English language instruction and support have officially been offered at the University of Iowa since 1959.  At the beginning, courses were taught by linguists within the Department of English until, in 1970, the Department of Linguistics was created, and English language courses as well as degree programs focusing on Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) were offered. From 2010 to 2023, ESL Programs was a separate program within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, but then returned to the Department of Linguistics in 2023. 

In addition to courses for matriculated students, English language programs have been added as the needs of the campus have grown.  In 1980, the Iowa Intensive English Program (IIEP) was established for students whose focus was on intensive English instruction.  Since 2006, the IIEP was a part of the International Conditional Admission Program for the University of Iowa, offering intensive English instruction to students who are academically admissible to the UI but who also need further English development.  The IIEP closed in fall of 2023.  The TAPE program for prospective teaching assistants whose first language is not English was established in 1985.  It has been offering linguistic support and cultural orientation to the US classroom to teaching assistants ever since.

Beyond courses, ESL Programs has collaborated with other units like the Department of Rhetoric, International Students & Scholars Services, and the Center for Teaching to provide language and cultural resources for students, staff, and faculty.