How to be successful as an online language tutor

Teaching a language online poses many challenges and is radically different from teaching in traditional classrooms.

Most of the time, your students will be learning out of choice rather than obligation. And as they’re not committed to a fixed schedule of lessons, it’s easy for them to stop learning.

At the same time, for you to have enough teaching hours, it’s essential that you manage to keep your students learning for as long as possible.

If you apply some of the advice in this article, you’ll have a better chance of keeping your students motivated and helping them achieve their goals.

1. Nudges

Before we go into teaching tips, there is one simple thing you can do to help maximise your lesson bookings. This is to contact your regular students every month or two, saying something like: ‘Just letting you know that my availability calendar has just been updated for the next month, so if you want to book some lessons in, now is a good time :)’ Often, students need a gentle nudge to remember to book! Only do this with students who have taken lessons with you recently, and be careful not to come across as pushy. We already send a nudge email monthly to students who have not booked.

2. Create a path

Learning online is great in terms of flexibility. However, most students could still benefit from having a clear path towards the achievement of their goals. So, how can you create this?

Firstly, ensure you establish what the student’s main goals are. If they don’t have a clear goal, to motivate them you may want to decide on a goal with them. For example, you could agree for their goal to be passing a specific exam or online test within a certain period of time.

You should also try to help them understand what they’ll need to get there. Emphasise that to make fast progress, they will need to take control of their learning. Mention that people who improve quickly are typically those who learn a little every day, including self-study.

Once you know what their goal is, you should ideally have a plan for what you will do with them to help them achieve it. After the plan is formed, it’s a good idea to communicate it to the student and see if they like it.

3. Keep them on the path

Every month or two, spend a few minutes reviewing progress with your student. Look at the goal(s) they had, and ask them if they feel they are making progress. If they are not studying enough to achieve their goal, emphasise the importance of regular practice and encourage them to book a series of lessons to commit themselves to learning.

4. Ensure their expectations are being met

When a student complains about their lessons, most of the time the tutor is not aware of the student’s dissatisfaction. We encourage students to give you feedback, however you’re much more likely to get it if you simply ask. Getting regular feedback is vital not only for you to improve as a teacher but also for you to be to be able to address any issues.

So every now and again (for example after your first few lessons), you should say something like: “It’s important to me that you are happy with the lessons and that your expectations are being met, so could you tell me honestly if there is anything you’d like to change in the lessons? Or anything you’d like to do more or less of?”

Here are some typical issues to consider. The student may want:

  • More structure
  • Activities that are more focused on their individual needs
  • The opportunity to speak more (tip: have exercises that consist of asking questions about things that interest them)
  • More corrections, including written ones with translations, so the student can review them.
  • Homework (discussed later in this article)

When you discuss their progress and feedback, bear in mind that the student won’t want to use up more than a few minutes of their ‘learning time’ on this.

5. Be organised

When you have a lot of students, it can be difficult to remember what you’ve done with each student and to know what to cover in upcoming lessons. So we recommend that you make notes on the student and what you have covered with them.

As an online tutor, you want to be able to plan lessons as much as possible. However, you can’t always spend lots of time preparing because you don’t earn anything for this time. So if you're relatively new to teaching online, consider creating folders on your computer containing lesson materials. If you keep these folders organised, you'll be able to quickly find appropriate materials for upcoming lessons.

6. Make the most of your time with the student

Students are keen to make the most of every minute they've paid for. Here are some tips for having efficient lessons:

  • Make sure you have a plan for the lesson, even if it’s just a rough one.
  • If you are using materials, you should have them open and ready so you’re not struggling to find them. If you will send files, consider doing this before the lesson.
  • The start of the lesson is a good time to check in with the student, ask how they are and get to know them a little. Whilst relationship building is important, try to get started with the planned activities fairly quickly. The student might not want to spend 15 minutes chatting about random things.
  • Both of you should use the target language as much as possible. Rather than say something in English because you think they may not understand, it is much better to say it in your language, then ask the student if they understand. And if they start speaking in English, encourage them to try to say what they want to say in your language.
  • Most students want to focus on their speaking skills. This makes sense as they can practice other skills outside of lessons, whereas with speaking, tutors are crucial for practicing and receiving feedback. If the student wants to focus on speaking, you should primarily use exercises that allow them to speak a lot. Ask the student lots of questions rather than talk about yourself too much.

7. Have fun!

As much as organisation and efficiency will help, if the lessons aren’t fun, your student will get bored. Look for exercises that are playful and find topics that interest the student. Use different types of exercises. Be creative - don’t just use texts – use pictures, videos, objects in your house, role plays etc.

8. Correct students the right way and at the right time

Providing corrections sounds like a simple task but there is an art to it.

When your student makes a mistake, let them finish their sentence, rather than interrupting them. Then, tell them the correction and write it down for them. If you have time, provide the translation too. After you’ve given the correction, encourage the student to repeat it out loud.

Some students lack confidence, so avoid saying “no”, or “that’s not right”. Instead, you can let them know if it was almost right, or you can simply give them the right word. When they say something correctly, give positive feedback. This will also help build their confidence. Lastly, if they are trying to remember a word, wait to see if they can find it. Give them the first letter, rather than giving them the answer straight away. It’s much better if they can find it themselves.

9. Ending lessons and providing homework

At the end of each lesson, it can be good to tell the student what you will do together during the next lesson, or to ask them if there is anything they’d like to focus on.

Keep an eye on the time so that there isn’t a big rush to cut off the call. If another lesson is about to start, politely explain to the student why you need to go. Don’t make your next student wait because you want to finish something with your current student. If you do, the next student may find your lateness unprofessional.

Regarding homework, some students want this, others don’t. For those that do, you may want to explain that you can suggest resources and exercises, however if they want corrections you will not have time to provide them outside of the lessons. Even if they just listen to the radio, watch TV or follow the news, it’ll help a lot! Another very simple ‘homework’ is for the student to simply go over the vocabulary you’ve written down during lessons.

10. Technology options

If you need to share a document, you can either do it by sharing your screen or sending a file. Either way, you should check that the student can see the document clearly. Sometimes documents can appear too small on the student’s screen.

Many tutors use Google Docs during the calls. This is often better than screen sharing. You and your student will be able to see each other typing, and you can create more complex structures, such as grammar tables.

Simply create a document for each of your students, and share the link during the trial or first lesson. Then they’ll be able to review everything in one place. To share a doc, click File > Share. Under 'Get Link', select 'Change to anyone with the link'. Change access to 'Editor'. Then copy the link and share it with your student.

If you're using Whereby, you can even open a Google Doc directly in the call. Simply click Share > Google Drive. Copy the share link from the Google Doc and you'll see it! 

If you like to use pictures and videos, you could try Dropbox Paper instead. It’s like Google Docs but you can embed pictures and videos directly in documents. The only disadvantage is your student would need to sign up for a free Dropbox account to be able to edit the document. Whereas a Google Doc can be shared so that the student can edit without needing a Google account.

It can also be useful to have an online dictionary open. Possibilities include,,, and