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!!!!
Executive Director, CALLE