The past decade has seen a massive surge in the number of people teaching online and, with the recent outbreak of coronavirus, this is becoming an even more popular way for students to seek education. IELTS is no different and as such there has been a big increase in the number of IELTS tutors online lately.
In this article, I’m going to give you some tips for becoming a great online tutor.
1. Know the Test Inside Out
If you don’t know the IELTS exam well, you will not be a particularly good tutor. This should be obvious to anyone, so make sure that you know it fully before starting your first lesson.
If you want to learn about IELTS, you can find out information pretty easily online. You can check out the official website or else pick up a copy of a useful book. I have recommendations on which books you can use here.
Remember that, in many cases, your students will already know the structure of the exam perfectly and will be coming to you for advice on how to get a better score. Still, you will need to know enough about the structure of the exam to help them and also to dispel any myths that they have heard.
2. Know the English Language Inside Out
Ok, so maybe you don’t have to know the etymology of every single word and you don’t have to be an absolute expert in grammar… but it is really important that you aren’t just a native speaker. Let’s face it: these days, in the UK and US, our education systems are failing us when it comes to learning grammar. We don’t know the rules of punctuation or even the correct tenses to use. It is an embarrassment.
In the IELTS exam, your students will be judged on their grammar and so you should know enough to teach them how to get a high band score. You don’t need to know each and every rule for correct comma placement, but you certainly should know the basics. If you don’t know this stuff, your students are going to suffer and that is just not fair.
I wrote this article a few weeks ago about how much grammar you really need to know. As a native speaker, it wouldn’t take you long to master it. Just set aside a few hours for studying over the course of a week and, honestly, that’s probably enough to brush up on your grammar skills before you begin online IELTS tutoring.
3. Be Flexible with your Work Hours
The “I” in IELTS stands for “International.” That means that your students are going to come from all around the world. Sure, IELTS is more popular in some countries than others, but you could theoretically have students from almost anywhere. In the past two weeks, I have tutored students from:
If I were to count the number of countries whose students I’d tutored in the last year, it would probably be about a hundred! So yes, IELTS is very international.
This means that you’re going to be dealing with a lot of different time zones. You will thus need to be open to what they politely call “unsociable hours.” If you’re a nocturne, then that’s probably no big deal for you. I personally live in Asia and the majority of my students are from this part of the world, but sometimes I need to arrange hours with my European or South American students. Flexibility will help you get more classes booked.
4. Learn Another Language
I never speak another language to my students except for English. I can speak passable Mandarin and Korean, but I simply don’t use them in my lessons, nor even for booking classes. There are various reasons for that, but at the core I find that forcing my students to use English is beneficial for them.
So why the heck did I recommend learning another language?
People who speak a second language tend to have much better communication skills than those who don’t. There are some basic things you learn when you speak a second language that many monolinguists don’t know. For example, it’s really hard to learn another language!
Seriously, many people who speak just one language cannot appreciate the stress and struggle that comes with learning a second one. They don’t realise that even after years of study, there are so many things you don’t understand.
You don’t have to go out and become fluent in Japanese or anything… Just take a few classes and you’ll soon see how difficult it is. This will teach you how to communicate with others more simply. You’d be surprised how many young Westerners only speak English and then attempt to teach it… They talk far too quickly and think that speaking louder will help get their point across. #fail
5. Patience is a Virtue. A Big One.
I recommended that you (try to) learn a language so that you understand how difficult it is to communicate with someone in anything other than your native tongue. This will help you understand your students better and maybe show them a little patience.
When you are learning something, you need a patient teacher guiding you. Anyone who’s attempted to learn something with a bullying, shouting monster at the head of the class knows how little that really helps. Instead, you want someone who will calmly guide you through the lesson.
When I am tutoring someone online, I need to remember that they will make the same mistakes over and over… It’s just how the human brain is. Only a handful of very lucky people can pick things up quickly and avoid the whole trial-and-error thing. As such, you’re going to have to get used to slowly and methodically teaching new language and then giving constructive feedback on it.
6. Learn How to Give Feedback
In the previous tip, I mentioned feedback. In fact, I have a whole article about the importance of giving feedback here. You might want to bookmark that for later. It’s pretty important.
When you are learning a language, you need feedback. In fact, it’s unbelievably difficult to move forward without it. However, what you don’t need is someone angrily saying, “Come on?! How difficult is it to use the passive voice?! Geez!”
Nope. That’s terrible.
You need to be able to give good feedback and, honestly, there are lots of ways to do it that I cannot list here. One way is reformulation, which means using the word or phrase that they got wrong, but to use it correctly. For example:
STUDENT: Next week, I am go cinema with my friend.
TEACHER: Oh really? Next week, you are going to the cinema with your friend?
Think about it… How did you learn language when you were a kid? Your parents unconsciously corrected you just like this.
Another way that works is to make notes and give feedback later on in the lesson. I tend to use this with my higher-level students because they are able to figure out what I mean and act on it. Also, at this point you can really figure out what they need to know – ie what mistakes they are commonly making.
7. Know How to Plan and Structure a Lesson
A great online IELTS tutor knows how to plan and structure a lesson. Of course, this totally depends on the lesson and your students and some other things… In other words, it’s hard to describe here. If you have a school that you work for, you probably get your lesson plans from them, but if you’re freelance, then you have to figure it out. It will also totally depend on whether this is a one-on-one class or whether you have multiple students.
My most common lesson type is simple practice speaking lessons. I conduct a mock IELTS test with my students and then give feedback on their performance. To be honest, it requires very little effort. However, if I am teaching a grammar point then I need to plan it out meticulously.
If you find lesson planning a struggle, there are many places that you can go to find pre-made plans or activities. One such place is Off2Class, which offers pretty much ready-made lessons. Your student will log in and you can just go with it from the start. Easy!
8. Make Sure Your Internet Connection is Lightning Fast
This is really obvious. Slow internet = problems. Let’s face it, it’s going to be enough of a challenge when you consider that some of your students will come from places with poor internet and already there will be connection problems that cause communication breakdowns. Make sure that yours is as fast as possible in order to compensate for this.
9. Pick your Materials and Software Carefully
This tip covers a wide variety of things and again will totally depend on what you’re teaching and how.
In terms of software, for online IELTS tutoring, I usually use Skype. It’s reliable and free and it’s available pretty much all over the world. You can even use it for teaching Chinese students – most of the time. I actually use WeChat for Chinese students because you never know when their government will ban someone or even semi-ban it so that it runs really slow. If you have multiple students, you may prefer something like Zoom.
As for teaching materials… Well, your choices are endless. If you are teaching IELTS speaking, you may just use practice questions and then offer feedback. You can find a good list of questions here. However, you may want to search YouTube for some good sample speaking tests. As for books, you can try the Cambridge ones or there is a list of useful textbooks here. The logistics of teaching online can make textbook use hard… I sometimes scan a page of a book and then send it to my student to bring up on their computer screen. We then work through the material together.
10. Set Yourself Apart from the Crowd
Nowadays, teaching online is big business. This creates lots of opportunities, but sadly it also means there are thousands of really crappy teachers. When you start teaching IELTS online, you’ll soon find that you’re competing against all sorts of people, including non-native speakers who have a poor grasp of the language, and native speakers who really don’t know how to teach.
If you can set yourself apart from the crowd, you can push yourself to the top of the pile. This isn’t easy and you might have to teach for less money than you want in the beginning, but that hard work and experience will pay off eventually.
Being the best means genuinely caring about your students, knowing the right things to teach them, knowing how to teach them, and acting like a professional. It can be tempting to roll out of bed and teach someone in your pyjamas, giving it the minimal effort required… but you might not get another lesson booked after that. With so many other teachers to choose from, your student would be wise to switch to someone who makes more effort.
Altogether, there are lots of opportunities nowadays to work as an online IELTS tutor, but it’s becoming more competitive. If you want to succeed, you need to follow the advice above. Work hard, take it seriously, care about your students, and expand your own knowledge so that you can really help them. If you do all that, you’ll make a great IELTS tutor.