Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

After meeting up with Sandy at IATEFL Manchester 2015 (having not seen each other face-to-face since finishing our university studies in 2008 – one of the reasons social media is great!) and chatting about the fact that I do most of my teaching on Skype, she asked me to write a guest post on her blog, and here it is!

I’ve been working as a freelance English teacher since the beginning of 2013, when I set up my business, Get Ahead in English. I’d just moved to Barcelona, and after teaching at SGI in London for a couple of years, was keen to see if I could strike out on my own! I built up to a full timetable of private students, almost all 1-1 with the exception of two students I taught together, and a group of three students in-company. I also started my first Skype lessons whilst in Barcelona. This was a 45-minute lesson with a student I’d taught face-to-face in London. We met once a week and mostly practised speaking, as well as email English. In this case, he didn’t have a webcam, which worked well as it gave him the chance to practise telephone English – in his job, he has to speak English to people without seeing their faces almost every day.
My husband and I moved back to the UK in December 2014 and I offered all my students in Barcelona the chance of continuing their lessons on Skype. Some were immediately keen, others said they’d prefer face-to-face (for example, those taking lessons in-company who felt they needed the motivation of a physical person appearing in their office every week) and some said they’d think about it (most of those have now started Skype lessons too!)

Activities

Most of the activities I do are not that different to those I did in face-to-face lessons. Instead of arriving at the lesson with printed handouts, I email them in advance, or send documents via Skype (there’s a paperclip symbol next to the chat box where you can attach files), and they arrive almost instantly. I also use this to send homework. To review students’ writing, I sometimes use the screen share function on Skype so we can look at their work together. I think some Skype teachers use Teamviewer, but I haven’t found it necessary.

It’s also very easy to look at websites together online – a student can send me something they’ve seen that they have questions about, I can send an article, or we can look at exercises together. Google images is also great when one of us is trying to describe something!

How different is teaching on Skype to teaching face-to-face?

As long as you both have a good internet connection and webcam, not that different at all! I have actually met the majority of my Skype students face-to-face as well, because I was teaching them in Barcelona, but I now have a few who I’ve never met in person. People ask if this is awkward, but I don’t think it is. One of the reasons I offer a free 30-minute consultation before students have to pay is to make sure the student feels comfortable with the format, as well as to check their internet is good enough and to conduct a needs analysis, of course!

One difference I have noticed is timing. When going to a student’s house or office, you arrive a couple of minutes early and by the time you’ve come in, sat down, they’ve offered you a drink and you’ve chatted about a new picture on the wall or something else you’ve seen, you’re at least 5 minutes into the lesson. With Skype, the lesson starts as soon as you press the “call” button! This also means that there are generally fewer distractions, which is nice.

Of course, there are sometimes technical problems. Touch wood, I’ve had fewer problems with my internet connection than I did with late trains/buses when teaching face-to-face! It’s important to have a strategy in place for these types of things though – do you still charge a student if their internet is broken? I ask students to give me 24 hours’ notice of any changes or cancellations, but treat those with less notice on a case-by-case basis. If my internet broke and we couldn’t do our lesson, I wouldn’t charge the student and we’d arrange another time to make up for it. This is yet to happen! We did have a power cut last week but luckily not while I had any lessons scheduled. Occasionally mine or my student’s internet connection will cut out for a minute or two during the lesson, but that’s rare and only for a short time.

How do I find students?

I’m lucky in that the majority of my students are ones I already knew. However, I’ve found a few new students through TutorFair and others through Blabmate. Be warned that with the latter, you’ll receive a lot more enquiries than paying students! There seem to be a lot of people looking for free lessons. However, for the £1.40/month fee, you don’t need many paying students to make it up. I would also say it’s important to have your own website so students can find out more about you.

Other advantages

I asked my Skype students to tell me what they most like about learning on Skype for a blogpost I wrote on my website, and the main thing they mentioned was convenience. They can take their lessons anywhere (even on a beach or in their pyjamas!) as long as they have an internet connection.

This is also an advantage for me, as my travelling time and cost is now zero. It also means that I have students all over the world, which is great to increase my client base, but also to learn about new cultures.

Last but by no means least, there’s the environmental factor. I print so much less now that I’m teaching online. A recent ELT chat highlighted the desire for teachers to reduce the amount of paper they use, and this is one way to do it!

Disadvantages

I used to enjoy teaching face-to-face in Barcelona as it gave me the chance to walk around the city a lot and get to know it. This is slightly less appealing in rainy Manchester, but I do miss the exercise and variety!

Sometimes you can’t beat being in the same room as a student – they may have a book they’d like you to look at, and it’s easier to pick up on body language etc.

I haven’t taught any small groups on Skype but imagine that would be more difficult. Having had three-way conversations with friends on Skype, we’ve tended to end up with lots of people starting to speak at the same time as it’s harder to see visual clues. However, I’m sure you’d get used to it and would be good practice for meetings etc.

Overall, I really enjoy teaching on Skype. It’s comfortable for me and the student, it’s more environmentally friendly and it means I can teach students all over the world!

Julia Phang

Thanks a lot to Julia Phang for writing this post. It was great to catch up with her after so long, and the fact that she could write a guest post on a topic I often get asked about was an added bonus! If you’d like to find out more, you can follow Julia on Twitter and read her shiny new blog too.

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Comments on: "Teaching English on Skype (guest post)" (20)

  1. It was great to read about Julia’s lessons using Skype. I offer French lessons over Skype and have had very similar experiences. I have some students who come to my house if they have the time but use Skype if not. I have others whom I have never met. I have to be extremely well organised on Skype as I can’t just reach for a book on a shelf where I know there is a good exercise. On the other hand, it’s great for sharing Youtube videos and websites. I have a growing number of students who live in France but prefer to learn with a native English speaker who can explain things easily to them.

    Like

    • juliacphang said:

      Thanks for your comments, Clare. It’s true that you can’t reach for a book if you haven’t scanned it before, but I have lots of digital resources that are only a click away! I hope your Skype teaching continues to go well.

      Like

  2. Manjusha Sagrolikar said:

    This is very interesting and need of time but it is challenging for full time paid teachers I appreciate this efforts which proved the most effective congratulations I feel to work like this with students here.

    Like

  3. Dear Teacher,

    This is Sarwar from Dhaka, Bangladesh. I want to learn English and practice English with you.

    Please provide me your cell no.
    +01715223549

    Like

  4. Thanks I wanna be student with you

    Like

  5. Interesting post. Teaching on Skype is something I’ve been considering to increase flexibility, so you’ve given me something to think about. Thanks.

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  6. I don’t have a lot of experience teaching with Skype but I do have some and really enjoyed it. Julia, your post is great and gives a real “feel” of what it’s like to teach like that. Just a few things you didn’t mention:

    Cons:
    – I found students need to have a level in English sufficient to hold a conversation comfortably – B1+
    – Beginning on time was not a problem but ending sometimes was. It can be difficult to cut off a chatty student tactfully. I never found an on-line equivalent to standing up, clearing the desk, putting on my jacket… By the way, unlike you Julia, the students called me – if they were late that was their responsibility.
    – Where I worked the sessions were organised as 20 x 30 minutes. This was great for the students – little and often – but not for the teacher. I spent as much time reading the notes before class and writing them up after as actually teaching. 15 minutes reading the class notes before and 15 minutes writing them up after my “normal” 2h or 3h teaching sessions. seems a reasonable ratio of admin to teaching. I’m not including the real “pedagogical” reflection time: just the noting down of subjects and/or texts dealt with or to be done next time, vocabulary/grammar/pronunciation/register problems that came up and maybe needed further work.

    Pros:
    – Julia mentioned most of them but the biggy for me was using the chat box to give feedback on the student’s productions without interrupting their flow. In the classroom you have to turn your back on the student to give written feedback on the board. I feel strongly that on-the-spot feedback is much more effective than telling them about problems minutes later when they’ve forgotten exactly what they said and what they wanted to express. All my students were smart cookies and would usually immediately integrate my feedback into their speech. Or they’d ask for further clarification.
    The chat box also meant they had a written record of what they’d worked on to look at later.
    – it was a bit sneaky, but I liked being able to look things up on the Internet without the student knowing that I was doing so. It meant I didn’t have to say “We’ll work on that next time” because I didn’t remember what, say, “egregious” meant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • juliacphang said:

      Hi Glenys,
      Thanks for your comments!
      At the moment all my students are B1 and above, but I wouldn’t write off doing lessons via Skype with students of a lower level too. It’d just be less about conversation I suppose, and would certainly require careful planning. I’ll write a blog post if I’m ever in that situation.
      It’s certainly my students’ responsibility if they’re late too! Sometimes I call them first, sometimes they call me. Interesting point about wrapping up too – mine are quite good at sticking to their time slot!
      I agree that the chat box is really helpful, and my students have mentioned that too. The only thing I would say is it can also disrupt their flow slightly when they hear the notification sound, but as you say, it’s much less disruptive than writing on the board and easier for them to incorporate too.
      Being able to look things up is great too!
      Thanks again for adding your thoughts,
      Julia

      Like

  7. This was really interesting – I’m considering using one of the Skype services to find someone to practise my Icelandic with, and this has given me insight into some of the possibilities and risks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • juliacphang said:

      Thanks Liz! Hope you find someone to practise your Icelandic with and you enjoy learning on Skype.

      Like

  8. Hi Julia and everybody,

    Here’s a site which has 4 video demo Skype lessons: http://www.breakintoenglish.com/

    They’re not “real” lessons but they are inspiration for what is possible.

    —-
    Notification sound? I didn’t realise there could be one – I must have turned it off. Now I’ll know to make sure students do too.

    Cheeers,
    Glenys

    Like

  9. […] writing my guest post on Sandy Millin’s blog about teaching English on Skype, I’ve had a few more thoughts and been asked a couple more […]

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  10. Patricia Daniels said:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Julia. I’ve been teaching via Skype for several years now but have face-to-face students as well. I love working with this medium but it does have its challenges and not just the technological e.g. equipping students with the necessary digital literacy skills so you can move seamlessly between other virtual learning spaces in order to engage in writing and listening activities or to view relevant videos.

    I mainly work with students on an individual basis and am always trying to improve lesson design so that students have plenty of opportunities for language production rather than me using up their time. This is of course an issue whether we’re working with individuals on a face-to-face basis or via Skype. I find that it’s better to have them come prepared for the lesson so that we can make the most of our sessions. I do this by sending them screencasts, or an audio recording or an email of what we’re going to cover in the next lesson and I explain what I’d like them to focus on and prepare before the next session.

    As a tip, rather than mailing documents or screensharing when you want to view their written work, why not just use a collaborative writing space? I use Google Drive with all of my students, not just the Skype students. There are a host of free collaborative writing tools available. This way you can both enter the space during the lesson and work together. You can also view their written work at any time and provide feedback and support where appropriate. I find it’s efficient too because each student has a writing space which means everything is in the one place. I have all my links ready either on a document on my second screen, at the bottom of my main screen or in my reading list. It just depends on what it is. Once you links are prepared, it’s only a matter of copy and pasting a link into the chat box and asking your learner to click on it so that you can both meet in Google Drive. If a student is a bit nervous about clicking on links and disappearing to other spaces then I practise doing this with them i.e. clicking on a link and then coming back to fullscreen mode a few times and making sure that they have fun with it. I feel it’s important to take small steps and only add other tools when you know that they’re comfortable moving around in these virtual environments. For those who are skilled in these spaces I also take them into Second Life for a more immersive learning experience when it’s relevant to our work. It’s not for everyone though but it certainly opens up our language learning possibilities.

    I’ve written several posts if you’re interested. I’m also happy to exchange ideas in order to find ways to improve our Skype teaching practices as there is so much we can do to enhance the learner experience. You’ll find me under my blog Penvirtual and also on Twitter @trishiels

    Thanks again for your post Julia.

    Patricia

    Like

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