You’ve trained to teach English online. You know the grammar terminology, how to check students' understanding and can set up an effective reading lesson. You have the technical know-how down as well.
But if you think that’s all there is to teaching and learning, then you’re missing out. Building rapport with students is another part of the job you have to master!
The thing is, you probably already have a lot of the skills and experience necessary for building rapport with students.
After all, if you’ve chosen to become an online language teacher, it’s because you like interacting with people and building relationships. It’s not because you love irregular verbs!
In this post, you’ll discover why building rapport with online language students is crucial and how to do it. So let’s get into it.
Building Rapport With Students: Why To And How To
I have a friend who started teaching at a university in France with little teaching experience, after finishing her studies in French. Because she was teaching with minimal training (something I don’t recommend), she decided to focus on building rapport with students.
She made sure that she learned their names, and really listened to what they were saying, even when they were hard to understand. She went against the usual advice and smiled at them because she wanted to create a welcoming atmosphere in her classroom.
You’d be surprised just how far these simple strategies will go towards creating a supportive learning environment. This is particularly crucial in language teaching as expressing yourself in a different language can be stressful.
If you lack rapport with your students, then it will be harder to get them to participate in lessons or co-operate with you. They may lose motivation for learning if they don’t feel listened to or supported.
The good news is, building rapport with students isn’t that hard. And you probably already use many of the strategies in this list in your daily life in other contexts. So it’s time to apply them in your lessons as well!
1. Learn Your Students’ Names
This is particularly relevant if you’re teaching in a group setting, but no matter your teaching context make sure you know your students’ names!
Pointing at learners and saying “you” when you want them to contribute is hardly going to foster a supportive learning environment!
Learning names may take a bit of effort, but you can start connecting names to faces when you check attendance in the first lesson. As you call out names, look at the students and make that connection.
In future lessons, they’ll probably sit in the same place, next to the same people which gives you another mental hook to help you link names to faces.
Even in a 1:1 online setting, it helps students ease into the lesson to hear a friendly “Hello X, how are you?” as you start the session.
Learn and use names, often!
2. Adapt To Their Needs
Many tutoring websites like LanguaTalk claim that they’ll help students find a tutor who will adapt the lessons to their needs and level.
But believe it or not, many tutors have their own agenda and don’t actually plan lessons on topics that interest their students!
If you offer personalised one-to-one lessons, make sure that you follow through on your promises. Forcing students to work with material that isn’t relevant to them is a real rapport-killer!
While it can be harder to personalise your materials in a group setting, you can still ask the group members what they’re interested in and look for themes.
This is especially helpful if you’re teaching teenagers – planning classes around music or movies that they’re into is a big motivation booster and rapport builder.
3. Incorporate Positive Feedback
When you’re an online language teacher, especially in a 1:1 setting, it can feel like your job is to be a correction machine. And I get it, some students demand that you correct every single mistake.
But overloading students with corrections is unhelpful. And only giving negative feedback isn’t great for building rapport with students. So focus less on trying to capture every error, and instead, make sure that you also note down what the student is doing well.
That could be using the right words and expressions or correct grammar. But it could also be acting on advice you’ve given them, like slowing down and pausing when giving a presentation. Or paraphrasing when they don’t know a word.
Be their cheerleader and supporter and you’ll build rapport fast!
Now this is a controversial one. I’ve heard some teachers say that they don’t smile until the end of the first term! They want to project an image of authority so that the students respect them and don’t mess around.
While this might be a good idea if you’re working in a school setting, if you never smile in your 1:1 online lessons, you’ll quickly damage rapport with your learners.
What would you prefer when you nervously login to Skype or Zoom for a language lesson. Seeing a stern face on the webcam, or a smiling, encouraging one?
Personally the latter is going to help me to feel more comfortable and safe as the words stumble out of my mouth and I feel rather vulnerable.
And a smiling, attentive face is so much more pleasant than a bored or distracted one as well! And that brings me nicely to the next strategy for building rapport with students.
5. Show Interest In Your Learners’ Lives
This one sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many people forget about this simple way to build rapport with learners.
If you’re teaching in a 1:1 online English lesson, then you’ll have lots of opportunities to learn about your students. But this is also true in group settings.
As they share their precious personal experiences with you, take note of them and remember. If they’re having a hard time at work, express empathy and ask them about it.
Remember details about their lives like their kids’ names, where they live or their favourite TV series. And ask them about these things. This is an easy way to get them to talk. After all, most people’s favourite conversation topic is themselves!
Also, if you encourage them to talk about themselves, you can spend less time planning lessons. So it’s a real win-win situation.
6. Listen To Your Students
I have unfortunately heard horror stories from fellow teachers and learners about bored, distracted or even sleepy tutors in online lessons!
Here's one from Emma, the teacher behind the popular YouTube channel, Pronunciation with Emma about her former in-person Spanish teacher.
Many years ago, I started private lessons with an in-person teacher to improve my Spanish. During the lesson the teacher was texting on his phone. In our second lesson, he asked “what would you like to do today?” He googled, “Spanish listening exercises” and pulled up a random website with a list of topics. “Choose a topic”, he said. During the video, he was yawning away and texting during the whole lesson. I'd had enough and asked who he was messaging. He said “sorry, I'm just messaging the student who has a class after yours”. Needless to say, that was the last lesson I ever had with him.Emma from Pronunciation with Emma
So if you’re able to close all your browser tabs, stop looking at your phone and give your student your undivided attention, then you’ll quickly be able to build rapport with them!
This holds if you’re in an in-person setting with a group as well. When you’re listening to someone, it shows and it really helps to build trust with students and help them grow their confidence.
And it goes without saying that listening to someone, even when they’re struggling to speak in a foreign language, can help them to feel encouraged and supported. After all, this is one of the reasons people choose to work with a tutor 1:1.
7. Share A Bit About Yourself
You don’t have to reveal all your deepest secrets to your students. But they will be curious about you! And if you’re asking them questions about their lives, then it’s only normal to share a little bit about yourself in return.
For instance, you could play a well-known first lesson icebreaker with them called two truths and a lie. Everyone in the class writes three pieces of information about themselves. Two of these sentences are true while one is false. The idea is to figure out which is which!
This can be a nice way to reveal something surprising about yourself while learning more about your students.
Getting your students interested in you can also be a great way to practice asking questions in English, which can be a real grammar headache for many students.
Building Rapport With Students: As Essential As Grammar & Vocab
So there you have it, seven strategies you can use in your online language lessons for building rapport with students. You can also apply these strategies with groups too, whether online or in-person.
While becoming an online language teacher also means learning how to teach grammar and how to plan lessons, if you overlook rapport building, then your lessons will be missing a key ingredient, no matter how clear your explanations or how beautiful your PowerPoint slides.
The key thing to remember is that you’re teaching fellow humans, not phrasal verbs or prepositions.
And your fellow humans want you to listen to them and take an interest in them, especially when they're doing something as vulnerable as speaking in a new language.
So start building rapport with students today and watch their motivation, confidence and participation in your lessons grow.