Teaching English online – a 10-point guide

Are you dreaming of making a living teaching private English lessons online? It will not be easy to build up all the students you need, but these tips should help you get started, and stop you from having to learn everything the hard way. These tips cover technology, business and education ideas, so apologies for dealing with all of these areas so briefly.

Anyway, here are ten things to consider for aspiring online English teachers:

1. Don’t go straight to Skype

Skype is the obvious solution for online English lessons, and with good reason. Almost everyone with access to the Internet is familiar with it, or has at least heard of it. It is capable of maintaining a fairly smooth audio connection and it’s available in every major language, so your students won’t need to use an English interface. It does have downsides, however. Even if you install a paid extra tool, like the excellent TalkAndWrite program, you won’t be able to share your desktop or browse together on the Internet, and it is cumbersome to look at the whiteboard and have your student’s video feed visible at the same time. Most importantly, however, teaching over Skype just sounds amateurish when there are various online schools out there, teaching with bespoke software.

In all likelihood, Skype probably will turn out to be the best choice for you, especially if you are only planning to teach English lessons online on a small scale, but here are some other options worth considering:


DimDim is a browser-based video-conferencing package. As it’s browser-based, your students will have nothing to install. They just need to click on a URL link (that you e-mail them) and then they enter the classroom. The functionality is excellent for private or group language lessons. You can draw pictures and write text; you can browse the Internet and show your students what you are looking at, and you can also send files. It’s also reasonably priced. The biggest problem is that the interface is quite complex and intimidating. Explaining to low level students what they need to do in a language they might not be very confident with, could lead to some awkwardness.


WebEx is similar to DimDim but includes more advanced options. It’s worth exploring for the more ambitious online teachers, but the prices are likely to be out of the price range of most individuals. Perhaps if you are considering marketing very high-quality business lessons, you could consider it, but otherwise it’s better to go with another option.

Adobe has an interesting hosted video conferencing option. The free version is pretty good and the paid option – only available to residents of the United States – is good value. If I were a resident of the US, I would have considered Adobe’s solution in more detail…

If you Google “video conferencing software” you’ll find a huge range of other options. It’s definitely worth a few hours of research – even if ultimately you do decide to go with Skype.

2. Use a multi-lingual reservation system to attract lower-level students

It’s great to make the “classroom” an English-only environment, but allowing students to reserve lessons in their own language could definitely give you the edge over the competition. One very good online reservation system is called SuperSaas. It is available to end-users in several languages, it’s cheap, and the customer support is excellent. It can also be integrated with PayPal so you can accept credit card payments.

Another thing you can do is create a webpage with simple timetable showing when you are available. Have this translated into all the languages you would like to target. The amount of text needn’t be large so it needn’t cost a fortune. This English-Japanese site, 英会話大阪 (English conversation in Osaka) has all you need for a simple reservation system.

3. Advertise

In Asia there are lots of websites for private English teachers to advertise their lessons and find students. In Japan, English lessons in cafes are very common. Lots of these student matching websites, like FindATeacher.net, now allow teachers to advertise online lessons too, so find as many of these sites as you can and check this option. If you are outside these countries then it may not be possible, but it is worth exploring. Also try Buddy School (www.buddyschool.com) to try and find some students.

4. Prepare properly for your lessons

If you are an inexperienced instructor then remember the teacher’s motto: to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail. Do not expect your students to be able to talk freely for an hour or so – many, due to the limitations of their ability, their shyness or whatever, will not be able to do so. Consider using a textbook, or prepare some PDF or PPT files to send and make these the “meat” of your lesson. If you are using a system which allows shared Internet browsing, then find a level-appropriate news article and discuss it with your student, helping him or her with any difficult words. Some news websites have large sections devoted to helping English learners, so why not use these too?

5. Consider your background and lighting

Don’t teach in the dark and make sure you are not back-lit. Ensure you have a plain background or, if this isn’t possible, have a bookshelf or at least a very tidy apartment behind you. If you want to charge students a reasonable amount of money, then it’s not a good idea to have piles of worn clothes and an unmade bed in view.

6. Develop a formulaic lesson flow (especially for lower-levels)

Once you have decided on a lesson flow (like new vocabulary, to sentence drilling, to free conversation) try not to deviate much with lower-level students. Once your students understand your procedures, they will considerably relax and can focus on the actual objectives of the lesson.

7. Exaggerate your gestures and smile

If you want to teach East Asian students, particularly the Japanese, then you’ll need to teach with a degree of energy and enthusiasm that would only be seen as sarcasm in most western countries. In Japan, in particular, students are expected to be smiley, positive and larger than life. The other reason to exaggerate your smiles and gestures is that everything becomes reduced over the video stream. A big smile looks like a normal smile, and a nondescript face can often look like a frown.

8. Create some link between lessons to keep students attending

Online students have high drop-out rates, so try to maintain communication with your student between lessons. You could email them some feedback or corrections a few days after each lesson, or just drop your students a line thanking them for their hard work during the class.  

9. Offer incentives for recommendations

Assuming you are a good teacher, you are likely to find students through word of mouth. Offering some kind of incentive (like a free lesson for every new student recruited) will motivate students to mention you to their friends and colleagues.

10. Stay up-to-date

Keep abreast of technological changes and market shifts which could affect your work. Just because Skye seemed the best idea last year, don’t assume this will remain the case this year. Likewise, if Skype develops to include advanced features like shared Internet browsing then be prepared to ditch your paid option in favor of something free and ubiquitous. Likewise, be ready to exploit niches or give up those which seem to be flooded with competition. Luckily the start-up costs of online teaching are very low, and it’s possible to do it alongside full-time work, so make the most of your freedom to experiment.