Relating linguistic theory to TESOL practice in a distance MA programme

Author: Pamela Rogerson-Revell


This paper considers some of the issues involved in ensuring that a distance Masters programme is both academically rigorous and vocationally relevant. It will demonstrate that students are motivated not only by career concerns but also by their desire to deepen their understanding of theoretical aspects of Linguistics and language learning and show how one Department (at the University of Leicester) meets these demands in their distance MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL.

Table of contents


Most postgraduate students of Applied Linguistics are motivated not only by their desire to deepen their understanding of Linguistics and language learning but also by career concerns. This can create a tension for the providers of masters programmes between ensuring the provision of a sound foundation in theoretical and descriptive aspects of Linguistics while meeting the vocational needs, expectations and experiences of our students.

Distance learning postgraduate students can have additional motivations and constraints. Most of our own distance MA students are trying to study part time while working full time, often in demanding jobs. The majority of them are paying their own tuition fees and are very motivated to gain a masters qualification. They are typically limited in the amount of time they have to study and in their access to study resources such as books and materials and contact with fellow students.

Studying any subject at distance can be difficult. Studying an academic subject which is explicitly related to professional practice, such as our MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL, can have additional challenges. In this article I will discuss some of these challenges with specific reference to distance programmes, providing illustrations from our own distance MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL at the University of Leicester .

A profile of our distance-learning student

The majority of students on our distance MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL programme are native speakers of English (approximately 70%). Nearly all are practising English language teachers, although we do have some students teaching languages other than English. They tend to work in a wide range of teaching contexts, from self-employed tutor in a private language school, to school or college teacher. Nearly all have at least two years relevant teaching experience (our minimum requirement) but many have substantially more than that and have often worked in a variety of countries and professional contexts. To illustrate, from a recent email enquiry from a potential applicant:

Firstly, it may be helpful if I explain my situation. I am an English and ESL teacher, currently living and teaching in Queensland, Australia, having previously taught at colleges in Japan and Singapore for a period of eight years. My qualifications are a full-time four-year BA (Hons) in English Literature and a one-year (full-time) Diploma of Education, specialising in English and ESL. (British, native speaker)

Regarding their reasons for wanting to do the MA, they vary from the openly expedient desire to get a socially high position and earn more money' to wanting to improve my teaching skills' or simply to learn more and more'(taken from distance MA applications, 2003). However, taken on average, the typical applicant seems to want the course to broaden their subject knowledge, in order to enhance their teaching abilities and consequently improve their career prospects. As some recent applicants put it:

Simply stated, my desire to enroll in the Applied Lingusitics TESOL programme is to broaden my knowledge and enhance my teaching abilities.(Canadian, native English speaking applicant)

The MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL is of direct relevance to my undergraduate background and teaching experience.To promote my abilities to execute my duties professionally and with the utmost academic accuracy as is expected of me, I would like to read for certified qualification in TESOL.(Singaporean, native English speaking applicant)

As a teacher, I should never cease studying and expanding my knowledge. Therefore, I believe that the MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL will offer me significant guidance and assist me in achieving my goals and following a successful career in teaching English. (Greek, non-native English speaking applicant)

Some applicants have a more focused aim in mind:

The prime focus of my graduate studies at Leicester's school of Applied Linguistics is to further my development as a teacher of English as a second language in three particular areas: Second Language Acquisition, Testing and Intercultural Communication.(British, native English speaking applicant)

Further to that, the Applied Linguistics modules offered in the course allows for specialization in Second Language Acquisition, an area of particular interest to me. I aim to undertake advanced study in the area and hope to be able to actively and positively contribute to the improvement of English Language Teaching in the educational institutions in Germany.(Singaporean, native English speaking applicant)

I am particularly interested in theories of second language acquisition, bilingualism, sociolinguistics and discourse analysis. I believe that the scholarship of these areas will not only heighten my knowledge of factors affecting language learning but also, in turn, improve my ability as a teacher to create an environment conducive to language acquisition.(British, native English speaker)

As our applicant profiles have shown, and presumably this is true of most other masters in Applied Linguistics programmes, our students are motivated by a combination of interests: to deepen their understanding of theoretical aspects of Linguistics and language learning, to relate this to their own teaching situation and also, often, to further their career prospects. To illustrate, with an example of a recent email correspondence between a distance student and tutor:

This year, I was appointed the Asst. Head of the EL & Literature Dept.  Initially, I was quite reluctant but the M.A. programme and especially Module 5 have given me the preparation and the confidence that I could do it. Recently, my Principal asked me to design an English Conversation 5-day course for 20 Indonesian kids aged 11-12.  I dug into my Module 1 TESOL notes for some ideas and together with my past experience with children, I came up with a detailed outline of the course, within a week.  He liked it immediately. (Singaporean distance student)

Consequently it is important that applied' programmes such as ours not only select relevant linguistic content but also provide opportunities for our students to relate this content to pedagogic practice.

Academic standards

Assuring academic quality regarding course content, delivery and assessment, is a fundamental prerequisite of any reputable Masters programme, whether studied face-to-face or at a distance. However, in a sense, distance MAs are under pressure to vouchsafe their quality even more than campus taught courses because of the scepticism of some governments and individuals about the nature and standing of distance degrees in general. (see also Robinson 2001, 1992)

In the UK, there is a range of institutionalised mechanisms to safeguard the academic standards of postgraduate and undergraduate taught and distance degrees, at both the university and national level. All degree programmes need to provide detailed course specification documentation which stipulates how a particular course ensures the quality of its teaching and learning content and methods and demonstrates intended learning outcomes. As well as such internal mechanisms, there are government-funded bodies, such as the ESRC and the QAA, which provide some general guidelines about subject specific knowledge and skills and which also, in the case of the QAA, audit the quality of course provision. Nevertheless, there is still considerable flexibility for individual institutions to determine their own approaches to course content, delivery and assessment.

Selecting linguistic content

This flexibility, together with the large number of Masters degrees on offer results in a vast array of MA programmes in applied Linguistics, with a variety of titles, approaches and course content. In the case of our own MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL, and indeed in the name of our recently formed Centre for English Language Teacher Education and Applied Linguistics (CELTEAL), we deliberately opted for a title that reflects our concern to provide a balance between theoretical and pedagogic content and to relate one to the other.

The variety in the range and depth of linguistic coverage in Masters programmes reflects differences in perceptions regarding, for example, what and how much Linguistics or Applied Linguistics should be covered, what the balance between linguistic theory and pedagogic application should be and what content to make core to a course and what to make optional.

Linguistics v Applied Linguistics

The debate over the distinction between Linguistics and Applied Linguistics is far from new, as is evidenced by the work of Halliday, McIntosh and Strevens (1964) Corder (1973) and Crystal (1980), among others.

...Applied Linguistics starts when a description is specifically made, or an existing description used, for a further purpose which lies outside the linguistic sciences. (Halliday, McIntosh and Strevens 1964:138)

The QAA's Subject Benchmark Statement in Linguistics acknowledges the difficulty that many of us have in deciding what exactly is linguistic' content and what falls within the scope of Applied Linguistics':

This benchmark statement is concerned, then, with Linguistics understood as the systematic study of language in both its theoretical and applied aspects. However, the line between these two aspects is not always easy to draw. (Subject Benchmark Statement for Linguistics, QAA 2002:2)

Linguistic description v linguistic theory

Regarding the distinction between linguistic description and linguistic theory, the Benchmark further stipulates that:

A Linguistics student would have a knowledge of a range of empirical linguistic phenomena and of the relevant descriptive terminology so as to have a practical understanding of what language is and how it works in actual use. This knowledge may be largely descriptive but is usually informed by an appropriate theoretical framework.

It could be argued that one of the things that distinguishes postgraduate students from undergraduates is their ability not only to describe linguistic phenomenon accurately but also to situate their description within an appropriate theoretical framework. This emphasis is illustrated for example in the assignment brief for the discourse analysis component of our third module, Language, Discourse and Society', where students are required not only to analyse a piece of authentic discourse but also to describe and justify the theoretical framework within which the description is based.

Core v optional content

Similarly, regarding the difficulty in deciding what linguistic content should be core, some guidance is offered by the QAA Benchmark, although it is related specifically at first degree courses:

Graduates with a first degree with honours in linguistics will be expected to have an appreciation of the basic concepts, modes of analysis and theoretical approaches in more than one of the areas of study which are traditionally distinguished within structural approaches to Linguistics and we term levels of analysis': phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics and discourse. (Subject Benchmark Statement for Linguistics, QAA 2002:2 )

The guidelines go on to suggest that programmes may vary in how they balance the different levels of analysis, but advise that programmes should ... have at least a basic introductory course unit that introduces students to the wide range of issues in linguistics. (ibid:2)

The Leicester MA course structure

Obviously most programmes will, in general, select or modify various aspects of this linguistic core in the light of their own teaching and research strengths and the needs of their students. In the case of our own MA, we have opted for a fairly strong Linguistics core (see Fig 1 below), based on the argument that it enables students to develop a principled approach to investigating language in use by initiating them into the study of Linguistics as a broad discipline.

Fig 1 Structure of MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL, CELTEAL

Module One Methodology of English Language Teaching
Module Two Descriptions of Modern English
Module Three Language, Discourse and Society
Module Four Second Language Acquisition
Module Five Options (2 chosen out of 10)
Module Six Dissertation

In this way we tend to avoid early specialisation, with a view to encouraging students to recognise the interdisciplinary nature of much linguistic study and to develop a critical approach to their studies and particularly their research by being able to consider specific questions and issues about language use within an overall linguistic framework. However, a tension exists between providing such a broad brush approach and enabling students to develop sufficient expertise in a particular area to carry out clearly specified research. This tension is reflected in the increasing amount of modularity in many Applied Linguistics masters programmes.

Obviously within the relatively substantial linguistic core, each module covers both theoretical and applied aspects of a particular branch of Linguistics, so that for instance, Module Two, Descriptions of Modern English, includes not only theoretical and descriptive aspects of phonology and grammar but also their pedagogic application. Assignments and activities within each module allow students to explore a particular area in depth and show their understanding of key theoretical concepts and issues as well as requiring them to relate these to their own professional context.

Relating theory to practice

In some ways, our distance learning students are in a very good position to relate theory to practice as most of them are working in TESOL related jobs and are therefore constantly able to relate their academic studies to their own teaching experiences. One of the main benefits we have found is that nearly all of our distance students are practising language teachers with a ready source of classrooms and students for observation and analysis. In a sense, therefore, this easy access to empirical data can be very advantageous for our students when it comes to collecting data for their portfolios or dissertation. This is evidenced in the topics of their written work, as illustrated in Fig 2 below.

Fig 2 Sample student written work topics from the distance MA

The impact of a translation component on the written grammar of EFL preparatory-year students at Sultan Qaboos University in the Sultanate of Oman.

A Study of Backchannelling in the English Conversation of a Group of Learners at Myung-Duk Foreign Language High School in Seoul, The Republic of Korea.

Determining which determiner: the use of the article among Swedish university students.

The skills of academic management with relevance to staff appraisals in an EFL Argentinian organisation.

As the formative assessment of each distance module also requires students to carry out a series of pedagogic activities, this ensures that they are regularly relating academic theory to their own classroom practices, as is illustrated in the following section (Fig 3) from a discussion on grammar from the distance MA mailing list, MAAL:

Fig 3 Section from MAAL mailing list grammar discussion

--- Lillian > wrote:
Hello Everyone,

I wonder if someone can help me out here.  Is it possible to use the determiner 'much' in an affirmative statement for any singular noun (using a formal register)?  In his book "English in Use", Michael Swan states that 'much' is used in questions and negative statements.  It is also used with singular noun.  My question is, can it be used with all singular nouns?

I have a(n Intermediate) student who is adament about using 'much' in this fashion:

"I didn't watch television last night because I had much homework to do."

I corrected the student and wrote 'a lot of' in place of 'much'.  Now I am beginning to wonder if his sentence is correct, because I have also read similar sentences such as "There is much crime in major cities."

Can someone shed some light on this topic?

Thank you,

However, the fact that distance learners are studying part-time, often while engaged in a full-time and demanding teaching job, can present difficulties particularly with regard to managing study time. Nevertheless, the part-time mode, while making intensive bouts of study difficult, does have the advantage of enabling students to take a more longitudinal approach to collecting data for some of their portfolios.

Continuous professional development

Students have many different reasons for wanting to do a Masters degree but the vast majority see an MA in Applied Linguistics as an important part of their continual professional development and very often as an essential career step. According to Harmer (2001), the best way for language teachers to develop is by making the most of facilities and resources such as attending conferences and seminars, joining special interest groups, reading a large range of books and articles and reflecting on classroom practice with colleagues. Students attending traditional campus-based Masters programmes can experience all of these if they choose to but distance students may not have such ready access to a full range of development opportunities. An important consideration therefore, for any distance MA providers, is ensuring equivalence of provision' concerning course content, delivery and assessment for non campus-based students.

Equivalence of provision

Our own MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL has now been running for 10 years and is one of the most established distance programmes in its field. In fact the MA is offered both by distance learning and on campus (either full or part-time) or by combining the two modes of study. The flexibility of provision is obviously an advantage from the students' point of view but creates some challenges for course design and delivery as we have to ensure equivalence between the two modes, especially as students can transfer between the two courses.

Partly with a view to this equivalence of provision, we are currently developing online resources to support our distance learners by trying to provide as wide a range of development opportunities as possible.

Providing online resources

Obviously, the increasing access by many of our students to the Internet, together with the growing provision of online resources both by publishers and HEIs is greatly enhancing the provision of course materials and resources for distance learners. In the case of our own institution, the adoption of a university-wide VLE (Virtual Learning Environment), ie Blackboard, has meant that distance MA students can access a wide range of course materials and resources over the Internet.

Updating course content

The disciplines of Linguistics and applied Linguistics, like most others, are constantly evolving. Consequently the content of any academic programme needs to be reviewed regularly to take into account contemporary debates and perspectives. This is obviously important for Masters degrees in general but involves particular considerations when delivering a programme at distance. For instance, there is a heavy reliance on delivering content through printed materials in distance programmes which are inherently less dynamic and easy to adapt than orally-delivered face-to-face lectures and seminars. We normally update our module bibliographies and assessment briefs annually but we are starting to do this more frequently and quickly by putting this sort of course information online.

Access to literature

Use of a VLE support site also allows us to facilitate students' access to current literature in the various fields of Linguistics and in language teaching (see Fig 4 below). Again, unlike campus-based students, many distance learners have limited access to well-stocked libraries or bookshops. This leads to a continual tension between, on the one hand, wanting to encourage students to develop independent study and research skills rather than spoon-feeding' them with pre-selected reading packs and suchlike, and on the other, making sure that all students, in a wide range of geographical contexts, have adequate access to reading materials.

Fig 4 Example of VLE support website for the distance MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL

Screen shot of University of Leicester's VLE

Monitoring the development of subject specific knowledge and skills

With distance delivery, where there is no face-to-face contact, there is a risk of not being able to see how well students are developing their subject specific knowledge and skills, except through the production of their written module assignments. For this reason, the availability of online tutoring by email has become central to monitoring and supporting students' academic progress.

An important advantage of providing online support including web-based communication tools such as mailing lists, e-mail and discussion boards, is that it allows students who might otherwise be studying in varying degrees of isolation to interact with their course tutor and fellow students (White 2003, Hyland 2001). This can enable students to share information and develop ideas on linguistic topics, as shown in the example (in Fig 5 below) from a discussion board within the distance MA VLE support site where some students have started a thread on the topic of culture-specific non-standard English words:

Fig 5 Example from discussion board in distance MA VLE

Screen shot of University of Leicester's discussion board

and again in this sequel to the earlier extract from the email-based mailing list, MAAL (Fig 6 below) where some students are discussion grammatical aspects of much':

Fig 6 Sequel to extract from MAAL mailing list discussion re grammar

To: "Multiple recipients of list MAAL" <>
Sent: Tuesday, April 27, 2004 5:12 PM
Subject: [MAAL:637] Re: A question re the determiner 'much' with singular nouns.

Hello again,

I am still seeking some sort of rule or explanation as to when we use 'much' with a singular noun.  It seems to be acceptable in an affirmative statement using a formal register, but is this always the case?  (See Jon's reply below.  Thank you, Jon.)


>To: Multiple recipients of list MAAL <>
>Subject: [MAAL:632] Re: A question re the determiner 'much' with singular nouns.
>Date: Tue, 27 Apr 2004 04:01:16 +0100 (BST)

>Dear Lillian,

>Might it be connected to degrees of abstractness and/or register?  It seems OK to say something like 'There is much happiness to be found in living a simple life' but it seems odder to say: "There is much salt on the floor".An interesting question and I am going to keep an ear out for some more examples.


Reflecting on learning

An important element in any programme of study which attempts to relate a body of subject-specific knowledge to a particular area of practice, in this case a knowledge of Linguistics to the practice of language learning and teaching, is the ability to reflect critically on one's own learning strategies and experiences. When considering the aim of encouraging reflection on metalinguistic issues, it has been suggested that the sort of slow-motion conversation' involved in asynchronous conferencing may enhance reflective practice (Lamy and Goodfellow 1999:45). Lamy and Goodfellow's study of the use of text based computer conferencing by distance language learners shows that this sort of reflective conversation, where explicit reference is made to knowledge about language and language learning, may enhance the learning process.

Some current issues

Differences in student profiles

While the content of our Masters programme is the same for both modes, the typical student profile for distance and campus students is not identical and nor is it uniform within each mode. Unlike the majority of distance learners who, as mentioned earlier, are typically native speakers of English with a substantial amount of TESOL experience, the campus MA attracts a larger proportion of non-native speakers of English with typically more limited teaching experience. This means, among other things, that we need to ensure that linguistic theory and practice is clearly linked to pedagogic matters and that assignment briefs are flexible enough to allow individual students to pursue their own interests and draw on their own experiences and strengths.

The main difference between the two student profiles is that the typical distance learning student tends to want to deepen his/her knowledge in order to apply it to a fairly substantial amount and range of teaching experience, often gained in different parts of the world.

I feel that having taken TEFL courses at certificate and diploma level, and having had many years teaching experience, it is time to dedicate myself to the professional development in this field which this masters course can provide I wish to do more work on language analysis and other aspects of Linguistics, theoretical and applied. (Maltese, native English speaker).

I have taught English in a number of international contexts and this has provoked my interest in English as an international medium through which the interrelated facets of culture, pedagogy and linguistic backgrounds influence the ways in which students acquire language. (British, native English speaker)

I am applying for the Master's programme in Applied Linguistics for two reasons. Both my experience as a language learner and eleven years as an EFL/ESL teacher have created a strong interest in language acquisitionI am primarily interested in exploring the differences and similarities between first and second language acquisition.. In New York, I began studying for a certificate in TESOL. However, I've found much of the course material unchallenging. (American, native English speaker)

The majority of our campus-based students, on the other hand, tend to have a strong interest in increasing their awareness of methodological aspects of ELT, often having a relatively limited amount and variety of teaching experience. Obviously these are generalisations and we get students from either end of this continuum on both distance and campus course. Consequently, we have to ensure the course is flexible enough to cater for students' individual pedagogic experience and interests while providing a solid core of subject specific content.

Empirical research

At various points in the course students are required to carry out empirical research in order to show their ability to relate theoretical aspects of Linguistics to actual language in use. In a sense, our distance learners are in a good position to relate theory to practice in this way because, unlike most full-time campus-based students, the majority are teaching and studying at the same time and therefore have ready access to classrooms and students. Again, this means that we have to incorporate some flexibility in programme assessment to take into account that some students can gather empirical data from their own teaching context more readily than others.

These sorts of issues have recently led the MA programme team to debate certain aspects of the course, particularly given the differences in student profiles. We have been reconsidering, for instance, the balance between theoretical and descriptive Linguistics and ELT methodology and also the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating greater modularity in the programme structure, to allow students more choice of content and reduce the compulsory linguistic core. No doubt these and other issues will be debated and, hopefully, resolved and the programme will continue to develop successfully. What we do need to ensure is that however the MA evolves it takes into account the primary concern of all our students to be both academically rigorous and vocationally relevant.


Corder, P (1973) Introducing Applied Linguistics. Harmondsworth:Penguin.

Crystal,D (1980) First Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics . London:Andre Deutsch.

Halliday,M A K, McIntosh, A and Strevens, P D (1964) The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching. Harlow:Longman.

Harmer, J (2003) Achieving flexibility in teacher education and development. ELT Forum (

Hyland, F (2001) Providing effective support: Investigating feedback to distance language learners. Open Learning 16 ( 3) 233-247.

Lamy, M-N and Goodfellow, R 1999 Reflective Conversation in the Virtual Language Classroom. Language Learning and Technology Journal Vol. 2, No. 2, January 1999, pp. 43-61 (

QAA (2002) Subject Benchmark Statement for Linguistics. Gloucester: Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

Robinson, B (1992) Applying quality standards in distance and open learning. EADTU News 11 11-17.

Robinson, B (2001) Innovation in open and distance learning:some lessons from experience and research. In F. Lockwood and A. Gooley (eds) Innovation in Open and Distance Learning:Successful development of online and web-based learning. London:Kogan Page.

White, F. (2003) Language Learning in Distance Education . Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Related links

MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL website, University of Leicester, UK

QAA Benchmark Statements - Linguistics

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