5 things I wish I knew before I taught English as a foreign language online


While teachers don’t have much free time during the summer they certainly have more time than during the school year. It was the restlessness caused by this extra time that led me to search for something I enjoyed doing that could also bring in some extra money.

Eventually, more through luck than anything else, I entered into a contract with one of the portals, teaching English to children in China online. I soon found it to be an experience I loved, but there are many things that I had yet to learn when I first turned that webcam on for the first time.

Here are five things I wish I had known before teaching English as a foreign language online.

1. Wait, how much is that going to cost?

When I first heard about teaching English online to young children I thought my skills as an educator would be all I needed to bring with me.

I was very wrong. To learn a new language, especially at a young age, students must have manipulatives to understand what you’re saying. Since you are the one using the manipulative it falls on you to be the one to buy or create them.

For things like teaching the alphabet and phonetic parts of words it’s easy to buy a bag of letter magnets or use a simple dry erase board with a marker. When teaching the name of an animal, a simple drawing will do, but there is nothing quite like a child’s excitement at seeing a stuffed lion sneak onto the screen while you pretend to roar!

While there are options to make these manipulatives less expensive it can be rewarding to spend a little more money on them.

On the other hand, the equipment you use to broadcast will leave you little room to save on expenses. You will need a stable internet connection, either a PC or laptop, and a high quality webcam and a microphone. Luckily most laptops have a decent webcam and microphone built in, but many teaching services will require their employees to use a headset equipped with a microphone.

Lastly, you will need to keep your teaching environment in mind. I was able to get some cheap lime green tablecloths to put on the wall and some teaching posters to put up behind me. I personally liked having my manipulatives in sight as well and mounted an industrial sized baking pan to the wall under my tablecloths and hot glued magnets onto everything.

By the end of it all, I spent around $120 on my virtual classroom. While I don’t regret it in any way, if I had known the expenses involved I may have bought my supplies over a longer period of time instead of rushing to get them all at once before my first class.

2. No More Sleeping In

One of the few things I love about summer as a teacher is the ability to sleep in each morning. I’m personally a night owl, which is something that doesn’t mix well with my schedule during the school year.

Unfortunately for me, the time zones in China ruined my summer sleep schedule. Majority of my students lived in Beijing while I taught out of Kentucky in the United States.

This meant that at 6PM when my students and their parents were getting home from their busy days, ready to log on and complete their English lessons, I was waking up with a fresh pot of coffee at 5 AM. At least I was still able to fit in some naps around noon when all my students had gone to sleep.

3. Keep It Simple, Keep It Slow

As an experienced teacher, I know the importance of presenting information to my students in a concise way that they will understand.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for what my TEFL students needed. I had to completely cut out all incidental language from my instruction, which is basically a fancy way of saying that every lesson needed to be as simple as possible with no words being spoken that didn’t provide educational value.

This included basic phrases like “First, let’s learn to say…” and “Ummm….” being completely taken out of my teaching. Instead I had to learn to simply blurt out the word I wanted a child to learn, then cup my hand around my ear to let them know I wanted it repeated back. Other place fillers like, “Hmm…” and “Let’s see here…” needed to be cut out because they are used when we are trying to think about what we are going to say next.

Since your lessons should be well planned in advance these place holders are frowned upon, especially by employers in Asian countries, because they make you seem unorganized and flustered.

4. Positive Reinforcement Is Just as Effective Online

In the classroom I have found positive reinforcement—providing rewards for good behavior—to be one of my most implemented strategies for classroom management.

I usually provide my students with a few minutes of technology use at the end of class, or bake food for them and bring it in the next day. Obviously these same rewards aren’t able to be implemented in a virtual classroom, but you would be shocked by how the kids react to having a simple “scoop” of ice cream being pinned onto their picture of a cone on the board behind you.

Even though they can’t taste the ice cream from their computer screen, they still understand the sentiment of being given a good tasting treat when they do something right. It is also a great tool to have at the end of the class when you can provide a visual representation of their success throughout the lesson.

5. Throw Away Your Inhibitions

I’m usually a pretty reserved person that likes to be in complete control during my classes—as a high school teacher I strive to be professional on all levels and set an example for my students to follow as they enter into the real world.

This is not what young children need when they are learning English. They need someone who is unafraid to use their entire body to express the meaning of new words. They need a teacher that will put their arm up to their face like a trunk and trumpet loudly when teaching the word elephant and sing a song about feelings when teaching the words happy and sad.

Since these students are learning a new language they need instructors that can fully express the meaning of a word no matter how silly it makes them look. Besides, you’ll be surprised by how much fun you can have in getting carried away with your instruction.

Teaching English as a foreign language to children in China is an experience I would recommend to anyone willing to try it. Hopefully these five things will give you an idea of what it’s like and provide inspiration for you to move forward in taking your first steps in the process of teaching English online.

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This article was originally published in Dec-2018 and was last updated in Dec-2020.

Author: Cole Allen

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