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Online learning was still a developing frontier when I started high school way back when. Today, however, e-learning and AI-assisted lessons are sweeping the educational realm, equipping students with more learning resources but presenting even greater challenges for teachers. As a student, online learning changed my world. I found I had greater access to resources and more creative outlets for working with the curriculum. I suddenly realized that learning could be something engaging, and I found I could tell stories and use my art skills to interact with the course materials (ex. using Wix to present a historical figure or turning the Time Machine into a comic for my English classmates to read on Moodle). Online learning lent me the opportunity to create my own lessons and put knowledge into my hand in a tangible form, to mold and innovate. 

Beyond the creative freedom and access to resources, the benefits of teaching and learning English online are incalculable. ESL students, especially in learning something as complex as a new language, need adequate and engaging materials with which to work with. This article will examine the advantages and challenges of tutoring ESL students online and hopefully answer the question of how to be a good tutor.

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Safe Space and Personal Growth: the benefits of online tutoring for ELLs

One benefit of online tutoring for ELLs is the opportunity to embrace and incorporate different learning forms that allow for “safe spaces” or risk-taking opportunities that may be hindered in an on-site setting. Core curriculum and in-class instruction tend to be unbalanced, as most time is spent in instruction and less on hands-on training. As tutors and teachers, we must maximize learning within a time-specific framework while striving to provide one-on-one attention to students. It’s a seemingly impossible task that leaves little time for educational exploration, yet that is very necessary for student growth. One source notes, “tutoring gives students individualized attention that they don’t get in a crowded classroom.”1 Because online classes tend to be smaller, there is a greater opportunity for social-emotional learning2 to take place. This learning process considers the whole student as an individual and creates the necessary steps to encourage risk-taking and create a space where every student feels that their voice matters. The most beneficial online tutoring is synchronous tutoring or real-time learning. Let’s examine a few benefits of online tutoring that helps students with personal growth: 

  1. Personalization: In a large classroom setting, it is often difficult for tutors to adequately address every individual student’s needs. The online classroom allows for the personalization of lessons and one-on-one attention, especially if you have only one or two students in a course. For example, if one student struggles with articles or gerunds, you can customize the course materials and activities to promote this learning objective. Typical in-class teaching often constrains the instructor to specific pre-picked materials and activities. However, online learning offers students a variety of reference materials and learning activities such as games, lessons tailored for the individual student, and creative outlets such as social media, educational blogs, and animated videos. According to one source, “Individual supplements for learning can be accessed at any time, giving the student the wide window for knowledge enhancement while maintaining a weekly or daily class form.”3 It’s equally difficult for a teacher to get to know every student’s learning style in a large classroom setting. In a large classroom, you can’t always use colorful graphics, funny gifs, or attention-grabbing toys to draw shy or uninterested students into the learning process. On the contrary, perhaps the student is intimidated because their teacher seems “unapproachable,” or perhaps they are struggling with the material the other students have already mastered. One source notes, “tutors get to know your child’s individual learning style and can adapt teaching methods accordingly. They act as your child’s own private teacher.”4 Online tutoring makes the tutor someone relatable and not so distant, allowing the student to get to know their instructor better and feel more comfortable speaking to them. For ESL students who are afraid to ask questions, online learning places them in a small setting with a limited number of peers. Vnaya concludes, “knowledge has always been enhanced by personal, one-to-one support, and students who receive personal tutoring perform better than those who don’t.”5 Tutoring can act as a “safe space” where SEL takes priority, giving your students the self-confidence boost they need to task risks and ask questions without feeling embarrassed or behind the other students.
  2. Availability/Flexibility: In the past, synchronous tutoring could only take place at a learning center. With the development of AI-assisted classrooms, students can now choose when to meet with a tutor instead of the other way around. Tutoring sites such as ALO7 offer 24/7 availability in timeslots. ESL students can find a time to have the lessons which best fit their schedule. One source observes, “the versatile nature of online tutoring permits students to book sessions that match their own busy schedules.”6 If anything changes in the student’s schedule, he or she does not have to “drop” the class but can find another tutor who can work with it. This vast flexibility ensures that every student has equal access to online learning while increasing student attendance and participation and discouraging skipping class. Daily attendance will ensure academic success for your online ESL students. Your students may also feel more comfortable and empowered working from their own homes in an open-minded and informal setting than in a classroom. After all, they have access to their parents if they need additional help, and they can incorporate their favorite things in the lesson or have immediate access to school supplies, helpful books, and props to incorporate in-class to breach learning gaps. They can have food, water, and snacks with them, and they can sit comfortably in their pajamas or have their lesson while fighting traffic in a downtown mall. I have had numerous students who did their English lesson from an iPad while walking outside or at a restaurant. For the busy parent or student, it’s a viable solution.
  3. Self-Directed Learning: Another benefit of online tutoring is that your ESL students can learn at their own pace. More time is spent on hands-on activities and less on coaching or lecturing. Accordingly, the tutor can spend more time working on specific areas that the student struggles with. This will improve academic performance and help students realize their learning goals and outlook toward school and the learning process. Online tutoring will help your students develop positive study habits. Oxford Learning reminds, “your child will realize his or her own personal growth and will learn to take responsibilities for his or her studies.”7 Your students will learn how to pace themselves, develop useful study skills, and learn to work independently. In an online classroom, your student can’t always rely on classmates, time constraints, or chance to avoid participation. With synchronous online learning, ESL students are encouraged to study the materials outside of class and to prepare themselves before every lesson. They are more likely to study and engage with the material because they know they will be called on every class to participate due to the limited number of students. I had many classes in school where other students and I were never called on to participate because of time constraints and too many students. Online learning is eliminating this problem. 
  4. Creativity and Participation: Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of tutoring ESL students online is the creative possibilities for both teachers and learners. In the classroom, limited access to technology or online resources may hinder creativity. However, online learning has limitless possibilities for creativity in learning. Tools like Manycam enliven the classroom with cartoon icons, effects, transitions, stickers, face masks, and the ability to share pictures and movies. For example, suppose your students are struggling with personal pronouns. Perhaps you can share a quick video from TED-Ed8 to simplify the lesson, or perhaps you can use props to explain the terms. If you teach for ALO7, this is when using the photo bank comes in handy because it contains an abundance of gifs, sounds, games, and conversation starters to enhance the lessons. Since your students are often learning from their home or even in their bedroom, they have access to toys, their favorite books, props, and other items to express themselves and help you better understand their likes and dislikes. Vnaya notes, “students tend to study easily when the courses are not confined within the coaching classes.”9 The informal setting, which doesn’t seem as much like school, may encourage those students who dislike school to participate more. Oxford Learning argues, “tutoring helps bored or under-stimulated children reach their full potential.”10 I have had many ESL students who admit that they don’t like school, but they do enjoy learning English online. One study found that “low English proficiency students lacked online learning skills and experiences in self-directed learning.”11 Moreover, tutoring ESL students online is likely to produce more well-rounded, balanced, creative, and independent learners than those students who lack online engagement. 

Challenges to Tutoring ESL Students Online

Although tutoring has many benefits, there are several challenges as well. This challenge often takes the form of the content vs. form debate. Julie Hagemann argues, “in our effort to promote more content-centered pedagogy, we had to paint grammar in the most negative light possible, and in doing so, we lost sight of what was valuable and studying it.”12 Unfortunately, all too often in online classes, it’s easy to skip writing and punctuation if it doesn’t directly pertain to the lesson. With social-emotional learning, it is often too easy to sacrifice grammar rules to help ELLs feel more confident about their English writing skills. This is only misleading the student, however, and is especially detrimental to learners who plan to attend an English university and write a dissertation or conduct major research requiring intelligible and strong writing skills. Seneca Schaffer argues, “It is perhaps because of the content-over-form claims made by researchers in composition fields that grammar remains a touchy instructional topic, especially for writing.”13 The traditional ESL tutor doesn’t have time to tutor in writing, which usually takes place in a separate setting. Unfortunately, the two areas often spill over. ESL tutors may receive grammar and/or writing questions from the students during class. The “natural approach” to writing and learning grammar and punctuation appears to be backfiring in some contexts. Students are not learning the skills they need to write persuasive and appealing papers. Many ELLs are fluent in English, but they speak or write with many grammatical errors that often distract or confuse listeners. Julie Hagemann argues that the system has “sacrificed accuracy for fluency” due to “focusing exclusively on meaning and the overall success of communication.”14 In stressing content over form, other features are left out, such as stylistic features, creative writing, and word choice. The goal of a tutor should be to discover talent in every student. If a student shows signs of being a good writer or interested in storytelling, it would be a shame to avoid discussing or using stylistic features in favor of fluency comprehension. 

This is especially problematic for online students. Because they are not in a classroom but at home, they are more likely to default to “home talk” rather than “school talk.” Hagemann argues for an approach that balances form and content. She argues that “this more balanced approach is beneficial for all students because all adolescents need to develop their linguistic repertoires so that they’re comfortable with informal, spoken home discourse and formal, written school discourse.”15 Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are all necessary aspects of online tutoring. Errors in writing oftentimes distract readers and shape their overall opinion of the writer. Hagemann encourages tutors to stress “reading like a writer” to help students improve their grammar and writing techniques. Another study found that “teachers must impress upon student writers that errors matter because they influence how readers view them and what they have to say.”16 That is not to say that form should become so significant as to crowd out fluency. Rather, Hagemann suggests a more sensible compromise that “balances content and form, that calls for an attention to the writing process and to written product, that draws on knowledge from both teacher and student.”17 Despite the challenges, the flexibility, independence, and creativity of online learning make it especially beneficial for tutoring ESL students. How to be a good tutor? Simply listen and pay attention to your students and ensure that you do not lean too far toward either content or form but look for a balance. 

Citations for Teaching English Online: What are the benefits of tutoring ESL students online?
1  Benefits of Tutoring – How Does Tutoring Help Students? (2017, February 14). Retrieved January 19, 2021, from
2 Johnson, L. (2019, June 04). Social Emotional Learning in the Online Classroom. Retrieved January 20, 2021, from
3 The impacts and benefits of Online Tutoring Services. (2019, May 01). Retrieved January 20, 2021, from
4 Benefits of Tutoring – How Does Tutoring Help Students?
5 The impacts and benefits of Online Tutoring Services.
6 The impacts and benefits of Online Tutoring Services.
7  Benefits of Tutoring – How Does Tutoring Help Students?
8 Bring TED-Ed Student Talks to Your School. (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2021, from
9 The impacts and benefits of Online Tutoring Services.
10 Benefits of Tutoring – How Does Tutoring Help Students?
11 Kuama, S., & Intharaksa, U. (2016). Is Online Learning Suitable for All English Language Students? PASAA, 52, 53-82. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from
12 Hagemann, J. A. (n.d.). Balancing Content and Form in the Writing Workshop. English Journal, p. 73. . Retrieved January 28, 2021, from
13 Schaffer, S. (2017). The Impact Of One-on-One Tutoring on Esl Learners’ Writing (Doctoral dissertation, California State University, Chico, 2017) (pp. 1-146). Retrieved January 28, 2021, from
14 Hagemann, J. A., p. 75.
15 Ibid., 73.
16 Ibid., 74.
17 Ibid., 79.



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