I’ve talked to many Singaporeans regarding TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) or teaching ESL (English as a Second Language). People have asked me what the state of the TESOL industry is like in Singapore and especially where is a good place to get a TESOL certificate. So I thought I’d do a series of posts that would hopefully answer some frequently asked questions. Because this is an industry I’m quite passionate about, I’m interested to connect with other Singaporeans (or otherwise) involved in or looking into this industry/career in Singapore – so please feel free to email me at idealist at stillhaventfound.org to further our conversation. I’m especially keen to link up with Christians considering this industry for missions or for reaching out to migrants (students or workers) in Singapore.
TESOL stands for “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages”. It is the general term used when talking about teaching English to people whose first language is not English. Other similar terms include TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) and TEFL (…Foreign Language) and ELT (English Language Teaching). For the numerous acronyms used in this industry, see this Wikipedia entry. Some people say TOEFL when they actually mean TESOL. TOEFL is the “Test Of English as a Foreign Language”. This is a test, not a career field or industry as TESOL is.
Past blog posts on TESOL
I’ve actually written 7 previous blog posts touching on the TESOL scene in Singapore. Below are three worth reading if you’re interested in this area:
1) When education becomes a business: Here I bitch and rant (one of the few times I do so on this blog) about an up and coming private school I taught in that’s extremely money-minded and has an awful ESL department.
2) The TESOL scene in Singapore: About the low standards in the TESOL industry in Singapore.
3) Reaching International Students in Singapore: A bit about the private education sector in Singapore and also about Christians reaching international students here.
My experience in the TESOL industry
I had my first teaching experience in Bogotá, Colombia in South America in 2003 through an AIESEC work exchange. It wasn’t quite a good one because as a native English speaker they thought I knew how to teach ESL when I actually didn’t! Speaking English fluently doesn’t mean you can teach it well! But they were so desperate (few tourists or foreigners go to this country, once the kidnapping/murder capital of the world) that they made me do things related to English teaching I could never do as a mere English speaker.
I considered taking the University of Cambridge CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) before going to Colombia, but didn’t eventually. However, in 2007, I finally took my CELTA in Perth, Australia. There, I taught ESL voluntarily in a church, getting to know many Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese on Working-Holiday Visas. I returned to Singapore and taught in four private schools till 2009. I won’t mention names but two were small language schools and the two others were bigger (that offered both English and external degrees) and quite reputable schools – one of which I mentioned above and the other of which was the total opposite with great teachers, bosses and a great English department. I’ve also given tuition to many foreign students and adults and since May last year I’ve been teaching a free English class at YMCA weekly (2009) and bimonthly (2010) – this class is open to international students from any school.
I’m no longer teaching ESL full-time now in a school (though I’m still volunteering at YMCA twice a month) even though I still have a lot of interest in this industry. I’m almost halfway through a distance Masters of Education (TESOL) from an Australian University, though I’m not sure if I want to finish it off (I don’t have time and I don’t find a theoretical-based masters helps me to be a better ESL teacher). I’m still very involved in the international students scene in Singapore and while I don’t foresee myself going back to teaching full-time, I will still do voluntary or paid teaching and I may start an ESL school in Singapore or teach overseas as a tent-making missionary in future.
While I don’t have a whole lot of experience above (I don’t have 5 or 10 years of ESL teaching experience), I think I’ve been interested enough to find out information and get familiar with this industry to provide some perspective. When I get into something, I tend to go all out. And I did so for the TESOL industry for about 2 years. I probably have one of the largest TESOL book libraries of a teacher in Singapore!
Introduction to international students and the private education industry in Singapore
It’s only been in the past 5-10 years that you’ve gotten many foreigners (both students and workers) coming to Singapore. In 2002, Singapore initiated its Global Schoolhouse project, which aims to attract 150,000 international students to Singapore by 2015. We’re probably at around the 100,000 mark or slightly under. About 65% of international students study in private schools, while 35% study in public ones (like the public universities, polytechnics and mainstream schools like primary schools, secondary schools and junior colleges). The private education industry for foreigners is thus only going to get bigger as more students are being attracted to Singapore by our government.
It’s important to understand the private education sector here not only because most international students study in this sector but also because most ESL teaching is done in this sector. Private education for foreigners in Singapore isn’t something that’s very established – that’s why you’ve had a lot of controversies happening in the private education sector the last few years. This is because the government hasn’t understood how to control the industry well enough simply because this whole private education industry hasn’t been hugely active for very long. Only in the past few years have things been really picking up and so now you have the newly formed Council for Private Education (only established late last year) and other regulatory systems established by it to better regulate the private education industry.
An introduction to the TESOL industry in Singapore
With regards to the TESOL industry here, as I mentioned in a previous post on the TESOL scene in Singapore, a country like Australia has a national ELT (English Language Teaching) accreditation scheme to maintain TESOL standards in Australia. Singapore is not yet up to that level because the TESOL industry here isn’t as developed yet. Currently, as far as I know (I may be wrong, but I don’t think so), the four criteria I mentioned in the above post regarding TESOL academic management, teachers, teacher professional development and program delivery are not dealt with sufficiently or at all under the new Edutrust Certification Scheme or the Enhanced Registration Framework (ERF) – see the Council for Private Education website for more information about these. That’s because these standards are meant to be general and not specific to any field of teaching. But I think it’s only a matter of time before the government or at least a group of private schools involved in ESL teaching start an organization or accreditation scheme that will ensure the TESOL industry maintains good standards.
Overall, the TESOL standard is still very low in Singapore. This means at least two things. Firstly, it’s easier to be an ESL teacher in Singapore than in English-speaking countries with more developed TESOL industries like Australia, the UK, America and Canada. Which also means that many ESL teachers in Singapore probably wouldn’t be qualified to teach in those countries. Secondly, low standards also mean that students suffer because of less qualified teachers with less experienced bosses, little or no professional development for teachers and huge classes. These two things are important to consider when considering moving into the TESOL industry – I’ll touch on more of this in subsequent posts.
So this is the reality. This is not to say that the government totally sucks for not ensuring better standards. Yes, Singaporeans are proud of the fact that our education system is one of the best in the world and we should expect our TESOL industry to be one of the best in the world too. But to be fair, we are new in this industry. We’ve not been traditionally strong in this area and for good reason – as a nation we don’t exactly speak good English and Singapore is not one of the names on people’s minds when they think of a country to study English in. The fact that we’re behind in this field is thus understandable.
I think that in our desire to quickly establish ourselves as an education hub in the region, the government didn’t want to be too rigid with their private education regulations simply because it’ll limit the growth of private schools. There was a trade-off then. But now, they realize that continual growth of the private education industry requires stricter standards because too many schools have been closing down in recent years and this has been giving us a bad reputation. There’s now more regulation in the private education industry and eventually there will be more regulation of the TESOL industry. I think the TESOL industry is a hugely important part of the private education industry because most foreign students who study in private schools would need to take probably an average of 6 months of ESL lessons before starting their actual diploma/degree program.
In the next post in this series, I’ll share my thoughts on the various TESOL certifications available in Singapore – and which ones I’ll recommend for which purposes.