Working as an online English tutor for Chinese students can be a challenging and valuable experience. The demand in China for learning English is high as is the motivation. Furthermore, it’s a good way to try out your teaching skills away from any classroom or prepare yourself for Chinese culture. However, online teaching might not be suitable for everyone and competition on the Chinese market is high. So better get informed about the ins and outs of the latest ESL trend. Is this new business the latest “quick fix” for your ESL career? Is it really as lucrative as it appears? What is special about Chinese students?

So, you have heard about online teaching. You have your TEFL qualification. But maybe you don’t know where to go and teach first. Maybe you are between jobs.  In addition, you are curious about China and its people in particular and keen to get into the wonderful world of online teaching – which you can basically do from everywhere in the world! Furthermore, to teach English to Chinese online sounds pretty good for you.

But is it really the right thing for you? Are you going to be raking in the dough? These are some of the questions you should ask yourself, before actually starting to teach English online to Chinese students!

I will attempt to answer them, but be warned: the online world is not suited to everyone. And it’s no longer that new and shiny, so not everyone is making big bucks. There is a lot of competition and many platforms are already swamped with teachers fighting over the available students. Another word of warning: if you are new to the EFL classroom and you don’t have good ESL teaching skills already, starting off online may not be the best way to hone your skills. So jump in and read on, and weigh up the pros and cons!

Teach English Online to Chinese Students – how to start off

  • Find the right platform to find Chinese students looking for an online English tutor. Here´s a comprehensive list with Chinese online teaching companies.
  • First off, using a laptop in an iffy country can be problematic. Some companies will fine you (or even fire you!) if your internet goes down. Yeah, I know that’s not your fault – but they don’t care, and remember there are hundreds of teachers waiting to replace you. So make sure you have a good fast connection and be warned that many companies will do you a speed test.
  • Obviously you are going to need a good headset and webcam (unless you restrict yourself to those companies using the phone based apps.)
  • Make sure you have a good quiet environment in which to work. Noisy roommates, animals, kids etc. are not appreciated by people paying good money to talk to you.
  • Be professional – of course you can drink your coffee and wear your Pjs while teaching, but remember that the competition is cut-throat. If you are not presentable, asleep, or late for class others will jump in to replace you.

What are companies looking for?

Naturally Chinese companies and specifically Chinese students of English are looking for native speakers. Yes, yes I know that is racist. However, unfortunately it’s a fact of life in the online world, and specifically the Chinese market. The schools want teachers who were born and brought up in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and NZ, and they really are not aware that other countries have native speakers. They even don’t get it that people speak English in South Africa and Ireland. Sad, but true. Another fact: you may be a non-native speaker and be fantastic, and have a Phd in English teaching – but again, that doesn’t interest the customer in this particular market. It is the same in the F2F teaching world. Sorry….

What are Chinese students like?

Start off by thinking about your target student audience. Do you want to teach:

  • kindy and elementary
  • high school
  • college
  • adults

Kindy and elementary

Let’s lay this right on the table: many kids may be only taking classes as their parents want them to do. In China, English is a status symbol and seen as a key to future riches. It’s all about money. And money means a good job in a foreign company and to study abroad. So this is what Chinese moms and dads are looking for. Your job is to get their precious little prince/princess to be babbling away in English and pronto.

Kiddy may have other ideas, mainly he wants to eat/drink/ watch cartoons. You have to be entertaining, and forget about being an educator. IF your kiddy leaves the lesson you are in trouble with the company and with mom and dad.

You may have to play lots of dumb games, do silly voices, wear hats and use finger puppets. To the outgoing and drama inclined amongst you that will be hunky dory. You may even have kids do rude things during the lessons, so be prepared for the unexpected! I have heard of teachers having kids who expose themselves, make rude faces or just take their ipad into the bathroom with them. You really have no clue what may happen in class. Just look at it as part of the learning experience!

High school kids

In contrast to many Western ESL students, Chinese students tend to be highly disciplined and motivated. Of course it depends which age group you are going to be teaching. The teenage, high school, college and adult market will present you with very focussed, serious and hard working students, who have often hardly spoken with foreign teachers before, and may therefore be rather shy and silent. Your job will be to encourage them to talk by being bubbly, outgoing and friendly, and making sure they realize that there is no shame in making mistakes. In fact, this is how we learn to speak a language.

College students

These students are often set on getting in to study at an American or UK university. What they are looking for is someone who can prepare them for the TOEFL, CAE and IELTS examinations. Familiarizing yourself with those exams and what is required will help a great deal with those kinds of students. Often their written scores are ok, but they cannot speak. They need you to help them express themselves fluently in English.

They may also want to know stuff about life in your country, including manners, customs and general way of life. Food is frequently a promising topic, since Chinese and Western food traditions are so different. They may ask you, if you love hotpot or if you know how to use chopsticks. These are favourite Chinese questions. If they need help with writing a personal statement, they can send it to you by email or work on Google docs, and you can help them write their statement to get admitted to a foreign university. Try to help them understand what life in a foreign university is like. If they are postgrad students, they may not be aware of how different foreign universities are from US/UK ones. You might tell them about your study experiences in order to prepare them for this.

On another note I do NOT recommend discussing religion or politics with these students. The same goes for adults – it is a very delicate matter, and if you have not been to China stay way away!


Adults can often be highly motivated individuals who need English in the workplace, but they may have a really low level of English and still be at the beginner or lower intermediate level. Make sure you assess the level fast so as not to waste time, and begin being effective and giving them what they need. They may need specific vocabulary directly related to their business. Try to be attentive and find out exactly what can help them the best.

How are Chinese students different from others?

Many Chinese students have had a ton of grammar thrown at them in high school. They can recite grammar rules till they are blue in the face. Their Chinese class teachers drilled them and taught them past tense very thoroughly. But… they can’t say a simple sentence in English to save their lives!

Mostly what Chinese students are looking for is an opportunity to improve their oral English with a native speaker. The Chinese school system doesn’t really allow them to practise speaking. So what you can do is to just let them speak as much as possible. You can encourage this by providing interesting discussion material, by being open, friendly, encouraging and uncritical. Often they will want to know about your culture, your customs and where you come from. That’s great! You can talk about festivals and places where you live and that can be a very rewarding experience.

To correct or not to correct?

So there are two schools of thought on this one. I personally am not a big fan of error correction (mainly because it doesn’t work too well!). You can stop students and correct them all the time. Or you can encourage fluency and let them get going and learn to express themselves more confidently. Of course it’s up to you what you do. But maybe the best thing is to ask students what THEY want. Some ESL students want the teacher to correct and explain every error. Others feel threatened and upset. So try to be flexible and find out what suits each student and give them that. Remember, they are paying you so make sure they are good and satisfied at the end of the session.

There is one area that I DO think should involve a lot of correction, and that is pronunciation.

Many Chinese students will have such terrible pronunciation, that you can hardly understand what they are trying to say. This is a big problem and you will get used to it after some time. If you really can’t understand what a student is trying to say, get them to write it in the chat box or try to show you a picture or say it in another way. Remember you can use screen share and links to pictures to help explain things. For the lower levels, you can use translation tools and pictures to explain.

Furthermore, you can use videos from Youtube to help with error correction and accent reduction. If you don’t know about these areas, do a bit of reading up. There are certain errors that Chinese students usually make (problems of distinguishing between L and R for example) which can be easily fixed if you learn about it a bit.

Teach English to Chinese online – so is it for me?

Well, I hope I could give a brief peek into the wonderful world of how to teach English online to Chinese students. If you are a new teacher, there is the advantage of not being thrown into the deep end of classroom management and mighty weird colleagues. It can be a way to get your feet wet, while mulling over where you want to go on your travels. It is a way of getting to know student errors and practise your teaching skills.

However, it may not be a good match for you if:

  • you don’t like sitting in front of the computer for long periods
  • you are not very computer savvy
  • you prefer a more active lifestyle
  • you don’t have the physical environment necessary
  • you don’t like competition

As I said before, lots of people have now discovered the Chinese market. The money is way below what you would make in a bricks and mortar classroom. It can be good as a backup job or a stopgap one. But if your goal is to teach Chinese students face to face, it could be a way to familiarize yourself with the country and the culture, while you weigh up your job offers.

So if it looks like this could be the way to go, give it a shot!

Born in the UK, Ruth accidentally ended up in the Middle East at the age of 24. She began teaching English as a Foreign Language in a High school in Jerusalem, where she got stuck for the next 30 odd years. After raising her family, the wanderlust that had started brewing in her youth took hold again. She and hubby took early retirement and set off to discover Asia, amongst other places. She has visited Korea, Taiwan, China, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, and many places in Europe.