The Personal MA TESOL: English Language Foundations

A great (grave?) assumption made around the world is that native English speakers are experts at the English language. The existence of spelling bees, grammar books in high school, and Twitter should be proof enough that native speakers are not natural born experts – no more an expert than any other native speaker of any other language. Still, English language teachers have certain expectations of them to know the hows and whys of the subject they teach, and with good reason. Would we expect any less from chemistry or music teachers? Of course, even the top PhDs in any field might need a few minutes of introspection or Googling when asked out-of-field questions they have never encountered. So, we can also forgive the English teacher when they are asked about the subjective mood in English and are left literally dumbstruck.

Nevertheless, a firm foundation in the English language is perfectly reasonable goal for any English language professional; it is also quite a lofty goal. A firm foundation in the English language encompasses a great number of topics, which include but are not limited to: grammar, phonology, orthography, pragmatics, semantics, synctatics, and history. Some of thee are quite interesting. Others will put you to sleep. I have personal experience with some of them, so below are a number of resources I feel can give one a grasp of the beast that is the English language.

History of the English Language

There are numerous books on the history of the English language, many of which have interesting title’s I’d like to read, like “A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach” and “The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language“. But, when it comes to the history of the English language, David Crystal seems to be God. He is referred to most often when this subject comes up. His quintessential texts are “The Stories of English” and “The Story of English in 100 Words“.

“Stories” presents a unique perspective of the English language tracing not only standard-English’s rise, but also the evolution of a number of English dialects. In “100 Words”, Crystal uses 10o hand picked words to tell the history of the language in an entertaining fashion.

Not to be outdone by a non-linguist, Crystal does have a tough competitor that has made it on my list of English language history books: Bill Bryson. Bryson has two excellent and highly entertaining books on the subject: “The Mother Tongue – English And How It Got That Way,” which traces English throughout history, and “Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States,” a book about English in the US.

If you don’t have time to read a book on the subject, or just can’t decide, you can watch this video series instead:



English spelling is lambasted the world over for its irregularity and difficulty. I actually enjoy English spelling, because each odd word holds a bit of history in it. I haven’t read any serious books on English orthography, but I had to include it here because a new book by David Crystal has just come out. “Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling” is supposed to be an entertaining and informative journey through the history of English spelling.




There is a secret to English grammar: there are no rules. Unlike French or Turkish, there is not a governing body of English which sets rules and standardizes spelling. What we have are agreed upon notions of how English should look and sound. Some take it too far and prescribe rules that are in actuality only personal preferences, such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, starting a sentence with and, or splitting an infinitive. Despite the lack of authority, these agreed upon sentiments are important and do constitute English grammar. So, where does one learn all the “rules”? I recommend two resources:

  1. Michael Swan’s “Practical English Grammar“, which is an in depth grammar guide for both learners and teachers. It is often considered the Bible of English grammar. It is an easy to read grammar reference guide which contains pretty much everything you may need to know about English grammar.
  2. I like Swan’s book, but my actual go to book is Cowan’s “The Teacher’s Grammar of English“, which, like “Practical English Grammar,” is a reference book – but Cowan’s book is so much more. It contains detailed grammatical descriptions with contrasting examples, as well as highlights which languages have problems with specific grammar points and why. In addition, it offers useful grammar teaching activities to address each point’s anticipated problems. To me, this is the Bible of English. Swan’s is only secondary. Also, unlike Swan’s, if one wished, they could sit down and actually read this grammar book without falling asleep.



The focus of phonology and morphology is the production of sounds, and thus pronunciation. It seems every aspect of TESOL has its “bible”, and this remains true for pronunciation. At over 500 pages, “Teaching Pronunciation” by Celce-Murcia et al. is probably the best reference guide for pronunciation teaching and practice. It has detailed descriptions of the English sound system, which includes phonetics, stress, intonation, and connected speech. In each chapter, there are a plethora of teaching techniques and activities as well. Only half the book is dedicated to pronunciation practice. The other half focuses on testing, implementation, listening, and a host of different teaching techniques. Using this book will definitely give you a leg up in terms of your pronunciation teaching effectiveness. Though it is very detailed, I still found it easily approachable, especially since the basic phonetic concepts are clearly explained in each chapter. There are lots of practice and sample exercises which are perfect for adaptation or using straight out of the book.

The Personal MA TESOL: Bilingualism

At its most basic, the goal of English language teaching is bi- or multilingualism, isn’t it? We are not trying to replace one’s language; we are trying to add to one’s linguistic repertoire, and with it some cognitive, economic, and social benefits. So, bilingualism and bilingual education is actually at the core of TESOL.

I consider Colin Baker’s “Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism” to be the Bible of bilingualism. Baker discusses bilingualism (and multilingualism) from almost every aspect. He looks at what it means to be bilingual, quickly dispelling the myth that only those who have perfect native-like fluency in two languages is bilingual. He looks at bilingualism in society and has a good discussion of diglossic nations. There is in-depth discussion of the cognitive dimensions of bilingualism, including past and present research on the benefits (many) and drawbacks (almost none). And of course, he discusses bilingual education in-depth, which includes its history, the different types of bilingual education, their effectiveness, and even bilingual education’s controversial nature in the States. Hands down, this is the quintessential guide to bilingualism. (Note: You can view much of the book for free from Google Books.)


Those of us interested in bilingualism probably hope that our children will one day be bilingual. Baker also has a book for that: “A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism“. To be honest, I have not read it. But, based off of “Foundations…”, I would wager it is an excellent resource. However, I have read “Language Strategies For Bilingual Families” (Google Books link) by Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert. This is an excellent, well-researched book that discusses different strategies for raising a bilingual or multilingual family. Although it focuses on one-parent, one-language (the OPOL approach), it gives great details and ideas for other approaches. There are actually numerous approaches, and although OPOL is the most effective, it is not the only effective method. Whatever method, research shows that families that consciously plan and actively pursue bilingualism usually attain their goals.

There are literally hundreds of resources available online on this subject. Two of my favorites are

  • Professor Francois Grosjean’s website – he is a bilingualism researcher with a number of articles on his website that are worth a read. He is probably bilingualism’s most vocal proponent. Consider him bilingualism’s David Crystal.
  • Multilingual Living – a online magazines and forum dedicated to having multilingual families. You will also find links to related blogs and websites.

And finally, because a discussion of bilingualism cannot be complete without a discussion of polyglottery and hyperpolyglottery (a person who can speak 11 or more languages), I recommend “Babel, No More” by Michael Erard. His book details his search for true hyperpolyglots, through time and around the globe. While pursuing hyperpolyglots, he looks at issues such as language learning, culture, and even neuroscience.

In addition, I recommend doing a YouTube search for “polyglot” and subsequently having your mind blown. I’ll start you off with two videos. The first is of the most recent polyglot who has made the news (Timothy Doner, 16). The other is of a man speaking 16 languages at a polyglot convention in Hungary.

The Personal MA TESOL: Second Language Acquisition

Lightbown. Spada. Lightbown. Spada. Lightbown. Spada. During the first year of my master’s program, these were among the most common names encountered (not to mention Nunan, Krashen, Ellis, and others). I always thought it was rather funny when students, who had either encountered the name too many times or never bothered to read it and just skimmed , would constantly write “Lightbrown,” adding in the extra r. Lightbrown. Lightbown.

There are a pleth ora of books on SLA (second language acquisition) and “How Languages Are Learned” is among the best. As most SLA books do, they start off with a discussion of first language acquisition compared to second language acquisition and then run through a gamut of different theories. What makes this book great is that is is easily read and contains accessible language, which is important as a foundations book. This is written to serve as an introduction to SLA, and therefore clarity in language is imperative. All in all, this book serves as a great foray into a complex and tenuous subject.

In addition to the Lightbown and Spada book, those looking into SLA would want to check out these free online resources:

Please feel free to add more important SLA readings in the comments below.

The Personal MA TESOL: Learning Theories

One of the best courses I ever took during my master’s degree program was called “Learning and Cognition”, taught by Dr. Curtis Bonk (you can even view the current syllabus here). We focused on the different theories of how we learn. And we looked at learning from behaviorist, biological, cognitive, and social aspects. What made this class great, besides the creatively taught content, was the actual power of understanding how we learn. This information had a profound effect on my teaching.

Although there are a mix of competing and contradictory theories, you come away from a course like this understanding the essential ingredients or requirements of learning. Understanding the theories translates surprisingly well to practice in the classroom. In addition, it gives one’s instruction a sense of validity, especially when you begin to root instruction in different learning theories or are able to refer to a group of theories to explain why something is beneficial.

The book “Psychology of Learning for Instruction” by Mary Driscoll was our main text. It was a great read. How many times can you say this about a book on theory? She explored all major learning theories from radical behaviorism in the 1940s to more recent ideas about constructivism. She also covered some of the rock stars of the field, including Skinner, Ausubel, Gagné, Piaget, Bruner, Vygotsky, and more. And she did this all while giving examples of these learning theories in action, presenting them at as real world situations at the beginning of each chapter as well as showing their applications at the end of each chapter. This is why it is called “Psychology of Learning for Instruction“. She also includes mind maps of each learning theory to see how their constitute parts fit together. The book is obviously written with learning in mind, taking a cue from constructivism (presenting things in context, concretizing), schema theory (relating things to what we already know), and informational processing (the mind maps).

Finally, at the end of a well-researched tome on learning theories, she gives the reader room to breathe by suggesting that they create their own, informed personal theory of teaching and learning which can “serve as an improved guide to your own instructional practices…[a]nd as you gain experience, your practical knowledge will serve to temper your theoretical understandings to enable you to make instruction as good as it can be” (pp. 399-404).

Not only did this book give me a way of using theory to improve my instruction but it also help to contribute to my ever-changing personal theory of teaching and learning – something every teacher should have.

Another related resource is the POLT (Practice of Learning Theories) wikibook, which focuses on learning theories in practice. It also has an emphasis on language learning. It serves as a quick reference for learning theories, as well as a guide to their practical applications. It’s a great complement to the Driscoll book.

The Personal MA TESOL: Introduction

“You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.” – Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting)

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” – Isaac Asimov

In the past two weeks I have read about four books, one of which was Josh Kaufman’s “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast“. While reading the book, he mentioned another book he wrote called “The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business“. This book is billed as an alternative to business school and gives a condensed but in-depth look at the foundational ideas needed to succeed in business. I haven’t read it yet, but I did read Kaufman’s personal MBA manifesto and his list of the 99 best business books, broken down by category. It reads like a MBA program curriculum.

As I read it, I wondered what a personal MA TESOL would look like? Would that be interesting to someone? Is that such a crazy idea? While you don’t need an MBA to succeed in business or make money – you just need the know-how,  you do need an accredited MA degree to break through a very thick glass ceiling and start a serious career in language education. Then again, not everyone measures success by money. If you measure in terms effectiveness in the classroom, then a personal MA TESOL is not such a wild idea.

In fact, with the world of open education, MOOCs, Coursera, Udacity, edX, and a plethora of free online courses and programs, it really isn’t such a crazy idea after all. People all over the world are learning things on their own these days. Lifelong learners are now the norm.

A personal MA TESOL won’t get you a degree, a high paying job, a yacht, or beautiful women (the things usually associated with it), but the ideas, concepts, methodologies, and techniques you would learn could prove pretty beneficial in the classroom.

I don’t know much (or anything) about business, but I do know something about language education (I have one of those accredited degrees in the field, technically an MSEd). So, inspired by Kaufman, I’d like to start a mini series of posts about the Personal MA TESOL. Every week or so, I’ll make a post on a category of language education, akin to a course of study in graduate school. In each post, I will recommend books and online resources that I have personally read or used. The comments will be open for readers to suggest additional resources. I will start with the foundations and work my way up from theory to praxis, focusing on practical skills and methodologies. After a few months, we’ll have a nice, well rounded Personal MA TESOL for newbies, dedicated teachers, and lifelong learners.

Here’s my rough personal MA TESOL outline. I’ll make the first post sometime this week. Leave a comment if you think I am missing something important:

  1. Learning Theories – the psychology behind learning
  2. Second Language Acquisition – how we learn languages
  3. Bilingualism – what it means to be bilingual
  4. The English Language – its history, grammar, and pronunciation
  5. Applied Linguistics – lingustics, sociolinguistics, semantics, pragmatics and other large words
  6. Materials and Assessment – crossword puzzles and word searches for the serious teacher
  7. Pedagogy – a fantastic voyage from grammar translation to dogme
  8. Evidence-based Pedagogy – notes from the experts
  9. Language Fun – a break from seriousness
  10. Educational Research – qualitiative and quantitative
  11. Practical Teaching Skills  – how to teach reading, writing, listening, speaking and more
  12. Task-Based Learning – authentic and meaningful tasks in the classroom
  13. English for Specific Purposes – and not just general purposes
  14. Instructional Technology in ELT – beyond PPTs and Twitter
  15. English as a Lingua Franca – that means world language
  16. Rethinking TESOL – a critical analysis of the world’s greatest job

Looking it over, it’s quite the load!