Degree Program Options

For anyone interested in teaching English as a second language, there are several degree paths available. Each path is unique and can receive financing through scholarships and grants, All of these degree paths will prepare students for a career in teaching English to non-native speakers. In addition to a bachelor’s and/or masters, many English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers receive an ESL certification. While a certification is not required in all states, many employers prefer teachers who have it.

There are several acronyms used in the ESL community that are also used by colleges and universities. If you’re having a difficult time finding an ESL degree, try searching for TESOL, TESL, TEFL, ESOL, and ELL programs. We’ve provided a breakdown of what all of these acronyms mean.

You can also use the links below to learn more about ESL and the degree programs offered in this field:

Why Earn a Master’s Degree in ESL

Many ESL teachers pursue a master’s degree because it can increase your salary potential and open up exciting career opportunities. A master’s degree will allow you to teach at the university level, and increase your chances of being hired to teach internationally. After completing a bachelor’s program, a master’s program usually takes an additional two years to finish. This time commitment can vary depending on the program.

There are several different types of master’s degree programs, but most of them fall into either a Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Science (MS) category. A MA typically refers to those who have studied a humanities-related subject like English, linguistics, communication, international relations, teaching, or philosophy. A MS degree covers subjects that are related to math and science. Students who have obtained a master’s degree are highly educated in their chosen area of study, and are usually qualified to teach in the field of their master’s degree. TESOL students can choose between any of these degree paths that are equal in quality, but differ in how the program prepares a future teacher for accomplishing their specific goals in teaching ESL:

  • Master’s in Teaching (MAT)
  • Master’s in Education (MEd)
  • Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA in TESOL)

Master’s in Teaching (MAT)

Students in a MAT degree program will learn about the foundations of teaching and various learning styles of a specific subject like art, math, or ESL. Once you have completed a MAT program, you will need to research what your state’s requirements are for obtaining a teaching certification. A MAT is a great option for ESL students, since it can allow them to hone in on the teaching aspects of an ESL career.

Here are a few subjects you can expect to see in a MAT program:

  • Culture and Linguistics – This type of class will give students a better understanding how how culture and language interact and affect the learning process.
  • Curriculum and Instruction – Knowing how to create and implement lesson plans are essential skills that an effective teacher must possess.
  • Fieldwork – Gaining hands-on teaching experience in a classroom setting will help you prepare for your career and establish your teaching style with supervision.

Master’s in Education (MEd)

This is different from a MAT in that a MEd does not focus on teaching a specific subject, but rather it focuses on theories and principles used in education as whole. TESL students can benefit from a MEd because it can prepare them for the students that they will be teaching who will inevitably have varied learning styles. Many colleges and universities that offer a MEd program will allow students to also pick a concentration. There are many concentrations that a student can pursue in a MEd program such as:

  • Elementary Education
  • Secondary Education
  • Post-Secondary Education
  • Special Education
  • Language Learning Education/ESL

Like a MAT, you will need to research your state’s requirements for certification, and you may be required to gain fieldwork experience as part of your MEd program. The curriculum will vary, since students can pursue a MEd with a concentration in different age groups and learning abilities. Generally speaking, these are some subjects you can look forward to in a MEd program:

  • Theoretical Teaching Foundations – There’s more than one way to teach, and it is important to understand and implement the ones that work best for you and your students.
  • Leadership – As the teacher, you should be in control of the classroom in order to effectively lead and motivate your ESL learners through the materials.
  • Classroom Learning Tools – In addition to the tried and true tools, this class can cover how technology has provided myriad educational opportunities. We have also compiled an extensive guide to apps for learning English as a second language that you could become familiar with and use in your classroom.

Another track that is sometimes available for master’s level ESL programs is the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) program. This advanced degree is geared towards students who are looking to go overseas for work, primarily to work with adult learners. Classes sometimes include:

  • Language and Society
  • Second Language Acquisition
  • Assessment of Adult ELL

Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA in TESOL)

This degree path is most closely related to a ESL master’s degree, and will prepare you to teach English to adults and children in the United States and internationally. You will learn how to construct a curriculum and be taught teaching and learning fundamentals as it relates to the ESL field. Like a MAT and MEd, obtaining fieldwork experience during your studies and a certification upon graduation may be required.

A MA in TESOL will allow you to teach in a variety of educational settings like community colleges, universities, adult education programs, elementary and secondary schools, and private language schools. While the titles may vary depending on the college/university, these are several of the courses you will likely be required to take in order to obtain your MA in TESOL:

  • Linguistic Principles and Analysis – You will learn about the science of language and analyze the phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics of English as it compares to other languages.
  • Language Acquisition – Knowing how and when we are able to learn language is beneficial in teaching English to children as well as instructing adults in a way that is naturally understood.
  • Teaching Pronunciation – One of the hardest parts of learning a new language is using correct pronunciation. Knowing the physical process of how we make sounds will allow you better to instruct others on the pronunciation of English words.

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Bachelor Degree Programs

A baccalaureate degree typically takes four years to complete and is designed to give students broad overview of English as a second language. Ideally, TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) students will pursue a bachelor’s degree in either English, education, linguistics, or any of the ESL-related acronyms, but students can enter an ESL-related master’s program regardless of what their bachelor’s is in. However, students should know that if their bachelor’s degree is not related to TESL that they may need to take additional classes later on and will likely need a certification too in order to enter a master’s degree program and be able to have a career teaching ESL.

A bachelor’s degree will best prepare you for both a graduate student and a career. As previously mentioned, a bachelor’s degree in TESOL is typically completed in four years, with at least two of those years dedicated to learning about the TESOL profession. The following subjects are commonly taught at the bachelor degree level, although the actual title of the course may vary depending on the educational institution:

  • Introduction to Linguistics – You’ll learn about the fundamental principles of speech sounds, and word and sentence structure. You’ll also be introduced to various theories that deal with how languages and cultures interact.
  • English Language Teaching – This type of course will instruct you on several types of teaching theories and procedures as they relate to teaching English. Colleges and universities may break this down into several different courses, and each will instruct you on how to teach grammar, reading, and writing.
  • ESL Culture – By being able to recognize and analyze the plethora of cultures you will come across as an ESL teacher, you will be able to construct and facilitate a lesson plan that your students can follow.

Many bachelor degree programs require or strongly recommend that students complete an internship related to their intended career. This gives students networking opportunities and hands-on experience in a structured learning environment that may ultimately translate into a permanent job in the future. Networking can happen anytime and anywhere. You may even be able to find your next internship or job by connecting with these ESL and TESOL Twitter accounts.

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Graduate Certificates and Doctorate Degrees

In addition to bachelor’s and master’s degrees, graduate certificates and doctoral degrees are also available. Both options prepare graduates to work with English language learners, but at different education levels. See below to learn more:

Graduate Certificates

A graduate certificate in ESL is an add-on to an existing master’s or bachelor’s degree. It is not a whole degrees worth of classes, but an intense and shortened program meant to teach additional information and act as a further endorsement in your education. These classes compliment a teacher’s knowledge and help to give a cultural understanding of some issues involved with teaching ESL. Some certificate programs include advanced teaching tactics like:

  • ESL Grammar
  • Cultural Issues in ESL
  • Issues in Second Language Reading and Writing
  • Techniques in English as a Foreign Language

These additional skills can be helpful when working in any ESL work environment. While traditional teaching and educational skills are, of course, important and necessary, there are always cultural concerns to consider. A student who does not feel understood will have more difficulty learning, less patience, and lower retention. Any additional training to address these concerns can make a teacher more successful.

Like many teachers, high school ESL teachers have an average salary of $54,060, but they are also allowed opportunities like travel, working with many various cultures, and permanently affecting the lives of students, offering them language skills that will change their lives.

Doctorate Degrees

Professional ESL teachers may wish to earn a PhD in ESL TESOL. A doctoral degree is typically meant for educators who want to learn about theory and research within ESL. PhD in ESL and TESOL programs are often part of a school’s department of English, education, or linguistics, and depending on the school, you can take classes online or on-campus. Some colleges offer a PhD in education with a TESOL certification – a certification that is often recognized worldwide.

Doctorate programs typically cover the following the fundamentals of ESL, including:

  • English as a second or foreign language acquisition, pedagogy, and research
  • How to implement alternative ESL teaching and research methodologies
  • Intercultural communication
  • Educational foundations

PhDs often work as a researcher or teacher educator in TESOL in colleges and universities or as a curriculum specialist, developer, or evaluator in government agencies and non-governmental organizations.

What are popular ESL degree options?

If you’re currently an ESL or TESOL teacher, a master’s degree will prepare you to effectively teach students with well-planned curriculum and lesson plans. If you’re interested in learning more about programs for teaching ESL, we’ve provided a list of some popular, accredited schools below.


Northcentral University

  • HLC
  • NCA

George Washington University

  • MSA

University of Southern California

  • WASC

Grand Canyon University

  • HLC
  • NCA

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