Six Tips for Teaching TOEFL Online

TOEFL Online

During a panel discussion included in EFL Magazine’s TOEFL Training Summit last week, participants were asked about possible gaps in the TOEFL training market that prospective teachers could fill.

My response was that teachers need not look for specific gaps, as the main weakness of the overall market is simply a lack of qualified and visible online tutors. I mentioned that even though the TOEFL test is taken more than a million times a year, there are really just a small handful of talented and highly-visible TOEFL tutors online. Therefore, even new teachers with the required expertise (and a decent online footprint) can attract enough clients to keep themselves busy for a long time.

So how does one acquire this expertise and get noticed online? Well, here’s what has worked for me.

1.Read Everything

To teach the TOEFL test, you need to know the TOEFL test. Eventually, you should read everything published by ETS about the TOEFL, but start by getting copies of both Official iBT Tests books. Make sure you get the most recent versions (look for their green covers).

Go through these two books with a highlighter and notepad, and try to “diagram” the ten tests they contain. Read the passages and questions line by line, and word by word. This will teach you the techniques ETS uses to create TOEFL test items every week. Note how details and examples are presented in each question type. You’ll learn that the TOEFL is a very formulaic test and that you can use the formulas to demystify the test for your students. Surprisingly, a lot of teachers and content-writers haven’t done this, which weakens their materials and methods.

Another source of information is the Official Guide to the TOEFL. It describes the test in detail and contains four more practice tests you can pore over. Just be careful with the very first practice test, as it was created even before the launch of the iBT back in 2006 and contains a few inaccuracies.

As you continue your reading, you’ll learn that ETS has published research articles about every aspect of the test, as well as book-length studies of the software used to automatically score in the speaking and writing sections of the test. These will all increase your level of expertise. Perhaps in a future article, I’ll provide a reading list of items for TOEFL tutors who really want to get into the weeds.

Note that you should be very careful when using the above strategy to analyze unofficial third party TOEFL textbooks, as many of them are inaccurate and flawed.

2.Understand Grammar

Don’t be the sort of teacher that says “that’s just how we say it in English” when a student asks a question about a certain correction.
Try to become a grammar expert as well as a TOEFL expert. Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but you should learn the proper terminology and rules needed to explain why you have made a certain correction to a student’s practice essay or recording. For this purpose, I strongly recommend finding a copy of Michael Swan’s “Practical English Usage” (published by Oxford University Press). It contains easy-to-understand answers to almost all of the grammar questions my students ask me. The new fourth edition even contains a special section dedicated to the most common problems.

3. Have an Online Footprint (I) – Your Website

Once you have mastered the design of the TOEFL test, start writing about it! Launch a website and publish detailed articles on a regular basis. Students are hungry for good articles that help them understand the test and improve their scores.

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This is, of course, how you will start getting clients. If you provide a ton of good content, you’ll eventually get a ton of readers. Insert a few advertisements for your paid services and few of those readers will contact you. This makes it possible to get customers without using paid advertising or (worse yet) a middleman tutoring agency.
As you do this, try to avoid annoying people with stuff like giant pop-over advertisements for your newsletter. Don’t try to force everyone into a sales funnel. Don’t write “SEO rich” content. No one likes those things. Just write good content that makes a difference. Turn yourself into a content factory. It will pay off in the long run.

4. Have an Online Footprint (II) – Your Social Media

You should also produce content for the big social media outlets. I suppose Facebook and Youtube are the most important, but new outlets are always emerging.

Be careful with this method. It was once very easy to rely on Facebook and YouTube for a steady stream of clients. While that is still an option, relying solely on them is more difficult than it was in the past. Those spaces are a lot more crowded now and their algorithms have been adjusted to demand a constant stream of content creation. It can be a bit overwhelming to keep up. More than a few experienced TOEFL teachers who once relied on YouTube and Facebook leads have contacted me recently, wondering why no one can find them anymore.
For this reason, I recommend pursuing a combination of social media strategies and a personal website which you have total control over.

5. Cultivate Word of Mouth

Word of mouth in personal blog posts can really help your business. This might sound strange to some readers since personal blogs died off in the United States more than a decade ago. But they are still really popular in non-English markets. Students who seem to contact me out of the blue often tell me that they read about me on the blog of an international student from their country. If you manage to develop meaningful personal relationships with your clients, try gently asking them to mention you online.

This compares favorably to the trend of getting students to post endorsements on Facebook. I see a lot of great comments about teachers on the big TOEFL Facebook groups, but those lovely comments all sink down into the algorithm’s black hole within 48 hours… never to be seen again.

6. Remember who Takes the TOEFL

If you stick with the TOEFL, remember who is actually taking the TOEFL. Official statistics are not available, but it seems that the IELTS is a much more popular English test. Meanwhile, the new Duolingo English Test is chipping away at both of those tests.
So who actually takes the TOEFL in 2021? Well, a majority of test-takers seem to be based in east Asia, especially China, Korea and Japan. In addition, the test is taken by a huge number of pharmacists in the USA with overseas credentials. If you want to be successful teaching TOEFL online you should figure out how to reach those demographics. The first three are, interestingly, the three countries least likely to heavily use American social media networks.

7. Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

If your schedule permits, I recommend that you do 30 minutes or an hour of pro bono work each day. This might mean answering questions on Facebook, or Reddit… or even more niche networks like Quora or Clubhouse. This will help you present yourself as an expert in the TOEFL field, but it will also help you keep up with what students actually need. The changing needs of students is an element of tutoring that is often overlooked. The emergence of new ed-tech over the past few years means that not everyone is looking for generalists who can teach them about the whole test. Instead, some students desire specialists who can help them with specific aspects of their preparation. The only way to actually keep up with these trends is to come in contact with as many students as possible.

Anyhow, I realize now that this is all “big picture” stuff. It doesn’t really go into the nitty-gritty of day to day teaching, lesson planning, technology use, scheduling, paid advertising, and so on. Hopefully, I’ll have a few words to share about those things in a future article.

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