ESL Degrees

As an educator who teaches English as a second language, or ESL, you can experience the rewards of helping non-native English speakers to become members of a global community. Some ESL teachers may even travel to various countries and earn a living while experiencing the working vacation of a lifetime. As communities diversify, ESL teachers in all settings are more in demand than ever before.

Schools are required by law to provide services that help students learn English as a second language while making appropriate academic progress. English as a Second Language teachers fill this role. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, there were an estimated 4.8 million English language learners in the U.S., which is the highest percentage of ELLs many schools in the nation have seen, especially in the West. Public schools have especially seen a rise in ELL students in all but 15 states (NCES, 2018).

ESL teachers are required to help these students learn to succeed in public schools. This is why the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) organization was created, to help ESL teachers and administrators of all levels effectively teach ELL students.  

As reported in World Economic Forum, English will continue to remain the dominant language in the world well into the future followed by Mandarin, French, Spanish and Arabic. This trend isn't expected to change anytime soon.

In fact, the British Council predicts that by 2020 over two billion people will be studying English. This demand places ESL teachers as one of the most desirable specialty degrees in education. The field of language is exceptionally rewarding and lucrative for limitless teaching positions in an array of opportunities in public schools, businesses and countries around the world.

ESL Teaching Job Description

English as a Second Language teachers instruct students whose first language is not English (sometimes called English language learners or ELLs). The goal is to teach English language learners to read, speak, and write English, so they can achieve grade-level proficiency in their regular classrooms. ESL teachers must be highly knowledgeable in the content and structure of the English language as well as the methodology for teaching English to non-native speakers.

Unlike foreign language teachers, ESL teachers may have a class in which a variety of native languages are spoken. According to Education Week in 2016, the most common languages spoken by English language learners included Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, Haitian, Somali, Russian  and Korean (in order from highest number of students to lowest).

ESL teachers may work with students one-on-one or in small groups, in the regular classroom or in pull out programs. They conduct diagnostic evaluations to determine students' levels of language proficiency. From there, ESL teachers develop an instructional plan appropriate to each student's needs. They track student progress and communicate with other members of the educational team to ensure appropriate progress is being made in the regular classroom. ESL teachers usually serve as the primary link between English language learners and their parents.

ESL Teaching Requirements

Educational and licensing requirements for ESL teachers vary from state to state and even from school to school. Check with your state department of education for exact requirements.

Another resource is the TESOL website. TESOL maintains a directory of ESL degree/certificate programs in the U.S. and Canada. At a minimum, public school ESL teachers must hold a bachelor's degree and be licensed by the state in which they work. Common degree programs include English, linguistics and education with an ESL endorsement.

A number of colleges and universities offer a master's degree program in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). When choosing the right school for you, considering a master's degree could lead to a lucrative career as an ESL teacher.

ESL Teaching Career Outlook

The job outlook for all ESL teachers in the U.S. is promising. The NCES projects some shortage of ESL teachers in most areas of the country, especially the West, so job prospects should be bright for qualified candidates. ESL teachers also are in high demand abroad. The following states may have the highest need for ESL teachers:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas

English as a second language teachers are typically paid on par with the average for teachers in their state, depending on the level of education you teach. For example, the median salary for K-12 teachers in 2017 ranged was $56,900 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS also reports that postsecondary English teachers earn a mean annual wage of $77,660 (2017).

ESL Teaching Trends

Collaborative teaching is an increasingly popular way to deliver ESL instruction according to Judie Haynes, an author and ESL teacher who runs the website Everything ESL.

In collaborative teaching, the regular classroom teacher and the ESL teacher work side-by-side in the general education classroom, sharing equal responsibility for instructional planning and delivery. One of the advantages of this model is a lower student-to-teacher ratio. In addition, English language learners are not separated from their classmates.

According to the Department of Education, states with significant immigrant populations, such as Texas and Florida, are critically short when it comes to ESL teachers. ESL teachers may also be needed in certain grade levels. This report states ESL teachers in 2017-2018 are most desired in pre-k through 12th grade (Department of Education).

Online ESL Education Programs

Whether you are already a certified teacher or you are seeking to become one, there are all types of online programs in ESL available: master's degrees, doctorate degrees and even certificates and endorsements.

Online programs in ESL education generally involve second language acquisition, pedagogical practices, teaching language skills, assessment methods for ESL students and multicultural communication. Program completion depends largely on individual students, but generally master's degrees, doctorate degrees and certificates may take 18 months to two years to complete, while endorsements can take one to two years.

Online programs may be a good fit for individuals who require minimal guidance to complete assignments. Those who need greater discipline and structure should consider enrolling in traditional on-campus programs instead.

Online ESL Educator Degree Options

Three online programs in ESL education worth considering are offered by Drexel University, Jones International University and Southwest Minnesota State University.

Drexel University offers the teaching English as a second language (TESL) certificate, an online program specifically for current teachers who wish to add to their existing credentials. This certificate prepares educators for state certification in ESL education, and credits may also transfer to Drexel's Master of Science degree in teaching, learning and curriculum: teacher certification track.

Jones International University's Master of Education in K-12 ESL education teacher licensure program is designed for students who already have a bachelor's degree in education. The program consists of 48 semester hours to meet the criteria of the ESL National Standards, allowing students to pursue ESL certification after graduation.

Southwest Minnesota State University offers a Master of Science in education with emphasis in teaching English as a second language. This blended program will utilize online learning while utilizing on-campus instruction in research-based practices on working with ELLs.


Curriculum for ESL Education Programs

Courses in the ESL curriculum are designed to introduce the learner to language development, the psychology of learning and the effective construction of learning materials. Courses in your curriculum may include the following:

Language Learning and Teaching

This course provides prospective ESL educators with essential information about how people process and learn the language. The foundational learning theories are used to design instructional materials and test the effectiveness. Participants are also introduced to the influential processes that affect learning, motivation and attitudes towards new language development. Cognitive, developmental and psychological processes that assimilate language are explored in the second language learner.

Best practices for the motivation of language learning and development are also presented to participants. The four learning domains considered for language development are the following:

  • Listening is the first exposure to grasping and becoming familiarized with word patterns
  • Speaking is the next domain that occurs with practice and experience
  • Writing helps to decipher structure and organize syntax
  • Reading is the domain that allows time for interpretation and develops understanding

The Diversity of Intercultural Learners

This introductory course provides information on the experiences, values, beliefs and attitudes of culturally and linguistically diverse learners. Usually taught through case studies and real-world examples, the focus is on how diverse populations assimilate English as a second language. Discussions include the motivation, needs and expectations of learners of a second language and how communicating in English affects or benefits them. Understanding the cultural aspects of a learner's community, family life and personal objectives are paramount to motivating and assisting learners in developing language skills.

The Sounds and Structures of English

Teaching the sounds of verbal communication is vital to learning a second language such as English. This course focuses on the structural areas of the English language that include the following:

  • Phonological refers to sounds, structure and patterns
  • Morphological is the proper or audible sound structure that identifies language
  • Syntactic refers to the construction of sounds in the correct order that define language
  • Pragmatic language is the ability to use English in social or changing situations with ease
  • Phonetics are sounds that are taught to form words that construct recognizable language and convey information appropriately

Parts of speech are analyzed, and learning theories are applied in the realm of language to assess effective learning.

Curriculum Design and Assessment

As an ESL teacher, your role will include course development, research and effective lesson planning. This class emphasizes constructing the lesson plan, materials development and the incorporation of classroom media and computer technologies. Participants use educational research and language learning theories to guide the curriculum design.

In addition, course content includes the use of thematic units to provide learners with connections and a central focus of study. Thematic units are important in teaching language and provide a curriculum with the following features:

  • Students have a central idea or theme
  • Compacts the curriculum
  • Enhances course assessment strategies
  • Saves time for educators

This course also explores the assessment and evaluation of learning materials for impact and successful learning. You will define the course outcomes, determine objectives and apply learner feedback to analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of course materials.

Practicum Course Design or Project for ESL Teachers

At the end of your curriculum, you may be expected to design a course for students who desire to learn English as a second language. Projects may include a central theme for design, implementation, evaluation and testing theories. In a clinical practicum, you may perform as an ESL teacher in a classroom with actual learners. Using teaching methodologies, learning theories and a teaching model, you may construct learning modules to teach students English as a second language. At this time, students may be provided with a mentor for guidance, advice and an enhanced experience in teaching.

Useful Resources

Below is an interview with Linda New Levine, chair for TESOL's Professional Development Committee, which discusses the teaching of ESL as a career.