Your ability to engage students defines your success as an online language tutor. This guide is for online language tutors who want to command high hourly rates, quickly acquire new students and keep them engaged. We developed it with some of the most successful language tutors online with years of experience.
Engaging your students isn't a talent, it's a skill
Student motivation and engagement in online language learning can vary on different days or fade over time. This results in students taking longer breaks, changing tutors, or giving up altogether. Some students are very aware of active learning strategies and use them to drive their progress, but others don't always know how to move forward.
Specific challenges of online learning are that students often feel far away from their language tutor, can't see them fully, and might thus feel like not showing up for a lesson, doing their homework, putting in extra work, etc.
Next to that, students are also dealing with other motivational challenges not specific to online learning. They might feel insecure or uncomfortable, be bored by the choice of topics, or be busy with other parts of their life.
That makes your ability as a language tutor to engage and motivate your students a fundamental skill that drives your success. This success is closely linked to your earning potential. Full-time language tutors on platforms such as Heylama make thousands of dollars a month. The top 20% of the tutors command enviable hourly rates ranging from $30 to $80 dollars an hour and find new students almost instantly. The good news is that you can master this skill. Captivating your students and keeping them involved isn't something that comes naturally, it takes practice and experimentation.
So what are the best student engagement strategies that help your students keep their motivation and also lead to you keeping your students for an extended period? How does one get there and become a remarkable, even elite language tutor? Find below 21 strategies and tips to become a super language tutor through exceptional student engagement, motivation and retention.
Table of contents (click to scroll)
- Embrace an entrepreneurial mindset and treat tutoring as your business
- Prioritize immersion vs. structured learning
- Design and optimize first lessons for activation
- Build relationships
- Take it easy
- Start with small talk
- Manage expectations & actively ask for feedback
- Set meaningful and measurable goals
- Celebrate success
- Create a safe environment
- Take advantage of digital tools
- Correct gently
- Ensure students talk as much as possible
- Make students feel important
- Actively use facial expressions and body language
- Have a shared document for notes
- Give feedback
- Create engaging online lessons
- Give students choices
- Encourage students to bring their own ideas
- Ask for self-assessment
- Bonus: Apply to become a Heylama tutor
#1. Embrace an entrepreneurial mindset and treat tutoring as your business
Elite language tutors approach teaching languages online as their business. It puts you in a different mindset than treating it as a hobby or side hustle. Businesses have customers, and the best businesses obsess over their customers. By adopting a similar mindset, you view your students as your customers and do your best to offer a delightful experience.
It doesn’t mean that you let irresponsible students take advantage of you, but rather value your loyal and motivated students. You do everything in your power to help them achieve their goals. That could mean
- spending some extra time even if your lesson time is up,
- customizing the teaching content and experience for each student,
- doing extra research for them,
- sharing resources, vocabulary, links,
- or forgiving small mess-ups such as rescheduling a lesson on short notice (naturally only if that happens once in a while).
#2. Prioritize language acquisition vs. grammar drilling
Foreign language acquisition research shows that drilling grammar concepts might not be an effective way to master a language. We might be drawn to practicing grammar as a way to make progress, but some studies suggest that drilling grammar drives learning, but not necessarily acquisition. In simple terms, we might know the theoretical rules of the language, but it doesn’t guarantee that we’ve internalized and can effortlessly apply them.
One of the prominent foreign language acquisition scholars Stephen Krashen has put forth an acquisition-learning hypothesis that states that acquisition is:
... the product of a subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language. It requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concentrated not in the form of their utterances, but in the communicative act.
And learning, on the other hand, is
the product of formal instruction and it comprises a conscious process which results in conscious knowledge 'about' the language, for example, knowledge of grammar rules
Here is how Stephen himself summarizes the difference of both learning approaches:
According to this theory, your students would progress much faster and, more importantly, start feeling more confident sooner if you prioritized communication-first learning.
There are a few approaches to communication-centric tutoring:
There are no topics, no homework as such. You improvise as you go. Talk about whatever topic the student feels like discussing on that day.
The pros of this approach are that it’s less work for you and forces your students to practice spontaneous speaking. This is is how we usually communicate in the real world. Many community tutors on platforms like Heylama default to this method.
The cons are that such conversation lessons might get very dull over time as lessons revolve around the same topics and as the supply of life stories and personal news dries up, the lessons might start to feel monotonous and repetitive. It’s better to mix in a bit of structured approach.
A different strategy is to take a more disciplined approach to tutoring. In this setup, you or your students might choose a discussion topic in advance. Of course, you may digress from the topic during the lesson now and then, but you have a plan to follow.
For example, you could learn about students’ interests and send a fresh article or video two days before the next class for the student to discuss it in the class. Your students watches the video or reads the article and you then discuss it during the live session.
Another example would be for your student to prepare a presentation on a topic of their choice. It could be anything that the student finds engaging.
The pros of this approach are that lessons are engaging as topics center around the student's interests, it’s always something new, and neither you nor the students should dread awkward silences.
The cons are that it takes a bit more effort from your side, but your goal is to build a strong reputation, get high ratings, and command a disable hourly rate, then it’s worth it
#3. Design and optimize first lessons for activation
Your mission is to help your students to get from where they are now to where they want to be. They are hiring you to help them solve a problem. Your first lesson(s) must be designed intentionally to prove to students that you can add tremendous value and help them get where they want. Think of the questions and activities that will activate your student. Activation is the process of making your student feel the success and feel you are the right tutor for them.
To measure your activation success, track how many students book a lesson after the first time they learn with you.
If you treat your first lessons as a product onboarding experience and think about the steps that help your students experience their aha moment, they are more likely to return.
Consider a few questions:
- What can you do to show your new students that you’ll help them achieve their goals in the first 10-20 minutes?
- What is the best way to onboard new students to your teaching method?
- Is it to run them through your method?
- Is it by doing a small exercise with them?
- Is it about discussing their interests?
- Is it by running a language test?
Whatever it is, ensure that when the student leaves the lesson, she has 100% clarity about what it’s like to learn with you and how you can help them get to where they want.
#4. Build relationships
You might instinctively feel that tutoring is a professional relationship. However, a better strategy is to keep it informal, learn about your students' lives, and tell them about your life. Show understanding of their situation by giving examples from your own language learning experience.
This is a game changer in increasing student engagement because they will look forward to your lessons even if they had a busy day at work as if talking to a friend.
#5. Take it one step at a time
Becoming a great language tutor is a process. It takes skill and experience, and the only way to hone both is to accumulate teaching hours. Embrace experimentation and don’t take failures personally. Students will leave, and some might not like how you teach – and that’s OK. The tutor-student relationship is a two-way street, and not everyone is compatible. Over time you will develop an intuition about who fits your style the best and adjust your profile details and intro video to attract those kinds of students.
Most importantly, remember that you are not just teaching a language. You are empowering and helping your students to access better social, economic, and educational opportunities. What you are doing is important! Let it be your north star as you find your unique style and develop your skills over time.
Become a Heylama language tutor
Before we go on, did you know that you can join Heylama as a language learner and start making money online within 7 days? Check it out!
#6. Start with small talk
This breaks the ice and makes the student feel comfortable in most cases.
If you do this every time at the beginning of the lesson, students know what to expect and can somewhat prepare for it. In a group setting, depending on the size of the group, ask a different person every time or let them take turns and keep it short.
Nice side effect: you learn more about them and can use this information to further select interesting topics for them!
However, if you notice that a student does not like this part, for example, if they give short answers, then keep it brief or leave it out altogether to dive right into the topic of the lesson.
#7. Manage expectations and actively ask for feedback
One reason language tutors can’t retain students and get them to book more lessons with them (especially after trial sessions!) is that they fail to understand and satisfy student expectations on an ongoing basis.
Novice language tutors jump right into telling new students how great they are and spend a lot of time talking. Yet lessons are not really about you, they are about your students and their needs. You gotta make your students talk. Some things, such as goals, are easy to discover. But students also bring a lot of implicit expectations.
For example, some students have their internal beliefs about what makes a great or poor tutor. Some students expect tutors to follow a strict curriculum. Others want tutors who focus on helping students to overcome speaking fear. Uncovering such an expectation would be key to turning trial sessions into repeat lessons.
As you advance into regular lessons, some students will provide feedback without asking and that is great. It is also important to listen to their comments such as “This was difficult” or “I had to watch the video three times”.
Next to that, ask students directly so you learn what they like and how you can improve the lessons for them. Directly in the beginning after the small talk you can ask them what they thought about the topic you sent them. The goal is for you to continuously improve your classes and to adapt to the individual students. If you not only accept the feedback but also use it to make changes, students are more likely to stick with you.
You could ask questions like
- What kind of tutor are you looking for?
- What topics do you find fascinating?
- What did your previous tutors fail to do?
- What learning process or method do you find effective?
- What should happen during lessons for you to feel like you are learning and making progress?
#8. Set goals & measure them
Most (adult) students who pick private tutoring as their way of learning languages are already quite motivated. However, their motivation stems from different places. Someone needs to pass a test to enter a university. Someone else might want to qualify for permanent residence. Others might want to understand the parents of their fiance.
These language-learning goals come with different timelines and a sense of urgency. Understanding how fast or slow the student wants to progress, if there is time pressure or not, and how much effort the student is ready to put in is key to oraganizing a student-centric learning experience. Investigate that and write it down. Even better, share it with the student and review it once every 4-8 weeks together.
You have to measure your student's progress towards it on a regular basis. Unfortunately, there is no reliable and automatic way to measure students’ progress yet (but we are working on it!).
Some tutors design their own tests to measure their students’ progress. Others simply revisit the goal with their students and openly discuss if the student is feeling like getting closer to it.
Both strategies work depending on your context and students. So no matter which one you choose, most importantly, just make it part of the process.
Discuss the following questions with your students:
- What’s your goal?
- Why is this goal important for you?
- By when do you want to achieve it?
- What stopped you from achieving it so far?
#9. Celebrate success
Learning languages is a multi-year process and when you as a language learner advance from the beginner level into more advanced levels, it gets particularly hard to certainly know that you’re making solid progress.
That’s why celebrating success, small and big, becomes extremely important to maintain the student motivation.
Any time you notice an improvement, say it, be loud, celebrate it. Anything goes:
- Your student used the vocabulary that you learned last week? Celebrate it
- Your student stopped making a grammar mistake she struggled with? Celebrate it
- Your student put in effort between classes (homework, read an article, prepared a presentation, spoke with a native speaker, etc.)? Celebrate it
#10. Create a safe environment
Be super patient when they take their time to come up with a sentence. The main reason students take language classes, especially for conversation, is because they feel there is not enough time and patience for this in daily life. Gently help them out if they are searching for a word. Don't interrupt them unless absolutely necessary. Sometimes it is more important to let them tell a story than to correct every single mistake. It is the best thing to make mistakes to learn a language and you need to make them feel that it is totally ok to make them. We cover it in detail later in the post. You goal is to create an environment where you student feels confident and safe to make mistakes.
#11. Take advantage of digital tools
You need to take advantage of digital tools to make your lessons more exciting or save time. Some tutors make do with a skype chat to share lesson notes and new vocabulary. This works in some situations but might not be sufficient for most.
Others use Google Docs or Notion to share lesson notes or prepare lessons in advance. Both tools are great as they enable you to share any type of content. Google Docs has real-time editing that makes it convenient for students and teachers to be on the same page (Pun intended).
You might also want to check out OneNote and Miro – the first is a note-taking tool with some semblance of a whiteboard, and the latter is a real-time collaboration board.
Always pick the right tool that can really help the student and is adapted to their personality, goals and their technical ability. Don't use tools for the sake of using tools and instead introduce them at the right time when they fit the situation and student.
#12. Correct gently
Elite tutors know that creating a safe environment for students to speak and express their thoughts even if they are making grammatical mistakes is key to boosting their confidence and progress. Teachers who correct students on every occasion instill a lack of confidence in their students and make them want to be perfect. Perfectionism is an enemy of language acquisition. The path to language mastery lies through mistakes.
Many students know a lot of grammar but have a deep-seated fear of speaking or using the language in a real-world setting as they are embarrassed by and conscious of their mistakes. This is especially true for introverted students.
If they made a mistake, instead of mentioning what they did wrong right away, wait until the end of the sentence or let them finish their line of thought. Then ask them if they noticed it themselves first. Often students are aware of the frequent mistakes they make, and sometimes, with the right conditions, it can even become a running gag.
We learned an alternative strategy from an insanely dedicated and successful tutor. He doesn’t interrupt his students as they speak but takes notes whenever they say something wrong or not entirely correct. At the end of the class, he reserves 5-10 minutes to draw students’ attention to those sentences and asks them how they could say them better.
According to him, students often correct their own mistakes, and if they can’t understand what’s wrong, then the tutor steps in and shows a few ways to say it right. Amazing, right?
In any case, language learners feel better about mistakes they make when they get the chance to figure it out themselves. If you are the one presenting the correction, formulate it more like a recommendation unless it is a drastic mistake that could insult someone else by accident.
#13. Ensure students talk as much as possible
Set it as your goal to speak no more than 30% of the time. Aim for 20%. Let your students do most of the talking. Speaking a language is the only way to reliable progress.
Ask them for their opinions and show interest in what they are saying even if you have a different opinion.
Most people like talking about themselves and being asked about what they think. The less you speak, the better. You should mainly ask questions and thus guide the conversation.
Generally, but especially for students who are not very talkative, use open questions so they can't just answer yes or no.
#14. Make students feel awesome & important
The best way to make your customers (i.e. students) happy is to make them feel VIP and awesome! Make them feel better, smarter, more confident than before they met you.
Do this, for example, by remembering things they have mentioned in previous classes, whether it’s their goals or any information about their life. If you congratulate them on their birthday, ask them about their last holiday, or use the name of their partners, children, or pets, they will appreciate it.
For this, you can also take a couple of notes for each student and review them when selecting material and before each class.
Another way to do this is to pay attention to their goals and needs. So, if you notice they don't like specific topics, avoid them or if they have an exam coming up, be flexible and offer extra time for preparation, maybe even outside of your regular schedule if possible.
Active listening is one of the best strategies to let yours students feel important. When you student shares news or updates, don’t just answer in YES and NOs. Engage, lean in, ask questions, share your similar stories. Otherwise your student would feel that you’re not a good match.
#15. Actively use facial expressions and body language
You are in the business of building lasting relationships with your students. In an offline world, you could use the power of human connection, but digital setting makes it more challenging.
Depending on the quality of the internet connection and the size of the students’ screen, they might not hear every “aha” sound you make or see every little facial expression. Also, eye contact can be a bit tricky because there is always the dilemma between looking at the webcam's green light and the screen.
Here are three strategies to make video calls feel more personal:
- To show you are actively listening, nod often and not too subtly.
- When speaking, use hand gestures from time to time,
- and at any time, a smile is always encouraging.
#16. Have a shared document for notes
This is not required for all students, but it some students find it helpful to see certain words or phrases written down directly or like to review them later. Created a shared google doc might make sense. Some of us struggle to pay attention to what students are saying, be present, and taking notes at the same time. You can also finalize the notes from the discussion directly after the class.
When you discuss with the students their goals, focus areas, or a topic for the upcoming session, you can also directly note it there. Spend some time directly after the class to reflect on the student's progress and think about what you want to do with them during the next class.
#17. Give feedback
Feedback is more than just celebrating success. And it’s more than just correcting mistakes. You can provide your observations sometimes after they finish a line of thought or at the end of a class. It should be specific and honest, so the student gets a good idea of which areas they have done well or improved on and where they still need to focus a bit more.
#18. Create engaging online lessons
Variation and elements of novelty are key to keeping your student’s attention. You can create variety by using different exercises and by varying the subject of the conversations.
- Vary between topics that your students find interesting and familiar, and topics that are out of their comfort zone to surprise them and challenge them.
- Alternate with different media such as articles, videos, movies, audio files, etc.
- Always make sure they are recent. Such topics feel more relevant and engaging as they are unfolding right now and could come up in other conversations and real-life situations for your student.
- Depending on the student's goals and wishes, you might also want to look into other engaging activities for students, such as describing pictures, creating short presentations, using a whiteboard to play games, or listening to a song.
#19. Give students choices
Whenever possible, let students decide on what to do and how to learn. Studies show that the sense of agency is critical in student motivation. The sense of agency is the “sense of control…the subjective awareness of initiating, executing, and controlling one's own volitional actions in the world.”
The best way to boost the sense of agency is to let your students co-create the learning process.
For example, If you find an article or video on an exciting topic but are unsure if the student will find it equally interesting, send a second article or video along and let them choose.
During lessons, give choices from which angle to approach a topic or how long to speak about it. If the student changes the topic, respect that and be ready to speak about something else.
They might have something else on their mind that day and need to speak about it rather than the topic you suggested. It always helps to be up to date with world news, so you have plenty to talk about spontaneously.
#20. Encourage students to bring their own ideas
Ask your students directly whether they prefer a specific media type or topic. Tell them that they can always suggest topics or pick their own materials. Some students want to work through a book they have and can send a screenshot of the topic beforehand.
Don’t feel like homework and resources should always come from you. If your student suggests something, it is more enjoyable for them, and less work for you: win-win! By collecting not only your material but also suggestions from different students, you can build a nice resource collection that just needs to be occasionally updated for relevance and timeliness.
#21. Ask for self-assessment
Ask students for their self-assessment from time to time, so you find out about their focus, motivation, and possibly feedback for yourself. If they say, for example, that they feel they have gained a lot of new vocabulary but still make the same mistakes over and over again, you could decide not to introduce a new topic in the following lessons but do some repetitions to perfect what was already learned. Subjective sense of progress is very important for student motivation. If they stop reporting progress, you should dive deeper and change some things to restore that sense.
Parting words: create your own set of strategies
As an independent teacher, you're not bound by the policies or formal instruction requirements of academic institutions. You're free to experiment, test and confirm your ideas. Take the strategies above as a starting point in your journey to becoming an amazing language tutor.
-Anka from Heylama