Learning English Online

A Comparison Between Online and Classroom Based ESL Learning

ESL teaching, just as with any other industry, has gone through a number of changes over the decades. Not so long ago, students learned English in a classroom and on their own with books and cassettes. More confident and accomplished learners would go the extra mile and invite their English teacher for a meal out or at their homes. Technology is changing the scene, and now everyone anywhere can practically learn English. These are exciting times for both students and teachers. Let’s find out why.

What is online ESL teaching?

Online ESL teaching is actually a very broad way of saying any teaching that is done through an online platform. This can be private lessons done through a conferencing software like Skype or other teaching platforms or lessons taught through one of the many phone apps that allow tutors to set up a profile to attract students or through tutors own personal website or through one of the numerous online ESL companies. For the purposes of this article, I will be focusing on working for a major company as most teachers who end up working online will be working for one of these major employers.

Online ESL teaching has been quite well-developed over the past few decades and has come a long way since the early days when it was primarily individuals with online courses that could be taken by students for a fee or websites with random lessons strewn about a message board. There are now multi-million and billion dollar companies which have created software based on cutting-edge research into language acquisition. At the same time, there are individual teachers who have created multi-million dollar websites complete with video lessons, written lessons, private tutoring sessions, and more.  There are a large number of ways for a teacher to enter into the online ESL teaching arena and the barrier for entry for many of these is quite low, allowing teachers of all skill levels to find work.

What is traditional ESL teaching?

Traditional ESL teaching refers to classroom-based instruction such as takes place in a public or private language school. This can also refer to face to face tutoring sessions between a teacher and one or more students like with private tutoring which many teachers do on the side to supplement their income. The simple way to define this is any ESL teaching where the teacher and student are in the same room together whether that is a school, coffee shop, library, etc. Despite the surge in online ESL teaching opportunities, there has not been a significant decrease in traditional teaching positions. Especially in areas where the infrastructure may be lacking or in development, the need for ESL teachers in the traditional capacity is great in order to further economic development and drive a more competitive labor force. Think Myanmar or Vietnam which are both experiencing significant economic growth and must promote English language learning to help the populations of each country better access global industry. As with online ESL teaching, we are primarily going to focus on teaching for a school such as a public school system, private language school, or university and will not be discussing private tutoring or other traditional ESL teaching types in my comparison of the online and offline avenues of ESL teaching.

How are the two similar?

There are quite a number of similarities between traditional and online ESL teaching, which is beneficial for anyone looking to make the switch between the two. The primary areas where the two are going to overlap are in the students, the material being taught, and the teaching strategies. Let’s take a closer examination of each for a better understanding of why these similarities exist.


In traditional just as in online ESL the types of students you are going to have can vary greatly. However, the largest market for both models is school-aged children between the ages of 5 and 16. In fact, if you are a traditional ESL teacher and you decide you also want to teach online then it is entirely possible that you will see students from your class if the online company you work for caters to students in the same country you are teaching in. That the majority of students are going to be in this age range for both models of teaching is a given as students in non-English speaking countries around the world must study to pass tests whether for university placement in their own country or abroad. Outside of this majority, there is also going to be adult students who are looking for business English classes or simply learning English for fun. Both online and traditional ESL schools cater to these types of students as well.


At the end of the day students looking to learn English are all going to be learning the same thing, English. ESL teaching, whether traditional or online, doesn’t differ on this either. Though there are hundreds of different ways to teach English the actual content that is being taught is going to be the same. You will still be teaching nouns, adjectives, verbs, vowels, vocabulary, and so on whether you are doing it from the comfort of your home behind the computers warm glow or in a school building with twenty pairs of eyes staring back at you in anticipation for what you are going to teach next. There may be some differences in the approach such as focusing on conversation versus grammar or reading and writing versus speaking. However, there won’t be much if any difference at all in the core material that you will be teaching whether you are teaching for an online company or at a traditional school.

Teaching Methods 

Just as the material is going to be similar between the two models of ESL teaching, so too are the methods and approaches you are going to take in order to teach that material. Teachers who have gone through a TEFL certification course will be familiar with terms like the direct approach, the natural approach, and the communicative approach. All of which are terms for various teaching methodologies that have been employed in ESL classrooms around the world. This doesn’t differ all that much from online-based ESL teaching. In fact, teachers who are wanting to teach online go through the same TEFL certification courses that traditional classroom teachers do. That’s how similar the methodology for teaching English online and in the classroom is. There may be some approaches that you can do in the classroom which may be impractical for online teachings, such as some types of physical movement activities. Most approaches, however, will work for both ESL teaching models.

How are they different?

Just as there are going to be a number of similarities there are also a great number of differences between online and traditional ESL teaching. The most obvious difference is going to be having students in front of you physically in the classroom versus having them only on a screen when you teaching online. This can present a few challenges in areas such as classroom management which will cause you to conduct your classrooms a bit differently sometimes than if you were teaching in a school. Teaching hours are also going to differ quite a bit than the average ESL teaching job at a traditional school with most online ESL teaching being done in the late evenings. Lastly, one of the huge differences is that you are going to have different issues because of the added factor of being at the mercy of technology.

Class Schedule 

ESL teaching online is more akin to working at a private language school than at a traditional public school. As a general rule, the online hours are in the evening in the local time zone after children have finished their normal school day and parents are out of work. There are some companies which work with schools such as 61Kidz and a few others that hold classes during the morning hours in the local time zone, however, this is not the majority. For current traditional ESL teachers, this can work out nicely as an opportunity for some extra income. Also, most online ESL teaching companies do not stop for weekends and public holidays and summer or winter break. Classes are normally held 365 days a year and it is up to the teacher to set their own schedule.

Classroom Management

The way an online ESL teacher manages their classroom is going to differ in many ways than a traditional teacher who is physically in front of their student. The thing to think about with online ESL teaching is that students can just get up, turn off the computer, mute the microphone, or generally do whatever they want to. In my experience, the vast majority of classes go just fine but when things do go wrong you can’t just send the student to the principal’s office or stand in front of the student to be more imposing. This can be a major challenge with ESL teaching online. In an online class, students are in front of you and you usually know which ones are going to act up so that you can arrange the seating in a way that they will not be near each other. But in the online classroom, there is nothing to stop a students little brother from walking into the room and causing distractions or for a student to pick up the iPad and go to the bathroom to relieve themselves while the camera and audio are on (true story and it happens more often than you would think).

Classroom Issues

Usually, in a traditional ESL classroom, your problems are going to be related to the student or the atmosphere. In an online class, however, there is an added layer of technology. It is not uncommon for either yours or the students’ internet to drop out in the middle of the class or a host of other issues such as microphones breaking, webcams quit working, computers freeze up, etc. Much of this can be alleviated by having a good computer for online ESL teaching. However, it does present a unique set of challenges which you won’t find when you go to your traditional ESL classroom in a public or language school.

Which one is better?

There is no definitive answer to this question. As you can see from above both online and traditional ESL teaching has a number of similarities as well as a number of differences that make them better for different people. For some people, the working hours of online ESL teaching is a no go and for others, the strict schedule that comes with working for a public school isn’t the best fit. Figuring out which one is best is really going to come down to individual preference as well as qualifications. A teacher with ten plus years of experience and a onsite TEFL certification who can command a high-five-figure salary in a country like the United Arab Emirates is probably not going to want to take the time teaching English online and will instead focus on the jobs that make the most money which are usually in the public school or at private schools in certain countries. On the other hand, someone who is just getting into ESL teaching or who are looking for some extra income may find the online route to be perfect. It just depends on the individual on whether online ESL or the traditional classroom will be better.

Which one is right for me?

Online ESL Teaching

As mentioned above, most online classes are going to be held in the evenings in whatever the local time zone is for that companies students. For most companies, that is going to be China time as the vast majority of online ESL companies are in China (though not all, there are many that serve other markets). If you are already in Asia then this might not be so bad but if you are in North America or Europe then this will mean early AM hours that many people won’t want to work. There is also the fact that online ESL teaching can be a little less stable than going the traditional route as you aren’t guaranteed class usually and contracts are a little less secure and more in favor of the company. In general, online tutoring is probably a better option for newer teachers or people looking for extra work such as stay at home parents or current ESL teachers looking to bring in extra income.

Traditional ESL Teaching

Despite the common myth, there can be a lot of money in teaching ESL abroad for the right kind of person. Teachers with proper certifications and the right amount of experience are going to do well teaching ESL in the more traditional fashion. As mentioned above certain Middle Eastern countries as well as East Asian countries like South Korea and in Hong Kong pay teachers extremely well and even potentially more than a teacher could make in their home country. People looking to travel and live abroad are also usually good fits if they are looking to stay for at least a year. There is no one size fits all for teaching abroad but the general rule is that a traditional ESL teacher needs to be more stable and will have less control over their schedule.

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