ESOL Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in an ESOL program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's and doctorate degrees, as well as potential careers.
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ESOL Master's and PhD Degrees at a Glance

At all levels of education, some teachers specialize in teaching the English language to others. English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) degrees are for those who specialize in teaching English to non-English speakers. It is an alternative name for programs that may also be titled English as a Second Language (ESL), Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). These programs may also be taken by licensed K-12 teachers who teach English language learner (ELL) students.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), positions inside the U.S. for ESOL teachers were expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations in the years 2010-2020 ( This does not, however, take account of overseas opportunities. A number of foreign countries seek native English-speaking teachers to assist in language programs.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in teaching English overseas or to non-native speaking populations in the U.S. People who want to work in academia as professors or researchers
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - ESOL teacher ($47,000)*
- High school ELL teacher ($54,000 - requires state licensure)*
- English teacher abroad (variable, aggregate statistics unavailable)
- University English professor ($61,000)*
- University education professor ($59,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full time 2-5 years after the master's
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 12-15 graduate level courses
- Master's research paper or portfolio
- Master's exams
- Teaching requirement
- Roughly 15-20 graduate level courses beyond the master's
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation proposal
- Dissertation
- Teaching requirement
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in English or related field - Bachelor's or master's degree in English or related field, depending on program
- Some programs may also require work experience in the field
Online Availability Yes None found at this time

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in ESOL

A master's degree program in ESOL focuses on the theory and practice of teaching English specifically to students who are learning English as an additional language. Programs may prepare teachers who focus on students within the U.S. or those who teach overseas, and may culminate in either a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree. M.Ed. degree programs are offered by education departments and often have optional concentrations for licensed teachers who work in public schools.

Pros and Cons


  • Although this qualification is not required by all countries, a master's degree in teaching English may be an acceptable educational level for those looking to teach overseas
  • An M.Ed. in teaching English to speakers of other languages can broaden the teaching capabilities and opportunities of licensed schoolteachers
  • An overseas teaching position can be an excellent way to both gain international experience and get paid for it


  • Overseas teaching can be stressful and may not be an option for those with family obligations
  • Current licensed teachers looking to earn a master's degree may find challenges balancing work requirements with educational ones
  • For ESOL teachers who work in the U.S., the option of adult literacy teaching is neither the highest paid nor most prestigious of teaching careers

Courses and Requirements

In these programs, you study a number of topics focused around preparing you to develop teaching materials, teach English and manage a classroom of non-native English speakers. In addition to coursework, some programs may require you to submit a professional project or practicum in order to complete the master's program.

  • Syntax, lexis and phonology
  • Language teaching strategies
  • English language curriculum development
  • Principals of intercultural communication
  • Student assessment
  • English for academic purposes

Online Degree Options

If you seek a master's degree in teaching English, quite a few online options are available. Some programs are completely online, while others are offered in a hybrid format requiring some attendance. These programs may have concentrations for those seeking different career outcomes, such as foreign teaching and school certification.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

In order to get ahead with a master's in ESOL, as a prospective teacher you should take opportunities provided to work in settings where you can gain experience teaching English. These opportunities may be provided by your college or university, or you may find job opportunities in your community. Further, you may want to pursue additional internships or volunteer work to develop and reinforce these skills. If courses on the role of technology in ESOL training are available as electives in the program, you may consider taking advantage of them to learn about this growing area of instruction.

Doctorate in ESOL

A PhD program focusing on teaching English to speakers of other languages may be found either in educational departments or in English departments, where it may be under the term 'applied linguistics.' These programs are designed to assist those already established in their TESOL careers to make the jump to teaching and researching at the university level. Alternately, doctoral degree programs offered by education departments focus on such topics as curriculum development and planning for ESOL teaching.

Pros and Cons


  • A doctorate in ESOL can provide the necessary credentials to 'teach the teachers' at the university level or rise to other positions of authority
  • A PhD program can train you to become an independent researcher and prepare you to seek publication in the field of teaching English
  • Full-time PhD programs may offer graduate assistantships, fellowships and other opportunities to defray educational costs


  • A doctorate requires a significant commitment of time and money
  • PhD programs are academically rigorous and require attention that could be put into other avenues of career development
  • The market for tenure track jobs in postsecondary education across all fields is extremely competitive

Courses and Requirements

Coursework for a doctorate in ESOL can vary depending on which department the program is offered through, and students should be careful to match the programs they are considering to their career development needs. Courses may include such topics as:

  • Communication in second language (L2) classrooms
  • English instruction to speakers of other languages
  • L2 learning and cultural theory
  • L2 acquisition pedagogy: writing, reading, pronunciation
  • Language in use
  • Language skills assessment
  • Technology in language education

Online Degree Options

Although online programs exist both for certification and at the master's degree level, online PhD programs in ESOL and similar subjects were rare to nonexistent in the U.S. as of September 2012. Perhaps because of the importance of personal relations in professional development, these programs are instead offered in more traditional, face-to-face settings through English or education departments.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you are looking to stand out with a PhD, you may want to focus your program and research from the earliest stages on a specific area of research that is currently highlighted in the academic literature. In order to develop a full grasp of such topics, engage your academic advisor early in the process, perhaps even contacting possible advisors while working to select a doctoral program. PhD research can be the key to publications and other academic recognitions, which can help you develop your professional reputation. Especially in a full-time program, you may also want to seek out available graduate assistantships to further develop your professional skills as an educator at the college level.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Northcentral University

    Program Options

      • PhD in Education - English Second Other Language/ESOL
      • Ed.D. - English Second Other Language/ESOL
      • PhD in Education - Curriculum and Teaching
      • PhD in Education - Special Education
      • Ed.D. - International Education
      • Ed.D. - Special Education
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Regent University

    Program Options

      • Doctor of Education - Character Education
      • Doctor of Education - Curriculum & Instruction
      • Ph.D. in Education - Character Education
      • Doctor of Education - Special Education
      • Ed.S. in Educational Leadership - Character Education
  • San Francisco, CA

    University of San Francisco

  • Honolulu, HI

    University of Hawaii at Manoa

  • New York, NY

    Teachers College at Columbia University

  • Stanford, CA

    Stanford University

  • Cambridge, MA

    Harvard University

  • Tampa, FL

    University of South Florida

  • Philadelphia, PA

    University of Pennsylvania

Featured Schools

Northcentral University

  • PhD in Education - English Second Other Language/ESOL
  • Ed.D. - English Second Other Language/ESOL
  • PhD in Education - Curriculum and Teaching

What is your highest level of education?

Regent University

  • Doctor of Education - Character Education
  • Doctor of Education - Curriculum & Instruction
  • Ph.D. in Education - Character Education

What is your highest level of education completed?

University of San Francisco

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Teachers College at Columbia University