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Teaching English Online with Skype: The 101 Guide

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You’ve decided to start teaching online and you’re ready to start finding some students, great!

But what’s the best software to connect with your students?

You’ve heard of Skype and want to get set up. Or… Likely you have been using Skype for a while but want to be able to do more with it.

In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about teaching English online via Skype and getting the most out of it.

After reading, you will be able to give professional lessons and know exactly what to do when you encounter any technical problems.

Why Teaching English Online with Skype?

So why should you even use Skype? After all, there are plenty of choices when it comes to video call software.

Well, first of all, it’s free. You don’t need to pay to install it and you don’t need to pay any subscription charges to keep using it.

Secondly, it’s available across the majority of platforms: PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. So, it’s likely going to run on your chosen system, whatever that may be.

It also has plenty of users so it’s likely your students will already have an account, meaning less work for them to do to take your class.

Skype is also the standard for a lot of online teaching platforms so you will want to make sure it is installed for those lessons (if you haven’t already installed it for the interview stage or personal use).

Finally, it has plenty of useful features such as screen sharing, session recording and sending files, etc. which give you more tools to work with in your lesson.

Hardware Requirements

So what do we need in order to run Skype?

The first thing you need is a computer. Skype isn’t a major resource hog so you don’t need to worry too much about RAM (512MB+) or CPU power (1GHz+). 

However, if you are using other teaching resources and have multiple tabs and applications open then you certainly don’t want things freezing in the middle of a class due to a slow computer so try to get at least a model from the last 5 years.

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A larger screen is another thing to consider in order to help you balance using Skype with your other teaching resources. This is especially the case with a laptop where screens can get quite small; I couldn’t imagine using anything less than my 15” screen on my laptop.

There is so much more we could go into with computers, although there isn’t room for it in this article, here is a great look at the best laptops for online teaching.

Which Headset and Camera to Choose

Another important thing you’ll need is a good quality headset to make sure your communication is clear. The Logitech H390 Headset is one of the standards and as well as being a quality USB headset, it’s also pretty cheap! 

If you can spend a little more, the Plantronics Voyager Focus UC-M B825 is another great choice. It comes with a few more bells and whistles such as the ability to end and start Skype calls right from the headset’s controls.

Finally, you need to make sure you have a webcam set up so your students can see you. Most laptops will have this feature built in but if not (or if you are on a desktop) then the Cam Sync HD 720p is an excellent, low-cost choice for quality 720p video.

Installing and setting up an account

With the hardware sorted, now we are ready to set up Skype and this process couldn’t be easier:

1. Download

Download Skype from the website. You can’t miss the big “Get Skype…” button on the homepage. If the page hasn’t detected your operating system then go to the “Downloads” page at the top to select the correct version.

2. Create Account

Create a free account for Skype. Go to the top right of the screen and in the “sign in” section you can click “sign up”.

3. Sign In

Sign in to Skype using your details. Once your download has completed you can open up the app and click “sign in” with the details from before. 

Remember! These details are going to be shown to every student and employer you contact so be careful with the information you use. Keep it professional and friendly.

When you create your username just pick your first and last name. “sk8rBoi69” doesn’t scream professional teacher. 

On the same subject with profile pictures, make sure the lighting is good, don’t obstruct your face and remember to smile.

My Skype Profile name and picture.

Workplace

Once your system and account is set up we need to look at your workplace.

You want to see your environment through your student’s eyes. Would you prefer a teacher who had a messy room with tacky posters? Or would you prefer to see a clean, professional environment? Exactly!

Background

First of all, you want a tidy background. It doesn’t have to look like a Cambridge library but at the very minimum needs to be neutral without any distractions.

You need adequate lighting. You want your students to see you clearly but too much light can be a little unflattering. Experiment with having the curtains open at different amounts or having additional lamps to get a light level that works for you.

That’s how the student sees me and the “classroom” during the Skype lessons.

Noise Level

You also need to pay attention to noise levels. 

If you have a choice of rooms in your house then find the one that is the quietest. 

If you don’t have a choice then try to keep the windows closed. Also, inform anyone else living there that you will be doing a lesson (if they are noisy) and ask (politely) to be quieter for the next hour or so.

Another thing, don’t do your lessons in the local starbucks! 

Sure the coffee’s arguably great but your students won’t love the background noise and I don’t think the other customers will appreciate your overly-passionate lesson about prepositions! 

Equipment

If you need things such as realia or a whiteboard for your lessons then make sure they are nearby and easy to reach. You won’t want to be rummaging around in the next room trying to find your flashcards halfway through your class of 15 preschoolers.

Comfort

Lastly, we also need to look at comfort. You will (hopefully) be spending a lot of time at your workstation so you want to reduce the stress on your body as much as possible.

Make sure you have water nearby, this is essential when you use your voice all day. Have a good quality chair and set it correctly; this will reduce any strain on your back etc.

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In order to avoid eye strain, screen brightness shouldn’t be set too high. 

Volume shouldn’t be too high on your headset either to avoid ear fatigue. I generally find a setting where I can hear a student well but without it being excessive. 

If I really need to focus on their pronunciation for a specific part then I can turn the volume up briefly to hear better and then turn it back down afterward.

Clothes

Wear appropriate clothing. 

For a class of business students, it might be appropriate to wear more formal clothing. 

For a class of preschoolers though you will want to make sure you are wearing something comfortable, for example, a polo, so you can be expressive.

Tips for Conducting Great Online Lessons

With everything set up let’s look at some ways to give the best lessons on skype.

Before the Lesson

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Benjamin Franklin

The first thing you need to do is to plan the lesson. How long is it? What topic will you cover? What exercises will you do?

Here is an example of a lesson plan I use:

Activities are added with the amount of time taken for each one. The more information you have in the lesson plan, the more likely a class will go according to plan.

Always have a backup activity or two in case you finish everything extra early. There’s nothing worse than finishing everything you had planned and realising you have twenty minutes left till the end. 

The Start of the Lesson

For adults, you can warm up by asking them about their week. For children, you can warm up with a game or maybe even a song. 

Check here for more tips and ideas for teaching English to kids online.

Reviewing previous classes is usually a good idea near the start. You can’t expect a student to always revise in their own time and if they don’t, then they could easily forget what they have previously learned.

The End of the Lesson

Be mindful of the time during class, you don’t have to stick perfectly to your lesson plan but try to stay close to make sure you achieve your goals. 

Have the homework prepared and ready to give at the end of the class. 

Check the date and time for the next class at the end, this can be a good reminder if a student regularly forgets to book.

Find tons of free teaching materials and lesson ideas in our ESL resources section.

Maximising Skype Potential with Other Tools

Now you’re all set up with the basics but there’s still more we can do to get the most from Skype.

Familiarise yourself with the following tools and they can add heaps of value to your lessons.

Screen Sharing

Using screen sharing is a very useful (often time-saving) tool when you want to show your student’s a particular resource. 

I use it to share exercise books, highlight sections on a website for reading exercises or just to troubleshoot. 

To activate screen sharing during a call, press the “overlapped squares” icon in the bottom right of the screen during a call. 

When you are using two screens, you can select which screen to share with the student.

Send Documents

Sending audio, video, and PDF files is very easy to do in Skype.

Just drag and drop a resource into the chat, hit enter and off it goes. Or click on the “share files” icon and select a file from your hard drive.

That’s how the student receives the files in his chat window:

If your files are big then it might be an idea to send it ahead of the lesson so you don’t spend too long waiting for your student to download it.

I usually send audio the most. I record myself reading a list of words for pronunciation and then send this to the student so they have a reference to practise with.

Record Session

It’s possible to record a Skype session. This is a great tool for your students to be able to review the class. You can also use it to reflect on the class and see if there’s anything you can improve in the way you teach. 

Bear in mind, this isn’t done automatically. You will need to set the recording at the beginning if you want to make sure the session is captured. 

Start the recording from the “other options” menu within the video window:

After canceling the call, the record file is saved to your computers hard drive. This may take a while, depending on the length of the recorded session.

If this is the first time you are doing it with a student then it’s also polite (and more importantly legal) to inform them you are planning to record the session.

Online Whiteboards

You can even use a virtual whiteboard with Skype, like Idroo or one of these great online whiteboards for tutoring.

This can be another way to improve interaction and can be great for engaging younger students.

There are premium plans which cost but mostly you are also able to try it out or use basic features for free.

Shared Workspace via Google Drive

This guide wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the shared workspace in Google Drive. In case you haven’t heard of this already, it is an online storage space with a few nifty tools for word processing and spreadsheet editing, etc.

Here’s a homework folder from one of my student’s on Google Drive:

The advantage with this is that you can share a link to a document you are working on and the student can see what you are editing and vice-versa. 

This can all be done in real-time which can make the lesson even more interactive!

I use this with most students to mark homework, essays, etc. It has a great “suggesting mode” which keeps a record of what you mark so that the student can see the before and after. 

I even use Google Drive so much that I ended up doing all of my lesson plans in there too, it’s just so easy!

Common Technical Issues

Sooner or later you will encounter technical issues. You need to plan accordingly with the mindset of “when these things happen” and not “if they happen”.

Let’s have a look at some of the most common issues and their possible solutions:

You Can’t Hear Your Student 

Use the chatbox to communicate if you aren’t sure they can hear you.

Get the student to check the audio settings on their operating system and then check the audio settings inside skype.

If these don’t fix it then ask if they have a spare headset they can try.

Your Student Can’t Hear You

Go through the same routine as above. Make sure to tell your student what you are doing via the chat and ask them to be patient while you fix the problem.

Your Student Can’t See You

Check if the light is on your webcam. If so then it is on and working.

Check the video settings in Skype and make sure your camera is selected.

Seeing the student isn’t as important unless you are doing some pronunciation work that requires you to see their mouth. As such, I tend not to spend too long trying to fix a situation if I can’t see them.

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Audio or Video Quality is Bad

This is usually a connection problem. Check that you don’t have any other programs open that are using a lot of bandwidth. Make sure you are as close to an internet router as possible (preferably wired). Check these things with your student.

Battery Dying on Laptop

This is something that happens with my students sometimes. You often won’t know what happens as the call will drop immediately.

If the call suddenly cuts then wait a while. The student will usually call back from their mobile or once they have a charger to let you know what happened. 

When Everything Else Fails

These are all specific fixes to common problems. If they don’t fix the situation then you can always try the classic – hang up and call again!

For peace of mind, always have a backup internet connection (I use my mobile), have a backup device (again a mobile can be used in a difficult situation) and it may even be an idea to have a backup headset in case that fails.

Skype Alternatives

This guide is aimed at Skype and while the majority of users use this software, it’s worth knowing some of the others in case your student has a preference for something else.

Zoom 

Zoom has a few more tools for viewing documents as well as more functions during group calls such as “virtual hand-raising”. Bear in mind that group calls exceeding 40 minutes require a paid subscription. 

Google Hangouts 

The great thing about Google Hangouts is that it can be used directly from a web browser without needing any installation. However, it is slightly more limited in that you can’t send files other than images.

Mobile Video Call

This option is not that professional. Not to mention, some people feel less comfortable about giving you their phone number than their Skype username. 

That being said, I have used this option more than once as a backup when I have had problems with my computer. 

Teaching Platform Software

Some teaching platforms such as Verbling have built-in video software which can be really useful as the tools are more targeted towards teaching functionality. 

The downside is that stability and speed are usually never as high as something like Skype.

Online teaching software from “Likeshuo”

Getting Your First Students

Okay so now you’re set up and ready to get teaching. The only thing we need now is some students! Let’s look at some of the most common ways of finding them.

Work for a Teaching Company

Working as a subcontractor for an online teaching company like VIPKID is a great option for guaranteed work. You sign a contract with a company and agree to work x hours a week. 

Quite often you will even get the materials and syllabus which means less prep work. 

However, it can take away some of the freedom of setting your own hours and being able to teach in a way that you prefer.

Read the review of the best companies to teach English online to Chinese students.

Read the 101 on teaching English online to Japanese students.

Find Students on a Teaching Platform

In this situation, you are essentially self-employed. The teaching platform will put you in touch with students for a fee. You then set your hours, price and design your own lessons. 

ESL teachers advertising their lessons on Verbling.com

This one gives you more freedom than working for a company but the cost is less stability as you aren’t guaranteed a minimum number of hours a week. 

For this reason, It may be an idea to sign up to more than one teaching platform in order to “not put all of your eggs in one basket”.

Find Students Yourself

If you would prefer not to pay a third party for every lesson you give then try finding your own students. 

You could make your own website, use social media or even post classifieds in newspapers or online on websites like Gumtree. 

Once you are in contact with a potential student, offer the first lesson free or heavily discounted. Students like to “try before they buy” and this gives you a chance to convince them in a trial class.

These are just some ideas to get your first students. There is plenty more material here on how to teach English online in our comprehensive starter guide.

Conclusion

There you have it, you should now have your Skype account set up just right in an environment conducive to learning. If done correctly this should keep your lessons stress free and effective for many years to come.

Make sure to play about with the tools in Skype and stay on top of updates for any juicy new additions that can make your lessons even better.

Bear in mind, Skype is just the delivery system that connects you with your students. Once you have this area mastered you can focus on the content itself, high-quality teaching!

About Jonathan Race

Jonathan is a native English teacher with 3.5 years of teaching experience. As well as teaching online, he also runs the website English +XP, an online resource for English learners and teachers.

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