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Choosing the right department

Going for a Master’s degree is a big time investment, so do your homework before deciding where to aim for

In essence, ELT-related Masters cover three things: English, language and teaching. But the emphasis they give to each one, and the research areas they focus on depend on the university department they belong to – typically English Language, Linguistics or Education.

The degrees have three main titles. First we have MATESOL, which is almost always more teaching and learning focused, and is often aimed at new or inexperienced English- language teachers, particularly in a department that has two or more ELT-related degrees. Then we have applied linguistics and TESOL/ ELT/ESL, etc, which is generally aimed at more experienced English language-teaching professionals. Finally, there are Master’s in applied linguistics, which are often also aimed at teachers of other languages, as well as other professionals involved with language and communication.

Almost all Master’s include a compulsory module on research methods (aimed partly at helping students do their dissertation) and many have a module on the nitty-gritty elements of language, called something like language awareness, language description or language analysis. A module on learning and teaching is also common, often under the title ‘second language acquisition.

Though almost all courses cover these core areas, the focus of the rest of the course depends at least partially on the department it’s in. A Master’s run in a department of education is easy to differentiate, as well as having a heavier emphasis on teaching and learning. Focusing on the context of mainstream education, you can normally expect to find modules on educational language policy, national curricula and assessment.

Establishing the difference between an MA in a department of English language and a department of linguistics can be a lot more problematic. As a rule of thumb, the English language departments concentrate on English: analysis of discourse in English, the differences between spoken and written English, teaching reading skills in English (reading in English is much more complicated than reading in a very transparent language like Spanish). Until recently, most departments were focused on sociolinguistics, but there is an increasing focus on psycholinguistics, in particular, cognitive linguistics, which deals with the way language is organised in the mind and it concentrates on semantics.

Typically, linguistics departments concentrate on language, of which English is only one example. They tend to focus in areas like language development in children, bilingualism and multilingualism, and how foreign and second languages (particularly English) are learned. Most cover both sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics, which may include not only cognitive, but also the neuroscience of language processing in the brain.

So, before you sign on for a Master’s at any of the departments listed in this special feature, there are a number of questions you need to ask, as we show in the case study opposite.

English language ranking

The English language has been an academic subject in UK universities since at least 1828. Small wonder then that our ranking features six 19th-century ‘redbrick’ universities (in black), five of which are in the Russell group (marked*).

The number-one university, though, is one of the new ‘post 1992’ universities (in red) and three more of these also did well in REF 2021.

  1. University of Bedfordshire
  2. University of Nottingham* (English language)
  3. University of Birmingham*
  4. Cardiff University*
  5. University of Liverpool *
  6. Birmingham City University
  7. University of Sheffield *
  8. Swansea University (W)
  9. Northumbria University
  10. Canterbury Christ Church University

Linguistics ranking

The linguistics revolution of the 1960s inspired the recently opened ‘plate glass’ universities (in blue) to offer the subject and two of them top our list. However, ‘red brick’ universities (in black), including Russell Group members (marked*) make up the majority, while two ‘post 1992’ universities (in red) have joined them.

  1. Lancaster University
  2. University of Essex
  3. University of Newcastle*
  4. University of Reading
  5. University of Edinburgh*
  6. University of Southampton*
  7. Bangor University
  8. Birkbeck, University of London
  9. University of Central Lancashire
  10. University of Westminster

Our listings are based on the scores assigned by the THE rankings of the REF 2021.

Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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