Keeping Who, What and How in Mind When Teaching Conversational English Online

You may think that a conversation class is simply connecting on Skype and chatting away.

While some students are looking for just that, a truly valuable ESL conversation class will involve careful planning and guidance on the part of the teacher.

Take a gander at these four basic ideas to keep in mind when getting ready to hold ESL conversation classes online.


The First Lesson: Who Are Your Students?

Evaluating Student Expectations

If your student has made it clear from the outset that he or she is simply looking for online chat friends, then you can go ahead and do that: charge a modest fee for having friendly conversations. In this case, make sure you keep an eye on a timer so that you don’t end up doing all the talking!

In most cases, though, students will be looking for some guided conversation practice to help them improve specific problems they may be having with their English conversation skills. In order to discover what those issues are, you’ll want to survey your students in the very first class. We’ll call this an objectives survey.

Create an Objectives Survey

Begin by doing a bit of research into the most common issues that students face when trying to converse in English. You’ll want to brainstorm a list of questions for your students to answer.

  • Begin with who your student is: their age, their occupation, their civil status, their educational history.
  • Move on to more specific questions: Why do they need to speak English well? Who will they be talking to? What do they feel their present proficiency level is?
  • Offer multiple-choice questions: What do you want to improve the most? Grammar, pronunciation, fluidity, comprehension?

Record the Answers

You’ll want to keep some kind of record of your student’s answers to the questions you posed. If you do the survey orally with your students, type each of their answers into the “chat field” of the VOIP software you’re using. This will keep a handy register of each of the answers for future reference.

As an automated option, to save time in the first class for a friendly “getting to know you” chat, you can prepare a survey on an online platform. Group your questions into logical themes:

  • Who are you?
  • Why do you need English?
  • What problems do you have with communication?
  • What objectives do you have in taking a conversation class?

In this type of online survey, it’s especially important to list several different types of answers that your students can tick off. The more information you gather, the better!

Ensure Student Commitment

Once you’ve obtained the responses to your objectives survey, go over them right away with your new student. Before this first class is over, make sure your student understands that for the next class you will have drafted some simple type of student commitment contract that you’ll look over together.

Besides the objectives you’ve discussed in the survey, you can also include items like:

  • student expectations concerning teacher correction (some want you to correct every single error, others get frustrated with corrections: get this clear from the outset!)
  • missed classes and payments for them
  • special rewards you might want to include, like a free class every ten consecutive classes
  • any other class management concerns you may have

Plan the Second Lesson: What a Successful Online ESL Conversation Class Needs

The operative word in conversation class is class! You need to prepare the class just as you would any other class you mean to give, be it grammar or syntax or writing or listening or reading.

Keep Student Objectives in Mind

Remember that your job is to help your student improve their conversation skills. The objectives survey has given you a pretty good idea of what your student expects from you and the class you’re giving. Begin your planning with a clear list of the objectives outlined in the survey and the student commitment contract.

Prioritize the Objectives

From “easy” to “hard,” from “not important” to “important,” you’ll need to put that list of objectives in some sort of order. A simple way is to compare pairs of objectives.

1. Beginning at the top of the list, compare the first objective with the second, the third, and so on, asking yourself, “which of these two is more important?” Place a tick mark by the one you feel is more important.

2. Once you’ve compared the first to all the rest, begin with the second and follow the same process with the third, fourth, etc.

3. Once you’ve moved down the entire list, comparing one objective with each that follows it and ticking the most important of the pair, count up the ticks beside each objective.

4. The objectives with more ticks will be the most important and will be those you’ll choose to work on from the outset.

Make an Objectives Chart

These classes are online. You’ll be using your computer. Take advantage of this and open up a Word document. Make a chart on the first page with four or five columns.

  • Column one will note the objectives.
  • Column two will contain how many classes/time in each class you plan on spending on each objective.
  • Column three will list the kinds of materials you think will be helpful.
  • Finally, column four will contain the links to specific materials you’ve searched for and found online. This column is essential when trying to keep your class agile.
  • Save a fifth column for notes on the types of activities you want to do with the materials you’ve found: discussion, vocabulary, cloze work, listening, reading, etc.

Manage Your Time

Be sure to mark specific times to spend on each of the activities you’ve programmed. It’s often best to have a stopwatch available on your desktop, maybe even set little alarms for yourself to remind you that you’ve got to move on.

You could create another basic chart for each class, outlining small time blocks that represent each part of the activity:

  • greeting time (hello, how are you, what’s new, etc.)
  • material presentation (reading, listening or video material to be looked at)
  • conversation activity (question/answer, discussion-leading questions, opinion sharing)
  • goodbyes (with reminders of the next class and what to do to prepare for it)

How to Prepare Yourself for Every Online Conversation Class

The materials you use in your online ESL conversation classes will depend a great deal on the information you’ve gleaned from your student in the objectives survey.

If your student is needing to prepare for a particular presentation he or she has to make in the future, then you’ll want to do some research yourself into the theme of that presentation, looking for audio, video and images related to their theme. In addition, you’ll want some basic presentation tips prepared.

On the other hand, if your student is a housewife with a keen interest in gardening, then you’ll want to find materials that are related to that hobby.

Sites like FluentU can offer a great deal of subject-oriented video material for any proficiency level.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Students interested in current events from an American standpoint might enjoy looking at material from the The New York Times while those looking for a more European point of view might prefer The Guardian.

Academic-type material abounds on the internet and you can find tests, quizzes, activities and other general material to back up the more conversational focus of your class.

Whatever materials you choose, make sure they’ll help move your student towards those original objectives.

Familiarize Yourself

Know thy materials like the proverbial back of your hand! You should know how long it takes to read an article, just where to pause the video for a question/answer exercise, what vocabulary or grammar or pronunciation work you think your student will need help with before you present the material in class.

Keep Your Stuff Online

Take advantage of ESL teaching platforms that allow you to store and share your materials online. These same platforms are treasure troves of ideas for materials from other teachers.

You can also use cloud platforms, like Google Docs to store your original materials if you aren’t ready to share them outside of your classes. The advantage here is that you can share links to those materials with your students before class so that they have an opportunity to look over what’s coming up before class. You know how valuable that time is!

A final way of producing, collecting and storing your materials could be creating a personal blog. Instead of posting like a public diary, each of your posts could be a particular activity or set of suggestions for your students to have access to.

Become an Agile Online ESL Teacher

Some final thoughts here. Few things will slow down your class and leave you with a bored (or even cancelled!) student than not being agile when using your computer in an online class setting.

Share Links

Make sure you have that first objectives planning chart ready and on your desktop when you’re cranking up the class. It’s oh-so-easy to waste time looking for a link. With the links you’ve saved in that chart, it’s a simple matter of marking, copying, pasting and sharing, all in less than three seconds.

Learn to use your left hand on the keyboard while your right hand uses the mouse. While many use right-click to copy and paste, sometimes links get messed up with this method and take you to pages you don’t want to share. Highlight the link with the mouse, use control+c to copy, put the cursor where you want to paste with the mouse, then control+v to paste. This is rapid and accurate and will save time.

Practice, as well, embedding links into text. There’s an aesthetic difference between seeing on your page or the embedded text, Google Docs. Doing this can help make your chat boxes more attractive and less cluttered.

Get on the Same Page

Once you’ve become agile with sharing links, make sure you’re clear with your student about using those links. A direction like “Click on the link I’ve just put in the chat box” should be followed with further directions like, “Now look at the right sidebar” or “Scroll down until you see the picture of the strawberry plant.” When giving these instructions, make sure something stands out visually for your students to rapidly find.

Change Pages

The internet is a fast-moving monster. Studies cite the few seconds (yes, seconds, not minutes and certainly not hours!) a user will stay on any particular page.

While you may want to spend a good deal of time on a page, it’s generally a good policy to limit that time dramatically to avoid eye strain and a sense of fighting against the desire most internet users have of wanting to click away. Don’t frustrate your students with static visuals. Make sure your presentation is dynamic.


I can’t stress enough the importance of considering ESL conversational classes as classes and not conversations. While you’ll encounter the occasional student who just wants to chat, the vast majority are shelling out their euros or yen to get help in improving their conversation skills. This means you have to be professional, prepared and willing to help them practice under your guidance.

ESL online conversational classes aren’t about having a cup of coffee at the corner café. They’re serious, programmed and planned activities with a general objective of helping your students become ever-more fluent in English as a second language.


Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into Teacher Training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.

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