Skip to content
Home » Teaching English Online » How to Win First-Time Online ESL Students

How to Win First-Time Online ESL Students

As online ESL teaching has become more common over the past years; almost exponentially so in 2020, students have more choices.

With their choice of teachers and companies, students need to be able to see something different in you and how you manage the class.

Moreover, if you want to keep them, they’ll need to see what they can gain from your lessons. Today’s blog will show you how to get those first-time students to stay with you.

First Things First

Before going any further—when we say first-time students, we mean the first time they meet you.

Whether you’re an independent online tutor or work with a company, you’ll meet new enrollees in your classes.

They may be first-time experimenters with online ESL learning. They may be first-time trials of your company’s or your private services.

Or, they may be first-time participants in your class. Whichever the case may be, it will be the first time they meet you.

Giving them a good first impression helps them see the value of you, your private services, and or the value of continuing with the company they’re checking out.

Some companies keep track of these statistics and call them conversions.

An online ESL tutorial company I worked with a few years ago as a consulting personnel and training manager kept an eye on them.

Companies that track these numbers want to know a couple of things:

(1) if the student stays with the company and enrolls in more classes or not after a trial class with you, and

(2) if the student wants to continue having classes with you after their first meeting.

These stats help companies distinguish between teachers they want to keep, and those that aren’t doing so well—and may even be hurting the company.

Be Courteous

One of the most important and often neglected aspects of teaching is the element of courtesy.

Students want to feel like they’re important and appreciated for their business.

And even when they’re not actively thinking about those points, courtesy just makes sense.

We’re not only in the teaching business, but also the customer service business.

Teaching English as a language naturally makes us a service-oriented industry. Creating satisfied customers is an important part of any service-oriented business.

So, teachers who are aware of this aspect of their profession tend to appreciate and treat customers with higher levels of courtesy.

Sadly, some teachers out there see their roles as teachers only. And, with such a neglected aspect of classroom management, courtesy will make you stand out.

Read: Teacher Courtesy in the ESL Classroom

Project Confidence

From my own experience, interactions, and conversations with students over the years, I can say that confidence is something lacking in teachers.

When a student asks a teacher a question, and the teacher’s voice starts to rise and she speaks hurriedly, there is a chance she’s not sure what she’s saying.

Students, young and old, can tell when a teacher lacks confidence. Also, as teachers, even when we make mistakes, we need to be able to play them off as if it’s something we meant to do.

Sometimes, for example, in my online lessons, I accidentally push the wrong button. But, if I do that too many times, the student may get the impression I’m a rookie teacher and I lose credibility.

The bottom line, is if you fail to project confidence by repeatedly making mistakes, have a high-pitched-hurried-panicked voice, and inaccurate answers to questions, your students will likely feel uncomfortable in your classes.

That equates to probably losing that learner.

To project confidence, be prepared. Be sure you’re familiar with the classroom, familiar with the lesson material, familiar with lateral grammar and lexis, and familiar with possible questions.

Speak Calmly and Clearly

As mentioned above, if you speak fast and or panicky, it may give the impression that you lack confidence.

So, your voice is a key factor in keeping first-timers. Another aspect of your voice that puts off new students is speaking fast and unintelligibly.

Learners come to your classes because they want or need to develop their English skills.

When they encounter a teacher they can’t understand, they’ll not likely return to that teacher or enroll in the company.

Here are a few pointers to help you speak calmly and clearly: Consider that this is a new environment for your first-timers.

Try putting yourself in their place. Ask yourself: Could I understand what I’m saying if I were my student? If yes, continue.

If no, try to make the adjustments below. Give clear instructions. First-timers are usually pretty nervous when they enter your classes.

They’ll not likely have any idea what to expect. So, when you give instructions orally, even if they’re intelligible, they may not be understood.

It will probably sound something like Charlie Brown’s teacher (blah, bluh-blah, blah, bluh, …). If possible, have written instructions to complement your verbal instructions. Diagrams and even sketching can help a lot as well.

Either way, speak slower and use common words to give instructions. Enunciate. When you speak, remember that your version of English may not be what students are used to. So, try to keep slang and twang out of it.

Look for a neutral English where /th/ sounds like /th/, -ar sounds like /ahr/ instead of /ah/, internet sounds like /ihn-tr-neht/ instead of /ihn-nr-neht/, and so on. When we focus on enunciation, we are making those consonant sounds clear for our learners.

It’s an element of diction that will help first-timers understand your speech better. Speak slowly, but not slow.

There may be a natural tendency to want to speak slowly to new learners, but (in my opinion) that just makes us sound silly.

We want to speak at a rate that first-timers can follow until they get used to a more normal/natural speaking rate.

But, that just means slowing things down and being sure to enunciate. This will go a long way in helping learners follow your speech.

Read: 7 Speaking Tips for Online ESL Teachers

Give Feedback

A first-time student will want to know that you can help them achieve their goals. In that sense, you can convince them you’re able to by providing timely feedback.

Notice I wrote, timely, not continuous. We don’t want to be interruptive, and we don’t want to pounce on every little thing the students say wrong.

We do want to provide them with practical corrections or encouragement that will make an overall difference in how they use the language.

Feedback such as phrasal verbs is very popular.

The use of verb tense also can be quite helpful. Picking up on recurring grammar points that they may be using incorrectly and addressing them will be appreciated.

Read: Giving Effective Feedback in ESL Speaking Classes

Be Organized

New students like to see that their teachers are organized. But what does that mean? Well, it could be several things.

But basically, you should try to provide organized lessons and feedback.

Organized Lessons

Sometimes, teachers tend to run through the lesson without giving learners a chance to follow along.

The learner may not see how A connects to B—what dialogue means, for example, or how it connects to the lesson topic.

Organized teachers can weave their lessons together so that newcomers to their classes can see what the connections are.

The teacher uses scaffolding to relate A to B and shows the meaning of dialogue and its connection to the lesson material, for example.

Read: Teaching English Conversation: Using Dialogue to Develop Fluency

Organized Feedback

Rather than type feedback chronologically only in a message box or in a note pod, try something different.

Rather than lump them all together, separate grammar points from vocabulary, expression, and pronunciation.

Use color coding if possible. Help first-timers see how organized your notes are compared to other teachers they’ve encountered.

Give Them Something to Use in Your First Meeting

As mentioned in a previous blog, give your students the gift of an introduction. Help them gain something useful from their time spent with you in their very first class.

You want them to walk away with a takeaway from their first meeting with you.

You want them to say: Wow, I learned something in this class! That can be something as simple as a phrasal verb they’re continually misusing or as complex as a detailed introduction.

Either way, you want them to leave in better shape than when they arrived. If so, why wouldn’t they be back?

Read: An Introduction Activity to Teach Beginners


It’s one thing to end the class abruptly, but another to review what was covered. Students often need that reinforcement before ending class.

Some studies reveal that the first and last things people see, hear, or read are what stays with them. So, you’ll want to end class on a positive learning note.

That means ending with two or three important points from the lesson that they can take with them and use outside the classroom.

This will show your first-timer that you’re professional in how you manage your class endings.


After reading today’s blog, you’ll hopefully have a better idea about how to get ESL learners to stay with you for the long haul.

They’ll see something different about you that stands out in the crowd.

Things such as courtesy, confidence, calm and clear speech, feedback, organized teaching, practical benefits, and review will convince them not to lose you.

How about you?

What has your experience been with new or first-time students? Please share your stories in the comments. And of course, we’d love to know your thoughts about today’s blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *