Master’s in ESL Program Guide

October 28, 2020

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English as a second language (ESL) is an essential subject in the United States, where more than one million immigrants became legal permanent residents in 2016. Learning English may benefit these residents in their pursuit of citizenship, employment, and general communication. Aspiring English language teachers might also consider pursuing a TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) certificate or an ESL master's program.

Aspiring English language teachers might also consider pursuing a TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) certificate or an ESL master's program.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, English language learners (ELL) represented approximately 4.6 million learners in public schools in the 2014-15 academic year, not accounting for adult learners who are learning English. For this reason, ESL master's graduates are in high demand in the United States.

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Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Should I Get a Master's in ESL?

ESL master's students should have an interest in languages and a passion for helping others navigate new cultures. Candidates may assist language learners in the United States through ESL methods, or teach English to learners in other countries through TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) programs. TEFL careers usually involve international travel, so students pursuing these occupations should enjoy experiencing different cultures.

Whether in the United States or abroad, ESL workers must understand the basic concepts of learning languages. TESOL master's programs explore these concepts. ESL master's candidates may also improve communication skills and build leadership qualities to better guide ELL students into fluency. ESL teachers should also demonstrate patience and an attention to detail, which is necessary to help non-native speakers learn to read, write, and speak English. TESOL programs prepare learners through classes on language acquisition, phonetics, and grammar, plus coursework on classroom curriculum and instruction.

Applicants must also decide between on-campus and online ESL programs. Online options provide more flexibility for students with full-time jobs and family responsibilities, but on-campus programs often provide more networking opportunities with fellow learners and faculty. These relationships can help students obtain recommendation letters and job assistance after graduation. TESOL master's programs may also involve internships and practicums to connect degree seekers with relevant organizations for employment.

What Can I Do With a Master's in ESL?

Careers for a TESOL master's graduate take place in classrooms and with organizations that assist with cultural integration. These occupations may involve teaching English to ELL children and adults. ESL experts may also work as curriculum consultants or program coordinators for TESOL concepts and activities. Candidates for all TESOL positions should have a passion for preparing non-native speakers to succeed in the United States, and should choose a career that fits their individual interests. For example, people who love outdoor activities might pursue ESL occupations at summer camps, rather than in indoor classrooms.

Adult Literacy and High School Equivalency Diploma Teachers

These teachers can work with companies, such as The Immigrant Learning Center, to help immigrants whose first language is not English. A master's in ESL prepares candidates to instruct these learners in reading, writing, and speaking English. Other career responsibilities include guidance on building resumes, starting businesses, and using technology.

Median Annual Salary: $52,100*

Preschool Teachers

Preschool teachers care for children before their elementary years. These educators create daily plans to teach basic concepts, such as shapes and colors. With the high number of migrating residents in the United States, preschool classrooms may include significant cultural and language diversity. Completing an ESL master's verifies that candidates possess the skills to educate learners with various first languages.

Median Annual Salary: $28,990*

Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers

Elementary school educators build lesson plans for multiple subjects, including literacy and science. These educators oversee classrooms for organization, rule-following, and students' understanding of topics, and also discuss children's progress with families. Candidates from ESL master's programs can tend to these responsibilities with ELL learners.

Median Annual Salary: $56,900*

Instructional Coordinators

These workers evaluate current curriculum and propose modifications for better educational practices. Instructional coordinators may also offer textbook insights and coordinate faculty training for new teaching ideas and techniques. A TESOL master's degree gives learners ESL expertise to perform these tasks in bilingual classrooms.

Median Annual Salary: $63,750*

Recreation Workers

ELL children attend ESL camps and programs where recreational workers guide activities and encourage safety. These workers must develop daily plans and should possess a general understanding of first aid. Possible positions at these organizations include counselors and group guides.

Median Annual Salary: $24,540*

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to Choose a Master's Program in ESL

When choosing from ESL master's programs, consider which specialization options interest you, since your degree focus can impact your career path. For example, candidates interested in teaching elementary school should select a program specifically for aspiring elementary school teachers. On the other hand, students intending to teach English in foreign countries might prefer a TEFL program.

Degree seekers should also consider program length, which depends on each program's delivery method and required credits. Candidates who want to finish their degree in less than two years may choose an accelerated program, while those working full time might prefer part-time study, which would take longer but allow them to work their classes around their jobs.

Students should also think about how each prospective program's requirements would work with their current schedules. Programs mandating a final project or a thesis may take less time than those requiring a practicum. Take location into account, as well, since this can affect your quality of living and future job opportunities. Also consider that areas experiencing a teacher shortage might have more open teaching positions.

Also make sure you can manage your educational expenses on top of your cost of living, and only apply to schools that have been properly accredited. Finally, you must decide between online and on-campus programs, which largely depends on your scheduling and professional needs. Full-time employees may prefer the flexibility of online learning, while candidates interested in face-to-face education and networking should choose an on-campus program.

Programmatic Accreditation for Master's Programs in ESL

Accreditation means that a recognized agency has reviewed a school and determined that it holds academic merit, according to set standards. Colleges may receive institution-wide regional or national accreditation, on top of program-specific accreditation. Learners can look for this programmatic accreditation to ensure their ESL program provides a high quality education.

For ESL master's programs, the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training supplies national accreditation, and the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation provides programmatic accreditation. Candidates should look for these names when choosing a program, since many forms of financial aid only extend to learners at accredited schools. Moreover, employers and future schools may not recognize prior coursework from non-accredited institutions, which could leave you with a low-value TESOL master's degree.

Master's in ESL Program Admissions

Application requirements vary by school, bust most institutions request writing samples, recommendation letters, and personal statements from on-campus learners. Nearly all master's program applicants must submit an application form, transcripts, and an application fee.

Learners should apply to three types of schools: a few with reasonable admissions requirements and tuition expenses, a few "safety" schools with lower admissions standards, and a few "reach" schools, with particularly stringent admissions requirements. For all their prospective schools, applicants should consider location, program relevancy, cost, and accreditation.


This degree verifies a student's potential to succeed in the classroom. Most master's programs require a bachelor's for admission. ESL master's programs may insist that bachelor's coursework includes certain topics, such as elementary education classes. Previous experience demonstrates that applicants hold commitment to and potential in their chosen field. Not all programs require prior experience, but candidates for TESOL master's programs may need a current teaching license. Schools implement this requirement to make sure students boast a history of academic excellence. Often, ESL master's program require a minimum GPA of 2.75, but candidates who do not meet this qualification may qualify for provisional enrollment at certain schools.

Admission Materials

Applications give admission teams a concise view of credentials, including academic achievements, volunteer experiences, and professional accomplishments. Learners can often complete these forms in less than one hour. These documents verify a student's academic history by outlining completed courses and past grades. Applicants should request transcripts from all their previous schools. Higher education institutions may charge a small fee to release official transcripts. Recommendation letters supply evidence of professional support for applicants. Students must usually provide between one and three letters of recommendation, and allow their letter writers at least two weeks to complete the request. Common tests for admission include the Graduate Record Examination and the Miller Analogies Test. Some schools, however, do not require standardized test scores, and many ESL master's programs do not call for them. TESOL program candidates may also need to complete the Test of English as a Foreign Language. This fee compensates schools for reviewing applications. It's usually less than $100, and some schools waive application fees for students who demonstrate financial need.

Related Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Else Can I Expect From a Master's Program in ESL?

ESL master's programs provide ELL learners with guidance in learning English, so degree seekers typically explore language acquisition topics. However, choosing a concentration can personalize your degree to fit your specific career aspirations. If you choose a concentration, choose it carefully to make sure your prospective coursework reflects your intended profession.

Concentrations Offered for a Master's Degree in ESL

Concentrations Offered for a Master's Degree in Secondary Education
Concentration Description Careers
K-12 This concentration prepares candidates to teach children and adolescents, from kindergarten through high school. Many courses reflect standard ESL elements, but may direct these ideas toward the specified age group. For instance, literacy commonly surfaces in ESL programs, but a K-12 emphasis focuses on literacy for learners in the noted grades. Graduates may work as ESL teachers, or through camps and programs that focus on the same age group.
Curriculum Development Students in this specialization study how to create learning materials and choose the right delivery method for course topics. These programs also prepare learners to discover and resolve problems within current curricula. This focus prepares graduates to advise organizations on ESL teaching methods, teach ESL, or become instructional coordinators.
Childhood Education Concepts in this specialization include common ESL topics, such as teaching tactics and technology. However, coursework may connect specifically to children. For example, programs may prepare candidates to teach academic fields that surface in elementary classrooms, such as math and science. Graduates may work as ESL educators in preschools or elementary schools, with the proper licensing.
Adult Education This emphasis provides information that is specifically relevant to teaching adult learners, such as ESL curricula for adults and methods of teaching older students. Other common courses involve second language acquisition and cultural concerns. The adult education concentration prepares candidates to help adult immigrants who are learning English.
TEFL Programs with this focus train students to teach ELL children and adults residing outside of the United States. These specializations may include cultural exploration and TEFL practicums, as well as information on syntax and linguistics. Graduates teach English to students in other countries, in person or online. Companies that provide virtual assistance include VIPKID.

Courses in a Master's in ESL Program

Your exact coursework in an ESL master's program depends on your chosen concentration. For instance, learners focusing on childhood education may explore concepts related to child development, while those in TEFL programs would study cultural concepts more in-depth to prepare for teaching in foreign countries. However, certain courses are common to most ESL master's programs, regardless of concentration.

Cross-Cultural Studies

English learners come from various countries, and understanding cultural differences allows ESL teachers to instruct students in a respectful manner. By learning cultural norms, educators can avoid saying or doing anything that might be culturally offensive. This training prepares candidates to work as ESL educators for children and adults, particularly while living in other countries.

Teaching Methods for ESL

These courses examine the historical and theoretical aspects of teaching ESL to provide effective teaching strategies. Concepts such as technology and daily teaching itineraries may surface in these courses, along with information on how to regulate a structured classroom. Candidates prepare for various ESL teaching careers through this coursework.


Sociolinguistics examines the connection between society and language. These courses cover concepts including dialects and accents, along with insights for culturally acceptable language in different groups. Candidates who complete this class are prepared to teach ESL or advise other teachers and organizations regarding the social contexts of language.

Foundations for ESL

Foundation courses look into underlying concepts of ESL, such as the field's history and moral concerns. These classes ensure ESL master's graduates can implement teaching strategies that are grounded in competency and legal structure. Students learn skills for overseeing ESL projects and improving basic classroom functions.

Second Language Acquisition

These classes use research and theory to examine the process by which people learn a second language. Candidates explore factors that can alter that process, such as language learners' age and native culture. Coursework prepares students for ESL teaching careers among different groups and in different locations.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in ESL?

Generally, ESL master's programs require between 30 and 40 credits and take approximately two years to complete, at a rate of 15 to 20 credits per year. Programs calling for more or fewer credits might vary in length, or require learners to enroll in more credits at once to graduate in the time frame. For instance, learners in 48-credit programs might take 24 credits per year to graduate in two years, or else commit additional semesters to the degree.

Candidates can expedite their ESL master's degrees through accelerated programs. They might also enroll in higher credit loads, though some schools may cap students' course loads or charge extra tuition for learners who exceed a certain course load threshold.

Learners willing to extend their master's in TESOL can study part time. Some colleges and universities, may charge higher per-credit tuition for part-time students.

How Much Is a Master's in ESL?

Cost is of the biggest determinants in choosing a master's in ESL program, and several factors affect it. In-state learners typically pay less in tuition than out-of-state students, sometimes by hundreds of dollars per credit. Public schools also charge lower tuition than private institutions, generally speaking.

ESL master's programs charge degree candidates either by credit, course, or unit of time. Per-credit tuition usually costs between $400 and $750 for each credit, meaning a three-credit course would cost between $1,200 and $2,200. Learners in programs that charge per semester or year may pay between $6,000 and $12,000 for each academic year.

Institutions charge student fees, as well, for expenses related to technology, libraries, resources, and student associations. On-campus learners may also pay for parking permits and commuting expenses, on top of textbook costs. Each textbook can cost more than $100, and some courses may require multiple books. For a 12-course program, textbook expenses can exceed $1,000. Students should apply for financial aid to help mitigate their education expenses.

Certifications and Licenses a Master's in ESL Prepares For

Advanced Practitioner

Candidates with degrees and ESL teaching experience may gain certification as advanced practitioners from the TESOL International Association. Applicants must supply recommendation letters and a resume. To earn the certification, candidates create lesson plans and construct a syllabus. Other possible program tasks include becoming published, completing fieldwork, and speaking at a TESOL event.

Developing an Online Teaching Program

The TESOL International Association also provides this certification to improve skills in virtual teaching. The itinerary includes three classes that cover online teaching strategies, organization, and course delivery, followed by a capstone. Candidates may enroll in this program in January or July every year. This certification verifies that teachers can embrace technology for distance learners, which could assist in earning virtual TEFL careers.

Leadership Development Certificate Program

TESOL International Association members may pursue this online certification, provided they have field experience. The program requires 40 hours of study, available for free to members. This program may help learners in overseeing classrooms and organizations that help non-native speakers learn English.

English Language Teaching Leadership Management Certificate Program

This certification from the TESOL International Association strengthens the leaderships skills of candidates in administrative positions within English language teaching (ELT) groups. Program curriculum includes leadership concepts and tips for effective preparation. This credential may also help ELT workers advance into executive and directorial careers.


TEFL certifications prepare candidates to teach English to students who reside in other countries. Several TEFL options exist, such as a basic certificate, educator certificate, and master certificate, and each possibility holds distinct credit and cost requirements. TESOL educators who intend to teach in foreign countries or instruct English learners virtually should consider these certifications.

Resources for Graduate ESL Students

English Skills Learning Center

Students interested in teaching English to adult learners can undergo related training at this organization and volunteer their time for field experience. Programs offered by the center deal with language concerns for working and gaining U.S. citizenship.

Teach Away

Learners nearing the end of their programs can look to this site for information on TESOL career opportunities in the United States and other countries. Referenced occupations include virtual education and K-12 courses, plus managerial and college-level positions.

Refugee Care Collective

This Oregon-based organization assists immigrants in learning English and can provide degree seekers with field experience. The Refugee Care Collective helps children and their families, creating applicable field opportunities for ESL master's students with childhood and adult concentrations.

International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language

This association delivers a yearly meeting and supplies webinars for ESL topics such as technology, classroom management, and educational tactics. These details provide networking connections and teaching tips for candidates to use during practicums, fieldwork, and student teaching experiences.

The Internet Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) Journal

Students can use this resource to find sources for TESOL papers, or apply the journal's information to improve classroom skills. Topics addressed include computer usage, vocabulary, and pictures as learning tools.

Professional Organizations in ESL

Members of professional organizations may benefit from networking possibilities. Specifically, these groups provide meetings, conferences, and workshops where ESL candidates can learn from each other's experiences and build professional connections. These organizations may also supply members with opportunities to fulfill continuing education hours to obtain or renew their licensure or certification, and deliver career guidance through job listings and application tips. Overall, ESL teaching candidates should explore these organizations to further their understanding of the field and ensure professional success.

TESOL International Association

This association delivers seminars and virtual classes for ESL teachers. Participants can explore the resource page for tips on vocabulary, technology, and cultural needs in ESL education. The group also offers several certifications for candidates to improve ESL skills or advance to higher positions.

National Association for Bilingual Education

Each year, this group hosts a conference and a symposium where members network and learn tactics to strengthen ESL teaching capabilities. The association also delivers publications and news updates on TESOL concepts, along with information on events from other TESOL groups.

Center for Adult English Language Acquisition

ESL teachers of adults can find helpful resources through this site, such as the field's history and relevant research for TESOL learning. Current teachers may also browse tips for building programs and delivering course information to non-native speakers.

National Network for English Language Learning

This group provides several networking opportunities, including a conference and a workshop. Candidates can also search for careers, review relevant resources, and browse tips on advocacy through the site.

National Education Association

Teachers can browse advice on planning daily lessons and delivering course topics through the site. The association also supplies information on educational legislation and funding, and informs viewers of events like Read Across America.

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