Teaching the (ESL) teachers: UWM’s TESOL program

Glenn Starr headshot

English is the most commonly spoken second language in the world.

That means that students across the world – and right here in Wisconsin – need teachers who can help them learn it. And that means that someone needs to train those teachers how to teach it.

At UWM, that someone is Glenn Starr.

Starr is a visiting assistant professor in UWM’s Department of Linguistics. He’s also the interim director of the university’s TESOL program alongside Mark Sullivan, a lecturer in UWM’s English Language Academy. The TESOL program offers a Master’s degree, undergraduate certificate, and graduate certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“We’re trying to give students a good foundation in pedagogical theory and practice based on the leading experts and researchers in the field, to get them prepared and confident to go out and teach on their own,” Starr said.

Many people think of immigrants to the United States as needing to learn English as a Second Language, but Starr says that the TESOL program is larger than that.

“There are opportunities all over the world to teach English to Speakers of Other Languages,” Starr said.

“In fact, there are two terms: ESL, which is teaching English to speakers of English as a Second Language. And there’s EFL, where English is a Foreign Language.”

A teacher ought to tailor their approach based on if they’re working with ESL or EFL speakers. The UWM TESOL program can show them how to do just that.

Educating educators

The TESOL program asks its students to complete several pedagogical courses to give them a solid grounding in the fundamentals of TESOL, its history, and its best practices. Then, they’ll put those practices to the test with some practical experience: “You have to tutor a learner, which is a really low-stakes way of getting students introduced to teaching,” Starr said.

Another course focuses on curriculum development and creating materials to use in classes. Yet another explores methodologies in English language teaching: “Here, students are getting a deeper exposure to all of the different skill areas and teaching – so listening and speaking, writing, reading and grammar,” Starr said.

Finally, students must take a practicum in the field. Paired with an experienced instructor, they first observe how classes are taught, then co-teach with their mentor, and finally teach the class on their own.

“I remember when I first taught, it was very daunting experience to have all of these people depending on you to improve their English,” Starr recalled. “This semester, I’ve been finding organizations and colleges and universities who are willing to take student teachers.”

Starr has worked to maintain relationships with several services in the Milwaukee area that his predecessor, emerita professor linguistics Sandra Pucci, established when the program first started in 2019. These include UWM’s English Language Academy and several community-based organizations. They play a crucial role in helping students in the program get some initial professional experience.

A personal history

Starr is an ideal person to lead the TESOL program because he’s been where his students are now. Starr was bitten by the travel bug at an early age. After he graduated with his Bachelor’s degree, he set out – first to China for six years, and then South Korea for five. He taught English as a foreign language in each country, and even established his own English language school in South Korea.

“It was really great to have lived in the countryside (in South Korea). That was probably one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had,” Starr said.

But eventually, he grew homesick and returned to Wisconsin to improve his credentials with a TESOL certificate from UW-Madison.

“And then I just fell in love with something called ‘applied linguistics,’” Starr said. “I thought, this is really interesting stuff. So I decided to pursue a PhD in Linguistics. Now my time is split between running the MA TESOL program and conducting research in language acquisition and psycholinguistics.”

Starr graduated in May and started in UWM’s Linguistics Department this fall, tasked with building on the existing TESOL program. He’s done that by creating learning outcomes for each of his classes, establishing teaching partnerships, and reworking courses in hopes of opening up more opportunities for undergraduates seeking a TESOL certificate.

After he’s through with them, Starr hopes his students will be ready to take on the world – and teach it English.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science