ESL Degree Programs

If you are interested in pursuing a career in the high-demand field of teaching English as a second language (ESL), this page covers degree pathways for those starting their career, existing teachers wanting to specialize in ESL, and career changers, who have a bachelor’s degree outside education. It also covers certification, top on-campus and online programs, coursework, and degree requirements.

Table of Contents

ESL Overview

The field of ESL is also commonly known as English to speakers of another language (ESOL), English as a new language (ENL), teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), and teaching English as a second language (TESL). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of students at US public schools who speak English as a second language is rising.1 The need for teachers who focus on teaching English as a second language (ESL) is in high demand, as the field is a designated shortage area in many regions in the US.2 During the 2022-2023 school year, for example, 25 states reported statewide shortages of ESL teachers.2

Personal characteristics that are conducive to the role of an ESL teacher include patience, good communication skills, a strong desire to teach speakers of another language (English language learners or ELLs), and a strong work ethic. Familiarity with the native language of the students is helpful, but not usually required.

Quick Facts

  • There are 419 not-for-profit colleges and universities with programs in teaching English as a second or foreign language/ESL language instructor or ESL.3
  • 104 schools offer a certificate in ESL.3
  • 6 schools offer an associate’s degree in ESL.3
  • 70 schools offer a bachelor’s degree in ESL.3
  • 353 schools offer a master’s or advanced degree in ESL.3

ESL Degrees and Certification

TESOL degrees are available at both traditional and online schools at various levels, with the majority at the graduate level. If you are interested in ESL and do not yet have a degree, you probably want to start looking at the undergraduate level. Bachelor’s-level ESL teacher preparation programs prepare graduates to teach reading, composition, speaking, and listening comprehension skills needed to communicate in another language. They usually comprise 120 credit hours, taking about four years of full-time study to complete. A student teaching (clinical) component is required as part of the curriculum to give students hands-on experience in the classroom and meet state teacher certification requirements. Some schools, such as the University of North Texas (UNT), include ESL as part of broader degree programs including English, language arts, reading, and/or linguistics. Upon graduation from, or sometimes during, your ESL bachelor’s program, you will be able to take the state teacher certification exams and gain ESL certification. State certification qualifies you to teach ESL at public PreK-12 schools.

For licensed teachers who decide to specialize in ESL as a secondary teaching area and for those who already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, a graduate-level program such as a master’s or graduate certificate program in ESL is a good choice. Master’s in ESL programs teach students specialized knowledge in second language acquisition, research, and practice. They usually consist of 30 credit hours and take about two years of full-time study to complete. Some programs lead to state certification (usually upon passing required state exams like the ESOL Praxis test or others and meeting other certification requirements) for those who are not yet certified teachers. For those who already have a master’s degree in another subject, an Education Specialist (EdS) degree is a good option.

If you are interested in research or teaching at the college or university level, a Doctor of Education (EdD) or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in ESL or a related subject like linguistics might be fitting. These advanced programs may focus on theories in learning and assessment, educational linguistics, and/or literacy in a second language. Some programs require a bachelor’s degree to be considered for admission while others require a master’s degree, but most doctoral programs prefer applicants who have experience teaching in a formal classroom setting.

At the international level, a variety of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) and TESOL certificate programs are offered that can take as little as four intensive weeks to complete, preparing students to teach English as a foreign language abroad. The CELTA certificate is a well-known and widely-respected certificate awarded by Cambridge Assessment English that can qualify graduates to teach English in countries around the world, depending on requirements. Whether you use CELTA or another certificate program, TEFL certification is often an important step for those interested in teaching English abroad.

Top-Ranked ESL Degree Programs

Niche’s Best Schools with ESL Degrees 2024

  • Georgetown University (#12; on campus)
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison (#59; on campus)
  • University of Washington (#60; on campus)
  • Ohio State University (#68; on campus)
  • Brigham Young University (#85; on campus)
  • University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (#94; on campus)
  • Oklahoma State University (#97; on campus)
  • Arizona State University (#106; on campus and online)
  • University of Massachusetts Amherst (#107; on campus)
  • University of Cincinnati (#144; online)4

Best Value Schools with On-Campus ESL Programs

The table below represents the best value non-profit colleges and universities offering ESL programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. To help you find the best ESL school for you, we have researched US schools with the highest graduation rates (80% or above at the undergraduate level) and the lowest net price (under $20,000 per year for undergraduates). We also included information such as degrees offered, percentage of faculty with tenure, and US News & World Report rankings.

SchoolUndergrad Degree(s)Grad Degree(s)US News Undergrad Teaching Rank5US News National Rank6Grad Rate3% Tenured Faculty7Net Price3
University of Washington-Seattle CampusMAT ESOLNR#59 tie84%51%$9,443
University of North Carolina at Chapel HillGraduate Certificate/MAT TESL (online);
M.Ed. TESL (online)
#34 tie#30 tie91%43%$11,100
Brigham Young University-ProvoMinor TESOLMA TESOLNR#66 tie83%46%$12,979
University of GeorgiaMinor TESOLMAT TESOL;
M.Ed. TESOL and World Language Education
#34 tie#46 tie85%54%$15,934
University of DelawareCertification TESLMA TESL;
TESL 4+1 Program
NR#89 tie82%57%$16,286
University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignState of Illinois ESL EndorsementGraduate Certificate in Teaching ESL (online);
MA Teaching English as a Second Language (MATESL);
Concentration in Second Language Acquisition and Teacher Education (SLATE)
#43 tie#46 tie85%51%$16,638
Binghamton UniversityAdvanced Certificate TESOL;
Certificate Clinically Rich Intensive Teacher Institute in ESL;
NR#80 tie82%39%$16,775
University of Minnesota-Twin CitiesCertificate ESL/TESL;
M.Ed. Initial Teaching License in Second Language Education
NR#76 tie80%59%$16,808
Ohio State University-Main CampusBSEd TESOL;
Endorsement TESOL (PK-12)
EdS Foreign, Second and Multilingual Language Education;
MA Foreign, Second and Multilingual Language Education;
PhD Foreign, Second and Multilingual Language Education
NR#56 tie83%45%$18,042

Best Value Schools with Online ESL Programs

The table below shows the best value public and not-for-profit teaching colleges and universities offering online programs in ESL. To compile our list, we considered only those schools with an undergraduate graduation rate of 70% or above and an undergraduate net price of below $20,000. Along with other factors such as the US News & World Report rankings and percentage of faculty with tenure, these are common indicators of quality programs that support student success.

SchoolGrad Degree(s)US News Undergrad Teaching Rank5US News National Rank6Grad Rate3% Tenured Faculty7Net Price3
University of California-Los AngelesCertificate TESOL#76 tie#2091%46%$15,002
University of GeorgiaGraduate Certificate TESOL#40 tie#50 tie86%53%$15,539
University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignCertificate TESLNR#48 tie84%50%$15,829
West Chester University of PennsylvaniaCertificate ESL Program Specialist (PDEEPS)NRNR75%40%$19,091
University of South Florida-Main CampusM.Ed. TESOLNR#104 tie73%37%$10,460
University of IowaMA TESOLNR#84 tie73%48%$15,817
College of CharlestonGraduate Certificate ESOL; M.Ed. ESOL#7NR71%37%$19,649
University of UtahCertificate TESOL#64 tie#104 tie70%42%$13,460
George Mason UniversityGraduate Certificate TESL#76 tie#153 tie70%27%$19,064

ESL Degree Requirements and Coursework

Requirements for entrance into an ESL program vary depending on the school and degree level but commonly include a minimum GPA, completion of specific courses, qualifying exam scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay. Graduate-level programs may require GRE or GMAT scores. Courses found in an ESL teaching program curriculum include:

  • Bilingualism and Bilingual Education
  • Classroom Methodology and Practice
  • Cross Cultural Issues in ESL
  • The English Language
  • ESL Curriculum and Instruction
  • Grammatical Structure of American English
  • Materials & Curriculum Development and Assessment
  • Modern English Grammar
  • Principles of Language Testing
  • Second Language Acquisition Theory
  • Special Topics in ESL
  • Teaching English as a Foreign Language
  • Teaching Practicum

Select ESL Degree Programs

Traditional Programs

Binghamton University

Binghamton University’s Department of Teaching, Learning, and Educational Leadership (TLEL) offers a Master of Arts (MA), a Master of Science in Education (MSEd), and a certificate in TESOL. The MA degree prepares graduates to work in college ESL programs and the MSEd is offered to certified teachers who want to teach English Language Learners (ELLs) in a K-12 setting. The programs at Binghamton teach students theoretical and practical approaches to ESL and cover the history of ELLs, literacy development, and language acquisition, among other subjects. Full-time students can complete the master’s degree in three semesters. Students will end their program with either a capstone project or a master’s thesis. A dedicated faculty advisor who offers guidance throughout the program is assigned to each student and local schools offer student teaching opportunities for real-world experience.

Illinois State University

Illinois State University offers a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Elementary Education: Bilingual/Bicultural Sequence that prepares graduates to teach ESL learners in the elementary grades. Students may apply for admission to the program as early as the freshman year of study after completing at least 12 credit hours of college coursework with a minimum GPA of 2.8. Courses in the major include Cross Cultural Teaching & Learning; Biliteracy Development in K-12 Classrooms; and Assessment of Bilingual Learners & Bilingual Program Design. Students also complete clinical student teaching placements totaling over 300 clock hours in elementary classrooms as well as a year-long internship in a professional development school. Spanish fluency is a requirement for completing the major, which is demonstrated by achieving an acceptable score on the Illinois Licensure Testing System (ILTS) Target Language Proficiency Test. The program boasts a 100% hiring record for past program graduates (as of 2017).

Ohio State University

Ohio State University offers a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Education, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) to prepare new teachers to be educators and advocates for English language learners. TESOL majors take courses in multiple academic fields and are prepared to teach ESL at the elementary through high school levels. Graduates are recommended for an initial multi-age teaching license through the Ohio Department of Education. The curriculum at Ohio State includes courses such as Introduction to Second Language Acquisition, Methods & Culture in TESOL, Syllabus & Materials Development in Second Language Acquisition, and Assessment and Instruction for Struggling Readers. During their third and fourth years, students have a minimum of four field placements in TESOL at the elementary, middle, and high school grade levels. Students are also encouraged to study abroad, especially as a means of acquiring a minor or a concentration in another language.

Texas A&M University

Texas A&M University’s graduate program in English as a Second Language (ESL) provides students with the opportunity to earn a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Education (M.Ed.), the latter of which prepares students to move on to doctoral study. Graduates of the program gain the credentials to teach ESL in a number of settings, including kindergarten through 12th grade, in community programs, at community colleges, and in school settings abroad. 32 credits are necessary to earn the MS, while the M.Ed. program requires 36 credits. All ESL graduate students must complete the same three core classes: Analysis of Teaching Behavior, Cultural Foundations of Education, and Curriculum Development. The program takes place in a traditional classroom setting on campus. GRE scores are not required.

University of Iowa

The University of Iowa College of Education, Department of Foreign Language, and ESL Education offers several teacher preparation programs that lead to certification in English as a second language. First-time bachelor’s degree students may be interested in the school’s English as a Second Language Added Endorsement Program, which is open to those who are pursuing an elementary or secondary level teacher education program for initial certification. The University of Iowa is a leader in ESL education and is home to the EL Bridge Project, an initiative designed to help prepare teachers in STEM fields to work with English language learners. The University of Iowa also offers a Master of Arts (MA) in Foreign Language and ESL Education as well as a graduate certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).

University of Washington

The University of Washington offers a Master of Arts for Teachers (MAT) of English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). The MAT in ESOL requires a minimum of 44 credits plus fluency in a second language and most students complete the major in six quarters of full-time study. Courses such as Theory and Practice of TESOL, Research Methods in Second Language Acquisition, and Survey of Linguistic Method and Theory are required as part of the core TESOL coursework, and optional courses including Language and Social Policy, Approaches to Teaching Composition, Teaching the Bilingual/Bicultural Student, and Multilingual Socialization and Development are offered in addition to the core. The MAT also requires a Practicum in Teaching ESL, which takes the form of a teaching assistantship giving students real-world experience. The foreign language requirement must be demonstrated by a GPA of 3.0 or higher in a second-year university course taken within the past three years, a passing score on a language exam administered by UW Educational Assessment Center, or an approved professional verification.

Online and Hybrid Programs

Arizona State University

Arizona State University features a 30-credit graduate program leading to a Master of Arts (MA) in English as a Second Language (ESL). Students will complete a comprehensive curriculum that includes an introduction to research, ESL for children, assessment and evaluation of English Language Learner (ELL) students, as well as bilingualism and second language acquisition. The program culminates with a practicum in which students gain hands-on teaching experience in an ESL classroom. The mandatory practicum ensures graduate students meet all of the educational requirements for earning an endorsement in ESL in Arizona. A total of 30 credit hours spread over 10 classes are needed to complete the master’s degree. Applicants to the program should have a minimum 3.0 GPA in the last 60 hours of their first bachelor’s degree or a minimum 3.0 GPA in their master’s degree program. Official transcripts, three letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and a current resume should be submitted with your application.

California University of Pennsylvania

California University of Pennsylvania (CALU) offers an online English as a Second Language Master of Education (M.Ed.) program for current teachers that leads to an add-on endorsement in ESL in the state of Pennsylvania. This 33-credit-hour degree program can be completed entirely online. Courses in the curriculum include Developing Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity; Language Acquisition and Development; and Content Instruction and Assessment Pre-K to Grade 12. The program is designed to be completed in five consecutive semesters, with students progressing through the curriculum as part of a cohort group. Admission is open to those who already hold a bachelor’s degree and teacher certification. Credits earned towards the master’s program may be applied toward continuing education and development requirements. CALU also offers a stand-alone graduate ESL certificate for teachers looking to add the ESL endorsement to their existing teaching credentials without completing a master’s degree.

Western Governors University

Western Governors University’s (WGU) ELL (English Language Learning PreK-12) Endorsement Preparation Program allows already-certified elementary, middle, and high school teachers to qualify for an additional endorsement to teach English as a second language (ESL) in grades pre-K through 12. The program, which students complete entirely online with the exception of a three-credit practicum, generally requires 12 to 18 months to complete. Each semester runs for six months. All ELL/ESL students will be matched with a mentor, with whom they will work throughout the program. The curriculum covers such topics as culture, the professional role of the ELL teacher, and subject-specific pedagogy. All students will complete a mandatory orientation to acclimate them to online learning. WGU recommends that students investigate their state’s ELL/ESL certification requirements, which may require additional examinations or coursework that is specific to the individual state.

Additional Resources

ESL and Foreign Language Teacher Career Interviews

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What’s the difference between “ESL” and “ESOL”?

Answer: The meaning of ESL is “English as a second language” while ESOL stands for “English to speakers of other languages.” The terms are often used interchangeably, but ESOL is thought to be more inclusive since it does not assume that English is the second language, when it may be the fourth or fifth for some students! In American English, TESOL is usually used as an umbrella term, including teaching English as a second language (TESL) and teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL).

Question: What certification do I need to teach English abroad?

Answer: Requirements for teaching English abroad depend on the school hiring. Generally, they look for someone with a four-year degree; in fact, more and more countries require American teachers to hold active certification in the US. Some employers like to see that you have state-level ESL, TEFL, or TESOL certification. You should also have previous teaching experience and some knowledge of the language spoken in the country in which you hope to work. For more information on teaching English abroad and TEFL certification, see our TEFL teacher career guide.

Question: What is ESL certification or endorsement?

Answer: ESL or ESOL certification or endorsement signifies that you are qualified to teach English as a second language (or to speakers of another language) in your state. All states require that you take an ESL/TESOL exam and become certified to teach ESL through a traditional or alternative educational pathway, often satisfied by obtaining a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education or teaching that is focused on ESL.

Question: What kinds of bachelor’s in ESL programs are there?

Answer: Undergraduate degrees in ESL are offered as Bachelor of Arts (BA) in ESL or ESOL, Bachelor of Science (BS) in ESL or ESOL, and Bachelor of Science in Education (BSEd) degrees. Additionally, many schools offer undergraduate minors in ESL or ESOL.

Question: What graduate degrees are offered in ESL?

Answer: ESL graduate-level programs include degrees such as Master of Arts (MA) in ELL/ESL; MA in Teaching (MAT); MA in TESL (MATESL); MA in TESOL (MATESOL); Master of Education (M.Ed.); Master of Science (MS); Master of Science in Education (MSEd); and Educational Specialist (EdS) degrees, as well as a variety of graduate-level ESL certificates. Related degrees, such as Applied Linguistics, can also qualify you to teach ESL.

Question: Do I need a master’s in ESL to be an ESL teacher?

Answer: Most ESL degrees are found at the graduate level, but many are found at the undergraduate level. While a master’s in ESL is not always required for ESL teaching positions, ESL/ESOL certification is almost always required to teach in the public school system. To qualify for certification, you will have to attend a state-approved ESL teaching program and pass your state’s required exams. Presently certified teachers looking to teach ESL may be interested in attending a master’s in ESL online, which offers more flexibility for working students.

Student Reviews

Note: Student Reviews are based on the experiences of a few individuals and it is unlikely that you will have similar results. Please review the “Data, Student Reviews and Other Information” section in our Terms of Use and Disclaimers.

University of Central Florida
4000 Central Florida Blvd
Orlando, FL 32816
(407) 823-2000

Student Review: “The MATESOL graduate program at the University of Central Florida proved to be a wonderful experience. Initially, you are given the option of a thesis or a four-hour comprehensive written exam. The thesis or exam material had to relate to the five core courses of the teaching program, which was Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I opted for the comprehensive exam and passed with flying colors. I found the teachers were friendly and always available in/after class for questions. I still speak and correspond with a couple of my teachers, who have now become mentors. The classes, themselves, were challenging but also enlightening. Because of my experience at UCF, I have now moved on to become a university teacher myself.” -Catherine M., student at University of Central Florida

1. National Center for Educational Statistics, English Learners in Public Schools: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cgf
2. US Department of Education, Teacher Shortage Areas: https://tsa.ed.gov/
3. National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator: https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
4. Niche Best Colleges with Teaching English as a Second Language Degrees in America:
5. US News & World Report Best Undergraduate Teaching National University Rankings: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities/undergraduate-teaching
6. US News & World Report National University Rankings: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities7. College Factual: https://www.collegefactual.com/