Is a Master’s in ESL/ELL Worth It? Your Guide to ESL/ELL Degrees.

Is a Master’s in ESL/ELL Worth It? Your Guide to ESL/ELL Degrees.
How we label ESL students and programs isn't nearly as important as filling the gaps in this field of education. Image from Pexels
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry January 7, 2020

There's a growing demand for ESL teachers globally, but you don't need to go abroad to teach English as a second language. With a TESOL master's degree plus an ESL endorsement, you can meet a real need right here in the US public school system.

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ESL… ELL… TESOL… TEFL… the world of teaching English as a second language is peppered with acronyms, whether you’re looking to teach abroad, get a bachelor’s degree, or invest in a master’s degree. It can be confusing at first, but if you’re committed to the idea of building a career helping students learn to read, understand, and speak English, you’ll soon make sense of these and other acronyms.

When you actually become an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, you’ll discover that how we label ESL students and programs isn’t nearly as important as filling the gaps in this field of education.

Those gaps? They’re huge. Nearly 10 percent of public school students in the US are learning English while simultaneously working to keep up with the standard curriculum. And yet, fewer than 1 percent of public school teachers have an ESL endorsement or any experience working with English language learners. For every 150 students learning English in the US, there is just one ESL teacher.

You can help fill this staggering gap in the education system with a bachelor’s degree in teaching English as a second language. Still, there are some compelling reasons to look into getting a master’s in ESL/ELL.

In this article about whether a master’s in ESL/ELL is worth it, we’ll cover:

  • ELL, ESL, and other acronyms
  • Teaching ESL/ELL with and without a master’s degree
  • Pros and cons of earning a master’s in ESL/ELL
  • What to expect from a master’s program in ESL
  • Top master’s programs in ESL/ELL
  • Career paths for a master of ESL/ELL
  • Is a master’s in ESL/ELL worth it?

ELL versus ESL and other related acronyms

You can skip this section if you’re already working as an ESL teacher with a certificate or bachelor’s degree. If you’re new to the world of English as a second language education, here are the main acronyms you’ll encounter when researching ESL degree programs:

  • ESL: The common shorthand for English as a second language. It’s frequently used to refer to programs in the public school system.
  • ELL: This stands for English language learners. While it’s typically used to refer to younger students, it can also refer to adult learners.
  • TESOL: The common shorthand for teaching English to speakers of other languages.
  • TESL: Shorthand for teaching English as a second language. It is often used interchangeably with ESL.
  • ESOL: This stands for English for speakers of other languages and typically refers to programs outside the K-12 school setting or programs for adults.
  • TEFL: This stands for teaching English as a foreign language and is most often used in reference to teaching English abroad.

In public schools, private English instruction programs, university programs, and certification programs for teachers, the ESOL, ESL, ELL, TESL, and TESOL labels are frequently used interchangeably.

Teaching ESL/ELL without a master’s degree

Before you dive into a master’s in ESL/ELL program, you should know that you don’t need a master’s degree to teach English as a second language. You can become an ESL teacher in the US with a bachelor’s degree plus a license with an ESL endorsement. In some locations, you can teach ESL with nothing more than a Bachelor of Arts in Teaching plus your teaching license.

Given the lack of trained ESL educators, any teacher may eventually find themselves teaching a class made up mostly of native language speakers. That class might well include several ESL students who receive no additional English language instruction. Some teachers enjoy the challenge of working with ELLs and devote their professional development hours to TESOL education programs and pursuing ESL certification.

Similarly, you won’t need a TESOL master’s degree to teach abroad. You might not even need a bachelor’s degree in ESL. Most employers outside the US seek candidates with an undergraduate degree—in any subject—along with a TEFL certification.

Because there is no single global accrediting body for TEFL certification, many institutions and private companies offer this certification online. If you’re thinking about getting a TEFL certification before pursuing a master’s in TESOL, look for programs offered by universities, which are generally the most reputable and most reliable. Columbia University, Georgetown University, and the University of California – San Diego all have solid TEFL programs.

Still not sure a master’s degree is right for you? Look on the bright side: the fact that you can become an ESL teacher without a master’s degree means you have plenty of time to mull over the pros and cons. If you’re 100 percent committed to going all-in on ESL, you’ll get a lot out of a master’s in ESL program whether you plan to work in the US or abroad. Fortunately, this isn’t a decision you have to make immediately.

Pros and cons of earning a master’s in ESL/ELL

Let’s talk cons first. The biggest drawback may be cost. Master’s degrees are expensive, and that will probably be a factor in your decision—especially given that you can probably find an ESL teaching position without one, and that it’s rare for ESL teachers to make more than $60,000 annually. The other con you should consider is that this is a highly specialized degree. That means you might have trouble transitioning away from ESL in the future if you decide it isn’t for you.

If you love working with foreign language students, however, the pros of earning a master’s in ESL should outweigh the cons. First, there’s a good chance that having an advanced degree will help you land higher-paying teaching positions. According to the Center for American Progress, teachers with master’s degrees make between $1,423 and $10,777 more than those with bachelor’s degrees. Your mileage may vary, but if maximizing your lifetime earning potential is important to you, getting a master’s degree is probably the right thing to do.

Second, having a master’s degree qualifies you to take positions outside the classroom. You can become an adjunct ESL professor at the university level or work with adult ELLs in corporate and other settings. You can also become a curriculum designer, instructional coordinator, or administrator in a school system with a linguistically diverse student population.

And third, you should have an easier time finding work. While employers may not require applicants to have a TESOL master’s, they may give more weight to applications from those who do.

What to expect from a master’s program in ESL

Every TESOL master’s degree program is different. Some master’s in ESL programs don’t require students to have previous work experience. However, most TESOL graduate programs are designed for active teachers, and they require applicants to hold a current teaching license (with or without an ESL endorsement). Some programs (like the one at University of Pittsburgh) can be completed in as little as one year by full-time graduate students. Full-time students in other on-campus and online master’s in ESL programs may not graduate for three years.

You should also consider the curriculum when gauging whether a master’s in ESL/ELL is worthwhile. Most graduate programs for ESL teachers include courses that cover the following:

  • Bilingual education
  • Curriculum and instruction design
  • Linguistics theory
  • Literacy for ELLs
  • Student assessment concepts
  • Teaching strategies
  • Writing for ELLs

Some programs also require graduate students to take classes focused on culture and equality in education. These classes might not teach practical strategies for teaching English as a second language, but they can be hugely valuable if you plan to spend your entire career teaching foreign students.

Top master’s programs in ESL/ELL

Some top master’s programs in ESL/ELL can be found at:

You probably noticed that there’s a fair amount of variation in degree names and types when it comes to advanced TESOL degrees. Naming conventions aside, these degrees are often more similar than they appear. Remember, MSEd, EdM, and MEd are all shorthand for a Master of Education. Some colleges and universities use MA in TESOL and TESOL MAT to refer to the same degree: the Master of Arts in Teaching TESOL. The biggest difference between the TESOL MAT and the TESOL MEd is that the former is for ESL teachers who want to stay in the classroom, and the latter is the better degree choice for educators who may want to transition to administration or ESL curriculum and instructional design.

Career paths for a master of ESL/ELL

A master’s in TESOL can help you build a career working with ELLs, whether you decide to stay in the K-12 public school system or look for jobs in higher education or the corporate world.

Teaching isn’t all you can do with this degree, however. With a TESOL MAT or TESOL MEd, you can also become an ESL textbook editor, ELL program manager or director, curriculum development writer or editor, instruction designer, school administrator, researcher, or private online ESL teacher. All of these positions are likely to pay more than a public school teaching gig.

Even so, as you think about whether a TESOL master’s is a good investment, it’s worth considering that the outlook for ESL teachers in the classroom is pretty good. According to the US Census Bureau, over 60 million people in the US speak a language other than English at home, and the need for qualified ESL teachers is increasing as the number of ELLs grows. Depending on where you teach, the state may even offer you a financial bonus for pursuing an ESL certification.

Is a master’s in ESL/ELL worth it?

That all depends on what you want to do with your life. Are you passionate about teaching in general or teaching ESL in particular? Do you want to work in the US, or do you dream of living and working abroad? If you love teaching but you’re not absolutely sure that your future is in TESOL, then you should look into other MAT and MEd specializations. You can still teach ELLs, but you won’t be locked into a career in ESL.

You should also look into TESOL and TEFL certificates before deciding whether a master’s in TESOL is worth it. Getting a TEFL/TESOL certificate can get you into ESL classrooms faster than earning a master’s degree (and at a significantly lower cost to you).

On the other hand, if you are driven to help kids or adults learn to communicate and learn in English, a master’s degree might make sense. It will dive much deeper than any certificate program into subjects like pedagogy, linguistics, language acquisition, integrated technology, language and culture, and assessment practices. With this degree, you’ll have the knowledge and skills not only to teach basic grammar rules and vocabulary but also to educate a lifetime’s worth of students in a culturally sensitive and accepting way.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: ESL / ELL / TESOLEducation & Teaching