ESL Teaching Degrees Online

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ESL is an acronym that stands for "English as a Second Language," and is used to not only describe the field of study, but the profession itself. It's a growing profession, one that is important given the 50% increase during the past 25 years of the number of non-English speakers at home, according to a report for the Center for Immigration Studies. You may have heard other acronyms too, such as TESOL, "Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages."

"It's a rewarding and enjoyable profession," says Tasha Bleistein, Ph.D., the Director of Online TESOL Programs at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. "For those who enjoy learning about cultures and helping equip students to reach educational, career, and life goals, it is a very fulfilling profession."

About the Expert

Tasha Bleistein, Ph.D., the Director of Online TESOL Programs at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.

There are many paths to becoming an ESL instructor, and Dr. Bleistein notes that many of the students in her program have experienced teaching English as a volunteer and realized it is enjoyable to work with English language learners. Others realized they wanted to pursue a career teaching English and completed undergraduate degrees in fields such as English, linguistics or education. A career in ESL does require a degree, she notes, and training is most commonly available at the master's degree level.

Degree Programs in TESOL/ESL

According to the TESOL International Association, more than 300 universities in the US have a TESOL program. Degree types vary by program and include the following examples:

  • Master of Education in TESOL
  • Master of Arts in TESOL
  • Master of Arts in Teaching - TESOL
  • Master of Science in Applied Linguistics
  • Master of Arts in English - TESOL specialization
  • Master of Arts in TESOL - K-12 Certification

Generally speaking, ESL master's degree programs are designed for three types of students: individuals who are currently teaching in K-12 settings, for those that want to teach in the K-12 public education system, and for those who desire to teach ESL in a variety of non-public school system settings. Although curriculum varies by program, students develop an understanding of intercultural communication and equips them with the skills to teach English to individuals where English is a foreign, second or international language. Example coursework includes the following.

  • Introduction to Second Language Acquisition
  • TESOL Pedagogy
  • Systems of New English Language
  • Methods of Teaching English Language Learners

Graduation data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that more than 3,000 students completed a master's degree in TESOL during the 2012-2013 school year. The table below outlines the ten universities that graduated the most students with a TESOL master's during 2012-2013.

University Degrees Conferred
Grand Canyon University 138
University of Southern California 117
Southern New Hampshire University 80
Touro College 75
Teachers College at Columbia University 71
CUNY Hunter College 70
University of Pennsylvania 70
St John's University-New York 69
New York University 64
University of Alabama at Birmingham 57

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Online ESL Programs

In addition to campus-based options, many universities offer online ESL programs for students. These online programs include several types of academic awards, including everything from a master's degree to a certificate.

Master's Degree Programs

Master's programs are usually 33- to 36-credit hours in length and are designed for different types of students. Students may choose from different programs such as the Master of Arts/Science or Master of Education (MEd) -- which is designed for K-12 and adult education teachers. Some programs may require students to complete a practicum and, in many cases, can be conducted in the educator's own classroom. Students may enroll full- or part-time and can graduate in as little as 18 months.

"We use a cohort model online that allows students to develop relationships and support each other through the program," says Dr. Bleisten. "And, most students follow a full-time schedule that includes 12 required courses, at least low intermediate proficiency in a second language, attend a conference, and complete a final portfolio."

Online programs are complementary and students experience the same academic rigors as their campus-based counterparts. For example, Dr. Bleistein explains that students in the online program at Asuza Pacific work through a variety of assignments weekly, such as reading, watching presentations and spend considerable time online interacting with classmates and their professors.

Graduate Certificate Programs

Graduate certificate programs are designed for different purposes, and could be fitting for career changers, K-12 educators that want to earn an ESL endorsement, and professionals that desire to teach English abroad. Graduate ESL certificates are typically 15- to 18-credit hours in length and curriculum focuses on practical instruction in ESL principles and teaching techniques.

ESL Career Paths and Opportunities

Potential career paths in ESL are diverse, ranging from adult education to community work, K-12 teaching to curriculum design. Because there are so many different types of ESL teaching jobs across the US, it is difficult to pin down a specific career path and subsequent salary for teachers in the space. However, recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the career opportunities for teachers in general is quite good nationwide.

Occupation Total Employed Average Salary Job Growth
Elementary School Teachers 1,353,020 $56,830 12%
Middle School Teachers 630,620 $57,620 12%
High School Teachers 1,041,940 $59,180 6%
Adult Basic and Secondary Education and Literacy Teachers and Instructors 65,990 $52,830 9%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014

Is an ESL Degree the Right Choice?

According to Dr. Bleistein, convenience is the most obvious benefit of online programs as students can complete their work at the time of day that works for them. Prospective students should take time to research the various options available to them and consider if they are a good fit for and online program. "I encourage prospective students to consider their learning styles and needs, as well their professional goals, financial resources, and amount of time they have available to commit to an online course of study." If students require regular face-to-face time with classmates and instructors, then Bleistein suggests an online program may not actually be a good fit.

Ultimately, some people are naturally inclined to ESL. "Besides strong English language skills (which indicate the person will be a strong teacher), we look for someone who enjoys working with learners, is patient, has a history of cooperating with colleagues, and works diligently." If a student matches that profile, then an education -- and career -- in ESL could be a perfect match.


  • NumbersUSA, High Immigration Levels Cause Dramatic Increase in Non-English Speakers in U.S., https://www.numbersusa.com/news/high-immigration-levels-causes-dramatic-increase-non-english-speakers-us
  • TESOL, ESL Qualifications, http://www.tesol.org/enhance-your-career/career-development/beginning-your-career/common-qualifications-for-english-language-teachers
  • TESOL, Distance Learning, http://www.tesol.org/enhance-your-career/career-development/beginning-your-career/celta-programs-tefl-certificate-programs-and-distance-learning-programs
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh
  • Interview with Dr. Tasha Bleistein, 6/29/15
  • National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/

ESL Teaching Degrees Online