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Things to Know About CELTA Courses

Anyone in the world of ESL teaching has probably heard of the CELTA before. It’s one of the most-listed requirements for many employers when you’re seeking an English language teaching job. My teaching experience up until now was done based off an online TEFL course. But with all this extra free time in lockdown, and the saturated online teaching market due to Covid, I figured I may as well go for the CELTA (even though I don’t intend to teach long term). I opted for the part-time version, which took 12 weeks (full time is 4 weeks), and I did it online rather than in-person. I finished and got my results a week or so ago – I passed, hooray! So, I thought I’d share some of my experiences and the important things to know about CELTA courses, for anyone else interested.

What’s involved?

 Alright, so for those who have made it this far but are wondering what exactly is the CELTA? It’s the Cambridge Certificate for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge English officially award it, but language schools all over the world lead the course and train teachers. I found mine with a simple online search, and compared a few options before choosing one that looked reputable, and had the times and dates available that suited me best.

It’s specifically for teaching adults, though there is some mention of the differences in teaching young learners. It’s also aimed at both brand new teachers and those who’ve taught before. With my TEFL and 2 years experience, I had a head-start, whereas the other two trainees in my practice group had never taught before. You also don’t have to be a native speaker to do it, but you do have to be at least C1 level if it’s your second language. They’ll check this in your application and interview for getting on to the course in the first place.

 A big part of the course is obviously learning the methodology of teaching English. We did this in the form of online, self-study course units, which took a few hours to do each week, at any time we wanted. An actual tutor would teach this in the classroom for the face-to-face courses. Then there’s also 6 hours of observing experienced teachers, which we did as a combination of watching our tutors teach live on Zoom and pre-recorded classroom videos. There are four written assignments to be completed, each one around 1000 words.

And of course, the most daunting part for most people, 6 hours of assessed teaching practice. This is with real adult learners, which we did once a week online, in nine 40-minute sessions. I did this part alongside two other trainees, so we all watched each other teach. Afterwards, our tutor and each other would give feedback. Then, we’d get help planning our next lesson for the following week.

It’s a lot of work

 Now, if that description above sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. This is a thing need to know about CELTA before starting, because it’s no joke. To the extent that you literally have to tick a box acknowledging the workload when you sign the course agreement and pay your deposit. Now I did the part-time course, which spreads this workload over 12 weeks, and I had a full week to plan each lesson. I should also point out now that you have to submit formal lesson plans and your teaching materials to your tutor before each class, then a self-assessment afterwards.

The full-time, 4 week course is naturally even more intense, and from what I’ve heard, it takes over your whole life. You spend your evenings and weekends on the lesson plans and the written assignments. It’s also not something you can do while working at the same time; the part time course exists for those people who don’t have a month to spare off work. I’m not highlighting this to scare people off, I’m doing so for the same reason that the centres do; to prepare you. It made sense for me to do it now, when I’m only working part-time hours and lockdown has killed my social life. Not everyone will be in the same situation of course, but you definitely need to make sure you have time available.

Take it a day / week at a time

My biggest piece of advice though, is don’t be too daunted at the get-go. First of all, you have to complete an application form, initial task and interview to get on the course in the first place. They do this so they only accept candidates they believe are capable of passing it. So if you’ve been accepted, then you can do this! However, on the day I received all the materials and information, I definitely freaked out completely about how much there was to do. But once I actually got started and spread it out over the 12 weeks, it became a lot more manageable.

I think I spent about 8-9 hours per week studying, which included the course units, the written assignments, and the lesson plans. Plus there was the 4 hour Zoom session with our teaching practice, feedback, and help planning each week. So focus on one week or one day at a time, and only on what you need to do then. Don’t get too caught up on what’s to be done further down the line. The 12 weeks also passed surprisingly quickly, and I was startled when the end arrived!

You start teaching straight away

Yep, that’s probably the scariest part of the whole course. You have to teach lessons by yourself from either day or week two (depending on whether you do it full or part time). It is daunting, but after the first couple classes, most people relax into it a bit more. And as I mentioned already, you get help planning your lesson from your tutor, so it’s not like you’re thrown in with no guidance whatsoever. It’s very much a learning-by-doing course, as you can study the methodology all day long, but still forget it when you actually have to start teaching. So, by practising on the course, by the end of it, you’re far more likely to be remembering all the little things you should do while teaching. Plus, it’ll make your first lesson in an actual teaching less scary, since you’ve already done it before.

The students we taught were also super nice, and they know that it’s trainees teaching them, so they’re very patient and forgiving if you do mess up a little! My fellow trainees were also super supportive, and we praised each other loads in feedback. We also had a group thread for talking and helping each other out in-between classes. You are allowed to help each other by the way, and ask your tutor for help at any time! You don’t have to do everything completely alone!

You’re graded ‘to standard’

Now that’s the other important thing you need to know about CELTA teaching practices; you get one ungraded class, then your tutor assesses all of them after that. The CELTA doesn’t have any type of final exam; your teaching practices and the written assignments determine your grade. Obviously, this makes it even more nerve-racking, especially in the first week or two. The good news though, is you’re only graded ‘to standard’ (you can be below, to, or above). Which means, of course, they don’t expect a flawless lesson in the first week. It just has to be good enough for that stage of the course, and the ‘standard’ gets a bit higher with each subsequent teaching practice session.

If you’re below standard every time, then you’ll likely not pass the course, but you get tonnes of help and guidance from your tutor. Plus, you have to pass an initial assessment and interview to be allowed to take the course in the first place, so only a tiny percentage of people don’t pass. But as long as you’re to standard, then you’ll pass just fine! Above standard means you might finish with a Pass A or Pass B, which is just a nice bonus.

Remember, it’s an entry-level course, designed for people who’ve never taught before, so they don’t expect you to know everything straight away. Also, if you do it online like me, your computer abilities don’t affect your grade. You need to have some degree of computer literacy and a decent internet connection, but you won’t lose marks if your internet freezes or you click the wrong thing!

You have to teach two levels

I think my least favourite week of the course (other than the first nerve-racking teaching practice), was when we switched levels. For the first seven weeks, we were with the same tutor and class of students (one week observation, then the ungraded practice, then five assessed practices). So by that point we had all gotten familiar with our students and felt a lot more comfortable and relaxed when teaching. But the CELTA requires you to teach two different learner levels, which in my case ended up being Upper Intermediate (B2) and Pre-Intermediate (A2).

So, for the last five weeks we had a new tutor and a whole new class of students to get used to. The first week was another observation though, so we could start to get to know their personalities. Our tutor gave us a little time to chat to the students afterwards too, before we actually had to teach the next week. But you could tell we were all a little nervous again, even though we were halfway through the course by then! Thankfully, like our first group, the students were all super nice and very understanding with us.

You can resubmit assignments

So I haven’t mentioned the assignments much so far, the four written works, each about 1000 words. For the full time course, you complete one each week I believe, whereas we did ours every two weeks. The instructions for them are very clear, so you know exactly what you have to do. You can also ask your tutor and the other trainees plenty of questions as you complete them. The tutors mark them as a simple pass or fail, but if you fail the first attempt, you can resubmit each assignment once. Your tutor gives you very clear guidance about what you need to change as well. It makes no difference to whether or not you pass the whole course, even if you have to resubmit all four of them.

However, if you fail two of them on the second attempt, then you can’t pass the whole course – one fail is fine though! So it does take some of the pressure off, knowing that you get that second chance if you need it.

They don’t teach you grammar

Yep, the CELTA teaches you how to teach, but it doesn’t teach you about how the English language works. This is where I felt the non-native speaker trainees had a slight advantage, as they had to learn English grammar rules when they first learned to speak English. Whereas the native speakers among us probably learned what a noun and a verb was at school, but not much more than that. But you need to understand the grammar in order to teach it, and the course doesn’t cover this itself.

My course gave us access to a self-study grammar module we could complete before the actual course started if we wanted, plus online access to several grammar books. Definitely make use of those when lesson planning, and see what the course book you’re using says as well. Don’t try to guess or make it up! I certainly found it helpful to do some grammar study before the course began. My previous teaching experience was with kindergarteners, who weren’t at a level to be learning formal grammar yet! But then I still had to research each grammar point I taught much more in depth before the lesson. If you can invest some time into grammar study though, it will make the rest of the course a little bit easier.

All in all…

So that’s the things you need to know about CELTA, in my opinion, and hopefully some helpful tips for completing it. All in all, I would say that yes, it is hard work and fairly time-consuming, so you need to be prepared for that and the stress that comes along with it. But you aren’t expected to be perfect from the get-go, and you have a lot of support from your tutor and fellow trainees. They didn’t design an impossible course, so it is absolutely achievable, just take it a day at a time.

Please feel free to share any other tips or experiences, or ask any other questions about the course in the comments below!