Given that a new cohort will shortly begin their MA, this post is taken from pages which formerly were part of the “Doing an MA” section.
There are a growing number of students doing MA TESL courses in a distance learning (DL) format, and one of the most important aims of this website is to offer DL students support, by giving them clear, practical advice about how to manage their studies and how to make maximum use of their tutors and of the on-line facilities, especially the forums and the access provided to their university’s library facilities.
My experience working with students on MA TESL courses tells me that the biggest problems students face are:
• too much information
• choosing appropriate topics
• getting the hang of academic writing.
Let us briefly look at these 3 points.
1. Too much Information.
An MA TESL curriculum looks daunting, the reading lists you are given look daunting, and the books themselves often look daunting. Many students spend far too long reading and taking notes in a non-focused way: they waste time by not thinking right from the start about the topics that they will eventually choose to base their assignments on. This leads to the first key piece of advice in this book: Don’t try to cover the whole curriculum! You have to get a general overview of the content of each module, and then quickly decide what part or parts of it to concentrate on. The sooner you focus in on the topic/s that you will choose for the various assignments, the better.
• For each module of the MA TESL, identify what written work counts towards formal assessment.
• Decide on the topics that you will focus on for the main written assignments as fast as possible, and then concentrate on those.
• This will help you to choose reading material, and will give focus to your reading and to your writing.
Similarly, you have to learn what to read, and how to read. First, if you see a bibliography of 30 books for a given module, you should not buy any of them unless you are sure that they are absolutely essential. Seriously: when you start each module, read the course material and don’t go out and buy a load of books. You need advice on what are the best books on the intimidating bibliographies or recommended book lists, and you will find some advice at the end of each chapter in this book. Of course, you should ask your tutor and your colleages. But, I repeat: keep the introductory reading to an absolute minimum. Only when you’ve decided on your topic should you read in any depth.
Second, you have to learn how to skim and scan books. You should quickly understand that many books are reference books – like Quine et al. on grammar, for example – and you should not attempt to sit down and read them, cover to cover. They are there for when you need them – like a dictionary. Even specific books, like Mitchell & Miles on SLA, for example, need to be skimmed first, and then you read the relevant bits with more care. I have over 1,000 books and journals in the applied linguistics section of my personal library, and I doubt that I’ve read more than 100 of them from cover to cover. And these days, there’s even less reason to have lots of books: you can download at least 50% of the material you need from library and other web sites, and more and more books can now be bought in digital format. Anyway, the secret is focus: to do well in this MA, you have to learn to read selectively. My advice to you is to read with this question in mind: Is this going to help me write my paper?
• Don’t just read. Read for a purpose: read with a particular topic (better still, with a well-formulated question) in mind.
• Don’t buy any books before you’re abslutely sure you’ll make good use of them .
2. Choosing an appropriate topic.
Choosing an appropriate topic for each of the papers you are required to write is vital. The trick here is to narrow down the topic so that it becomes possible to discuss it in detail, while still remaining central to the general area of study. So, for example, if you are asked to do a paper on language learning, “How do people learn a second language?” is not a good topic: it’s far too general. “What role does instrumental motivation play in SLA?” is a much better topic.
The best way to find a topic is to frame your topic as a question. Well-formulated questions are the key to all good research, and they are one of the keys to success in doing an MA. A few examples of well-formulated questions for an MA TESL are these:
• What’s the difference between the present perfect and the simple past tense?
• Why is “stress” so important to English pronunciation?
• How can I motivate my students to do extensive reading?
• When’s the best time to offer correction in class?
• What are the roles of “input” and “output” in SLA?
• How does the feeling of “belonging” influence motivation?
• What are the limitations of a Task-Based Syllabus?
• What is the wash-back effect of the Cambridge FCE exam?
• What is politeness?
• How are blogs being used in EFL teaching?
Once you have a question, you have a much more focused idea of what to read. Once you’ve worked through the course notes, and done a minimum amount of general reading, your question will guide you towards appropriate reading.
The well-defined question also helps enormously with the structure of your paper, which will look something like this:
a) Question X (For example: “What is “Input”? What role does input play in SLA?”)
b) Why it’s an interesting question, and why you’re interested.
c) Suggestions for the answer (For example: “Input is a key part of the SLA process: a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for learning”).
d) Literature review on question X: different views.
e) Evaluation of different views.
f) Discussion: why your suggestion was a good one, and it’s limitations.
Everything flows from a well-formulated question.
• Choose a manageable topic for each written assignment.
• Narrow down the topic so that it becomes possible to discuss it in detail.
• Frame your topic as a well-defined question that your paper will address.
3. Academic Writing.
Writing a paper at Masters level demands a good understanding of all the various elements of academic writing. First, there’s the question of genre. In academic writing, you must express yourself as clearly and succinctly as possible: in academic writing “Less is more”! Examiners mark down “waffle”, “padding”, and generally loose expression of ideas. I can’t remember who, but somebody famous once said at the end of a letter: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter”. There is, of course, scope for you to express yourself in your own way (indeed, examiners look for signs of enthusiasm and real engagement with the topic under discussion) and one of the things you have to do, like any writer, is to find your own, distinctive voice. But you have to stay faithful to the academic style.
While the content of your paper is, of course, the most important thing, the way you write, and the way you present the paper have a big impact on your final grade. Just for example, many examiners, when marking an MA paper, go straight to the Reference section and check if it’s properly formatted and contains all and only the references mentioned in the text. The way you present your paper (double-spaced, proper indentations, and all that stuff); the way you write it (so as to make it coherent); the way you organise it (so as to make it cohesive); the way you give in-text citations; the way you give references; the way you organise appendices; are all crucial.
• A good academic style of writing, and the proper formatting of academic papers are key elements in assessment.
• Pay particular attention to sections and sub-sections; in-text citations; the Reference section, and Appendices.
This bit begins with some general advice on how to make the course manageable. Then there are a series of Pages (See Menu on the right of this page) dealing with the various modules of a MA TESL, which are divided into 4 sections.
2. Procedures (preliminary reading; choosing a topic; detailed reading; planning the paper; submitting an outline; writing first draft; writing final version; submission)
3. Model paper
4. Suggested reading. I have tried to keep this to the minimum.
So: to the issues, then.
Making the course manageable
Any MA TESL course expects you read extensively about the English Language, about how people learn a second or foreign language, and about teaching a second or foreign language. On the basis of your reading, and of the lectures and seminars you attend, if you’re doing a presential course, you are expected to write a number of assignments which show that you are able to isolate a topic for each of the assignments, and to then summaries the reading you’ve done, to critically evaluate it, and to relate it to your own teaching situation.
The MA is divided into various modules, which are discussed in other pages. Whatever the module, whatever the content, there is a way of optimising efficiency in doing the necessary work. Essentially, you must learn to ignore all those things that are not relevant to your work: stay focused, don’t get distracted.
1.2. Essential steps in working through a module.
Focus: that’s the key. Here are the key steps:
Step 1: Ask yourself: What is this module about? Just as important: What is it NOT about? The point is to quickly identify the core content of the module. Read the Course Notes and the Course Handbook, and DON’T READ ANYTHING ELSE, YET.
Step 2: Identify the components of the module. If, for example, the module is concerned with grammar, then clearly identify the various parts that you’re expected to study. Again, don’t get lost in detail: you’re still just trying to get the overall picture. See the chapters on each module below for more help with this.
Step 3: Do the small assignments that are required. If these do not count towards your formal assessment , then do them in order to prepare yourself for the assignments that do count, and don’t spend too much time on them.
• Study the requirements of the MA TESL programme closely to identify which parts of your writing assignments count towards your formal assessment and which do not.
• Some small assignments are required (you MUST submit them), but they do not influence your mark or grade. Don’t spend too mch time on these, unless they help you prepare for the main asignments.
Step 4: Identify the topic that you will choose for the written assignment that will determine your grade. THIS IS THE CRUCIAL STEP! Reach this point as fast as you can in each module: the sooner you decide what you’re going to focus on, the better your reading, studying, writing and results will be. Once you have identified your topic, then you can start reading for a purpose, and start marshalling your ideas. Again, we will look at each module below, to help you find good, well-defined, manageable topics for your main written assignments.
Step 5: Write an Outline of your paper. The outline is for your tutor, and should give a brief outline of your paper. You should make sure that your tutor reviews your outline and gives it approval.
Step 6: Write the First Draft of the paper. Write this draft as if it were the final version: don’t say “I’ll deal with the details (references, appendices, formatting) later”. Make it as good as you can.
Step 7: If you are allowed to do so, submit the first draft to your Tutor. Some universities don’t approve of this, so check with your tutor. If your tutor allows such a step, try to get detailed feedback on it. Don’t be content with any general “Well that look’s OK” stuff. Ask “How can I improve it?” and get the fullest feedback possible. Take note of ALL suggestions, and make sure you incorporate ALL of them in the final version.
Step 8: Write the final version of the paper.
Step 9: Carefully proof read the final version. Use a spell-checker. Check all the details of formatting, citations, Reference section, Appendices. Ask a friend or colleage to check it. If allowed, ask your tutor to check it.
Step 10: Submit the paper: you’re done!
1.3. Using Resources
Your first resource is your tutor. You’ve paid lots of money for this MA, so make sure you get all the support you need from him or her! Most importantly: don’t be afraid to ask help whenever you need it. Ask any question you like (while it’s obviously not quite true that “There’s no such thing as a stupid question”, don’t feel intimidated or afraid to ask very basic questions) , and as many as you like. Ask your tutor for suggstions on reading, on suitable topics for the written assignments, on where to find materials, on anything at all that you have doubts about. Never submit any written work for assessment until your tutor has said it’s the best you can do. If you think your tutor is not doing a good job, say so, and if necessary, ask for a change.
Your second resource is your fellow students. When I did my MA, I learned a lot in the students’ bar! Whatever means you have of talking to your fellow-students, use them to the full. Ask them what they’re reading, what they’re having trouble with, and share not only your thoughts but your feelings about the course with them.
Your third resource is the library. It is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to teach yourself, if you don’t already know, how to use a university library. Again, don’t be afraid to ask for help: most library staff are wonderful: the unsung heroes of the academic world. At Leicester University where I work as an associate tutor on the Distance Learning MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL course, the library staff exemplify good library practice. They can be contacted by phone, and by email, and they have always, without fail, solved the problems I’ve asked them for help with. Whatever university you are studying at, the library staff are probably your most important resource, so be nice to them, and use them to the max. If you’re doing a presential course, the most important thing is to learn how the journals and books that the library holds are organised. Since most of you have aleady studied at university, I suppose you’ve got a good handle on this, but if you haven’t, well do something! Just as important as the physical library at your university are the internet resources offered by it. This is so important that I have dedicated Chapter 10 to it.
Your fourth resource is the internet. Apart from the resources offered by the university library, there is an enormous amount of valuable material available on the internet. See the “RESCOURCES” section of this website for a collection of Videos and other stuff.
I can’t resist mentioning David Crystal’s Encyclopedia of The English Language as a constant resource. A friend of mine claimed that she got through her MA TESL by using this book most of the time, and, while I only bought it recently, I wish I’d had it to refer to when I was doing my MA. Lexis, grammar, pronunciation, discourse, learning English – it’s all there.
Please use this website to ask questions and to discuss any issues related to your course. You might like to subscribe to it: see the box on the right.
References to books and articles mentioned in this post can be found in the *Xtra: Suggested Reading and References page of this website in the “Doing an MA” Section.