7 Tips On How To Be A Successful Online ESL Tutor (Cambly Kids)

I’ve been working in Early Years/Pre-Kindergarten for 7 years. Although I’m not a certified teacher (only a TEFL holder), I have ‘real life’ classroom experience and completed many ‘professional development’ days. Now I’m teaching online, I’ve taken the things I learnt over the years and transferred them to my online classroom! Here are 7 tips on ways to be a successful online ESL tutor!

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How To Be A Successful Online ESL Tutor

1. Know Your Niche

If you have experience with a certain age group, share it! The one thing I’ve learnt from blogging (and what this site kinda fails at!) is that a ‘niche’ is so important. I took this and applied it to teaching online. When you sign up to tutor on these platforms, parents have a whole list of tutors that they can choose from to teach their child. If you market yourself and share what you do best, the parent is going to know exactly what they will get when they make a reservation with you. I’m sure there are plenty of tutors that still do well marketing themselves to a wide age range, but I feel that part of my success is due to how I market myself.

I have Pre-K experience, so that’s the student group I aim to attract. My written profile and intro video both share my Pre-K background, I have emojis in my bio and my profile picture is aimed at a younger audience. 4 to 6yr olds are the age group I know best and the majority of my students fall into this category. Yes it means I might be teaching the same lessons back to back to back to back but this age range is in my comfort zone and I can hopefully provide them with exactly what they require.

Just being in the platform’s Facebook groups, it’s very obvious that a lot of people have very different comfort zones. I’m better with the younger students, the thought of trying to teach an adult intimidates me, but other tutors are completely the opposite. This is part of what makes the platform so great as there is a need for so many different types of tutor!!

assorted color alphabet on black background: Photo by Magda Ehlers
Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

2. For every negative, share 5 ‘positives’

This was something that we were taught at school, and it does seem a little extreme, but with teaching online ESL students it seems even more important. For every negative, which can even be something like giving a simple direction, they then need 5 positives to counteract how the negative makes them feel.

For example. Think of interacting with a student in real life. In the space of a few minutes you might say: ‘Take your coat off, hang it up, take your shoes off, put your bag over there, sit down…’ Those 5 commands now need 15 positives to equalise it. These could be things like: ‘Hello [student’s name]! I love your T-shirt! High five! Well done! Good job! Awesome!’ It encourages them by making them feel like they are doing well, rather than constantly just being told what to do. Like I said, it does seem a little much, but that’s the science behind it!

Transfer this to an online setting. Think about how often you say ‘circle THIS, circle THAT, repeat THIS’. With students who are learning English as a second language, you may be repeating the same directions several times. Because of this, it’s SO important to praise them and tell them how well they are doing. After all, they are having to think and reply in a language that doesn’t come natural to them. That alone is an amazing achievement. (I know how frustrated I get when I try to learn Spanish on Duolingo!!!).

3. Greet every student by name and make them feel welcome

So carrying on from the positives, a simple way to start off in the ‘green’, is to greet them by their name and make them feel like you are happy to see them! I know when you’re teaching people from around the world, the language barrier can be a big thing.

I always start every lesson with a new student by telling them my name and asking what their name is. From my own experiences I might ask them and they mumble it, and I don’t have a clue what they’ve said!! You don’t want to start off by asking them over and over what it is! It doesn’t always help if their username/screen name, isn’t their actual name, or it’ll be a nickname or it might be written in a completely different language altogether.

With the names written in Arabic, Chinese etc, before the lesson I’ll copy and paste the username into Google Translate. So far it’s been pretty good and will give you a fairly good English translation of the name. That way, when they tell you their name and if it sounds like what you’ve found, you’re on to a winner! You can also put the English versions of the names into a ‘how to pronounce’ tool and most of the time it gives you a rough idea on how to pronounce it too. We might speak to many different students in a day, but by calling them by their name, it shows that you care and that you remember them.

I also always ask them how they are and I might make a comment on their shirt or how they have their hair, such as: ‘Oh I love your headband today! It’s so pretty!’. I’ll point on my own body to help them to understand what I’m saying, so I’ll act out a headband for example! This especially works well with the younger girl students who are very proud of their ‘pretty dresses and accessories’!

I only do the ‘Hi! My name is…., what’s your name?!’ once, if they make another reservation, I’ll then greet them with ‘Hi [student], how are you today?!’. Or if I really can’t make out what their name is, I’ll say ‘Hi! It’s great to see you again!’.

miniature airplane and hand of person over drawn map: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

4. Pay attention and be interested in their stories/interests

Which leads on to pay attention to their interests! If they want to show you their new toy or tell you a story about something that they’ve seen, listen to them and respond in a way that shows you care! Like: ‘Wow! That’s SO cool! Thank you for showing me!!’. We don’t always get a huge amount of time, especially when lessons only last 25-30 minutes, but if you know it’s a quick lesson, you can often afford to take a little bit of extra time to have a conversation with them.

It’s easy to encourage them to improve their English by talking about something that, to them, is very important. Ask them questions about what they are showing you! Get them to describe it! If they show you a pig, ask them what colour the pig is! I now have students that make things or draw pictures, and they get so excited to show me their work before our lesson! Make them feel like they are awesome!

Remember they might have been at school all day (or especially at the moment, doing online classes) and as ESL tutors they are doing EXTRA school. We should at least make it fun for them as well as being educational. I want students to enjoy their classes with me, not think oh no it’s Kylie who is just going to bang on about ‘Ay, Ah, Apple’ for 30 minutes!

Obviously teaching the lessons is important, after all that’s what they are paying for, just find a nice balance where they are still learning the material but have the chance to practice conversational English too. If you focus so much on the lesson that they think you don’t care about what they have to say, it’ll make them feel bad. If you think you are pushed for time, you can say ‘oooo that looks like fun! We can talk about that more at the end of the lesson!’

5. Make notes on each student!

Cambly has a great feature where you can make private notes on a student and you can view it within the classroom screen. Even if you might never see the student again, make notes! Write how to pronounce their name, their age, where they are from, if they have pets, brothers or sisters, who their friends are, what they like to do! That way you have a ready made bank of things to ask them next time or if they tell you a story again! The students get really impressed that you remembered!

I also use the notes section for academic things, such as: what they know (letters, numbers, colours), what they struggle with, how much English they have etc. At the end of each lesson, I like to have a rough gauge on where the student is at. If it’s a very young student, I’ll finish up a lesson with ABC flashcards, numbers, colours, shapes etc. That way if they make another reservation I know what I need to focus more on next time, or what things I can fly through because they already know. Having a regular student base makes all this very easy!

Teaching English Online
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

6. Adapt to each individual student

Just like in a normal school, every student is completely different. They learn in different ways, they might be further ahead or behind compared to others. You have to be ready to adapt. Sometimes I’ll be teaching Intro To English to a 4yr old with quite good English, but then I might then teach the same lesson to someone that’s 9 with very little English. You’ll come across students that are at different points in their English language journey. The way I teach Intro to English to a 4yr old is very different to a 9yr old. You don’t want the 9yr old to feel embarrassed or like you are baby-ing them.

There are different levels of curriculum for more advanced students, but they aren’t necessarily suited to an older person with zero English. You have to learn to walk before you can run. Sometimes you just have to go back to basics. On the other hand, I have some that are great at conversational English but they need to be at the lower level that teaches letters, sounds and blending words by sight, so they then have the foundations to start reading and writing.

7. Build up a relationship with the parent/reach out to them in a private message

At the end of every lesson with a new student, I send them (their parent) a message. I say how great they did, it was lovely to meet them, thank you for telling me a story or showing me something (shows that I paid attention to them) and that I can’t wait to see them in class again etc. Sometimes I don’t get a message back which is fine, but most of the time it results in repeat booking! Like I said, having a schedule full of regulars makes tutoring online so much easier, for both me and the student!

If a student has very little English, or I find they rebook with me but I struggle to hold their attention etc, I’ll message the parent asking for things that the student likes. Sometimes the student doesn’t understand a question I might ask about what they like to do, but the parents are able to answer. That way I might be able to find pictures that we can talk about or things we can do if the class finishes early.

It’s also important to not be taken advantage of though. Cambly is one of the lower paying platforms and we aren’t paid to create our own curriculum. The parents know that when they sign up for the Kids programme, they pay for the curriculum that they choose in their subscription. However, the longer you teach, you eventually build up a base of resources that you can use. I have various websites and apps book marked on my iPad, that I can just pull up when I need them. Creating additional flashcards is free and quick for me, a one off 5 minutes of unpaid time may end up benefitting several different students in the long run. This is especially true if the majority of bookings are coming from students that are all roughly the same level!

Obviously not every lesson or student is going to be a breeze. You do sometimes get very challenging students that couldn’t care less about the funny sounding tiny person that’s trying to get their attention on an iPhone screen! Hopefully these tips will give you some ideas on how you can become an awesome tutor!

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