Interview: Kitty Purgason, Professor of Applied Linguistics and TESOL at Biola University


Kitty Purgason, Professor of Applied Linguistics and TESOL at Biola University, joins us today to discuss Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

1. Can you tell us about the Masters in TESOL (MATESOL) programs offered at Biola University?

We have both on-campus and online programs. Our university setting also allows us to offer not only a full MA TESOL but also TESOL in conjunction with other related MAs. Specifically, on-campus we offer an MA TESOL. We also offer a Graduate Certificate in TESOL that can be done on its own or as part an MA Applied Linguistics (for those interested in language teaching as one aspect of a broad approach to language in society), an MA Education (for those interested in K-12 teaching), an MA ICS (for those interested in culture), an MA in Biblical Studies, a PhD in Intercultural Education, and others. We also offer an MA TESOL, for experienced teachers, 100% online.

All of the TESOL programs prepare teachers who are characterized by personal growth, academic excellence, quality teaching and other professional skills, professional development, sensitivity to context, and commitment to Christian service.

2. How long does a typical MATESOL program take at Biola University? What is the maximum and minimum time of completion?

Most students finish an MA TESOL in two years. For those with foundational course requirements met and some transfer units, it may be completed in 18 months. Online students, who are typically working full-time, take between two and five years to finish, with the majority completing the program in three or four years. Students have up to seven years.

3. What do you think makes Biola University MATESOL stand out from other similar programs?

One highlight is breadth of offerings and flexibility. Students can choose to study TESOL alone or can take electives from other graduate programs on our campus as noted above. Students can study and work in linguistically diverse Southern California or stay in their current place of employment with the online program. The programs are academically rigorous, yet focus on the practical skills of teaching. Students can count on small class size and close interaction with the faculty. Because of the extensive faculty experience in cross-cultural service around the world, students will find genuinely helpful guidance. The capstone project for the MA is a portfolio, pulling from the students’ coursework, professional development such as conference presentations, and teaching.

Caring for our students’ spiritual well-being and growth is another important highlight of Biola’s MATESOL programs.  Since Biola is a Christian university, students study in community with like-minded peers and faculty, encouraging each other, mentoring one another, and deepening their religious convictions.  We want to prepare teachers who will teach with utmost professionalism, care for students as whole people, will be globally aware and cross-culturally sensitive, will follow high ethical standards, and will be committed to justice in the classroom and professional settings.

4. How important would you say accreditation is when choosing a MATESOL program?

Accreditation is very important. There are enough accredited programs of all types and in all locations that a student should never choose one without accreditation. Since Biola University is accredited by WASC, all degrees come under that purview. Besides accreditation, I suggest that students ask the following questions when choosing an MA TESOL program: Are the required courses aligned with your goals? (For example, some programs are geared more to teaching in U.S. K-12 schools, while others prepare teachers for international university and adult contexts.) Will the elective courses allow you to develop in your desired areas? Who will your classmates be? (U.S. citizens or international students? experienced or novice teachers?) Who are the faculty? (Is their experience congruent with what you hope to learn? Are they active in their professional associations?) If you have specific questions, contact the admissions office and see if they can put you in touch with a faculty member.

5. There is some debate as to whether or not Online MATESOL degrees are as worthwhile as traditional MATESOL degrees. What steps does Biola University take to ensure that online students are receiving the same education that they'd receive in a classroom?

What an important question! First of all, the on-campus full-time faculty at Biola are heavily invested in the online program. The curriculum was designed by them (not an external educational agency). These faculty have designed each course and regularly revise them. Most of the courses are taught by the full-time faculty as well. Students’ primary interaction is with the faculty, not an adjunct, advisor, or staff member.  Secondly, our online courses have the same learning outcomes as our on-campus courses. Faculty have undergone training so they know how to develop online activities that ensure students meet those outcomes. This includes outcomes related to both academic goals and learning community goals. Furthermore, recognizing that feedback enhances student learning, faculty actively participate with students in online discussions on a weekly basis and meet with students virtually at scheduled times.  Timely feedback from the faculty clarifies expectations, reduces confusion, and inspires and challenges students to explore issues in depth and breadth. Finally, we hear from students about how satisfied they are with the online program. They report great support from faculty, strong friendships made with classmates, intense learning because of the way they are pushed to read carefully, deep learning because they are able to immediately apply what they have learned, and success in their post-degree job searches.

6. What are the advantages to earning a MATESOL degree in general?

Although there are many ESL/EFL teaching jobs that do not require an MA, many more do. These include college and university-based intensive English programs in the U.S. as well as jobs in universities in many places around the world. In general, the more developed a region’s educational system is, the more structured an ESL/EFL program is, the more likely an MA would be required of an English teacher there. Finally, regardless of what piece of paper is required for a job, there is a lot of content covered in MA programs that teachers might find useful. At Biola, undergraduates can get a minor in TESOL and successfully get jobs. However, they come back for MAs when they realize that they want to know more about testing and assessment, course design, technology, teaching academic writing, teaching vocabulary, teacher training, and other specialized areas.

7. Does Biola University offer job placement for students who graduate in MATESOL?

For one of the assignments in the class Practicum in TESOL, students prepare a resume and practice job-interviews. Biola faculty maintain a student and alumni network where jobs are regularly posted. Faculty often sit (or Skype) with students, listen to their hopes for the future, and give job or service advice. Faculty send out personal emails to alumni about likely jobs, based on their extensive contacts with employers in Southern California and around the world. In other words, the personal connection that is important during the degree program continues long after students graduate, and the faculty’s international experience serves students not only during their coursework but also beyond. Biola’s Center for Career Development also offers students helpful resources.

8. What type of financial aid packages are available for students in TESOL? Are there any fellowships, grants and scholarships available?

Biola offers some small grants and church-matching or missionary scholarships. Students may also take out federal or private loans (though we advise them to carefully consider future income and how long it will take to repay). Students enrolled in the online MA TESOL receive a special grant from the university that automatically reduces their tuition by 1/3. We encourage our on-campus students to teach part-time and study part-time (especially during the second year) so as to reduce debt, immediately apply what is being learned, build up experience, and make themselves competitively marketable when they graduate from the program. For that reason, most of our classes are in the late afternoon or evening.

9. Do you have any advice for students enrolling in a MATESOL program for the first time?

I recommend an MA TESOL for people are certain that they want to go into this field. If you’re not sure, get an entry-level certificate (which Biola also offers) and some experience first. Once you’re in the MA program, delve deeply into all your courses, investing in your studies. Allow time for volunteer work or teaching, and attendance at conferences—all activities which contribute to your professional development alongside your coursework. At the same time, invest in relationships. Your classmates and professors are your future colleagues in the field. That said, the amount to learn in an MATESOL can feel overwhelming, so my final piece of advice is to know that you probably won’t graduate feeling that you’ve gained all the knowledge and skills you need. Getting an MATESOL is like planting a garden. Some fruit comes up fast and is obvious right away, but other fruit takes time to appear. To use another analogy, your MA is an important stage on professional journey that is life-long.

10. What do you enjoy most about your position at Biola University?

Sharing what I know, helping make connections among people, learning new things all the time, valuing global perspectives, working with a great team, teaching wonderful students, and meeting great new colleagues as I travel.

For more information on the MATESOL programs offered at Biola University, visit them online,

Thank you Kitty Purgason, for sharing and participating in this piece.

That concludes our interview!