How Do I: Teach English Online?

If you’re applying to teach English in China, you’ll often find that prospective employers will ask that all-too-familiar-and-not-in-any-way-soul-crushing question:

“Do you have any experience?”

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Via Giphy


As you might well be a fresh graduate, you may not have had time to hold down a full time position as a grammar school maths teacher in between your A-level exams, and therefore this question can seem daunting. The good news is that while most language schools in China won’t turn you down for lacking experience, it can give you a boost of confidence to dive into your first full time teaching job with some knowledge of the teaching process, rather than slipping backwards off the diving board into a sea of the unknown.

One useful way of gaining this experience is online teaching, a system where you can teach students from afar using your phone and computer. Couple this with the rising popularity of online teaching apps,  and you have a valuable tool at your disposal for actually knowing what your talking about in the world of ESL. Bonus: You get paid!

Online teaching apps aren’t all about earning a bit of extra cash, however. If you really want to get the most out of your lessons and leave with a cosy feelgood just-eaten-warm-Christmas pudding fluffy feeling in your stomach, then it helps to be prepared. ‘You’re an English teacher,’ I prodded at myself in my IKEA bathroom mirror, ‘So act like one.’


  • The peak hours are often weekday evenings from 6pm – 12pm (Beijing Time), so mind your time differences and plan accordingly.
  • Change out of your PJs into something work-appropriate (unless your PJs are work appropriate).
  • Make sure you’re in a quiet, private place, not in Starbucks with someone screaming that a panini is ready.
  • Speak clearly and simply. Common sense dictates the speed and difficulty your client is looking for. Your speech might seem painfully slow, but it’s great for beginners.
  • Listen, smile, nod. Allow for pauses up to 5 seconds before stepping in (remember, sometimes pauses are just caused by lag and not because the student is stuck for words).
  • Remember, the trick with this type of English conversation practise is that the student should be doing most of the talking – imagine you are merely a guide gently steering the conversation like a canal barge.
  • You’ll only see most of the students once, so remember this if you feel nervous or embarrassed. It’s unlikely you’ll ever run into them on the street.


  • Don’t rely on conversational methods. You may be the Ryan Styles of conversational improv, but your lack of preparation will start to show with repeat clients – “Um, so how about that weather, huh?”
  • A good online lesson ideally lasts for a comfortable 30 minutes, so mix up your lesson media by downloading scripts or small passages on various topics to practise reading together (see below). This is perfect for showing that you’re strict on pronunciation, something which is very popular with students.
  • Even though it might be tempting, this isn’t Question Time, so swallow your interruptions and let the student speak. Wait for pauses to make corrections. For more advanced students, I use the apps’ messaging functions to type out corrections or alternative vocabulary suggestions. Messaging is especially good as it is written proof of your corrections that students can keep and review.
  • Stick to your prices and stick to your lesson terms. For example, I often get students asking me to teach them in Chinese. However, the purpose of the sites and apps is English speaking practise, and I gently remind them that my method is to teach in English. Knowledge of Chinese is not necessary for ESL teaching.
  • Your bio and reviews make a difference. If you’ve been to China, mention it. If you can write Chinese, use it. Emphasise your teaching credentials and write yourself up as the classiest darn teacher available.


  • I’ll say this now and forever until the end of time – report inappropriate callers! If you receive unsavoury messages and calls from people using the apps as Tinder 2.0/Chatroulette, STOP, BLOCK, AND REPORT. It’s worth mentioning that the apps are swift to act.
  • Some people will call, laugh nervously, and hang up. It’s nothing personal.
  • The sites/apps are usually a prepaid service, and some students will attempt to ask you for alternative contact details. However, you won’t get paid for any interaction off the site/app.
  • In a similar vein, some students will ask if they can be taught via the messaging system. The messaging function is free and you therefore won’t get paid. It’s best to to be polite but firm in reminding the student that you only teach via video call. If they insist on messaging only, move on.
  • I’ve had a few callers trying to recruit me to another service or their personal business venture. These callers can be quite persistent, calling several times to see if you’ve ‘changed your mind.’ If it gets too much, block and report them.

On an important note, various online threads about online teaching, particularly for China, have expressed concern as to whether persons of colour are discriminated against when applying to work on the apps and sites. It would be ignorant to ignore the very real discrimination against men and women of colour in Asia’s ESL world, however, several Reddit account holders have reported that they teach on the sites without encountering any problems in this regard. Here are the aforementioned Reddit online threads discussing the issue that may give more of an insight.

Now, after giving you the low-down on online teaching, I thought it only fair to give you a couple of hints and tricks that I use to flesh out my lessons and allow your students to leave with a sense of achievement:

Basic conversation:

  1. What’s your name?
  2. How are you?
  3. How old are you?
  4. Where do you live? (ie: don’t make assumptions!)
  5. What did you do today?
  6. How was work? What do you do at work?
  7. What’s your family like?
  8. How’s the weather?
  9. Do you live in a big city? What’s it like?
  10. What school subjects do/don’t you like?
  11. What’s your major?
  12. Do you like travelling?
  13. Where do you want to travel to and why?
  14. If I came to your city, what should I see?
  15. I’m sick, what should I do?
  16. What will you do this weekend/holiday?
  17. Can you cook? Can you teach me how to make…?
  18. What movies/books do you like?
  19. I’ve heard (insert cultural tradition). Can you explain it for me?
  20. What do you think about…?

Avoid topics such as politics, religion, and money, unless the student brings it up. Never make assumptions about the student. Leave out any contentious opinions and if in doubt, say you don’t know enough about the topic to comment.

Create a set step-by-step curriculum for kids:

I usually flip my phone camera and use a pen to direct the student through the material. You can check their phonics, correct their pronunciation and develop their reading. It’s also a solid basis for practising simple questions and answers.

Use free online scripts and resources:

With permission, you can download free pictures and texts to use in your classes. You can send these to your students via the messaging function to read/complete together, or to set as homework (extra impressive).

Some helpful (and unsponsored) resources: Primary ResourcesESL LibraryHandouts OnlineHandout Hub.

The actual sites:

(Again, unsponsored) the main players right now appear to be the apps NiceTalk Tutor and Palfish (Appstore and Android). Like most online teaching platforms, you’re required to record a short audition video to check your expertise – it’s not too difficult provided you dress nicely, smile, speak very clearly and detail why you like teaching, what skills you have and a few basic details about yourself. You can record the video as many times as you like. Approval can take up to a week, but once accepted, you’re able to teach for $10 an hour (NiceTalk) or set your own rate (Palfish), payable via Paypal. Make under $20, and your payment rolls over to the next week. Make over $20, and the full amount will be deposited into your account every week. The apps have block and report functions and you can choose to log on when you’re free and log off when you’re popping to the kitchen for a brew. Lastly, you can even design your own classes and appointments, something that can really bump up your online teaching credentials for that extra-fancy edge.

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Take pride in your work and remember, students are paying for this, respect their investment! Happy teaching!



    1. Good question! From what I have seen, there seem to be teachers of all ages teaching online, and younger teachers don’t dominate at all.

      Thanks for reading, I hope it helps! If you have any other questions don’t hesitate to contact me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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