How to Teach EFL Online - Feb '18

By Matt Thompson, MTA, Online EFL Tutor

I taught my first online lesson 6 years ago. I was pretty nervous as I didn’t really know what I was doing and wasn’t sure if this whole ‘online tutoring thing’ was going to work. I’d already been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) for several years, so I was familiar with the subject but only in a classroom setting. So, there I was with my new Skype account and headset. I’d prepared some slides and somehow persuaded a Japanese lady the other side of the world to have on online English lesson with me. The moment of truth…

1 hour later and the lesson was finished.

Did it work? Yes it did. In fact, much better than expected.

Was it the best lesson I’ve ever taught? Nope.

Did she come back? She certainly did. This week I just competed her 237th lesson!

What I learned from that first experience tutoring online was that even as a complete newbie, I could do it. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I first thought and I didn’t need to be a techie genius to move from classroom to online. To top it all off, we both had a lot of fun improving her English together, even though we were 5713 miles apart.

Since then, online education software has got better and the demand for online tutors has increased significantly. That means there’s never been such a good time to start tutoring online. Here’s a look at some of the key tools and techniques I use to teach a one-to-one ESL lesson online:

Skype or Zoom (free)
Google Slides (free)

Modern computer and broadband internet
Headset or external mic and speakers (avoid using inbuilt computer mic and speakers as this can reduce the sound quality for your students)

Before the lesson
Lesson planning. I know, I hate those two words as well! When I first starting teaching English, I spent a ton of time planning lessons and creating materials. But when I moved to online tutoring, I discovered a free tool called Google Slides that I could use to create online materials. If you’re not familiar with Google Slides, it’s like an online version of PowerPoint that comes with a free Google account.

Every lesson I prepare for my students is now stored online and can be accessed with the click of a button. The best bit is that I can duplicate these interactive materials, adapt them for different levels and use them over and over again. I’ve got hundreds of online lessons stored in my Google account now that I can access at any time and share with any online student. This has saved me a huge amount of lesson preparation time over the years.

Starting the lesson
Before the lesson, I open my Google Slides presentation. I also open Skype and Zoom. I prefer Zoom to Skype as I find that the connection is much more stable. With that said, I often start the lesson by saying ‘hi’ to my students in the Skype chat box. I then start a Zoom meeting, copy and paste the meeting link into the Skype chat and ask the student to click that link to get started. For the remainder of the lesson, I’ll use Zoom to talk to my student (either a video or voice only call) and use Zoom’s screen sharing feature so my student can see the lesson materials at the same time as me.

I like to start the lesson with a ‘warmer’ activity. Normally a quick discussion about what we did at the weekend or something interesting that happened recently. At this point, before I’ve shared my screen with the student, I’m already adding notes to one of my slides of any mistakes they make during this discussion. When we’ve finished the warmer, I share my screen and correct the mistakes together with the student (encouraging self-correction where possible). As well as corrections, I also add any new language to the slide that comes up during the lesson. I aim to add at least 10 new pieces of language per lesson.

I always review the new language and corrections from last lesson by copying this from the previous lesson. In your Google Slides presentation, click file > import slides then select the previous lesson, choose the correct slide and click ‘import slides’.

Here are a few examples of ways that I revise the new language and corrections
• Guess the missing word (I draw a box from the ‘shape’ dropdown over the target word and then delete this box to reveal the word)
• Describe the definition (my favourite dictionary to use for ESL learners is the Macmillan Online Dictionary, which has clear definitions and examples)
• Guess the word from a definition
• Practise the pronunciation (I also use the Macmillan dictionary to quickly copy and paste any transcriptions onto the slides to help with pronunciation. I keep the dictionary open in a separate window so I can jump back and forth between the Google Slides and the dictionary using the tab key on my keyboard).

To introduce the main lesson topic, I sometimes include a slide with a discussion question or a related image to generate interest in the topic.

Main topic
To make sure my lessons are interesting for my students, I regularly ask them what they want to focus on. Some students have specific topic or language requests, others need work or study related content so I try to use materials that are most relevant to their needs.

There’s a wealth of online materials available that you can use to create very personalised lessons for your students but let’s say I was using a news article from the BBC for a reading activity. At this point of the lesson I could focus on pre-teaching the target language from the article. Alternatively, we could read the text together and I could add new language to the slides as and when it came up. Note: I record new language in sentences rather than single words to help students remember how it is used in context.

Finishing the lesson
I try to allow enough time at the end of each lesson to review the target language and corrections and set any homework if needed. The great thing about Google Slides is that you can easily share the lesson slides with your student by clicking the blue ‘Share’ button in the top right-hand corner and then add their email address. The student will then have access to all the materials from their email account. You can even share the slides in advance if you’d like to work on something together in real time during the lesson. This is particularly handy for writing practice and makes the lesson more interactive for the student. One thing to consider is that by allowing access to the Slides before or during the lesson, you have less control over which slides the student can see at any given time. There’s always one student who loves to jump ahead to your final slide to see all the answers!

Over to you
This way of teaching has allowed me the flexibility and freedom to work how and when I want. The convenience of being able to work from home without any commute has increased my earning potential and given me control over my future. If tutoring online is new to you or you’ve had some experience but not with Zoom and Google Slides, I encourage you to give it a go.

Over to you.

Matt Thompson is an online EFL tutor and the founder of Smart Online Tutoring - an online resource that provides quality content and coaching for everyone interested in starting and running a successful online tutoring business.

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