ESL Curriculum & Instruction Degrees: Master, PhD & Online Course Info

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What kind of job can you get with a master's degree or PhD in ESL curriculum and instruction? Find out about program requirements, online options and info on courses and degrees.
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Studying ESL Curriculum & Instruction: Graduate Degrees at a Glance

Advanced degree programs in ESL (English as a Second Language) curriculum and instruction can prepare graduates for careers working with non-native English speakers, generally within the American educational system. Though the field is full of acronyms - ESL, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), ELL (English Language Learner) and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) - the fundamental idea is the same: educating people whose first language is not English.

Graduates with an ESL curriculum and instruction degree can work as teachers, educational administrators or curriculum developers for English language programs. Because immigration rates in the U.S. are growing, more ESL jobs are expected in the next ten years. Qualified teachers are especially needed in U.S. public schools as well as in adult education programs, particularly in areas of the country with high immigrant populations. As knowledge of English becomes increasingly important worldwide, English teachers are also wanted in countries around the globe.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? State-licensed K-12 teachers seeking an endorsement in ESL and individuals without licensure looking to work in ESL teaching or administration. Individuals interested in teaching at the university level, administrating educational programs, conducting research, performing policy work or leading educational agencies.
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Elementary teacher ($53,000)*
- Secondary teacher ($54,000)*
- Adult literacy teacher ($47,000)*
- Junior college teacher ($62,000)*
- Instructional coordinator ($59,000)*
- University professor ($60,000)*
- Postsecondary education administrator ($84,000)*
Time to Completion 1.5-2.5 years, part-time 3.5-5 years, full-time (may depend on if you have a master's in a related field)
Common Graduation Requirements - Approximately 10-15 courses
- Master's project or thesis
- Field experience or internship
- Approximately 15-20 courses
- Dissertation
- Preliminary and/or final exams
- Practicum or internship (particularly for EdD)
Common Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- State teaching license (or experience), depending on program
- Typically, master's in related field, though some programs will waive this requirement
- Professional experience or coursework in education, depending on program
Online Availability Yes Rare

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

Master's in ESL Curriculum & Instruction

Many master's programs are designed for already licensed K-12 teachers seeking a state endorsement to teach ELLs. Some schools, however, admit candidates who want to receive an initial teaching license while earning a master's degree. If you seek state approval or certification for a public school teaching position, be sure your degree program meets the requirements in your state.

Some schools differentiate between an MA (Master of Arts) or MS (Master of Science) and an MEd (Master of Education), with the latter focusing more on applied coursework and field experience. Other schools offer a single master's degree regardless of whether students are interested in teaching, administration or research. Some graduate programs are open to both degree-seeking and non-degree seeking students, allowing you to complete the ESL endorsement in a standalone format or to apply those credits toward a master's degree.

A number of programs admit students independent of their state licensure status. In addition to preparing graduates to teach ELLs in K-12 public schools, these programs are often appropriate for those looking to work as teacher educators, to go abroad to teach EFL or to instruct adults at junior colleges or in intensive English programs or other settings in the U.S. (Note: Some schools offer degrees in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages - TESOL - through their linguistics or English departments that are generally intended for those interested in working outside the American public school system.)

Pros and Cons


  • A master's degree may enable you to advance to a position in K-12 curriculum and instruction at a private or public school, which can pay an average of $10,000 more per year than a general teacher at that level*
  • A master's degree might qualify you to teach at the junior college level
  • Those with a master's degree in TESOL, ESL or a related field are more competitive for teaching, administration and curriculum development positions overseas
  • Master's programs in this field often have part-time, summer and/or evening schedules, making them convenient for working professionals


  • Master's programs can be expensive and lead to entry-level TESOL jobs with salaries as low as $25,000 in some schools
  • When applying for a teaching or program administration job at the junior college level, you may be competing against those with a PhD
  • Salaries for teachers abroad vary dramatically by country, with some locations paying significantly less than in the U.S.

Source: *University of Cincinnati Curriculum & Instruction Salary Guide

Courses and Requirements

Required master's coursework usually involves foundational classes in curriculum and instruction, along with additional courses for the ESL concentration. You'll likely study such topics as language acquisition and learning, educational assessment and curriculum design and evaluation. The following courses are common to master's programs in the field:

  • Introduction to linguistics for TESOL
  • Multicultural education
  • ESL methods and materials
  • Classroom management
  • Educational technology
  • Teaching reading and writing to ELLs

In addition to mandatory coursework, master's programs frequently require a project or thesis. In certain states, the ESL endorsement also requires a minimum number of clinical hours or field experience. If a master's candidate is already teaching professionally, some of these hours will likely count toward the total. If not, the program adviser might provide other options to achieve these hours, such as surveying the ESL population in local schools or conducting interviews.

If you're seeking to earn your teaching license and master's degree simultaneously, you'll have additional coursework to complete your K-12 certification. These requirements vary by program and should align with state standards.

Online Degree Options

A number of colleges and universities provide online master's programs in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in ESL. Many online options are designed for professionals already working in the field of education. Some schools require several years of teaching experience and/or state licensure for admission.

Online program requirements are often similar to those of on-site programs, with core coursework in curriculum and instruction combined with classes in the ESL concentration. However, the flexible schedules of online programs are frequently more attractive to working educators. Most quality online programs also include a master's project and/or a practicum component, where students apply what they have learned in a real-world setting.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

An article on professional development on the website of the organization TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) suggests that graduate students seek to collaborate with faculty, since professors are more likely to write strong reference letters for students with whom they have worked closely. The article also recommends that students join a professional organization in the ESL industry. Doing so can help you deepen your knowledge in the field and enable you to network with professionals while still in school.

PhD & EdD in ESL Curriculum & Instruction

Doctoral programs in ESL curriculum and instruction are designed to prepare graduates for careers as university professors, teacher educators, researchers, policy makers and leaders of educational institutions. Prospective students can choose between two degrees at the doctoral level: the PhD and the EdD. The PhD is generally thought of as an academic degree, with a focus on theory and research, and the EdD is considered a professional degree, with a focus on educational practice. Some schools offer both degrees, while others offer one or the other. Doctoral degrees are frequently granted in curriculum and instruction, with ESL being an optional area of emphasis.

PhD and EdD programs often require a master's degree in a related field for admission. However, graduate schools sometimes admit students without this degree, allowing you to complete the additional coursework during the doctorate. Doctoral programs may request that applicants have a background in education - either academic coursework or professional teaching experience.

Pros and Cons


  • A doctoral degree can qualify you to teach at the university level and may give you an advantage for junior college jobs over candidates with master's degrees
  • PhD curriculum and instruction programs are typically more flexible than master's programs, allowing you to design a course of study that meets your interests and goals
  • A doctorate may enable you to secure an administrative, policy or supervisory position in state departments of education, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), multinational corporations, nonprofit think tanks or educational research institutes


  • Getting your doctorate is a long and arduous process; in the U.S., just a little over half (57%) of PhD students have completed their degrees 10 years after initial enrollment
  • Some doctoral programs require several years of teaching experience for admission, extending the timeline for you to earn a PhD
  • PhD programs are unlikely to incorporate teaching certifications or endorsements in specific areas such as ESL

Courses and Requirements

Required coursework for the PhD generally includes a solid background in theory and research, including classes in research methods, curriculum theory, statistics and experimental design. This core is often supplemented by foundational classes in history, psychology, sociology or philosophy, such as cognitive psychology, philosophy of American education and the history of education. Finally, graduate students will take a substantial number of courses in their area of emphasis (and in some cases a minor), with potential topics including educational policy in ESL, dual language acquisition, English in an international context and second language curriculum development.

In addition to required coursework, most doctoral programs require examinations (preliminary and final) as well as a dissertation (proposal, completion and oral defense). Most EdD programs will also have a clinical experience or internship component.

Online Degree Options

Online PhD and EdD programs in curriculum and instruction are rare and unlikely to emphasize ESL. If you do find such a degree program online, research it carefully. Be sure the school is accredited and that it offers a doctorate with a specialization or self-designed emphasis in ESL.

Stand Out with this Degree

Like doctoral candidates in most graduate programs, PhD students in ESL curriculum and instruction can benefit greatly from publishing their work. In fact, the ESL Graduate Student Organization at Purdue suggests that you start looking to get published soon after you arrive at grad school, since article submission can be a long and difficult process. Many graduate schools and the organization TESOL offer lists of journals and magazines in ESL and linguistics.

In a similar vein, TESOL suggests that graduate students improve their professional development by presenting at local or national conferences, sharing the information they have learned in their graduate studies or doctoral research with others in the field.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Liberty University

    Program Options

      • EDD: Curriculum and Instruction
      • EDD: Curriculum and Instruction/Elementary Education
      • EDD: Curriculum and Instruction/Middle Grades Education
      • EDD: Curriculum and Instruction/Secondary Education
      • EDS: Curriculum and Instruction
      • EDS: Curriculum and Instruction/Elementary Education
  • Online Programs Available
    2. 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
  • San Francisco, CA

    University of San Francisco

  • Honolulu, HI

    University of Hawaii at Manoa

  • Tampa, FL

    University of South Florida

  • New York, NY

    Teachers College at Columbia University

  • Stanford, CA

    Stanford University

  • Cambridge, MA

    Harvard University

Featured Schools

Liberty University

  • EDD: Curriculum and Instruction
  • EDD: Curriculum and Instruction/Elementary Education
  • EDD: Curriculum and Instruction/Middle Grades Education

What is your highest level of education?

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?

University of San Francisco

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Teachers College at Columbia University