Karen's Linguistics Issues, September 2003 | Previous Months  

 Teaching English online

by Karen Bond, M.A. 

Montreal, Canada

This article was originally published in the Guardian, Friday, 27th June, 2003

The online school is a relatively new concept for many EFL teachers but, in fact, it is an increasingly popular English-learning tool for students all around the world. I have been an online teacher for more than three years, and it still amazes me that I teach students as far away as Korea, China, Brazil, Mexico, Germany and Egypt, to name but a few. And remember, this is not email instruction; these classes are live.

A big problem for many learners of English is that they do not have the opportunity to use their newly-acquired English skills in an authentic setting. In other words, they have no contact with native-speakers of English, and have little reason to speak it. In addition, due to the pressures of work or family, they may not have time to attend a regular English class, or to travel to an English-speaking country. The online school is, therefore, the perfect alternative for them.

I work for an online school that has provided English language instruction to more than one million students worldwide. All the course material can be completed without the aid of a teacher, and some students choose to do just that. But a teacher is on hand at all times to answer any questions about the course or about English in general, give grammar or vocabulary quizzes, correct sentences, suggest resources and just give the students an opportunity to practice their speaking and listening skills by discussing general topics of interest.

I teach online, from my office at home, for about 16 hours per week. It's the ideal job for a new mother like me, or for those teachers unable to work in a physical classroom for whatever reason. These jobs are like gold dust, though, and the online schools only accept the cream of the crop - those with several years of experience, and preferably with a Master's degree.

Typically, my mornings are free to spend with my baby, and my working day begins at around 3pm when I enter the voice chatroom. The chatroom is an online community where people go to talk to each other, or type messages, in real-time. Nowadays, more and more online schools are offering this kind of environment to their students, and a few offer chatrooms hosted by native-speaker teachers of English. In the school where I work, the teachers come from the UK, the US, Australia and Canada, and live all around the world.

At 3pm I open the chatroom, and wait for my students to arrive. Being open round-the-clock means students have the flexibility to come and go as they please. This also means, of course, that for the teacher each shift is unpredictable. One never knows who will be present, what questions will be asked, and what topics will be discussed. The teacher, therefore, needs a whole host of resources available at his/her fingertips, like grammar books, quizzes, texts for discussion and useful links.

A student enters, and I greet him. Just like in the physical classroom, the online teacher is responsible for creating a relaxed, informal atmosphere where students feel at ease sharing their questions and thoughts. I have met Siu before, so I ask him about his weekend, and about his family. We are both using headsets, and I have control over the microphone. Once I have asked my questions, I pass the mic over to him. He is lower-intermediate level, and speaks slowly, choosing his words carefully. I can hear his wife, who is sitting beside him, eagerly helping him to answer my questions.

This student is from China, and he works for a foreign company. He needs English to communicate both verbally and in writing with his foreign colleagues. Despite having learnt English for several years at school, he never really grasped the language, and he has a very strong accent. Nevertheless, he is highly-motivated, and has recently decided he will come to the chatroom every day to practice his English.

He wants to know when to use the prepositions in, at and on. We look together at some definitions in the Cambridge Online Dictionary for English Learners, and then I give him some links to quizzes that he can do later online.

I notice he has difficulty pronouncing the final "s" in plural nouns, so I do a drilling activity with him for a few minutes.

Another student enters. Jane is new, and does not understand how the system works. It is my responsibility to quickly, but clearly, show her how the room functions. This involves giving a brief orientation, explaining the technicalities of the room, and how it can be used to improve her English.

Jane is also from China, and she and Siu spend a few moments discussing their hometowns. Siu discovers Jane's father comes from his city. Several new cases of SARS have just been discovered in this city, so I see an opportunity for a reading and speaking activity. First of all I ask them some general questions about SARS and, while they are answering, I quickly search the online Chinese newspaper, the China Daily, and find an interesting article on the link between SARS and the civet cat. On the left-hand side of the chat room screen there is a whiteboard, and I post the article onto that. I prepare a few general comprehension questions, and ask the students to quickly scan through the article to answer them. Another student enters, and I explain the activity. We then go through the article more carefully, and discuss any problematic vocabulary. I have a pointer and a highlighter, and I use them frequently. All of the words we discuss are highlighted, and I can even quickly type notes beside them. The students can save the document at the end, and go through it again in their own time. Then, using the vocabulary that they have learnt, we have a more in-depth discussion about this subject that never ceases to interest my Asian students.

Another Chinese student enters - this time is especially popular for Chinese learners. I explain the topic to her, and she tells us about a recent experience at a Chinese airport where she was detained for having a high temperature. We are all fascinating by her story, and I pass the mic from student to student as they ask her for all the details.

Three hours have passed. I have one hour to go, and have not yet moved from my seat. I work four hours straight, usually, and do not get a break. When I first started teaching online, my eyes would be heavy by the end of this shift, my fingers sore and my throat dry. But I'm used to it now, and I always have refreshments at hand.

I sense that the students are becoming tired of talking about SARS, so I ask them about their weekend. A student from Brazil joins the group, and another leaves. The Brazilian cannot hear our conversation, and I try to help him with his technical problem. I am no computer expert, but I can often help a student out. If not, the school has a technical support department which I can always refer the student to. But, in this case, the Brazilian quickly solves his problem, and joins in the conversation.

Wang has just taken up jogging, and he says "I played jogging this weekend." This naturally leads into a mini lesson on the verbs play, do, go and practice for sports. I quickly draw up a table on the whiteboard, and we brainstorm different sports. I mention scuba diving, and I find lots of questions in the text box. "What is scuba diving, Karen?". I try to explain it, but one student is still puzzled. So I do a quick search on the internet, locate a picture, and post it on the whiteboard. "OIC :-)", types the student. One thing you must understand as an online teacher is the chatroom abbreviations commonly used not only in English-learning rooms, but in any chatroom you may participate in. "OIC" means "Oh, I see." Then there is "lol" (laughing out loud), "wb" (welcome back) and "cu" (see you). Smilies are also popular for expressing your feelings in writing online - :-) means you are happy or smiling, :-( means you are sad, ;-) means you are joking, and so on.

The four hours are up. We say our goodbyes, and I guide the students to another room that has just been opened by the next chat host, an American living in Brazil. I close the room, and my working day is over. I'm exhausted after spending four hours in front of the computer, but, oh, I feel so lucky to have this job.


Karen Bond 2003. All rights reserved.