider uses in determining course hours. Many may rate their courses at 120 hours simply because that is the industry standard.

The strength of the CELTA is that Cambridge Assessment English maintains consistency across all CELTA providers. Teachers and employers know what the CELTA means, regardless from what training center a person obtained it. While the TEFL industry latched onto the CELTA’s 120-hour standard, the real value of the CELTA is in its quality, consistency, and recognizability, which the rest of the TEFL industry mostly fails to replicate.


Accreditation seems always the bright spot on the horizon for the TEFL industry. Accreditation has potential to ensure quality and make the field easier to navigate for teachers and employers, but it remains a work in progress.

Accreditation is the process by which an external review board assesses an educational institution, certification, or course for quality. The review is based on specific standards, which, if met, earn the accreditor’s official approval. An accreditor may regulate any number of metrics: student outcomes, instructor qualifications, course hours, curriculum content, business practices, and more.

A robust accreditation system takes the burden off teachers and employers to sort through TEFL certificates one-by-one. Enrolling in each course to compare quality is not needed if accreditors have done that work for us.

Employers increasingly demand accredited TEFL certificates. TEFL certificate providers increasingly obtain and advertise accreditation. With this demand, accreditors have sprung up to set standards and review courses.

A significant part of the work we have done at MY English School this year is attempting to sort through the accreditation field to determine what we can regard as reliable, what is potentially suspect, and what is obviously fraudulent.

This said, accreditation has not cleaned up the TEFL field yet. Accreditors, even rigorous ones, do not all evaluate on agreed standards. Most accreditors have a small footprint, regulating fewer than perhaps five TEFL courses. Some accredit only one or two. Accreditation is more informative and allows better apples-to-apples comparisons when accreditors share similar standards and accredit larger numbers of courses. An industry standard for TEFL accreditation is still in process.

The positive image that accreditation lends to a TEFL course is also its own worst enemy. For every good accreditor that sets and enforces rigorous standards, there is a sham accreditor or false claim of accreditation. Shoddy TEFL certificate providers have doubled down on their false advertising. The following are all-too-common:

Fake accreditors. An unscrupulous school wants accreditation for marketing purposes, but does not want to pay or go through the trouble, so the school sets up its own accreditation agency to accredit itself. The cost of this? Usually no more than the price of a new web domain.
False claims. Why go to the trouble of creating a fake accreditor? Many schools simply make misleading claims about accreditation. Unless a teacher or employer confirms with the accreditor, a false claim slips by unnoticed.
Accreditation mills. A TEFL provider may get accredited, but just as there are diploma mills, there are also accreditation mills. Send the accreditor money, and you can advertise that they accredit you.

Accreditation is intended to add trust and quality in the industry. Instead, accreditation currently adds confusion. Teachers and employers, in addition to sorting flimsy and fraudulent TEFL certificates from rigorous ones, now also have to sort flimsy and fraudulent accreditations from the rigorous and legitimate ones. Accreditation can add surety to the TEFL industry, but it can also add an additional layer of uncertainty.

A significant part of the work we have done at MY English School this year is attempting to sort through the accreditation field to determine what we can regard as reliable, what is potentially suspect, and what is obviously fraudulent.

While private accreditors (some rigorous and reliable, some less so) have operated for many years, government-recognized accreditation was scarce until recently. OnTESOL’s TESL Canada accreditation stood out as a robust TEFL option for MY teachers a decade ago because the government recognized the qualification as valid to teach in Canadian schools.

However, no government-recognized standard has gained widespread acceptance internationally. In the case of TESL Canada, the trend moved in the opposite direction. At least one online provider that previously used TESL Canada’s standards dropped TESL Canada for a private accreditor. The 2018 standards revision that required every person registered in the diploma course to have a bachelor’s degree was a deal-breaker. Most TEFL programs, especially online providers, want their courses open to anyone competent in English.

The introduction of England’s Ofqual framework sparked a notable shift since 2010 in the TEFL industry toward government-recognized accreditation.

The introduction of England’s Ofqual framework sparked a notable shift in the TEFL industry toward government-recognized accreditation. Ofqual, a government agency, regulates education, testing, and qualifications based on course hours and attainment level. Ofqual in turn authorizes private awarding organizations (such as TQUK, Qualifi, Highfield, or Gatehouse Awards) to establish specific qualifications for various fields and courses, ranging from hairdressing to engineering, drone operation to social work, catering to construction, and more.

Is Ofqual the same as accreditation? Some in the TEFL field dispute Ofqual accreditation. Ofqual does not accredit in the same way that higher education accreditors accredit entire institutions. Ofqual does recognize awarding organizations to accredit specific qualifications.

A number of TEFL providers have seen the opportunity that the Ofqual framework provides. Following Ofqual’s 2018 decision to expand regulation to technical qualifications, “Ofqual Level 5” certificates became increasingly common, if not as a TEFL standard, at least as a marketing device. Although the CELTA has arguably always been more rigorous than other TEFL standards set within the Ofqual framework, the CELTA, being based in the U.K., also falls under Ofqual regulation as a Level 5 certificate.

Ofqual-regulated qualifications are described in two parts, e.g., “Level 5 certificate” or “Level 6 diploma.” These two parts express the attainment level and time required for the qualification.

Ofqual distinguishes between guided learning hours and total qualification time. Based on total qualification time, the following qualifications can be earned:

Award (up to 130 hours)
Certificate (130 hours up to 370 hours)
Diploma (370 hours and over)

Ofqual additionally regulates qualifications based on attainment level (difficulty) of the coursework, e.g., Level 3 is equivalent to high school diploma-level coursework, Level 6 to undergraduate university degree-level coursework, and Level 8 to doctoral-level coursework.

Ofqual’s terminology is far from universally adopted in the TEFL field. These labels take on entirely different meanings in other frameworks. OnTESOL’s 250-hour diploma, for example, would technically qualify as a “certificate” under Ofqual’s terminology. ACTDEC, a U.K.-based private accreditation company, revised its standards in 2013 to more closely follow the Ofqual framework. ACTDEC uses similar-sounding levels to rate qualifications, but with a significant difference: course hours and difficulty level are lumped together in one rating. This stands in contrast with Ofqual’s division of hours and attainment.

A comparison of Ofqual’s attainment levels and ACTDEC’s qualifications:

Ofqual attainment levels (with award, certificate, and diploma qualifications at each level):
Level 3: High school diploma, A Level, International Baccalaureate
Level 4: Introductory university-level coursework, non-degree university awards or certificates
Level 5: Two-year university degree (Diploma of Higher Education, Associate’s degree)
Level 6: Undergraduate university degree (Bachelor’s degree)
Level 7: Master’s degree
Level 8: Doctorate

ACTDEC qualifications:

Level 3: 120-hour certificate (foundation-level, introductory coursework)
Level 4: 150-hour certificate (foundation-level, introductory coursework)
Level 5: 250-hour certificate (pre-diploma, university-level coursework)
Level 6: 450-hour diploma (postgraduate-level qualification for experienced teachers)

As a further comparison, Ofqual’s levels also differ from TESL Canada’s standards. A TESL Canada Standard Two diploma, for example, requires 250 hours of coursework and 50 hours of practicum, and all course registrants must already possess an undergraduate bachelor’s degree. This might put TESL Canada Standard Two on par with a Level 6 certificate in the Ofqual framework. TESL Canada’s Standard Two might match ACTDEC’s Level 5 in course hours and Level 5 or 6 in difficulty level.

Within the TEFL industry, labels remains frustratingly inconsistent. Consistency is an advantage that accreditation may eventually bring about, but we are not there yet.

Consistency is an advantage that accreditation may eventually bring about, but we are not there yet.

Following the development of England’s Ofqual regulations (and similar regional frameworks in the rest of the U.K.), some U.S.-based TEFL providers have begun to follow suit in seeking government-recognized accreditation. The number of accredited TEFL providers remains small, but at least two Department of Education-recognized accreditors for continuing education and distance learning, ACCET and DEAC, now accredit TEFL certificates. Counterparts in the U.K. such as the BAC and ODLQC do the same. Other countries have also established various regulatory and accrediting agencies. Meanwhile, private accreditors such as ACTDEC and IATQuO continue to offer accreditation options outside government frameworks.

An employer or teacher needs to be familiar with the various accreditation frameworks in order to make use of them. A TEFL certificate provider may vaguely advertise “Level 5.” What “Level 5” actually means depends on what framework, if any, the TEFL certificate is accredited under.

Back to the TEFL Problem

Identifying good accreditors and good TEFL certificate programs remains a challenge. Unscrupulous organizations often market themselves well. Fraudsters are most successful when they offer an appearance of legitimacy. There is no magic formula for digging beneath the surface to find the truth about an accreditor or TEFL certificate provider.

Teachers can do their part by examining programs closely before registering for a course. Check with your employer or prospective employer to find out what certifications they accept (and reject). Do not leap at the cheapest option or go with whatever is near the top of a web search result. Treat certification as a professional investment.

Employers can do their part by similarly examining courses before accepting any certificate. Do not accept certificates no-questions-asked. Demand certificates that have potential to develop your staff into better teachers.

How can teachers and employers distinguish good accreditors and good TEFL certificate providers from bad? Do your homework.

How can teachers and employers distinguish good accreditors and good TEFL certificate providers from bad? Do your homework. Here are two lists of red flags to watch for that can help cut through some of the confusion:

Thirteen red flags for accreditors

  1. Vague or no accreditation standards. Good accreditors make their accreditation standards transparent. Standards are specific about course hours, course content, instructor qualifications, student outcomes, business practices, and so on. If the accreditor makes only vague statements about standards or lists no standards at all (or plagiarizes standards from another accreditor), this is a major red flag. This accreditation service may be a sham.
  2. Lack of clarity about what they accredit. An accreditor may accredit an institution, a course or program, or a qualification. Accreditors that are vague about what they accredit probably do not actually accredit anything.
  3. Lack of information about the accrediting board. Especially for private accreditors, accreditors should be transparent about who they are. If an accreditor does not list who is on the accrediting board, this can be a cause for concern.
  4. Conflicts of interest. Sometimes accreditors list who is on their accrediting boards, but it just so happens that those people are owners or directors of the same TEFL providers that the accreditor regulates. This is a no-no. Good accreditors are fully independent.
  5. Only accredits one school. If an accreditor regulates institutions in many other fields, but only one in TEFL, this raises a worry about what TEFL-specific standards have been developed. An accreditor that only accredits one school total in all fields? Highly suspect. It is worth checking if the website domain owner of the accreditor and the school happens to be the same person.
  6. Unaccredited “membership.” Some accreditors offer a regular accreditation option. For a cheaper price, they also offer an unregulated “membership” that allows the school to use the accreditor’s logo in advertising. Can anyone explain how such memberships are anything but a sleazy marketing gimmick?
  7. Short turnaround time for accreditation review. Thoroughly examining course materials, instructor qualifications, student outcomes, and everything else that ought to go into accreditation takes time. An accreditor promises super-fast turnaround to get accredited? You’re likely getting the fast-food version of accreditation.
  8. Permanent accreditation, no periodic review. Accreditation should be reviewed and renewed periodically. If accreditation once is good for all time, it loses its meaning.
  9. Over-reliance on self-reporting or self-review. Good accreditors gather information from institutions, independently verify that information, and independently evaluate it. A TEFL provider reflecting on its teaching and business practices is good. However, if an accreditor leaves most of the accreditation process to self-reporting or self-review, is the accreditation mark little more than a school patting itself on the back?
  10. No onsite inspection. With some online TEFL providers, there may be no option for physical onsite inspection. A good accreditor, however, puts boots on the ground…even if that ground happens to be virtual.
  11. No public listing of accredited organizations, courses, and awards. An accreditor should always be transparent about who and what it accredits. If there is no website listing, publicly accessible database, or other simple way to verify accreditation, this is a major red flag.
  12. Not actually an educational accreditor. Misleading claims in this area often fall more to TEFL providers than to accreditors themselves. An institution that certifies ISO 9001 quality management practices offers a perfectly legitimate certification. When a TEFL provider then passes ISO 9001 certification off as educational accreditation? Not so much. Likewise, a TEFL provider has membership in an industry trade group that exists to promote TEFL? Great! Claiming trade group membership as educational accreditation? Not great.
  13. False claims of government recognition. People tend to trust private organizations more if they are regulated or recognized by the government. Accreditors sometimes abuse this with misleading claims. “I have a government-issued tax number, and therefore you should trust everything I say” sounds absurd, but some accreditors advertise their credibility in essentially this manner. A government registry, such as a charities index or registry of companies, is not the same as government regulation or approval and does not equate to valid accreditation.

Eighteen red flags for TEFL certificate providers

  1. False claims of accreditation. TEFL certificate providers can make any number of misleading claims about accreditation. Outright fraudulent use of an accreditor’s name and logo happens. Some TEFL certificate providers get one course accredited and then claim accreditation for all courses. Or maybe the TEFL certificate was accredited 15 years ago, but accreditation lapsed, and somehow the TEFL course’s website never got updated. Verify with the accreditor.
  2. Self-accreditation. Does the TEFL provider claim to accredit itself? Or did it create its own accreditation agency? It is not actually accredited.
  3. Vague, misleading claims about certificate validity. TEFL certificate providers may make any number of claims about the validity of a certificate internationally, or that it is recognized by this authority or that. Such claims are occasionally true, but more often they are false. The more vaguely worded the claims are, the more likely they are false. “This certifies that _____ completed such-and-such TEFL course” sounds less impressive than “This certifies that _____ is globally approved to teach English as a foreign language,” but accurate and honest is preferable to flashy lies.
  4. Using affiliations or registrations to imply accreditation. Affiliations with other institutions are not bad. Registering as a legal company is good and necessary. Using those affiliations or registrations to claim accreditation? No.
  5. Accredited by a non-accreditor. Claiming accreditation through organizations that do not do educational accreditation seems silly. The organization explicitly states on its website that it is not an accreditor. Why then claim to be accredited by that organization? The expectation is that you won’t check. A lot of TEFL providers do it.
  6. Certificates based on “experience.” Rigorous certificate courses may include a teaching practicum that adds teaching experience on top of course work. That’s legitimate. A TEFL certificate provider offers a certificate based on an affidavit of one’s own experience (plus $100)? No.
  7. No verification system for certificates. Give me five minutes on a computer, and I can make and print a certificate. Give me thirty minutes, and I can make a passable facsimile of an actual TEFL provider’s certificate. Good TEFL providers give teachers and employers a way to verify validity of certificates.
  8. Shell companies. One does not expect a TEFL certificate provider to be named in the Panama Papers, but it happens. What need does a TEFL provider have of shell companies? Yes, a TEFL provider with branches in multiple countries may need to be incorporated in each country. But does the TEFL provider create multiple companies with different names? Strange. Does it claim independent affiliation with those same companies to boost its credibility? Suspect. Does it hide that all of these are, in fact, the same company, owned by the same person? Highly suspect.
  9. New name. Sometimes companies rebrand and rename themselves. What reason would a TEFL provider have for doing so? It is possible the school’s purpose and vision changed. It is also possible that the old name was tainted with a bad reputation. With a name change, is the TEFL provider stepping toward something or running away from something?
  10. Affiliate marketing. Those positive, “independent” reviews you read on other websites? A few might be real. A lot are affiliates earning sales commissions. Some TEFL provider websites act as affiliates for other TEFL providers, marketing their courses and certificates, sometimes with separate packaging and pricing. Sometimes affiliates pose as independent websites or as reviewers to promote certain TEFL certificates. They may use external platforms (social networking sites, the question-and-answer website Quora, etc.) to push their sales pitches.
  11. Outrageous claims. How many TEFL certificates does this provider boast to have issued in the past year? Think hard about how realistic that number is.
  12. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. Everyone is guilty of a typo once and again. Does a misspelling, bad grammar, or wrong punctuation make you a liar? No, but when a TEFL certificate provider’s website is full of errors, there is reason not to trust.
  13. Plagiarized content on website. A CELTA-authorized center copying course descriptions on its website from Cambridge English Assessment is perfectly legitimate. But when a TEFL provider rips off language from an unaffiliated school or accreditor? A TEFL provider that cannot be bothered to create its own website content probably cannot be bothered to create rigorous course materials or hire serious instructors either.
  14. No listing of owners and instructors. Good schools advertise their teachers. They are transparent about their management and ownership. No information about the TEFL course instructors? It makes one wonder, does the course have any instructors at all?
  15. No physical address or a fake physical address. Schools, even online schools, are based somewhere. No address? Why doesn’t the TEFL provider want people to know where it is located?
  16. Stock photos exclusively on website. Sometimes a stock photo stands in well. A TEFL provider’s website is nothing but stock photos? It is not proof of malfeasance, but the bland images with no actual connection to the school do not build trust either.
  17. Price. This 120-hour TEFL certificate is only $120! Do the math. Even if 100 of those guided learning hours are via videos and a textbook, can the TEFL provider pay an instructor for the remaining 20 hours with $120? Quality instruction has a cost. A TEFL certificate priced absurdly low cannot possibly pay for quality instruction.
  18. Reputation. Reputation is not what a TEFL provider claims about itself on its own website. Reputation is what spreads about that TEFL provider elsewhere. Search for the TEFL provider, owner, or instructors elsewhere. What do people say about them? You might find something pleasantly positive…or you might not. (But keep in mind that disreputable TEFL providers often spam other sites with fake positive reviews of themselves.)

The TEFL certificate and accreditation fields remain a mix of respected, quality institutions, mediocre competitors, and blatant bad actors. The onus is on teachers and employers to discern what is rigorous and legitimate and what is not. We can rely on respected accreditors to an extent, but teachers and employers still, in many cases, have to perform the work of an accreditor. Do not trust what is on a TEFL certificate provider’s website. With both the certificate provider and accreditor, verify externally.

Check back on Friday for the final post in this series. We will look at how MY English School is moving forward with our TEFL certificate requirement by balancing trust in accreditors with external verification and building a review process for certificates and accreditors.

Part 1: The TEFL Problem
Part 2: Why TEFL?
Part 3: Three Bright Spots in the TEFL Industry (and a lot of red flags to watch for)
Part 4: Moving forward on MY’s TEFL certificate requirements

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The last time MY English School seriously considered the TEFL certificate question was over ten years ago, before I started teaching at MY. Some things have changed in the TEFL industry in the past decade, and some haven’t. At the time, over a decade ago, MY decided to accept and recommend to teachers primarily one course: OnTESOL’s 250-hour diploma.

Why this course? If MY was going to set a TEFL requirement for teachers, we wanted it to be a meaningful, rigorous certificate. OnTESOL’s 250-hour diploma is accredited by TESL Canada, whose accreditation is recognized by the Canadian government to qualify teachers to teach in Canadian schools. We judged that a certificate endorsed by a government-recognized agency to qualify a person to teach in the country’s schools was good enough for MY. OnTESOL provides the course online in a format accessible to MY teachers, so this has been the course we recommended to teachers upon joining MY for the past decade.

No TEFL certificate is perfect. We compensate for shortcomings during MY’s teacher training, and the foundation provided by the TEFL certificate is valuable.

The OnTESOL diploma is not perfect. No TEFL certificate is. OnTESOL, like many certificates, focuses solely on educating adults. In my current teaching schedule, about 70 percent of my students are kindergarten or elementary-age. Most of the remaining 30 percent are junior high and high school students. This makeup of students is typical for many teachers at MY. OnTESOL also recommends many teacher-centered techniques, including the much-maligned PPP, that do not fit with MY’s student-centered style. Still, we compensate for shortcomings during MY’s teacher training, and the foundation provided by the diploma is valuable.

Although we have recommended OnTESOL to new teachers lacking certificates, many prospective and incoming teachers at MY already possessed TEFL certification. We reviewed these certificates case-by-case. More than a few certificates, we declined to accept. Some certificates, like the CELTA, we readily accepted. Any higher qualification, like the DELTA or a related university degree, has also always been accepted.

Why reconsider? A 2018 change by TESL Canada forced MY to search for additional TEFL options. Previously, anyone could register for the OnTESOL diploma, but TESL Canada’s revised standards require that everyone in the course must already possess a bachelor’s degree. For the majority of MY’s teachers, a university degree is not a problem. Since an undergraduate university degree is required to obtain a work visa to enter Japan, most of the pool from which MY hires are university graduates. However, some MY teachers are not in Japan on work visas, and they may or may not have university degrees. For a teacher without a bachelor’s degree, MY needed a new path for certification.

Why require teachers to be TEFL certified?

In many, if not most, professional fields, certification is a gatekeeping tool. The certification requirement keeps riffraff out and ensures only serious professionals. This keeps the labor pool smaller and wages higher for workers. It also makes the hiring process simpler for employers.

Some language schools and teaching programs set TEFL certificate requirements to simplify their hiring processes. Not MY. We frequently hire teachers who are not yet certified. Instead, we require teachers to become certified during their first year at MY. (MY also offers a substantial raise as incentive for becoming certified.)

Some language schools and teaching programs set TEFL certificate requirements to simplify their hiring processes. Not MY. We frequently hire teachers who are not yet certified.

At MY, we acknowledge that certification does not guarantee a person is a good teacher. A certificate only shows that the person has completed a certificate. Still, MY requires teachers to be TEFL-certified for two main reasons:

  1. Marketing. We market to our students that MY’s teachers are professionals. MY does not hire people merely because they are native English speakers. We hire people because they are professional teachers. We observe a teacher’s quality and potential in a MY classroom before hiring the person, but a TEFL certificate is a formal mark of professionalism. It is part of our guarantee of quality to students.
  2. Professionalism. Being a professional is not merely about holding a piece of paper. It is about being connected in a community of people who share our profession. We want MY’s teachers to participate in professional communities inside and outside MY. Understanding the basic language and concepts of the profession is necessary to participating in the community of language teachers. A quality TEFL certificate can provide this professional foundation.

If MY is going to set a TEFL requirement for teachers, we want it to be a meaningful, rigorous certificate.

The TEFL challenge. As MY’s Leadership Team began to reconsider what MY regards as an approved certificate, it felt like opening Pandora’s box. Telling teachers, “You must possess a quality TEFL certificate,” is easy. Defining “quality” and weighing certificates against each other? There are hundreds and perhaps thousands of options: universities, dedicated TEFL schools, onsite, online, and hybrid, with teaching practicums and without. Programs differ in content, delivery, assignments, hours, price, and more. How to compare? How to judge?

Check back next week to look at what MY discovered while examining the TEFL certificate field in 2022, including three bright spots (and a lot of red flags to watch for) and what MY’s approach to TEFL certificates will be moving forward.

Part 1: The TEFL Problem
Part 2: Why TEFL?
Part 3: Three Bright Spots in the TEFL Industry (and a lot of red flags to watch for)
Part 4: Moving forward on MY’s TEFL certificate requirements

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The TEFL Problem

The TEFL certificate industry exists to fill a need, but inconsistency, uncertainty, and even outright fraud cause confusion and frustration for teachers and school owners.

TEFL certificates are a problem.

If you are a budding, aspiring English language teacher, do you jump straight into teaching? Or do you first put time and money into earning a TEFL certificate?

If so, which one?

If you are a school owner or principal, do you require teachers at your school to have a TEFL certificate?

If so, which one?

The “which one?” question plagues the TEFL certificate industry. It’s not merely a problem that there are a lot of TEFL certificates to choose from. That would be fine if quality of certificates were generally high, but there are huge gaps in quality among TEFL certificates. The deeper industry problem is that evaluating TEFL certificates is extremely difficult.

One TEFL certificate advertises itself as 120 hours, another as 250 hours. The course syllabi on their websites look remarkably similar. Does one course dig deeper into the topics? Is there a difference?

Two TEFL certificates look similar on the surface. One costs $120 dollars, another $1200 dollars. Is one underpriced or the other overpriced? Is there a difference?

One TEFL certificate advertises accreditation, while another makes no mention. Is there a difference?

A frustrating challenge of choosing a TEFL certificate is that the 120-hour certificate could actually be longer and more rigorous than the 250-hour certificate…. It is also likely that the longer, more expensive, accredited course is, in fact, better.

A frustrating challenge of choosing a TEFL certificate is that the 120-hour certificate could actually be longer and more rigorous than the 250-hour certificate. The unaccredited certificate could actually be better than the one advertising accreditation. As for price? It seems unlikely that a TEFL certificate provider could give a TEFL student an instructor’s attention for more than three or four hours at a price of $120, but the $1200 price is also no guarantee of quality. The actual value of a TEFL certificate? Anyone’s guess.

In the TEFL certificate world, it is entirely possible that the shorter, cheaper, unaccredited certificate is more rigorous than the longer, more expensive course claiming accreditation. It is also likely that the longer, more expensive, accredited course is, in fact, better. Or they could both be complete frauds. Or they could both be marginally O.K.

Taking each and every TEFL course to compare would answer the question, but no one needs (or can afford) to be TEFL-certified hundreds of times over. There is no convenient organization, such as U.S. News & World Report with American universities, ranking of TEFL certificates to tell us what the most prestigious, respected, quality programs are (fraught as rankings schemes are with their own problems). The TEFL industry has one or two known and respected names and labels. Beyond that, we have mainly the Google search results, which put some TEFL providers on the first page of results and all the others after that for reasons only the algorithm understands.

The Leadership Team at MY English School recently ploughed into this convoluted TEFL certificate puzzle. No, we didn’t take each and every course so that you wouldn’t have to and rank them. No, we haven’t even reviewed the majority of the courses you might find on the first page of your internet search results. What we have done is try to understand the field better so that, moving forward, we can make better decisions for our teachers and for our school.

Check back this week and next week on Wednesdays and Fridays. I will explore why MY chooses to require a TEFL certificate, three bright spots we found in the TEFL industry (and a lot of red flags to watch for), and how MY is handling TEFL certification going forward. Whether you are a teacher considering a TEFL certificate or a school owner weighing a TEFL certificate requirement, maybe some part of our experience will help you.

Part 1: The TEFL Problem
Part 2: Why TEFL?
Part 3: Three Bright Spots in the TEFL Industry (and a lot of red flags to watch for)
Part 4: Moving forward on MY’s TEFL certificate requirements

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Come Come, Really?

NHK’s Come Come Everybody doubles down on hundred years of largely failed English education, looking ahead to another hundred years of the same.

NHK wraps up this week its latest Asadora television drama series, Come Come Everybody. The story follows the lives of three generations of women in one family, starting in 1925, the year radio broadcasts started in Japan, and projecting forward to the present era. The serialized drama weaves together threads of English radio programs, jazz, anko sweet bean paste, baseball, and historical dramas over nearly a century to connect the individual and family experiences of Yasuko, Rui, and Hinata, a grandmother, mother, and daughter.

My wife and daughter have followed the Come Come Everybody series since it started last November, and I am sometimes pulled into watching with them. My wife recently commented that, during the final two or three weeks of the series, she has mostly stopped caring about the story. Too many melodramatic absurdities have made it difficult to stay interested. My wife’s breaking point was a professional jazz trumpet player switching to piano in middle age and becoming equally successful at the new instrument. Could it happen? A person might become proficient picking up a new instrument in his 40s or 50s, but at that professional level? I lack a strong background in music, and so I did not think much about this plot element. For my wife, her own experience with piano made this sudden transformation unbelievable.

For me, I gave up on realism in Come Come Everybody early in the series. Why? The show’s portrayal of English education.

English education myths

Come Come Everbody features the three heroines each learning English through radio programs as children. Each character presents a different relationship with English, but each communicates in English in critical moments during episodes of the drama.


The problem with Come Come Everybody‘s portrayal is that it credits radio programs for teaching English, even though the historical success of such programming is spotty at best. Can a child learn English from listening to a radio show? Possibly, a little, in some cases, if the radio program supplements deeper experience with English. Can a child have fun listening to a radio show? Undoubtedly. But learning English primarily or exclusively from a radio program? No. Children mastering English fluently enough from radio shows to communicate in complex situations? Not at all likely.

Come Come Everybody‘s portrayal of learning English through listening and translation taps into stubborn educational myths in Japan. NHK’s drama doubles down on these language myths by glamorizing outmoded and discredited teaching methodologies as if they still have value. Japan consistently sits at the bottom of international rankings for English ability and English education. Japan’s embrace of these harmful myths is a reason why.

Audio-lingualism and grammar-translation

In NHK’s drama, characters rely on a combination of audio-lingualism and grammar-translation to learn English. They listen to recordings of English and copy what they hear to produce language, while also using a dictionary to translate English into Japanese. In some episodes, characters use a modern audio-lingual variant, speech shadowing, in which they simultaneously shadow the recorded English while reading along on a script.

Audio-lingualism has historical roots early in the 20th century. In the early 1900s, new technologies allowed recorded spoken language and mass broadcasting. At the same time, linguists of the era were mounting efforts to record rapidly disappearing oral languages. Technology combined with societal and academic interests, which then filtered through the era’s prevailing behavioralist psychological theories. The resulting language teaching methodology focused heavily on listening to and imitating spoken language. It was, however, a theory rooted in many misconceptions about how the brain processes and learns language. For most people, audio-lingualism was never an effective, efficient, or sufficient method to learn languages.

Speech shadowing is a recent attempt to double down on the outmoded audio-lingualism of a century ago. Speech shadowing has gained some following in East Asian countries, particularly in small circles in Japan. However, the research in favor of speech shadowing for language learning has been decidedly underwhelming.


The grammar-translation method is rooted even deeper in history. This methodology was inherited from the 19th century, when Classical Latin and Greek were the two major languages taught in elite European universities. French, German, and English had become the primary languages for politics, science, and business, but Latin and Greek survived as relics of medieval and Renaissance education, despite neither language having any living native speakers. Latin and Greek were preserved in written texts, and so language learning involved reading classical texts and translating them into one’s native language.

For most of the world, grammar-translation faded as audio-lingualism took hold. The rise of structuralism in the mid-20th century then spelled the end for audio-lingualism as a widely accepted methodology. Constructivist theories of language and an emphasis on four-skills communicative language teaching have dominated foreign language teaching methods for decades.

Not for Japan.

Japan has slowly reformed textbooks and classes to timidly accept four-skills and communicative language approaches, but these reforms often feel like superficial efforts built on top of a foundation that is still solidly grammar-translation and audio-lingual. Why Japan has held so tightly to the grammar-translation and audio-lingual myths is curious. Grammar-translation was already losing relevance in the late-1800s, just as Japan opened itself to the world, but Japan’s technocrats and scholars were intent on copying elite European and American educational institutions. Audio-lingualism was the first “new” methodology to come along in the wake of the Meiji era’s aggressive internationalization. The history of English education in Japan can be summed up as embracing those two methods and never letting go.


From a historical perspective, Come Come Everybody is accurate in showing Japanese efforts to learn English through listening to dialogues on radio programs. Such programs had a huge effect popularizing English in Japan. That popularity, however, was to the detriment of English ability in Japan. Many people may have listened, formed fan clubs, and tried eikaiwa, but how many developed capable skills in English? NHK’s drama is unrealistic in pretending that such programming successfully produced capable English speakers.

The dramatic success of the characters Yasuko, Rui, and Hinata in learning English from radio programming promotes the myth that Japan’s English education methods can be successful. If a learner experiences setbacks, struggles, and failures, the solution is simply to work harder.

This myth saves face for the Japanese educational system. It saves face for NHK’s own educational programming. However, it flies in the face of everything I know about how language works and how people learn.

Even if a small handful of proactive individuals might improve some English skills from radio or television programming, the myth leads Japan to continue wasting time and resources on fruitless teaching methods. Ultimately, foreign language lessons on radio and television provide far more entertainment value than educational value.

The learning feedback cycle

Our brains construct language out of a need to use language. We learn from situations that require choices involving language and when that language has consequences. A hundred hours of radio programming provide less direct feedback to a learner than a single two-minute, face-to-face exchange.


The radio shows featured in Come Come Everybody or NHK’s long-running Eigo de Asobo children’s television show fail on a critical learning point. Such shows may gesture toward giving listeners and viewers interactive feedback, but they don’t. At best, programming offers superficial faux feedback. Feedback is imagined by what producers expect most people will do or say. Anyone whose language response is not what producers anticipated is probably left confused and frustrated. The success or failure of our communication attempts is confirmed by direct feedback from another speaker. The depth and complexity of that feedback are critical to learning.

Those who learn with radio or television programming typically use it no more than as a supplement. They engage and communicate heavily outside of radio or television programming. Effective learners create situations for themselves that produce learning feedback cycles. It’s not the radio or television programming that is successful, but the student.

Breaking tired, old myths for the future?

Sadly, far too many of the English success stories in Japan are about students finding success in spite of the education system. Japan is full of hard-working, dedicated people who want to help, but entrenched methods and myths stymie efforts. I have lost count of the number of public school teachers who have privately admitted to me that they hate the way that they teach and know it doesn’t work, but they feel constrained by the system from doing differently. The number of students who complain is even greater.

NHK’s vision for future English education is the most troubling element of the Come Come Everybody series. What will Japan’s English education look like in the Reiwa era? Come Come Everybody chooses to paint over a hundred years of failed English education. NHK could have written Come Come Everybody to show the struggles and failures of English education in Japan during the Showa and Heisei eras, with a hopeful vision for something better in the Reiwa era. They don’t. In one of the final episodes, Hinata, the youngest of the three heroines, dreams ahead twenty years in her future. Her vision? Producing a modern radio English program that is substantially unchanged from what her grandmother listened to.

In the drama, Hinata’s grandmother passed down a technique for making delicious anko by listening to the red beans and uttering a spell. Unchanged, the technique passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter. Tradition works well for anko. It fails for Japan’s English education. Japan’s education myths were not the product of success passed down over centuries. Japan picked up a broken methodology from the West at a specific moment a century ago without understanding the the tradition or context from which those methods came.

NHK’s Come Come Everybody doubles down on hundred years of largely failed English education, looking ahead to another hundred years of the same. From the perspective of an English educator, what could be more depressing?

Japan’s English education does not have to succumb to the vision that NHK paints at the finale of Come Come Everybody. However, with NHK continuing to program pernicious myths into viewers’ minds, Japan’s educators and learners face an uphill battle.

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Training the Teachers (Who Train Teachers)

Teachers who have been at MY for three, five, ten years or more and teachers who are in their first year at MY have very different training needs. The gap in knowledge and experience is significant, and many of MY’s training efforts are aimed at helping newer teachers close this gap with experienced teachers as quickly as possible.

Experienced teachers become teacher trainers, which offers many new challenges and room to grow. However, experienced teachers need training, too, and usually this training needs to follow a different format from what may best help newer teachers. Planning training sessions to meet the needs of both experienced and new teachers is a challenge.

The most effective way to eliminate the experience gap between new teachers and experienced teachers is to fire all the experienced teachers.

MY’s owner, Ryan, has sometimes joked that the most effective way to eliminate the experience gap between new teachers and experienced teachers is to fire all the experienced teachers. (MY isn’t going to do this.) MY typically adds at least two or three new teachers ever year, and so the experience gap is always with us.

At our August training day, experienced teachers enjoyed an opportunity to step back from training others and focus on our own professional development. What are we doing to develop ourselves professionally? What more can we (or should we) be doing? I invited the teachers to complete this survey of their professional development during the past year.

What stood out to me from our training session is how diverse the experiences of MY’s teachers are. As we discussed what activities we have done in the past year that we think we will still regard as memorable and significant to our professional development five years from now, every teacher listed a different activity.

MY gives so many out-of-classroom opportunities to our teachers that this is not surprising. A teacher involved in developing curriculum grows in different ways from a teacher involved in hiring, software development, leadership, or management. What impressed me from this training session is that there is no one-size-fits-all training for experienced teachers. The more we pursue diverse interests and opportunities, the more diverse our professional development needs to be.

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Fatigue & Recovery

Learners & teachers share the fight against fatigue in language classrooms

Why do some people give up when other people persist?

For a language teacher, this is an important question. The answer to it can help shape how we teach. Teachers need to grow resilient students who struggle through challenges.

For teachers, too, on a personal level, we can burn out. Knowing how to battle teaching fatigue is critical for teachers to remain motivated in our profession.

For a language school, this is also an important question. Students who quit after one or two years severely limit a school’s growth compared to students who continue with lessons six, eight, ten years or more.

From a management perspective, as well, employees who quit because of fatigue hurt the school’s ability to grow a professional, experienced staff. Teacher turnover at language schools tends to be exceptionally high. We want people to leave jobs for the right reasons–when they find new opportunities to grow–not because of work fatigue. If a school can keep teachers an average of even one or two years longer than they otherwise would, the gains in quality and productivity and savings in hiring costs are tremendous.

For language learners, too, why some learners give up is an important question. Most people have started a new task with a great deal of energy, but then burned out and quit after a short time. How can we better regulate our efforts to persist and grow over a long period?

A new study published in Nature Communications from researchers at the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford may help teachers and learners better understand how fatigue affects motivation.

The researchers matched up people’s willingness to persist in a physical task that earned rewards with brain activity on fMRI scans to show how motivation and fatigue fluctuate moment by moment. The researchers observed two states of fatigue occurring in separate parts of the brain. Short-term, recoverable fatigue builds after we exert effort, but it can be reduced with rest. Long-term, unrecoverable fatigue builds gradually with work, and it does not go away with short rests.

How does this help language learners and teachers?

There may be some differences in the fatigue felt from a physical task and the mental tasks of language learning or teaching. However, the stresses of language learning and teaching parallel the tiredness of muscles in many respects. There is a lot for language learners and teachers to glean from and reflect upon in this research:

  • Pacing and setting appropriate challenges is critical. Doing the same activity again and again for very long can leave the body and brain tired. Trying to do too much all at once can produce frustration. We need to pace our students and ourselves with appropriate challenges that spark motivation without building debilitating fatigue.

  • We need variety. Between challenges, we need frequent short rests. This rest might be something as simple as a relatively easy, unrelated distractor task to let the brain reset. We sometimes also need vacations to help prevent long-term fatigue from building up.

  • How we use rewards can make a difference. One aspect of fatigue that the researchers did not explore was loss of interest in the reward. How often were test subjects giving up, not because they physically couldn’t do the task anymore, but because the reward had become boring and insignificant? Receiving the same reward over and over can lead to a loss in motivation. I often see this in games with students–when each success earns exactly one point, students give up on the game quickly. When success earns a chance at a random number of points, students stay much more interested.

  • Meaningful tasks are better motivators than artificial rewards. The researchers did not measure the intrinsic value that participants felt toward the task. Squeezing a dynamometer is, on its own, not especially engaging. If there were no reward, would anyone have found value in gripping the meter tightly? Gripping a dynamometer carries no consequence…compared, say, to gripping a rope with a person’s life hanging in the balance.

People will sometimes invent meaning for themselves. If put into a group, some might motivate themselves by transforming the gripping task into a competition. Once the strongest grip was determined? This motivation would be at an end. Individually, a person desiring more grip strength might persist with the task as exercise, especially if the dynamometer could measure improvement over time. However, for most people, gripping a meter for a few seconds and releasing does not carry the feeling of having accomplished anything important.

Menial tasks that do not grow or build anything, that lack value outside of artificial rewards, are ideal breeding grounds for fatigue. Language taught in meaningful contexts, with fitting risks and rewards for failures and successes, will always sustain motivation better than drills or even than games that rip language out of context.

Students and teachers share a need for meaningful challenges. We share a need for agency. We likewise need supportive environments that create opportunities for us and ensure us time to rest.

Nobody stays motivated for very long with small, repetitive challenges, especially if the task lacks intrinsic value. We can trick our brains with artificial rewards only for so long. To stay motivated, we occasionally need difficult, novel challenges, and we need tasks with meaningful consequences.

A profound sense of accomplishment can grow out of a difficult, worthwhile challenge. Desire for accomplishment can generate persistence far beyond any reward. Desire won’t stave off fatigue, but it can help us cope and overcome fatigue until we reach a well-earned rest.

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A mother yesterday asked an advisor at MY an odd question:

My daughter keeps saying, ‘Ah-peh-ne,’ after eating. I think she’s saying something in English. Do you know what she means?

Stumped, the advisor passed the question to me.

The three-year-old girl has recently had exposure to English through our immersion kindergarten, so it would make sense that she is trying to express something in English, but “Ah-peh-ne”?

Ah-peh-ne? Is that even English?

In my head, I started trying to peel back the layers of phonology, morphology, syntax, and context that intersect in early language acquisition.

Ah-peh-ne? Does that sound like any phrase in English? Nothing sprang to mind.

Break down the sounds. Are these separate words? Do they combine into one or more multi-syllable words? Which sounds is the three-year-old pronouncing correctly? Which sounds is she pronouncing incorrectly? Which sounds is she failing to pronounce? Still nothing.

What do kids typically say at the immersion kindergarten when they are done eating lunch? Ah-hah! My daughter also attended the immersion kindergarten some years ago. This context gave me the hint to what was happening with the child’s phonology and morphology. It took thirty seconds of fumbling to find an answer, but the puzzle pieces had fallen into place.

Ah-peh-ne. I’m finished.

That’s what the girl was saying. It’s what the immersion kindergarten kids are taught to say after lunch. The sounds and syllables match up:


The girl was missing the “m” sound in “I’m.” The “p” and “f” sounds are distinguished by one small change in lip position. She dropped the final “sh” and “-ed” sounds. But despite the missing and undeveloped sounds, “I’m finished” is undoubtedly what the girl was saying.

All this girl needs is a little mirroring with the correct pronunciation from her mother or other English speakers, and those small pronunciation mistakes will disappear.

This small moment reiterated to me why we use context and phonics as language teaching foundations at MY.

Without the context that this child said “Ah-peh-ne” after eating meals, the linguistic puzzle would have been almost impossible to solve. Speakers can make all manner of mistakes with language, but we can still be understood because context drives meaning.

Phonics is a useful tool because the phonics teaching method mimics how we develop the sounds of a language from a young age. Children under the age of five are still developing the basic sounds of their native languages. They misprounounce a lot. Little-by-little, through trial and error, with the exercise of muscles when speaking, phonology eventually works itself out for native speakers. For language students without a native background and with limited exposure to a foreign language with radically different phonology, they need targeted exposure to the basic phonemes before they can effectively morph those phonemes into intelligible words and phrases.

Thanks to this three-year-old girl and her mother for giving me a refresher course in how we teach!

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