24th May 2016

How to succeed on your CertTESOL

By James Pengelley

Looking at taking a CertTESOL in Hong Kong as an entry point into the ESL industry? Perhaps you’re already an experienced teacher looking for a formal English language teaching qualification. Or maybe you’re interested in registering as a primary NET teacher in Hong Kong? The CertTESOL is one of two internationally recognized and independently accredited courses (the other being CELTA) recognized and accepted by the British Council, and is recognized by the Hong Kong EDB for registration on the NET scheme.

You may have heard rumours that the CertTESOL (or the CELTA, for that matter) is very intense. This is certainly true – but that shouldn’t put you off from taking the course. In fact, one of the reasons the course is so rewarding is specifically because it challenges people in ways they aren’t expecting. At the end of the day, nobody is guaranteed to pass the course, nor does everybody do equally well – this may leave you wondering what the key to success is, then. So, our team of teacher trainers have put together a list of top tips for success on the CertTESOL.


The CertTESOL is comprised of 6 assignments: the unknown language journal (ULJ), guided observation journal (GOJ), learner profile (LP), teaching practice portfolio (TPP), language awareness exam (LA) and materials assignment (MA).  A common feature of these assignments is reflection, where you’ll be asked to comment on what you have gained as a result of completing the assignment. This is a process that many trainees are not familiar with, as many people see this as an opportunity to criticize themselves, where in reality, effective reflection requires a discussion of both strengths and weaknesses.

Tip #1: Always start by focusing on the things you enjoyed or have done well. For the areas you feel need improvement, set yourself a clear goal or mini action plan to implement or adapt an idea in your own teaching. Try to be as specific as possible – “I will try to do this in my next lesson” is rather vague when compared to “I’d like to try planning my board work using different colours for my next TP to improve the clarity of my presentation of new language”

Another difficulty many trainees experience with their assignments is the level of critical analysis of what they observe or notice during teaching lessons or observing others. This means that when writing assignments, many people simply offer superficial descriptions of what they saw, rather than elaborations on why these things occurred, or what the effects of these were. 

In addition, an essential feature of the CertTESOL that is it a very practical course (i.e. your trainers want to see you apply concepts, and act on suggestions in the classroom). This is reflected in the written assignments, where a key component of assessment criteria of the teaching reflections, GOJ and UNL reflections is that trainees compare what they see/do on the course to previous learning/teaching experiences, and give concrete examples of how and why they might apply new ideas to their future lessons. Including these features in your reflective journals will ensure you include essential details to enhance the effectiveness of your reflections and make it clear to your trainers that you’re really trying to process and apply the content of the course. Keep in mind that the practical component of the course is also what makes it so challenging for many people, and what makes courses like CertTESOL unique from generic online TEFL qualifications.

Tip #2: For each observation your make in your journals, try to analyse each comment by mentioning the reasons it happened, and its effects. You might also like to include “personal aims” with each main and sub aim you write for your lesson plans. This makes it clear to your trainers that you’re taking on board the feedback after each TP, and can give you clear, concrete goals to work towards to improve your teaching.


One of the key skills you’ll need in order to be an effective teacher is to work within a team. Imagine yourself as a part of a larger staff room – it’s not uncommon for larger schools to employ more than 100 teachers. In what ways might you be able to find support, or get support from the people you work with?

On the CertTESOL you will be expected to teach some of your lessons in a team (that is, each person in your group teachers one part, or one stage of the same lesson). On top of this, relying only on your tutors for help and input on assignments may cause you difficulties as your trainers often have to support groups of 12 to 15 trainees, and so the amount of time they have for each individual is limited. In addition, you are also assessed on how you participate in feedback on your own teaching, and also on the teaching of the fellow trainees you observe during the course.

As you can see, active participation in the course is not only expected, but will enhance your experience and, ultimately, the opportunities for getting the most out of the course. However, remember that everyone on your course will be feeling the pressure to different extents at different points on the course, so be gentle with each other.

Tip #3: Try running questions by your peers before running to your trainers for help. You may find that other trainees also turn to you for help, which gives you the opportunity to clarify areas of confusion. When giving feedback on your peers’ teaching, try starting with phrases like “I really enjoyed…” or “I’d like to try ______ in my lessons but I wondered why you…..”

Managing the workload

One of the key determining factors of success on the CertTESOL is time management. On the full-time (4-week) course, you’ll have 6 assignments to complete (including 9 lessons to teach) in only four weeks. While officially, you may be at your training centre from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, you’ll also need talk to your trainers to get ideas for your next teaching practice and get feedback on aspects of your written work. In practice, this might mean you don’t get home until 6:00, or 6:30. On average, it takes most trainees between 3 and 5 hours to complete each lesson plan. Add on to this 2 or 3 hours of assignment work and study each night and it’s easy to see that you may well be in for a few late nights during your course.

Tip #4: Use a diary, or visual planner so you know exactly what you need to do each week. Do a little bit of your assignment work every night (don’t fall behind on your journals!), and start your learner profile early – this will take up a lot of your time in weeks 3 and 4. Some of the most efficient trainees also tend to use their time travelling home on the bus or train to write a brief lesson plan outline so that when they get home, they are ready to start writing! Of course, you’ll also want to talk to your family, and ensure they’re aware of the time commitment you’re making – and that you have time and space at home to do work at the end of the day!

Language awareness

The most common question I get asked about my job is “how can you teach English if you don’t speak your students’ language?”. The assumption behind much of the methodology on the CertTESOL is that, as a proficient user of English, I will be able to answer my students’ questions using English only – and it is on the course that you learn how to do this in a way the students can understand with their limited knowledge of English.

In reality, many people come to the course having never studied English grammar or phonology (in fact, those whose first language isn’t English often do better on the course in this area because they’ve had to learn it first-hand!). This means that when it’s your turn to teach (and eventually clarify those curly questions) certain aspects of grammar, phonology, vocabulary or skills, you’ll be expected to do some research and familiarize yourself with the content before you teach it – and this is harder than it may sound, especially when you’re tired, and working under the pressure of 2 or 3 looming assignments! In this scenario, some trainees turn to websites and information online – and this can have very unpredictable results.

Each centre is required to send you a pre-course task, or starter pack, to give you the best chance of hitting the ground running at the start of the course, and this should also include a recommended reading list. But with so much to learn, how do you choose where to start?

Given that language awareness is a common area of concern for many trainees – here are a few books that might help give you more confidence before your course starts. We also recommend working on language awareness because, ultimately, as a graduate you will be a language teacher and, to an extent, it is your job to know about the content you teach. Scott Thornbury has written about the benefits of why it’s important for language teachers to know about language, though he also warns that this in itself is not the defining feature of an effective language teacher.

However, by giving yourself a running start on developing your language awareness, you’ll be better prepared for the language awareness exam and more importantly, you’ll be well on the way to improving one important aspect of your teaching. Having your own copy means you’ll also have a reference at home for those late-night lesson planning sessions, and won’t have to resort to unpredictable online research.

Tip #5: Consider buying one of the following books and working through it before your course:

  • (Language) Grammar for English Language Teachers – Martin Parrott

  • (Phonology) Sound Foundations – Adrian Underhill

Have you taken the CertTESOL?  What top tips would you give your friends?

If you'd like to know more about the CertTESOL, join one of our upcoming CertTESOL taster sessions.