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How to Train Your English Teacher

Tariq Harris argues that classroom English teachers can seamlessly switch over to online tutoring as long as they get the right levels of support and training. The edtech specialist from Cambridge Assessment English looks at how the UK’s famed Cambridge University developed an award-winning course in this space and what the wider challenges are in the online tutoring market.

Teaching English online is exploding in popularity, which is great news for teachers and learners as it is much more flexible and opens up many opportunities for learning.

In the past, a popular path for people who wanted to teach English was to take the gap-year route, during which they would travel and teach English at the same time. While this is still very popular and a solid option for people who want to see the world, there is a new trend emerging: existing teachers who decide to make the switch to teaching English online. This offers much more flexibility for teachers who already have demanding lives, but it is not without its challenges, and suitable training needs to be put in place. To put it simply, teaching English face to face is not the same as teaching English online.

Last year we developed Teaching English Online—an award-wining course aimed at teachers who want to retrain for the online tutoring market. The course was a huge success and picked up an innovation award at ELTons, which is a big awards ceremony held in London every year. This ceremony is organized by the British Council and recognizes innovation in the English-teaching space.

I’ll talk more about the course and its content later, but I’d like to start by looking at how we approached the development of the course and what we learned along the way. We started by assembling a team of digital specialists and English language learning and teaching experts. This was an excellent mix of perspectives and gave us a good starting point. The first thing we did was look at the online tutoring market as a whole to identify what challenges were ahead. Here are a few insights we picked up along the way.

Firstly, the market is big and growing. This is largely driven by the fact that there are over a billion English language learners around the world today, and this is expected to grow. The huge increase in the number of learners and the rising competition for English proficiency for further education has led to a high demand from learners and parents for online tutoring.

Secondly, there is a great deal of catching up to do in terms of best practice in the online tutoring market. One area that springs to mind to highlight this is the native-speaking vs. nonnative-speaking teacher debate. Research shows that a teacher’s first language is not an indicator of his teaching quality and instead his experience, target-language proficiency, and training are what impact learning. This is starting to be accepted in the face-to-face market, but in online tutoring, there is still a huge demand for native-English-speaking tutors.

In face-to-face language teaching, there is now a steady shift from the idea that being a native speaker means one can teach the language to the idea that being a trained and qualified English teacher who understands, relates, and empathizes with the different contexts of learners means one is better equipped to teach.

This change in mentality is not present in the online tutoring space, with nearly all the largest online tutoring companies requiring their tutors to be native speakers or even to be from specific countries like the U.S. or UK. This mindset is partly born out of the idea many hiring organizations have that their learners demand native-English-speaking teachers. This issue can only be tackled by raising awareness of the effectiveness of trained tutors, regardless of where they are from or what their first languages are.

What About Quality Control?

The advent of the internet changed publishing overnight, as suddenly everyone became a publisher. I think YouTube is having a similar effect on the teaching sector, as regardless of qualifications or affiliations, anyone can now post an online lesson. While this has loads of benefits and creates a great deal of diversity in the sector, it does come with a bit of a health warning. There is a wild disparity in the quality of English teaching in online lessons. One can find examples of this by looking at videos of online lessons on YouTube. There are a few examples showing clear language skills being developed, but there are also a concerning number where there is no obvious focus on language development at all.

Although discussion in English is very important, often there is very little focus on language development in some of these online lessons, and as Marie Therese Swabey (lead educator on the Teaching English Online course) likes to say, “It turns into just chattin’.”

What Did the Course Contain?

As mentioned at the start of this article, we gathered a lot of this insight from developing Teaching English Online—our award-winning course. The course has already helped thousands of English language teachers to transfer their skills to the online environment. We developed it with Europe’s leading online social learning platform, FutureLearn, and it covers the skills, knowledge, and digital tools needed to deliver effective online English lessons. Over the three runs of the course, so far 50,000 people have joined it. It is split into four sections:

1. The context of English language teaching online—this covers strategies for building rapport and creating engagement with learners, how to exploit the different digital features, and the key skills needed to be an effective online tutor.

2. How to plan and deliver online skills lessons—we help teachers deliver skills lessons and effectively error correct in an online context.

3. How to plan and deliver online language lessons—this section covers clarifying and practicing language and dealing with pronunciation.

4. How to continue professional development as an online teacher—we look at ways of gathering feedback and how to evaluate and reflect on teaching.

So, Can You Teach Teachers to Teach English Online?

The short answer is yes, you can retrain teachers for the online environment, but professional development has to be done properly. The three lessons we learned were: get the focus right, don’t forget about the importance of the personal touch, and lastly, listen to feedback. Let’s look at these in more detail.

Get the focus right: Development should focus on helping teachers build and transfer skills into the online environment. Online lessons should consider the needs of learners, have clear aims and focuses, and incorporate best practice in methodology.

It’s essential that teachers see concrete examples of how online teaching can work in practice, so they can try out new ideas. It’s also very important to empower teachers to use the technology available to them effectively and highlight the differences and similarities between face-to-face and online environments.

The personal touch: Because teachers can miss speaking and sharing with colleagues when teaching online, online social learning platforms, such as FutureLearn, can help fill the gap. Over the previous runs of the course, the rich discussions between teachers, both experienced and new, have been one of the most important factors in its success and have led to teachers on the course creating communities on other platforms to continue their discussions.

Listen to feedback: It’s important to listen to feedback from participants and iterate each course based on that feedback. Over three runs, the course has changed dramatically and now includes more lessons, increased course length, and a new section on setting up a business as an online tutor. The technology and the needs of teachers are constantly changing, so any professional development in this area needs to be updated frequently.

For more about Teaching English Online, you can find the course at

Tariq Harris is part of the new product development team at Cambridge Assessment English.

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