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Your Guide to Teaching Top-Notch Online Language Lessons


The growing popularity of learning a foreign language either for business, personal use, or general interest is bursting at the seams thanks to the Internet. Today, more than two-thirds of people pursuing some form of higher education are taking at least one online course. Now when it comes to language learning, let’s be honest, the beauty of online courses is that you can challenge yourself to learning a new language on your own time, in the comfort of your own home, office, or public place, and they are often times much cheaper than the traditional face-to-face courses. They really are the best thing since sliced bread!

We assume that you have used Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, or another similar platform to communicate with your friends, family, or job and that you feel pretty comfortable with it. However, what about teaching on such a platform?

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Read these 8 important tips to ensure your first lesson and all of the lessons thereafter go as smoothly as possible:

1. Check your audio and video:

Whether it is the very first lesson you have ever given online via Skype or it is your 100th, always check your audio and video before every lesson! In order to ease the “first meeting” nerves it is best to ensure that all potential technical mishaps are sorted out in advance, including your internet connection. You want to make this a habit. It should only take a few minutes to check your settings and ensure that everything is working properly before you call your student(s).

Your online classroom should not be treated any differently than from the quiet coffee shop, library, or office you used to meet your students at before. There should be minimal interruptions due to technical failures.

2. Buy a good set of headphones with a microphone:

This is important! Most computers come with speakers and a microphone, however, a good pair of headphones muffles out other noises; not to mention the fact that it makes you look and sound more professional, too.

You should expect to commit 2-3 lessons worth of income to buying your “teaching headphones”. It is extra important for the first lesson because the focus should be on speaking and hearing your new student clearly and less on repeating yourself due to unexpected noises around you. Just as with in-person encounters, first impressions really make the difference when teaching online. You want to reassure your student they are truly learning from the best language trainer possible.

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3. Be prepared:

Expect the unexpected. First, when it comes to technical issues, remember that not all of your students may be computer experts or are even remotely familiar with Skype. Be ready to spend a good portion of the first lesson (and sometimes the second and third) explaining and guiding your student(s) through these technical issues. This is another reason why it is imperative you have your tech issues sorted out prior to the lesson(s) so that you can readily guide your students when they run into them.

Remember, this is not a face-to-face lesson where you will have a pen and paper to write out instructions. English may not be their native language, so remaining calm throughout the technical issues is key! This will build trust and allow your student(s) to relax and feel comfortable through the frustrating times.

Second, the perk of teaching online is that having a plan B and even a C just got much easier with the countless additional materials you can have ready all within a click of a button. It is not uncommon for the student to find the lesson too easy, too hard, or even boring, especially for the first lesson! After all, it takes time to really get to know your student(s) and it is ok if you do not score a 100% every time as long as you are able to easily adapt to their needs.

4. Take it seriously:

Now that we have addressed the technicality of online teaching, let’s get serious about online teaching. It is extremely easy to get too comfortable and relaxed when teaching at home. Don’t let this become a habit. Always remember that, although you may be in front of a computer screen at home, your student can still see and hear you.

Firstly, you do not need to dress business formal, but please do not wear your pajamas; a casual top and bottoms will do just fine. Studies have shown that you always do your best when you feel and look good. Don’t make online teaching the exception.

Another useful reminder is to be mindful of your surroundings, such as lighting and what appears on the walls. If possible it is best to teach with a neutral background, however, any non-distracting background will work just fine. Lighting can be difficult to master but you want to make sure your face appears clear with no shadows or dark spots on the screen. This is important, not just for professional appearance purposes, but also your student needs to be able to see you clearly when you are speaking to be able to properly mimic your pronunciation.

Lastly, although we hope that your new student(s) will not cancel or arrive late for the first lesson (or any lesson), things sometimes happen. To teach successfully online, you have to develop the mentality that your time is valuable. It is completely okay to tell your student(s) that you have another lesson or other plans right after the scheduled end time of the lesson and that you cannot stay 10 or 15 minutes late because they were late. Of course, there is always an exception, and even sometimes it will be you that’s late, but in general try to keep your schedule in check.

5. Use Skype Chat properly:

If you’re going to use Skype Chat, use it for quick error correction and not for full lesson explanations or sending and receiving files. Why? Students want to have these notes, explanations, and files, forever. Sometimes Skype erases the files or chats and/or they do not properly send.

Here are two handy tricks for Skype Chat:

a. You can add spaces and line breaks to help format things. Press “Shift + Enter” to add line breaks between text. This way you do not need to send 100 different individual messages to explain one task.

b. You can edit messages that you have already written. Right click on any message that you have already sent. Select “Edit” from the menu. Change the text and then press “Enter” again. Your newly-edited message will be displayed for the student. Editing messages is particularly useful when you want to show a student a mistake with something they said, wrote, or read.

6. Close your social media accounts, e-mail, and silence your phone, pets, and any distractions:

Remember that your students are paying to learn and achieve their language learning goals. They are expecting to have your undivided attention for the whole hour and last thing they want is to hear your phone ring or even worse, have to wait two minutes while you answer it.

There may be a time in the lesson that you will need to share your screen. It would look very unprofessional if the first page they saw was your Facebook page or the most recent e-mail you started to write that was not to them. To play it safe, close such pages before the lesson.

Some other helpful tips are, in general, be aware of any noise potential disruptions. Whether you have a dog, a loud bird, children, or any other possible noisemakers, plan ahead and ensure that they will not be a disruption to your lessons. Being in a quiet room in your house with the door closed is always the best option.

If there is ever a time where there may be a distraction or disruption, be sure to tell your student right when the lesson starts. We all have those weeks where the neighbor may be doing construction or you may have visitors and they are in another room, this is totally okay and normal. The point is to always try to prevent interruption. If unpreventable, be honest with your students.

7. Decide how you will share notes and class materials:

During the first lesson you need to discuss and decide with your student what the best way to share class materials and notes is. Will you use Word documents, PDF files, Google Docs, or One Notes? Is there something else either of you prefer?

Also, how will you share these files? Dropbox, Google Drive, or a zip file are all common methods but there are many more. Be sure to have this discussion with your students so that all of the notes and material can easily be found and accessed throughout the course and there is no confusion.

8. Prepare to engage, be friendly and be yourself!

Like all first encounters, there may be a lot of built-up nerves and anticipation. Once you overcome the technical issues and the first 10 minutes of “first impressions” be ready to let your true colors shine and have fun.

Make your student feel welcome in your “classroom” by encouraging and engaging conversation. The lesson is for your student, not for you! Be sure that s/he is speaking more than 60% of the time; of course there will be times where you will need to speak more, but try and use that number as a reference point. Lastly, don’t be afraid to try new things in your lessons. Veer off your lesson plan at times and have fun with your new job!

About the author

Chloe is an American-born world traveler. When she's not globetrotting, she's reading, writing, and learning as much and as often as she can.