Top 5 tips for teaching English online

By Simon Dunton

Since the spring of 2020, more ESOL teachers than ever have experienced online teaching. In some cases, this has been a temporary measure, but in others it has opened new opportunities to both teachers and learners, meaning the communicative language classroom has never been so accessible to so many people. 

Working with tutors, trainers and moderators across the globe, the five areas below have been highlighted as key to successful online classes. 

Set up the right screen view 

Get to know your video-conferencing software well, experimenting with the view features so that you and your learners feel part of a class, helping to build rapport and create a comfortable learning atmosphere. 

Open-class discussion is best conducted in ‘gallery view’, as you will be able to see more than one learner at a time, noting who looks like they want to speak, or who disagrees with what has been said. Encourage your learners to use the same view, so they can interact with one another, nominating who will answer the next question etc. This mimics the whole- class view you would all have in a face-to-face class. 

Of course, this means getting learners to keep their cameras on wherever possible. Talk with them about why this is important, and how they would feel if you had your camera off during the class. 

Think about your teacher talking time (TTT) 

Many of us will be familiar with the concept of TTT, the time we as teachers spend talking in the class. In the communicative face-to-face language classroom, we usually try to keep it quite low as this is the learners’ time to talk, not ours. 

However, many teachers have noted that their TTT is higher when teaching online, and this is not necessarily a bad thing if it’s the right kind of TTT. 

In a face-to-face class, learners would see you giving out handouts, grouping them, writing on the board, etc. In the online classroom, they will see your face, and they may hear some typing and clicking. This is a good time to comment on what you are doing: 

  • ‘I’m now putting you in breakout rooms. There will be four rooms, with three learners in each room.’ 
  • ‘I’m putting the link in the chat box. Can you all see it?’ 
  • ‘I’m about to share my screen. Can you all see the picture?’ 

If it is structured, clear and well-thought- through, this ‘deliberate commentary’ can be valuable as it helps learners understand what is happening in the class when you transition between and through activities. 

Take your time 

Everything can take a little longer in the online classroom, so remember this when planning and conducting activities. 

In a face-to-face class, grouping learners takes seconds, but organising the breakout rooms can take a little longer, especially when first using them. This is normal, and learners should expect this. 

If you have asked learners to use a new site, tool or function, give them some extra time to orientate themselves and learn how to use it before they start the task you have set them. 

When asking questions in open-class discussion, leave some extra ‘think time’ for learners to consider their responses before nominating someone to answer. This allows for any delays in connection, as well as gives weaker learners more time to understand the question and compose their response. 

Avoid ‘breakout-room fatigue’ 

While breakout rooms can be great for group discussions and collaborative work, it is easy to overuse them, which leads to ‘breakout-room fatigue’. When you plan your lessons, think carefully about when they are best used and why. 

For example, checking several gist questions after a listening task is not a good use of breakout rooms, or the learners’ time. Instead, consider asking learners to type short answers into the chat box before asking for further ideas in open-class discussion. 

Keep it simple 

There are a huge number of blog posts, webinars and video tutorials on using online resources in the online classroom. So many in fact, that it can be a little overwhelming for both learners and teachers. 

Remember that a good language lesson (whether online or face-to-face) doesn’t need to involve lots of resources. Some of the best learning moments can come from exploring and/or upgrading the emergent language (the language used by the learners), which can be done with an online whiteboard or a shared document. 

If you do want to integrate online resources (videos, quizzes, online exercises, etc.), remember to check them carefully to make sure they are suitable and easy to use. Also, remember to give your learners time to learn how to use any new tools and learn how different functions work. 

Trinity Teach English Online 

You can find further ideas on the above, and more, in the following Trinity Teach English Online units: 

  • Unit 1.1 Introduction to online teaching 
  • Unit 1.3 Classroom management techniques 

To get an idea of what the course is like, try our free sample unit containing examples of videos, interactive tasks, texts, and lesson packs from across the 10 units. 

Take your teaching to the next level with our online teaching course and qualification:

Full course of 10 units plus
CertOT qualification entry - £299.99

Alternatively, you can take just the modules or individual course units.


Article by Simon Dunton
Simon Dunton is a teacher educator, with 15 years’ experience working face-to-face and online with adults and young learners from around the world. 

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