Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Lax Standards in MA TESOL Curricula

I have been hearing more and more in the last few years about Master’s degrees in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).  These degrees have been around for quite some time, but only in the past 5-10 years have they become popular and started popping up at universities around the UK, US, and Canada.  The sudden demand for these courses is likely driven by an overall trend in industries world wide for requiring higher degrees from applicants.  This is understandable as many undergraduate programs fail to offer much of a base, especially in fields related to teaching English.

In the UK, the BA degree is honestly little more than a basic primer.  Most programs are only 3 years in length and offer little specialization.  Courses in linguistic principles and a solid grounding in English grammar and vocabulary are almost unheard of in British undergraduate curricula.  Even Oxford points out in it’s application materials for graduate and doctoral programs in Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, that expects applicants to have not been exposed to linguistics courses in their undergraduate careers.  The US and Canadian system fares a bit better in that the undergraduate curricula is quite a bit more extensive than those of the UK.  Bachelor’s degrees in these systems are 4-5 year degrees with usually 1/3 to 1/2 of courses in bachelor’s curriculum being specialized toward the topic of the degree.  Again though, linguistics is not a heavily studied field and course offerings at most universities are slim.  Those school with strong linguistics or philology programs in the English-speaking academic world however, rarely provide more than a tacit bit of attention toward the linguistics of the English language.  So these North American degrees, while generally superior to those of their transatlantic, still leave their graduates lacking in training and knowledge needed for teaching English.  And then of course, most prospective English teachers do not undertake an undergraduate study in linguistics.  Instead, many come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds with many in Education (pedagogy/teaching degrees), English (literature), or foreign language degrees (German, French, etc).

With this background of an overall lack of the basic knowledge teachers would need in undergraduate studies, and with so many people entering the ESL trade as a second career (or more recently as an option in a bad economy), the need for some higher, more precise level of training in obvious.  But, are these programs the answer?

Perhaps it’s best to first look at what various degree levels are meant to convey.  Possessors of a bachelor’s degree are supposed to be knowledgeable of their subject and are intended to have the knowledge needed to begin a career in that field.  A Master’s degree holder is meant to be an expert in his field, and Doctor (PhD, dphil) is supposed to be not only an expert, but so knowledgeable as to be able to teach his field.  So what does this mean for ESL?  Well, simply put, those who have completed an MA TESOL should have gained the necessary knowledge, proven a necessary level of understanding, and possess an ability to analyze and research problems with in their field to a level that they may be considered experts at teaching English.

Having met several of these MA TESOL grads, and having provided teacher training courses to them, I can tell you that they are far from experts.  Even worse, a quick browse through the various universities offering these degrees’ faculty listings shows that they are more often than not, not even taught by experts.  Part of the problem lies in the ability to define who is and is not an expert.  When it comes to TESOL, is an expert a linguist, a professor, or an experienced teacher?  That’s a question I will leave for another pose, but I would argue that a combination of all three would be necessary and that’s something rarely found on a single CV.  Certainly though, the dedication of qualified research-oriented faculty within these programs is one issue.  More than anything else though, the lax curricula of these programs is to blame.

Master’s programs vary greatly from field to field and from school to school.  Certainly some are perhaps too extensive, but most are not, and unfortunately some universities offer graduate degrees that are of little content and thus of little value.  Within the fields of education and applied linguistics (within which most MA TESOL programs lie), the average Master’s program is intended to take 1 year of full-time study or 2 years of part-time study.  This is actually a reasonable period of study assuming an intensive curriculum.  Looking at various programs though, such an assumption is likely incorrect:

University of Lancaster (UK):

The University of Lancaster has recently began promoting its MA TESOL program.  Lancaster lists the aims of their program as

  • To provide a thorough introduction to academic research and thinking of relevance to TESOL.
  • To identify issues of contemporary interest in the field of TESOL, and develop enlightened attitudes towards them.
  • To develop expertise in handling applied linguistic procedures for conducting evidence-based enquiry within the field of TESOL

These aims would sound nice if they were on the syllabus for an Intro to TESOL undergraduate course.  The very fact that the first aim of this programs is to provide an introduction to academic research is an immediate signal that it shall in no way adequately prepare anyone for anything other than getting ready to learn something (at another university, on there own? who knows).  These aims should not be considered adequate for even the most watered down bachelors program, yet here they are outlining an MA.  Even more interesting is a look at the programs actual curriculum:

There are six taught modules, taken in this order:

  • Second Language Learning (October-December, Year 1)
  • Communicative and Pedagogical Grammar (January – March, Year 1)
  • Trends and Issues in Language Teaching Methodology (April – June, Year 1)
  • Managing Innovation in Language Education (October – December, Year 2)
  • Culture and the Language Learner (January – March, Year 2)
  • Second Language Classroom Research (April – June, Year 2)

Each module is completed within a 10-week period and assessed by a 5,000 word assignment.

That’s it, 6 partial-semester, distance ed courses in very general subjects, a thesis paper, and you’ve got a degree.   But can a graduate of such a program be considered an expert?  Hardly.

The module description for the first course listed “Second Language Learning” reads like a summary of the Wikipedia article on the same topic and from the looks of it, likely presents about an equal depth of knowledge.  Likewise, the second course, which is the only one dealing with Grammar would not satisfy a 3rd grade teacher providing a basic primer course to her young pupils.  There’s really no reason to discuss the other modules as they are equally lacking in depth.

Needless to say, a graduate of this program is no more equipped to teach ESL than a backpacker with no university degree who’s spent a month doing a bit of reading and worked for a few months in a language school.


My point in writing this is not to single out Lancaster, nor is it to question their motives in offering this program as it is certainly in response to demand for such training.  It does however miss the point in a very big way, and that is more my point.  Lancaster is far from alone.  Their curriculum is a bit lighter than many programs.  But when you compare other programs offering these MA TESOL degree, one thing is common to them all and seems a glaring fallacy in their curricula:  None of them focus on grammar and the linguistics of English!  Like Lancaster, the University of Central Florida offers an MA TESOL, and like Lancaster, their program has only one grammar course which their graduates have admitted to me gives little more than a general overview.  This is the norm with MA TESOL programs worldwide, and I have to ask, how do universities propose to train English teachers without teaching English grammar???????

Teachers of a language must not only be able to teach grammar.  They must actually understand that grammar, and the root of the forms and structures therein.  They must possess a level of knowledge that allows them to not only teach forms, but to convey understanding to their students so that those language learners can be equipped to grasp the rules and usage of the language they are learning.

Short of steering prospective teachers fully away from these MA TESOL programs, I would instead offer a bit of advice:  when deciding whether to enroll in an MA TESOL program, weigh your options.  Compare the cost of the program to the added income you can expect to make with that added training.  Scrutinize the curriculum of the program being considered.  If it looks to be little more than that of a simple TEFL certificate, it probably is, so walk away.  Do a bit of reading on linguistics, grammar, and 2nd language acquisition before beginning your search, and when you think you’ve found a program, call the professors, ask them questions, and if you are unsatisfied with the quality of their answers, look elsewhere.

Finally, to the academic directors of the many departments offering MA TESOL programs, or to those universities planning to  offer one, please consider what your students will need to be experts within their field.  Discard the need for an easy education for the greater need of the language training industry for qualified, knowledgeable, and intuitive professionals.  And, more than anything TEACH GRAMMAR!!!!


Drew Ward

Executive Director, CALLE


December 17, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. In fairness, I’ve taken a closer look at the MA TESOL program offered by the University of Central Florida (UCF). The program description can be found here:

    I will say that it is a far more intensive curriculum than that of the Lancaster program mentioned above. However it is still grossly lacking in content integral to the skill set needed.

    The program requires only one single course in English grammar and the syllabus of that course is so simplistic, it is likely that upon completion, the student would have probably learned more from English Grammar for Dummies. They do provide one additional elementary grammar course in their elective courses option. However, not a single course offered at UCF delves into the actual linguistic principles behind the rules of English grammar or teaches their students how to question and research such principles.

    Again, prospective MA TESOL candidates, please do your homework. Don’t just read the promotional materials for a degree program. Read the exact catalogue entries. Request copies of course syllabi, check the credentials and real-world experience of its professors, and request graduation and employment statistics on their students.

    Comment by Drew Ward | December 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. I am a professor here in the MATESOL program at UCF, and I used to be coordinator of the program.

    You are correct that our MA program has only one grammar course. In fact, I co-published (with a grad student) an article lamenting the fact that many MA programs have ZERO such courses. The article can be found at:

    Our grammar course is not a watered down course. I am more than happy to send you or anyone else a copy of my syllabus so you can see all of the work that is required.

    Learning how to teach English as a second/foreign language requries a great deal of work and knowledge. It is knowledge is not all about grammar, but I agree with you that knowing ESL grammar is essential to being able to teach grammar as well as speaking, reading, writing, and listening well.

    You need to know why SNEEZED ends with /d/ but COUGHED with /t/. You need to know why we say “I want TO GO” but “I enjoy GOING” and “I should GO”. You need to know that SHOULD HAVE GONE means you didn’t go, MUST HAVE GONE means you probably went, and COULD HAVE GONE means we don’t know if you went. You also need to know the labels for these things: -ed pronunciation (involving voiced & voiceless sounds), verbs followed by infinitives or gerunds, and past modals.

    There is a lot of labeling involved, but teachers also need to know how much labeling to do in class and how much NOT to do. Knowing the grammar and knowing how to teach it are not the same thing.

    An MA in TEACHING [emphasis added] English to Speakers of Other Languages does not mean an MA in linguistics, so many MA programs offer coursework in practical applications like “Teaching ESL Reading” or “Methods” or “Syllabus and Curriculum Design.”

    It is important to note that the vast majority of people in MATESOL programs today are not teachers who are looking to be retrained. They are non-teachers. Therefore, we need to train them to manage 25 students, to write a lesson plan, to choose a textbook, to evaluate a learner’s level, to recognize pronunciation problems (and match that with a native language), to know a verb from a noun (basic English grammar that they should know already), to know ESL grammar points (such as those just mentioned), etc.

    Today’s MATESOL students have often never set foot in an ESL classroom. Many have trouble distinguishing an adjective from an adverb at all. Some have very limited experience with foreign languages. Yet they all want a degree in TESOL.

    With all of this material to cover, it is impossible for a person to complete all of this in the short time that people want today and come out a “master.” The person comes out knowledgeable about a wide array of ESL/EFL issues and then goes to practice them.

    When I got my MA in TESOL in 1980, I knew a great deal about many differen things, but my own ESL grammar knowledge didn’t really pique until I had to teach a grammar class every day. Our graduates from UCF are finding jobs worldwide. Many people have told me directly that they wish they’d had more grammar when they were with us… and that they didn’t really put the pieces together until they had to get up in front of their own group of students. I concur with this experience.

    Comment by Keith Folse | January 26, 2010 | Reply

  3. I am the Director of Studies of the MA TESOL Distance degree at Lancaster University and the course tutor for the Second Language Learning course within and read the discussion on your homepage about MA TESOL programs with interest. I very much agree with the points made in the post of my colleague from the University of Central Florida.
    An MA in TESOL is in fact a teaching degree and not a linguistics degree, in which we aim to equip teachers with the necessary skills and expertise to reflect on and research their teaching practices. A TESOL degree is course is for experienced teachers, so it is intended to complement what they have learned from earlier courses and experience. Teaching a language is not only about teaching grammar, but it also involves knowing how languages are learnt, how learners differ from each other and how one can develop effective teaching methods in a particular context. It is true that teachers need to be experts in their subject area, but just as importantly they also need to know how to pass on their expertise to students and how they can help students to develop expertise.
    Our distance course is modeled on a full-time on-campus course, and has as much work and study. 1/6 of the course on communicative grammar is the equivalent of what will be found on most TESOL courses – and of course there are issues related to grammar on other modules as well. The coverage of the issues relating to grammar is extensive in the course on Pedagogical Grammar, and the same is true for the Second Language Learning course. It is difficult to judge a course based entirely on the syllabi published on a web site, without considering its full curriculum.
    It is important to recognize, however, that because of its length and nature, no MA program can fully prepare students for the diverse contexts of language teaching, but it can hopefully equip them with the understanding, research skills and attitude of mind to go on learning from their own teaching experience after they received their degree.
    We thank you for giving us the opportunity to clarify our stand on your website.

    Comment by Judit Kormos | June 28, 2010 | Reply

  4. Bottom line: In general, very little of what Mr. Ward mentions is being done well and students are left with incomplete professional formation and huge debt. From my perspective as a graduate student, my own program at USF (Tampa) has been grossly inadequate. Perhaps “underperforming” is a better word. No excuse when some universities programs are doing a good job and choose to implement a better approach to training (Minnesota, U Hawaii, etc.). Please realize my perspective is K-12 but also informed on TEFL and even speech language pathology. Under the guise of using the “communicative teaching approach,” the hard work of offering a rich university background targeting proper English teaching tactics has been all but absent from my graduate program. (A program I worked hard to make VERY varied in order to compensate.) Why ask me to produce curriculum for a class project and give me an “A” (just bcs I did it) when I have done little else but guessed on best evidence approach, content and application? We get “blamed” as students and we are told, “it is on you.” After thousands invested to learn from those who supposedly know, I am only left with financing further workshops to “get it.” Unconscionable. TESOL/TEFL teaching staff need to address the “applied” dimension of grammar (morphology, syntax, phonology, pragmatics, semantics, etc.) early and instruct students with rich modules we can ingest, digest and learn to produce for future learners. Ludicrous but many grad programs are getting away without meaningful and content-rich curricula. If complex science topics (i.e., anatomy and physiology) are being properly condensed, TESOL/TEFL classes can also be molded to become richer, and more meaningful, and more multidimensional in nature. No reason students cannot be guided to meet general state or global requirements but also be offered better content, given access to quality internships, and enlist for further mentoring based on effective and hands-on strategies for teaching the English language. What does not qualify: Nebulous grad classes which “teach for content” based on a few grad-level articles and question-response assignments.

    Comment by jackie diaz | October 28, 2013 | Reply

  5. I am a teacher with 25 years experience and a specialist PGCE in TESOL. I am currently researching MA courses and specifically looking for ones that do NOT focus on just grammar. I have built up my grammar knowledge through teaching – and this is one of the things that I first loved about my job – unpicking my language and learning how to label it. People I meet who are new to TESOL generally say that they are worried that their grammar knowledge is too weak.I agree that it is necessary to have this underpinning knowledge but this is best learnt in the workplace and should be a knowledge that is in place before starting a masters. The above commentators are right – this is just one aspect of my teaching. I am looking to extend my skills on my MA. I guess if I wanted to study grammar in depth I would choose a masters in linguistics.

    Comment by bythesea3 | May 2, 2014 | Reply

  6. It’s very simple to find out any topic on web
    ass compared to textbooks, as I found this article at thhis web

    Comment by St Pete Blog | January 21, 2016 | Reply

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