Around 10% of American public school students are English language learners (ELLs). As this percentage continues to grow, so does the demand for teachers who are trained to teach English as a second language (ESL). ESL specialists teach writing, reading, and speaking skills to children and young adults whose native languages are not English. Working in elementary, middle, and high schools, ESL teachers provide English instruction to both classes and individuals, support classroom teachers, and lead professional development sessions. For established educators with an interest in language, earning a master's degree in ESL presents opportunities to advance professionally while helping others.
Field-related terminology varies considerably. Master's degrees in teaching English as a second language are also referred to as master's in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) or master's in English language learning (ELL). Educators are referred to as ESL teachers, ELL teachers, or English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teachers. Non-native English speaking students are referred to variously as ESL students and English language learners (ELLs).
Many educators choose to pursue a master's in ESL online. Offering the skills needed to instruct students from many different backgrounds, an online master's in ESL makes professional development convenient and affordable. In addition, many master's in ESL programs present further opportunities to specialize in teaching children, teenagers, or adults.
When researching ESL master's programs online, there are several factors to consider before making a final decision. Most ESL programs and are comprised of around 30 to 40 credits, and take about one or two years to complete. Program length, however, ultimately depends on whether you intend to study full- or part-time. The cost of tuition is another important variable to consider. While some schools offer discounted tuition for online classes, others charge distance learners an additional per-credit technology fee. Your state of residence may also affect program cost. Many institutions offer distance learners in-state tuition.
Program curriculum and structure should also influence your decision-making process. Asynchronous, self-paced programs may be completed more quickly than those presented in a cohort-based format. Additionally, some online ESL programs include short on-campus sessions or residency requirements, and many include fieldwork components. It's important to note that any mandatory fieldwork must be completed in a specific school or area.
Finally, it's critical to ensure that the online ESL master's program you choose is regionally accredited. Many ESL programs are also accredited by the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET) or the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA). For more information, check out the U.S. Department of Education's list of regional accreditation agencies.
Type of English Language Learning Degrees
Working educators interested in teaching English as a second language typically pursue one of two master's degrees. Known as an MA or MAT, a master of arts in teaching ESL emphasizes practical skills and teaching strategies. This degree is a good choice for teachers who are interested in gaining more direct classroom experience and exploring advanced pedagogical methodologies in English language instruction. Individuals with MAs in ESL teach grade levels from preschool to college and adult ESL students, in the U.S. or abroad.
A master of education, or M.Ed. in ESL goes beyond the classroom to examine educational systems and pedagogical theories. An M.Ed. curriculum takes a broader, more research-oriented look at the field of education, and focuses more on theory than an MA. Many teachers who earn an M.Ed. are interested in working in administrative positions such as principals, superintendents, and instructional coaches, and others go on to pursue doctoral degrees. As the table below demonstrates, both types of master's degree lead to higher earnings, particularly with increasing levels of professional experience.
Admissions requirements tend to vary between schools and ESL master's online programs. Most, however, adhere to a few common guidelines. Individuals applying to an ESL master's online program typically need a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. While this degree may be in any subject, many programs prioritize applicants with strong backgrounds in English, linguistics, or education.
Applicants are usually expected to hold a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0, although GPA requirements differ from school to school. Prospective students may also need to provide two or three letters of recommendation and a statement detailing why they wish to earn a master's in ESL online. International applicants must demonstrate English language proficiency by submitting TOEFL exam scores. Some programs also request scores from the GRE, PRAXIS 1, CLAST, the General Knowledge Exam. Because ESL teachers must be skilled in reading and writing English, incoming graduate students may also need to take a writing proficiency exam.
Directory of Accredited Master's in English Language Learning Programs
Working educators interested in teaching ESL must obtain an ESL certification or endorsement. Certification candidates are required to hold a bachelor's degree in any subject, although most instructors in the field have an English degree or a strong background in English and linguistics. Many ESL educators go on to earn a master's degree in education. While M.Ed. or MAT programs do not automatically lead to teaching licensure, graduate-level curricula typically address the concepts and skills needed to pass licensing exams.
All public school teachers in the U.S. must be licensed, and nearly all ESL instructors hold a relevant endorsement or certification. While most ESL master's programs allow candidates to apply for teaching licensure after graduation, they also typically provide students with an ESL endorsement.
You can earn a teaching license without a master's degree, though you may not be able to work as an ESL teacher with a bachelor's degree and a TESL or CELTA certification. A master's degree in ESL offers an in-depth examination of the theories and strategies used to teach English language learners, prepares candidates to sit for the general teaching license exam, and provides graduates with an ESL specialization.
ESL education is a field that leads to exciting professional opportunities, both in the U.S. and abroad. Instructors who hold a master's degree in English language learning work in numerous settings and roles, teaching at a variety of levels, from preschool-aged children to college students and working adults. The occupations listed below represent a few of the most common positions in the field.
Instructional coordinators train, mentor, assess, and supervise classroom teachers and administrators. Through data analysis and assessment, they develop effective curricula, standards, and classroom strategies. Most hold a master's degree.
Median Salary: $63,750
Adult Literacy and High School Equivalency Diploma Teacher
These instructors specialize in helping adults earn their high school diplomas and gain basic skills in reading, writing, and speaking English. An ESL degree may be particularly helpful in this field, as many adults who need literacy instruction are also non-native English speakers. These teachers must hold at least a bachelor's degree, and may need further certification or licensure in a specialized area such as ESL.
Median Salary: $52,100
English as a Second Language Teacher
ESL teachers work with non-native English-speaking students of all ages. They provide instruction in basic English literacy and speaking skills. ESL teachers can work in the US or abroad with individual students or with large groups. These educators must hold at least a bachelor's degree, and many employers prefer candidates with postbaccalaureate ESL certifications or a master's degree in ESL.
Median Salary: $40,667
There are several ways to pay for your ESL master's program online. Many graduate programs offer financial assistance in the form of research or teaching assistantships. Students may also apply for federal loans and grants, scholarships, and work-study opportunities. Others choose to pay for their education out of pocket, and most schools offer payment plans for individuals who do so. Below, we'll take an in-depth look at some of the most common funding options.
The federal government disburses financial aid according to student need and household income. Although undergraduate and graduate students receive different types of federal aid, all students must complete a FAFSA form to determine how much and what forms of funding they are eligible to receive. For graduate students, financial aid typically comes in the form of direct unsubsidized loans, direct PLUS loans, teacher education assistance for college and higher education (TEACH) grants, or Federal Pell Grants. Direct unsubsidized loans allow eligible students to borrow up to $20,500 per year. Students whose expenses exceed this amount may apply for a direct PLUS loan. While TEACH grants provide students with up to $4,000 a year, recipients must complete specific classes and types of work to receive their funding. Candidates enrolled in postbaccalaureate teaching certification programs may also apply for Pell Grants, which do not need to be repaid. All forms of financial aid can be used for tuition, books, supplies, and other expenses associated with earning a master's in TESOL online.
It is important to understand the distinction between private and federal financial aid packages. Federal financial aid is awarded by the U.S. government, while private packages come from lenders such as banks, credit unions, or colleges and universities. The U.S. Department of Education advises students to contact their school's financial aid office for assistance. First-time financial aid recipients are required to sign a promissory note and complete entrance counseling. Most financial aid providers offer a six-month grace period after graduation before lenders must start making repayments.
Some colleges and universities help students cover costs by offering work-study opportunities on- and off-campus. These part-time jobs take many different forms, including administrative and office work, janitorial duties, teaching assistantships, tutoring, and research. The federal work-study program determines which students are eligible to participate, and the amount of money you may receive through the program depends on your level of financial need, your school's funding, and when you apply. The number of hours you work depends on your academic schedule and financial need. Students may not work more than the number of hours they are awarded.
Tuition Reimbursement Programs
Companies and organizations often feature tuition reimbursement programs as an incentive for employees to acquire new skills. Participating employers agree to pay for all or part of an employee's work-related educational expenses in exchange for a period of service. Eligibility guidelines and conditions vary considerably between individual employers and programs. Some federal reimbursement programs for teachers require that participants work in high-need schools and communities after graduation.
Grants, Fellowships, and Scholarships
Fellowships provide students with compensation for participating in research, teaching, or performing other work in the field. Typically lasting between a few months and two years, fellowships provide excellent opportunities for professional and academic development. Grants and scholarships are both forms of financial aid that do not need to be repaid. Grants are often need-based, while scholarships are frequently awarded on the basis of academic merit. Both forms of aid are offered by the federal government, as well as private organizations. The scholarships listed below are presented to graduate students pursuing a degree in ESL education.
Scholarships for Online Master's in English Language Learning Degrees
TEACH Grant up to $4,000/year
ILA Jeanne S. Chall Research Fellowship $5,000
TOEFL Research Grants for Graduate Students Up to $5,000
Ruth Crymes TESOL Fellowship for Graduate Study $1,500
ISI Richard M. Weaver Graduate Fellowship $5,000 to $15,000
- TESOL International Association This international community of ESL educators hosts annual conventions and conferences. Members may enroll in certification programs, take online courses, and build stronger resumes through the online career development center.
- TESL Electronic Journal TESL-EJ is a free online publication for educators and scholars of English as a second language. Articles address teaching strategies, research, and ethical issues impacting English language learning instruction.
- Center for Applied Linguistics The CAL is a nonprofit organization that promotes language learning and cultural understanding through research and policy reform. Along with bilingual education, English as a second language, and world language instruction, CAL advocates for immigrant and refugee integration.
- National Council of Teachers of English The NCTE is committed to improving English language instruction across educational levels and contexts. Members can access teaching resources, continuing education programs, and publications. The organization hosts several annual events.
- National Association for Bilingual Education This nonprofit organization serves as an educational equity advocate for bilingual and multilingual students. Along with strengthening instructional practices in the classroom, the NABE strives to increase funding for ESL and similar programs, and encourages professional development.