I noticed something very interesting while browsing around the huge range of new online ESL school websites: the majority (some 75%) offer a free, initial, diagnostic class, with no obligation for the student to take things further.
At first glance, this appeared a little risky. The school would have to pay their teacher the usual fee (somewhere between $5 and $25 per hour), with no guarantee that the student will ever part with their hard-earned money. But, on reflection, I found that this was a canny and powerful technique, one well worth the time and effort, and one that every online ESL teacher should carefully consider.
One Class, Two Purposes
An initial, diagnostic class serves two different but parallel purposes. It offers you the chance to meet and impress a potential client, and to secure their business for (we hope) many months and years to come. It also provides an opportunity to evaluate the student; you can decide, at the end of the lesson (normally a half-hour, or perhaps an hour) whether you’re a good fit for each other. After all, you’ll be spending a good deal of time together and, with the best will in the world, you’re not going to be a huge fan of every single online student you’re ever in contact with; neither are they certain to find you to be the perfect English teacher, despite your many virtues and undoubted charm. This way, if things aren’t working out, you can avoid hours of thankless tedium; if, that is, your studio is already healthy enough that you can turn students away.
Here are some hints for getting the most of your diagnostic lesson:
3 Hints for Free Diagnostic Classes for Online Students
Listen Carefully and Take Notes
The majority of your findings about your student’s English level and learning needs will come via their speaking. How is their accent? Are there any elements of pronunciation with which they’re having particular trouble? Are they repeatedly making grammatical mistakes? If so, which kind? Are they struggling to find the right word, or are they halting in their speech? Or are they complete beginners, with almost no language skills at all?
Take plenty of notes on what you hear; they will be extremely useful. Note down words or sounds the student struggled with, and examples of the mistakes they made. Then, after the lesson, analyze them carefully and tease our the problems in the areas of structure (modals, conditionals, pronoun use, tenses, etc), pronunciation (‘th’, the s/z, l/r, p/b and t/d minimal pairs) and vocabulary (repeated use of the same word, limited ability to describe people, places and things, or a paucity of vocabulary in particular lexical groups).
Prioritize the Workload
You won’t be able to solve every problem in the first week, or even in the first few months; that said, the most important pronunciation and grammatical issues can be largely addressed in a highly concentrated ‘blitz’ which may last only a handful of lessons. Decide which issues are the most serious barriers to communication. For elementary speakers, the priorities will probably center around polishing up their pronunciation, ironing out basic grammar problems, increasing their confidence and fluency of speaking, and expanding their vocabulary beyond the most simple words.
For more experienced learners, you could look at accent reduction (where you focus on particular sounds which are still influenced by L1). Consider studying some of the more advanced areas of grammar, including a lesson common tense, families of phrasal verbs, and the more complex conditionals. You could also schedule work on conversation skills, advanced listening, and a focus on slang. This process of prioritization will allow you to:
Create a Learning Plan
This will be your overall guiding strategy for addressing the student’s learning needs. After the initial lesson, write to the student (using an appropriate level of vocabulary and structure, or their L1, if you feel that’s best), proposing a number of meetings each week or month, and providing a personalized learning plan. This will include the objectives and timescale, the general topics to the covered, and the specific areas on which the student needs to focus (vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, writing, reading, listening, etc).
Presenting a professional-looking, personalized learning plan is a huge step. It demonstrates your commitment to the student’s progress, and shows your ability to professionally analyze their needs and create an appropriate response.
Preparing for Your First Lesson
Gather everything you know about the student – their age, background, school or work situation, past English experience, travels… anything which might help to create a successful and vibrant initial class. Plan thoroughly, almost as if you were preparing to be evaluated by an observer; taking the lesson seriously, and giving of your best, are only appropriate, given that this student might become a customer who spends months or years with you, generating thousands of dollars of much-needed revenue. They may also, in turn, become an important source of recommendations, so it’s vital to put your best foot forward.
Organize the lesson into bite-sized pieces of 5-7 minutes each; most diagnostic lessons last a half hour, which will whiz past much faster than you’d imagine. Each section could focus on a particular skill. For example, assess vocabulary through a short reading or listening exercise, through having the student choose synonyms and antonyms, or through a word game focusing on a particular lexical group (colors, animals, employment, weather). Examine the student’s grammar level by providing them with a simple error correction exercise, or by asking check questions which target particular structures, e.g. “How many countries have you visited?” should elicit a response using the present perfect tense, while, “Tell me about the rules at your school,” explores the student’s knowledge of modal verbs (can, should, may, must, etc).
Pronunciation will probably be assessed more generally; only once the student begins regularly working with you will the classes focus on particular sounds. Listen and note the problems you hear, or consider making use of one of the range of new recording software for Skype and other online communications media, so that you can play back excerpts from the recording and really analyze the pronunciation situation.
Have ready a range of questions of roughly the right level – remember that our favorite topic of conversation is nearly always our own lives, preferences, hobbies, travels and families. Throw in a few questions of a more challenging nature; for example, if your student tells you they’ve traveled to Bulgaria and Romania, ask for a comparison between the two. Or, if the student tells you that his sister was recently married, ask a little about wedding customs where they come from. Think on your feet, and don’t feel the need to simply read through a list of prepared questions. The student will respond well if they feel you’re genuinely interested in them, and if your questions reflect the fact that you’re carefully listening to what they’ve said. After all, expressing yourself in a second (or third) language can be very tough, and the student will appreciate your close attention to each hard-won utterance.
Giving of your best during a diagnostic lesson can make the difference between an indifferent response from your student and an enthusiastic, unhesitating sign-up.
Treat these students like royalty, and think long-term as you gradually build up your studio by being courteous, responsive, diligent and professional with every student with whom you come into contact.