Teaching English Online: Everything To Know

Note: This article is intended for those who are interested in teaching English online and haven’t yet applied to work at a company. If you have already successfully interviewed with a company and are looking for a good resource to help you with your first class you can check out this article covering class preparation.

My experiences and recommendations

I have more experience teaching English online than with any other medium of ESL teaching. I’ve now been working full-time since 2016 and have been able to derive my income solely from teaching English online working for two companies, Alo7 and iTutor Group. There have been both ups and downs and over the years I have gleaned a great deal of experience as well as insight into the online ESL market with respect to major companies. Aside from teaching an almost consistent 200 classes a month outside of major Chinese holidays, I was also awarded the teacher of the year in 2017 at Alo7.

In this series of articles, I am going in-depth into the ins and outs and good and bad aspects of teaching English online as well as providing thorough information about how you too can sign up to teach online whether to supplement your income or for the purposes of completely supporting yourself through your online teaching. I will also go into other types of online ESL teaching outside of working for a major company in other articles which include private tutoring and freelancing on platforms. Each of these methods has different upsides and downsides and I will provide all of the information that you will need to make an informed decision before you decide to take the plunge into online ESL teaching.

What is teaching English online?

The online English teaching market has been around for decades now but has recently hit the mainstream as large companies have begun to dominate with greater market shares. In the past, most online English teaching was done on websites set up by individuals which provided free videos and lessons and then attempted to upsell students on private lessons or a more in-depth course. This is still done today and is also a very effective way to make money teaching English online. However, there are now more options that have come up as the online ESL industry has evolved including phone apps which can connect students with freelance tutors and very large online companies which have developed lesson plans and content and hire tutors to teach this content to students through their platform. I will be focusing on the latter of these three by looking at these online companies and how to work for them.

What are the different options?

For teachers looking to move from traditional ESL classrooms to online teaching or who are looking to supplement their incomes then probably the best way to get started is going to be working for one of the many online ESL companies which are mostly concentrated in China. Though I mentioned before that you can also freelance through one of the teaching apps on the market or conduct your own private tutoring by setting up a website, working for a company by far has the lowest barriers for entry in terms of what you have to do and how long it takes to get started.

At the moment, China is the largest (and arguably the best paying) market for online ESL and there are a large number of companies which have come into existence in recent years to serve this market. One of the largest of these companies, VIPKid, claims to conduct over a hundred thousand classes each day. A sure sign that the market is ripe with opportunity for new teachers wishing to move online. VIPKid though is by no means the only player in the market with other major companies including DaDa ABC, iTutor Group, and ALO7, also boasting large class numbers and providing similar opportunities to tutors.

It should be noted that in the past few years teaching ESL online has moved significantly into the mainstream and with the exposure, so has the number of tutors who are working. This has led to a glut on the supply side of tutors for some companies during different times of the year. As you look around online you will notice many reviews from people who are new to the field and who aren’t getting work. Some of these people will even go so far as to say that teaching English online is a scam or that it is only good for some people. I can vouch that this is not the complete truth. There are many factors that can lead to a new tutor in the industry not getting a lot of work at the beginning including:

  • The time of year you are hired. Summers and major holidays can be bad times to be hired as the demand drops off significantly from parents during those months. For example in China during the month of February, which is Chinese New Year, classes can drop off significantly for a week or two towards the end of the month before resuming in March. If you are hired at this time it may be a month before you start getting any classes. This will also be affected by the company. Companies like Alo7, which partner with schools, will usually cancel their classes as the schools close for the holidays. However, companies like iTutor Group, which let students individually book class, may have more work during these holidays as students try to cram in extra classes during their time off.
  • The company that you are hired with can affect how fast you get work. Different companies have different models and periodically shift between a glut on the supply side and then a glut on the demand side. ALO7, for example, partners only with schools on a B2B model instead of offering classes to parents directly. Because of this, they may at times hire a large group of tutors in anticipation for a new school which has signed on. There may be a month before those new schools classes actually begin so there will be a limbo period between the time that new tutors are hired and the time that they actually begin getting classes. Some tutors may choose to call it quits during this limbo period and chalk the experience up to failure on the part of the company or a lack of demand in the market. At the other end, there are new companies that work directly with parents in a business to consumer capacity which may hire large numbers of tutors in anticipation of a marketing push to acquire students and a rise in demand. Sometimes they hire too many tutors and the demand doesn’t meet the supply of tutors leaving many of the newly hired tutors without work. Usually, this will even out and tutors will begin getting more and more work as new students sign up with the company and other tutors quit. However, this can still be a frustrating experience and is something that does plague the online ESL industry as a whole..
  • Demographic factors and the preference of parents and schools in the company’s market can affect how much work a tutor gets. There is a giant elephant in the room when it comes to the ESL industry and it is one that hasn’t been spared from affecting online ESL companies. The fact is that there is a preference for tutors with certain demographic backgrounds and this preference differs from country to country and even in different schools in each country. An example of this is the preference in Thailand for native English speakers from the UK during the 90’s and early 2000’s which has now changed to a preference for native English speakers from the United States. Other factors such as age and race can even play a part in how successful a teacher is in the ESL industry both online and offline and this is something that is often not talked about. Some countries have a certain idea of what a native English speaker looks like and anyone that deviates from that idea (while still able to find work and do well) may not achieve the same level of success as teachers and tutors who meet that ideal standard. This doesn’t mean that tutors who are not young or native English speakers from the United States won’t be able to find work. It just means that some companies and schools may have a preference for people from certain countries and you will have to find the company or school that is the best fit for you.
  • New tutors may also experience a bias as there is a preference for tutors who have been with a company for a while or who have taught a certain number of classes. These classes are expensive and the parents who pay for these classes for their children are going to show a preference for tutors with a reliable reputation over a new tutor. Because of this, work may be slow in the beginning but will usually pick up quite quickly as a tutor establishes a reputation for consistency and reliability.

Even though you may read reviews from tutors who have had trouble finding consistent work online I can vouch that there is still plenty of work and the companies in this market, whether in China or in any other country, are growing larger and larger every year. Most tutors who stick around will eventually have steady classes.

What qualifications do you need?

The qualifications that online companies are looking for are pretty similar across the board with some companies having more relaxed standards than others. Primarily, a university degree in any field is what they are looking for. Some companies may hire current university students as long as they are actively working towards their degree. Other companies may only require that a tutor have a TEFL certificate. Still yet some companies may be looking for teachers who have a university degree with a TEFL certification and a certain amount of teaching experience. However, the following is a list of best practices to follow if you are looking to teach ESL online:

  • Having a university diploma can almost guarantee you will be hired to teach English online for just about any company out there in any country. Across the board for both online and offline ESL, a university degree is a minimum and the set standard for schools and companies looking to hire teachers. Usually, it doesn’t matter what your degree is in, though, you will obviously be given preferential treatment if you have a university degree in English or better still a degree in English with a teaching certificate. Even better if you have a masters or Ph.D. There are still many opportunities to teach English if you do not have a degree, however, most companies will be looking for tutors with this qualification as a minimum.
  • A 120-hour TEFL certificate is now required for getting hired at an online ESL company in China. As of 2019 the Chinese Education Ministry established regulations to bring the online English teaching industry inline with traditional brick and mortar schools. You can read more about that here.
  • Prior teaching experience is going to be a major plus for getting hired to work for an online ESL company. Every company is going to ask what prior teaching experience you have during your interview and while there are ways to answer this question that will benefit you, being able to flat-out say I have X many years of teaching experience is going to always give you an advantage. This is not a hard requirement for most companies so don’t panic if you don’t have any teaching experience but if you do then you should take some comfort in the fact that you have a leg up over other candidates who may not have the same level of experience. Especially, if your experience is in teaching English online or teaching ESL or EFL.

What are some companies that I can apply to?

There are a large number of companies spread throughout numerous countries that hire teachers to teach ESL online. For this list, I am only going to focus on the top rated companies that have a proven track record when hiring tutors. This is by no means an exhaustive list though so if for whatever reason you apply to a few of these and don’t get hired or don’t meet the requirements to work for any of these companies be aware that there are many more that you can apply to work at.

    Comparing Top Online ESL Companies To Work For

     VIPKidALO7iTutor Group
    Peak Hours (Weekends)9am - 10pm
    China Standard Time
    9am - 10pm
    China Standard Time
    8am - 9pm
    China Standard Time
    Pay/ hour+
    Incentive (USD)
    University Degree RequiredYesNo
    University Students Considered
    TEFL Certificate RequiredYesYesYes
    Experience Required1 Year PreferredPreferredPreferred
    Minimum Hours7.5 hours per week6 hours per week10 hours per week
    Peak Hours (Weekdays)6pm - 10pm
    China Standard Time
    6pm - 9pm
    China Standard Time
    6pm - 10pm

  • VIPKid

    As mentioned above VIPKid is one of the largest online ESL companies in China and potentially throughout the world at the moment. As of 2017, the company claimed to have over 200,000 students and 30,000 teachers. The companies CEO, Cindy Mi, revealed an ambitious plan to increase the number of students to over one million by 2019 by expanding into other subjects and countries. Thus, greatly increasing the demand for tutors employed by the company. The average tutor for VIPKid can expect to make around $700 to $1,000 per month with some teachers professing to make $3,000 or more per month. Pay starts at $14 per-hour and with bonuses and incentives can be up to $22 per hour. Peak class times are between 6 am to 10 pm Monday – Friday and 9 am to 10 pm Saturday and Sunday Beijing Time. All tutors are hired on a 6-month contract as an independent contractor. Their hiring requirements are as follows:

    • VIPKid requires all tutors to be native English speakers with eligibility to work in the United States or in Canada.
    • At a minimum, a bachelor’s degree is required but this can be in any field of study.
    • All candidates must have a completed 120-hour TEFL certification or greater.
    • Their website lists at least 1-year of teaching experience as a minimum requirement, however, many tutors have been hired who may not meet this in the strictest of senses.
    • A desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or above or Mac OS 10.8x.
    • An internal or external HD camera and a headset with a microphone and stable input and output.
    • A stable internet connection with at least 20 Mbps upload and download speed. You can test your connection speed here.
    • Must be running Google Chrome version 51 or above or Mozilla Firefox version 47 or above.
  • iTutor Group

    iTutor Group can be an excellent company to work for if you go in with the right mindset. The major advantage that the company has over others is that they operate 24 hours a day allowing tutors to pull in more hours than other companies. This makes it a great option if you are looking to pull in a full time income from teaching English online. Their pay can vary but the average tutor will start out being paid $8 per 25 minute and $7.50 per 45 minute class. The 25 minute classes provide a one dollar per class bonus after 50 classes and the 45 minute classes provide a bonus that is based on student feedback. For the 45 minute classes a teacher can make anywhere between $7.50 and over $25. They require a minimum of 10 peak hours which are between the hours of 6pm and 10pm Monday through Friday and 9am and 10pm Saturday and Sunday. Their hiring requirements are as follows:

    • A bachelor’s degree in any field of study is a minimum requirement to apply.
    • All tutors must have a 120-hour or higher TEFL certification or must commit to getting one in the first three months after being hired.
    • Tutors are required to be a native English speaker.
    • The website states that tutors are required to have either a desktop or laptop computer running at least Windows 7 or 8 and at least 2GB of RAM. A stable broadband connection via ethernet is required You can test your connection speed here.
  • Alo7

    This company differs from many others in that they operate on a B2B (business to business) model. This means that they contract directly with schools to offer their students 1 to 3 classes with native English speakers as opposed to having parents select tutors for 1 to 1 classes. The benefit of this is that classes are more stable as they are booked for 20 and 40 week periods with the downside being that schedules are not flexible once they are set. If you are looking for consistent work and know that your schedule will not be changing on a week to week basis this may be a good option for you. Peak hours are from 6 pm to 10 pm Monday through Friday and 9 am to 10 pm Saturday and Sunday. Pay starts at $15 per hour but can go up to $20 with incentive structures. Requirements for working at ALO7 are as follows:

    • A bachelor’s degree in any field is preferred. However, candidates who are currently in school are accepted.
    • All candidates must have a completed 120-hour TEFL certification or greater.
    • All candidates must be native English speakers from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia.
    • Candidates who have a background in teaching, tutoring, or working with children are given preference.
    • A laptop or desktop computer running at least Windows 7 or above or Mac OS 10.10x.
    • An external or internal HD camera and a noise-canceling headset with microphone.
    • At least 4 Mbps upload and download speed and a ping response of less than 100 on the Shanghai servers. You can test your connection speed here.
    • Google Chrome 49 and up.
    • Also needed are Zoom, Adobe Flash, Adobe Reader, and WeChat.

What is the interview process like?

Even though each company is going to have a different interview and onboarding process, there are going to be similar aspects for all of them. First, you are going to need to get past the interview. Interviews with many online ESL companies are typically done through in-house staff. However, some of these companies utilize their tutors for conducting interviews and other aspects of the hiring process. Interviews for online ESL companies are pretty similar to their classroom-based counterparts and many of the questions will be similar. Knowing what these questions are and how to answer them will greatly increase your chances of getting hired to teach ESL online.

After you make it through the interview you are most likely going to be invited to go through the onboarding process. For many of these companies, this process will include some type of training on how to use their platform followed by a trial class or a mock class with a senior tutor already working for the company. These trial classes are going to be where your evaluators assess whether you are ready to begin teaching or if you are going to need further training before being given classes. Typically, you will be allowed to redo a trial class if the evaluator deems it necessary. Usually, you will get one redo and then will be asked to apply again in the future after a cool down period if you do not pass. For that reason, it is important to do well during these trial classes and mock classes by being prepared and having lots of energy. It should also be noted that many companies are now basing your initial rate of pay on how well you do during this trial class.

If you successfully pass your mock class or trial class you will then usually be registered into their tutoring platform where you will set up your schedule and have access to the companies tutoring resources.

What are classes like?

The major benefit of teaching English online for a company such as VIPKid versus traditional offline ESL schools is that the platform, lesson plans, and class structure are all planned out and set up in advance. All you have to do is show up on time.

Each company has their own curriculum which will focus on phonics, grammar, reading, and sentence structure, however, the process of teaching classes is very similar from company to company. For most of the companies, classes are one-to-one. However, some companies that work with schools may have classes that are one-to-three or where students are in a classroom with a Chinese teacher present.

Parents are typically looking for you to speak clearly and slowly so that their children can easily understand you. You will also be expected to bring lots of energy and excitement into the classroom and attempt to engage the students by asking questions and getting them to speak as much as possible.

Most parents have nothing to judge what makes a good ESL teacher by so what they are looking for is whether or not their child is excited to work with you and if they are speaking or not. Asking lots of questions and getting students to talk about themselves by relating the lesson to their personal lives can help you achieve this. Also, having props that you can use to help the students further engage is expected by many of the companies.

For almost every company, classes will last 25 to 30 minutes with some classes lasting for 45 to 50 minutes. You will usually be expected to login a predetermined length of time before your first class of the day and after that will be expected to enter the class a few minutes prior.

Each company will also have a support network for dealing with issues that may arise in the class whether those are behavioral issues with the students (not too common) or technical issues that you or the student may be experiencing (more common). After you finish your class most companies will also have a report that you will be required to fill out addressing students behavior and academic performance during each class.

What can I do to improve my booking rate?

The main thing with bookings is to realize that the longer you work for one company and the more consistent and reliable you are, the more you are going to get booked. This is consistent with every company. There are, however, a few things that you can do to help improve your odds of getting booked more often including:

  • Speaking slowly and clearly will improve your odds of getting booked consistently by parents. One thing to remember is that many of the parents of your students don’t actually speak English themselves and may not even have experience in an English classroom. Because of this, the only thing they are going to be able to base the success of your class on is whether their child is speaking English. So, making it as easy as possible for your students to understand what you’re saying and, more importantly, to easily repeat what you are saying is going to go a long way. Also, make sure to ask questions whenever possible in order to give your students as many chances to speak themselves as you can. Always encourage your students to speak using complete sentences even with yes and no answers so that they are talking as much as possible.
  • Make sure that your equipment is top-notch so that everything works well and students can easily hear and see you. Having a well-lit environment that is quiet and uncluttered will ensure that parents perceive you in a professional manner and will be more likely to continue booking you to work with their child. Also, regularly running maintenance on your computer and other electronic equipment will ensure that everything stays consistent and that you can minimize any potential problems that could arise in the middle of a class such as your computer freezing up or your camera breaking down.
  • It is important to remember that you are there to teach students but that at the end of the day the parents are the ones that you need to impress as they are going to have the final say in whether you keep getting booked. They are the ones paying for the classes and if they decide to vote with their dollar and not book you again your pay is going to suffer and in the end, your booking rate is going to go down. Remember to always be professional and to be patient with students (which I can attest to is sometimes hard as some students can be very frustrating to work with). Always dress professionally and make sure to look clean and have a clean environment. Also, if the students want to take the class without parents having to force them then the parents are going to be more likely to book you again as it will be less stressful for them.

Final thoughts on teaching ESL online for a company

As I previously mentioned, if you are looking to teach ESL online then working for a company is going to have the lowest barrier of entry because everything is already taken care of for you in the way of lesson plans and course material. What is important for you to do is to look at each company and their policies on various things such as cancellations and how you set up your schedule in order to make sure that you will easily be able to work around your lifestyle. The last thing you want is to get hired at a company which requires you to set a schedule for many months when you know that your schedule is going to be different from week to week. Also, making sure that the peak teaching times work for you and that you are going to be able to wake up and make it to classes on time is going to be important. Even though these jobs are low maintenance in terms of what it takes to effectively perform your duties, most companies have very strict no-show and cancellation policies and knowing beforehand that you are going to be able to adhere to them is going to set you up better to be successful teaching English online. Aside from the above just make sure you have fun and enjoy the opportunity to work from home while other people are rushing to offices.

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