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The English teaching market is massive and growing. For a lot of people from the US, UK or commonwealth countries, it’s a great way to travel while young and experience more of the world. Online teaching is growing at an even more explosive rate—14.2% per year in Asia, 13.8% per year in Latin America. (Ambient Insight: 2011-2016 World Wide English Language Learning Market Overview)

Why teach English online?

Teaching online has a few advantages over traditional classroom teaching. It’s flexible, it’s efficient and it’s also becoming the first place aspiring students look.

Working online tends to be flexible

If you’re teaching online, you can teach from anywhere. This means you don’t have to worry about visas. You don’t have to travel if you don’t want to. Or you could move to someplace really inexpensive in Eastern Europe or SE Asia and teach students from first world countries at a salary much higher than you would earn locally. It’s fantastic work for a Digital Nomad who wants to save more money.

There are several ways of teaching languages online that fairly closely mirror the experience of teaching at a university or in a cram school. Those are pretty inflexible, but there are also a lot of options that give you more scheduling flexibility. TutorABC is kind of a middle of the road option that will give you some training materials and guidance, but expects you to get a TEFL certificate and to be available during certain times that have high student demand. At the top of the flexibility spectrum, Italki and Verbling offer the teacher full freedom to chose the hours they are available.

Efficiency—there’s no commute better than no commute

It should go without saying that if you teach online you have the best commute in the world.

online english teacher's commute

More and more students are moving online

The major reason why online English learning is growing at roughly 14% per year for in Asia and Latin America is that the students are moving online. Children are generally augmenting traditional schooling with some educational apps and other products, but many, many adults are moving to online classes. One of the starkest examples is in Japan.

A couple of years ago, the Japanese “eikaiwa” or English conversation class market went through yet another shock as has become common over the past few decades. The market as a whole is growing, but not at anything like the rate that it was during the 80s. This time however, the largest online school RareJob, came out a huge winner. Founded in 2007 in the Philippines, RareJob had about 70,000 students in October of 2012 and grew to over 200,000 by early 2014. At the same time, more and more Japanese students have been joining online learning platforms such as Italki.

Teaching offline is still huge. It still offers pretty all the benefits I got from doing it a decade ago. But online teaching is growing quickly, which means there are special opportunities for people who jump in now.

Who can teach English online?

The requirements vary from job to job, of course. But you should be able to find some sort of English teaching job online if you:

  • Are a Native English speaker
  • Have a reliable internet connection suitable for video chat
  • Are over 16 years old
  • Have at least a willingness to learn how to teach effectively
  • Can take payment online (Paypal, etc)
  • Enjoy talking with people

You can get better teaching work if you meet any of the criteria below:

  • Have experience teaching
  • Are physically attractive, friendly and/or competent looking
  • Know how to market your services
  • Have a teaching certification or degree
  • Know a language spoken by a lot of English learners (Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, etc)
  • Have a very flexible schedule

Basically, most people who are reading this article can teach online. About half the platforms I’ve seen want teachers with some experience. Requirements for specific degrees are rare outside of the online classrooms affiliated with brick and mortar institutions, and requirements for teaching certificates are pretty rare as well. I don’t know of any online platforms that require teachers to be bilingual, but it’s definitely an asset. I’ve see quite a few taking advantage of their foreign language skills to connect with students and teach them more effectively, especially beginners who just can’t understand that much English yet.

The downsides of teaching online

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few things that aren’t ideal about teaching a foreign language over video chat. It’s a huge, global opportunity but there are some areas where it falls short compared to actually being in a classroom environment.

Your improvement as a teacher is up to you

In general, you can’t expect to get much help or training from your schools. It’s somewhat questionable whether an in person school will really give you that much training. When I was running an English school in Taiwan, I had an extensive training system that involved trainees watch dozens of classes, take notes and slowly ease into teaching 5 minute segments, 15 minute segments, full classes and then one week substitutions before being given a class of their own to take over for a full semester. I gave them feedback and made sure they mastered each skill they needed along the way. Many brick and mortar schools don’t put so much into training, but some do. You can be almost certain an online school won’t.

Even if you’re a traditional language school that doesn’t offer much training, you can still probably find some opportunity to watch a more experienced teacher teach the same material you teach. You could also probably ask them questions at lunch or between classes.

Less certainty

Any language school can go out of business or shut down. But things are moving quickly in the online world. What’s an incredible opportunity now might be gone in a few years. One individual site might suddenly lose 70% of their site traffic due to an update in Google’s search ranking algorithms and have to start firing teachers. A school might suddenly pivot from using teachers for one on one classes to hosting their own pre-recorded classes. You really have to be willing to tolerate a bit more uncertainty if you’re working online. Fortunately, you’ll likely have multiple platforms you’re teaching on and maybe other income streams as well.

The entire world is competing with you

The entire world is competing with you online
Crowd, by James Cridland

Remember that school I mentioned in the section about more students moving online? The biggest online English school in Japan? Well, RareJob Inc is based in the Philippines. Their teachers make about $2 per hour. If you’re in any country where English is the native language, you probably don’t want to teach for $2 per hour. But that’s what you’re competing against. Everybody is on the internet.

There are other teachers such as Gabby Wallace who have built huge personal brands and teach large numbers of students directly. Next in line are people with niche brands who teach groups on their own sites. Even tutoring one on one on a large platform can turn out well.  Chad Hansen has earned over $100k tutoring individual students on Verbling. But remember, if you <i>can’t</i> differentiate yourself, the wage floor is very low in an online market.

Platforms for online language teaching

Using someone else’s platform is the easiest way to get started. If you’re on your own, you’ve got to figure out how to find students. You’ll need your own website, marketing channel and more. In exchange for a (usually) modest cut of what students pay, you get placement on a high traffic site, there’s usually a decent pipeline of paying students, and the platform handles payment processing for you. Unless you already have a following, this is a great trade.

There are many, many different platforms for teaching a language online, and it’s not possible to cover all of them. Instead, I’ll list four of the largest options—TutorABC, Italki, Verbling and Udemy.

TutorABC

TutorABC is based in Taiwan and focuses on EFL for Chinese speakers. They have their own system and they have a pretty strong pipeline of students. Unlike most online schools, they provide some training! Since they promote a conversational approach to learning, you don’t need to know that much about grammar, phonics or other features of English. As long as you’re patient, and enthusiastic you can probably get by fine.

On the downside, the pay isn’t that great. It’s only $8 per hour base plus some amount that depends on student reviews. According to reviews on Glassdoor, after bonuses, it’s about $10 per hour. They also insist that teachers are available for at least some of their times with the highest student demand (i.e. their evenings and weekends).

Recap

  • Bachelor’s degree or ESL teaching experience required
  • Teachers must have some availability during peak hours
  • Training provided
  • Conversational methods expected
  • Pays ~$10/hour

Italki

Italki is based in Hong Kong. It’s a massive platform that currently has over 1.5M language students learning over 100 different languages. There are a lot of free features—language learners can message each other, do language exchanges, write journal entries in the languages they’re learning and correct the journals others are writing in their native language.

There are two types of paid Italki tutors. There are “professional” teachers, who have to go through an application process. In general, they have to have some experience actually teaching classes in their language, but the process isn’t entirely transparent. The second type is “informal” teachers. As far as I can tell there isn’t really much of any lower bar for conversation teachers as long as they speak the language fluently.

Teachers can choose their own prices on iTalki. Professional teachers tend to charge more than conversation teachers, but there’s a huge range for both. Professional teachers who are native English speakers tend to be in the $15-20 per hour range with a few making as much as $45 per hour for specialized test preparation or business courses. Native English-speaking informal teachers are centered around $13-$17 per hour. Italki takes 15%.

After lessons are scheduled on the platform, students exchange Skype information and do their classes over video chat. Since Italki has a Chinese ICP license, they’re not blocked in China. They also support Alipay in addition to Paypal, so they’re Chinese students and teachers are very well represented.

Recap

  • Massive platform for 100+ languages
  • Teachers set their own prices
  • Italki takes 15%
  • Teachers are divided into “Professional” and “Informal” categories
  • Lessons are arranged via chat and taught on Skype
  • Well supported in China

Verbling

Verbling is a tech start-up based in San Francisco. Like Italki, it’s a platform for learners and teachers of many different languages. I would say it’s got a huge technology lead over the competition. Disclosure here: I was one of the two engineers employed on their small team up until the end of this summer, so I am definitely a bit biased! I’ll let the ongoing roll-out of new features speak for itself.

Verbling has a free “Community” chat feature I mentioned in an earlier guide on how to learn a language for under $500. It also has one on one tutoring and a newer, “Tandem” option for students to take lesson with a partner at a discounted price. European languages are particularly well represented on the platform, but unfortunately Verbling is blocked by the Chinese firewall. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any Chinese students or teachers, but it means that only the small fraction who have a VPN or other way around the firewall can use the site from within China.

Unlike iTalki, Verbling doesn’t separate teachers into professional and informal categories. There’s a high bar for all of them. Without a degree, certification or impressive experience there’s a good chance of your application being rejected. The upside of this is that Verbling doesn’t feel as much like a race to the bottom as some other platforms do. I’ve actually noticed some teachers listed both on Verbling and on iTalki with different rates! In general, I think an English teacher can charge about $20-25 per hour on Verbling. As with iTalki, there’s quite a bit of variation and a lot of it comes down to how good a teacher’s ratings, reviews and welcome videos are.

Recap

  • Large platform for many languages
  • Teachers set their own prices
  • Verbling takes 15%
  • Teacher applications must pass a high bar
  • Lessons are launched from the platform via Google Hangouts
  • Blocked in China
  • Rapidly improving platform

Udemy

Udemy is a completely different kind of beast from TutorABC, Italki, or Verbling. Rather than teach one on one lessons, instructors record videos and upload them to Udemy to be watched by however many students purchase the course. Then students can interact with the teacher via forums integrated into each video lesson on the platform.

Like the online tutoring options, Udemy instructors live and die by the ratings their students give them. Unlike the others, Udemy has huge winners. It also has a lot of courses that teachers spent weeks creating that generate little to no earnings. Udemy is also continually growing and changing, so anything specific I write about earnings splits will likely soon go out of date. That said, they take about 50%, but there are some circumstances when instructors can make a higher share.

One of Udemy’s major advantages and disadvantages is its formidable email marketing of discounts. If you allow Udemy to discount your courses, you can get massive distribution. On the other hand, it’s very likely they’ll discount your $397 English course to $19 for a weekend to make sales. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to be aware of when you’re planning, creating and pricing your course.

In general, I suggest Udemy for people who have some free time and who aren’t in a big hurry to earn more. It offers an opportunity for 95% passive income if you make a great course, but it’s high risk. Some instructors have earned over a million dollars from their courses. Many, many more have failed to earn enough for it to have been worth their while. It’s absolutely a viable way to go, but it requires some strategy and you probably won’t do very well until you have multiple courses up. In this way, it’s somewhat similar to writing ebooks for the kindle store.

Recap

  • Large platform for subjects languages
  • English-language site
  • Instructors create, and upload video courses
  • Students watch videos and can ask teachers questions in forums
  • Instructors set their own prices but Udemy often runs promotions
  • Possible to achieve huge success
  • Mostly passive income is possible
  • Most sales go to a small number of instructors

More on platforms

Every platform mentioned above has some common characteristics:

  • All of them are a great help to those who don’t know how to market.
  • All of them have technology that most language teachers wouldn’t know build or set up.
  • All of them have policies that either hamper or forbid teachers from taking their students off the platform.

As a consequence, one thing holds true regardless of whether you’re tutoring one on one, teaching classes to groups or creating educational content. Platforms are a better deal when you’re starting out than if you have a huge following. After you have more success, it makes more sense to build your own site like Gabby Wallace did.

Concluding advice

There are a ton of ways to teach English online and even this lengthy article could only cover the largest of them. If you’re looking for quick, simple advice then I’d choose based on your current situation.

If you’re living someplace cheap and don’t have much experience teaching, try Italki (as an informal teacher) and TutorABC.

If you have more teaching experience, apply to Italki (as a professional teacher) and Verbling.

If you have time (e.g. you teach English 20 hours a week in Korea), then try Udemy.

If you’re already very good at teaching online or building courses on platforms, then start building your own following.

If you want to teach but have no experience and no savings, then teach offline first.






Let’s face it. Most people spend a lot of money on foreign languages either directly or through their public schools and the results aren’t usually that great. [1]

What are the problems? Well the biggest one is probably that most people studying foreign languages don’t want to be studying them! Some of my old students in Taiwan showed up hating everything about English! It took countless months of benevolent brain washing and fun materials to get even half of them genuinely interested in a language they only needed at school. But I’m basically going to set that problem aside and talk about the difficulties for people who really do want to learn. Let’s look at the main options and then the problems (and strengths) of each.

The main options

  • Classes
  • Self study courses
  • Online tutoring
  • Offline tutoring
  • Conversation exchange
  • Immersion
  • Other online tools
  • Self-designed study methods

Classes

  • Classes with professional teachers are expensive.
  • It’s cheaper to be part of a large class, but most students want talking time.
  • It’s very difficult to handle students with very different levels of proficiency.
  • Most classes focus too much on grammar.
  • Most classes focus too much on intensive activities instead of extensive reading.
  • Classes tend to be very rigid in terms of when students can start or stop studying.
  • There are limited times when students can join or leave.
  • Group classes motivate people to study regularly.
  • Native speaking teachers can correct students.

Self-study courses (books + CDs/MP3s)

  • Most are of poor quality (this can be mitigated by looking at online reviews).
  • There’s no correction. This is a huge problem for pronunciation.
  • Don’t generally get students to the level where they can use native materials.
  • Good for learning vocabulary and basic grammar.
  • Usually a reasonable value for the price.

Online tutoring

  • Online tutoring extremely expensive due to its one on one nature.
  • Teachers don’t generally have the same incentives to make study plans as those making courses for schools.
  • It’s difficult to become friends with an online tutor and some platforms forbid it.
  • Due to the individualized attention, tutoring is very time efficient.
  • Students able to continue spending $5 to $30 per hour can learn to a very high level. 
  • Students anywhere can learn from teachers anywhere.
  • It’s easy to switch teachers.

Offline tutoring

  • It’s more difficult to find offline tutors if you aren’t at a university or hostel.
  • There may not be a tutor for the language you want to learn where you live.
  • Offline tutors sometimes become genuine friends or introduce students to other native speakers who become friends.
  • There are no middleman costs from a platform or payment processors.

Conversation exchange

  • It takes some effort to find a good match (online or off)
  • Many conversation exchanges devolve into a struggle over which language to use.
  • There’s a MASSIVE imbalance between who wants to learn what languages. For every English speaker who wants to learn Arabic, there are probably 100 Arabic speakers who want to learn English.
  • People doing conversation exchange have to or at least should spend 1/2 of it helping the other person.
  • Conversation partners often end up becoming friends.
  • Conversation partners understand each other’s struggles.
  • Conversation exchange leads to more cultural understanding.
  • Conversation exchange is free.

Immersion

  • People are remarkably capable of creating their own language bubbles and resisting immersion. Just living in a country is no guarantee you’ll learn much.
  • Moving to another place is a huge life decision affecting work and relationships.
  • It’s costly to move and figure out how everything works in a new place (either in time or money or both).
  • The ability to take advantage of immersion to learn a language really depends on social skills, and sadly physical beauty. Not everyone can recruit the locals to help them learn.
  • Combined with study, immersion is one of the surest ways to learn a language.
  • It’s exciting.
  • It generally forces people to grow.

Other online tools

There is an ever-growing wealth of online tools available for learners. I’ve often thought my Chinese would have improved nearly twice as fast if I’d been born 10 years later and had access to those tools while I was learning.

A lot of great tools have a narrow focus and will help you with one specific aspect of learning a language. Obviously these can’t be relied upon exclusively, but they can definitely be valuable additions to your other activities. Anki, for example, is a long-time favorite of many language learners. Lang-8 is popular for those who like doing and receiving writing corrections. Another interesting option is LingQ. I will definitely write more about them in the future.

I’ve heard great things about some of the language-specific programs, in particular Frantastique for French learners. Due to their very high prices, though, I haven’t tried it out.

Podcasts are definitely worthwhile. The key is to find podcasts that are interesting, are at the right level and don’t waste your time with too much branding or chit chat in English.

The 100% free resources available online don’t tend to be time efficient.

Some of the most popular, like Duolingo are highly gamified, very addictive and not very effective. I’ve known some people who have spent hours a day on Duolingo for an entire year without developing basic speaking or listening abilities. Students with time but no money would be far better advised to take advantage of the free tier on something like LingQ and then start doing conversation exchanges after getting a basic foundation (or even after just getting enough to make it through one conversation on a pre-prepared topic).

Self-designed study methods

  • Only really an option for people who have experience learning languages and know what they’re doing.
  • For veteran language learners, personal approaches developed over multiple languages of experience are often very effective even for languages lacking study materials.

Lowering your learning costs—the bottom line

Here’s the best advice I’ve got based on today’s tools:

1) Get a self-study textbook + CD set. I had a decent experience with Living Language for Spanish. It was like 3 textbooks (of which I did nearly two), plus CDs for only $30 on Amazon. Just work through that.

2) If you’re learning a language that it supports, use the free LingQ to build up some vocabulary through reading and download the audio for each lesson you’ve read. Listen to that when you’re out walking around. If you really like the service, then it’s probably worth the $10 per month.

3a) If your native language is popular enough (e.g. if you’re an English speaker learning French or if you’re a Japanese speaker learning Korean), then get a conversation partner on mylanguageexchange.com or on Italki.

3b) If you’re having a hard time finding a conversation partner because you’re learning English (or maybe Spanish or French), then go to Verbling, sign up and go to the community tab.

4) I’d suggest using tutoring on an as needed basis and make sure you have all the questions you need to ask prepared ahead of time. If you know exactly what you want, most teachers will be very helpful.

And repeat

As you improve, keep listening, keep reading and keep talking with people about whatever topics you can. You don’t need to spend a ton of time, but if you can do 30-90 minutes per day and keep at it, you will get at least basic proficiency and even counting a few intermediate-level books and tutoring sessions the cost will be under $500.


1. One exception would be northern Europeans. They’re outliers though. Their native languages are closely related to English, they’re pretty small in terms of speakers, and they can’t use their native languages abroad. They also from a very young age and get a great tons of input from English-language media that they don’t dub. A speaker of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese or especially English has a very, very different situation.

Learning Chinese is no longer as popular as it was a decade ago for westerners, but the options learners have is pretty staggering compared to what I had to work with. I probably wouldn’t have made all those Chinese learning mistakes that cost me a year of my life if I’d had todays tools.

There is one mistake I’ve seen new companies making again and again, though. It generally ends up resulting in poor support for a large segment of learners, especially advanced students. It also results in dictionaries that confuse words with each other, often merging them into single entries when they shouldn’t. And this problem ends up at the core of the company’s tech and they often just give up, figuring they’ve already invested to much to go back and do things properly.

In many ways the decision that leads to these problems is rational for a young business with limited resources, but it’s also a red flag for learners since it shows the business is more about short-term earnings and less about the love of the Chinese language or the desire to support everyone who wants to study Chinese for work, study, history, Chinese medicine, etc.

Can you guess what the mistake is?

What was a completely understandable choice in 2005 is a lot worse to be making in 2015 now that it’s well understood territory. While it doesn’t “doom” a company, I think it’s a huge red flag. What do you think?