8 Ways to Build Rapport When Teaching English Online

July 13, 2020
Online English teacher with young student

Before you put those PowerPoint slides onscreen and start your next online English class, have you checked how your students feel about taking the day’s lesson? Much like in a traditional classroom, it’s important to foster online students’ enthusiasm for learning. The first step to this is simple: build relationships with them. Sure, sitting in front of a computer may not be an ideal setting to connect – you can’t give your young student a high-five, or play certain classroom games, but there are still plenty of fail-safe ways to build rapport when teaching English online!

If you’re new to teaching, you’ll want to get initial training and qualification with a TEFL certificate. You can explore our online TEFL courses to get started!

What does rapport in education mean?

When it comes to learning, rapport refers to a close, harmonious relationship between the teacher and the students. It is the result of being able to “click” with your students – you connect, interact, and understand each other in a positive way.

Rapport-building, however, is not just about finding common interests and values. It goes as far as creating trust and respect between you and your students, no matter how big your age gap, or where you’re from.

Online English student on a laptop

A student of author, Krzl, an online teacher in Chile

Why is it important to build relationships with online English students?

A good rapport with English learners is the key to creating a positive and supportive online classroom environment. In effect, the learning process is enhanced because:

Students feel comfortable in class

Most people who take an online English class for the first time have little to no idea what their teacher is like or what they’ll do in class. They also often feel anxious and shy about speaking in English for fear of sounding silly or not being understood. Nevertheless, it’s possible to reduce these jitters if you can quickly connect with your students.

Learners become more motivated to participate more

Have you ever admired an educator who didn’t seem to have problems making students talk or take part in any activity, and could even make them laugh? This kind of teacher has a friendly rapport with his or her students. Similarly, the more connected you are with your learners, the more they will respond and participate like this in class.

Students keep coming back for more

While students may not tell you, “You’re the best teacher ever!”, you’ll know that they have a good rapport with you when they regularly show up on your Zoom screen and make an effort to be in your class, despite their busy schedules.

How do you build rapport with your online English students?

Now that we know that having a good rapport with your students supports them in becoming more comfortable, confident learners who are enthusiastic about attending class, let’s look at ways you can build these strong relationships with students in a variety of ESL settings.

Teaching ESL online with a company

If you teach online for a company, their base of students is large and constantly growing. Therefore, you will likely get class bookings from new students on a regular basis, rather than teaching the same ones each time you log in. In this case, you’ll need to build rapport quickly!

Here some ways to create a quick connection with your learners:

1. Smile and be energetic!

Receiving your students with a cheerful welcome instantly creates a positive learning environment. As a teacher, your vibe easily channels to your learners, so make sure that you’re enthusiastic and motivating!

2. Add fun icebreakers and other activities

Nothing knocks out a nervous feeling and awkward silence in a new class better than a good ESL icebreaker! It doesn’t have to be elaborate – it could be as simple as a Two Truths and a Lie activity. (Find this and other games here: 10 Easy ESL Icebreakers).

Additionally, students may show up to class tired or anxious, so it’s always a good idea to perk them up with a fun game. If you’re teaching a group class, make it more entertaining through competitive games! Yes, your student’s learning is important, but don’t forget to prioritize fun in class too!

Learn more about teaching group vs. individual online English classes.

3. Learn about your learners

Whether it’s about their favorite pop group or their last beach trip, don’t be afraid to ask questions about your students’ lives outside the online classroom to find out more about them. Be genuinely curious about their interests and activities. Who knows, you might spark a fun conversation about your shared love for surfing or travel!

Also, pay attention to important information that you can ask them about in future lessons, like birthdays or new additions to the family. However, these details can easily slip your mind, so it’s helpful to write them down during or after your class.

  • Tip: Instead of simply chatting with your student, you can also learn more about him or her through engaging get-to-know-you activities like “20 Questions” or “Find Someone Who.”
4. Let your students get to know you back

Just as you want to hear about your students’ lives, they’d similarly love to know about the music you listen to or what it’s like where you live. Share your story with them, show some photos of your family, or play a couple of songs that you like.

Let your personality shine through too! Don’t be shy about making jokes in class, laughing, or even being goofy before them. This way, your students can see you as a real human being and not just someone teaching them a language.

  • Tip: Let your students know more about your life through guessing games! For example, you can show them photos from your past vacations and make them guess where you went or who you were with!
5. Praise your students as much as possible

It’s not uncommon for language learners’ confidence to drop over the slightest mistakes, like in pronunciation or vocabulary usage, but you can easily boost it during the class through specific, positive feedback or even just by saying, “Great job!” Compliment them for their achievements in class, regardless – whether they’re as small as saying a word correctly or as big as being an expert in a difficult grammar tense.

Teaching online as a freelancer or through a marketplace

On the other hand, if you’re an independent online English teacher, a tutor through a teacher marketplace, or running your own ESL tutoring business, chances are you will teach the same students repeatedly. Because you’ll have regular classes with the same learners, it’s essential not only to establish rapport quickly in the beginning but also to foster a lasting relationship with them.

Aside from the suggestions above, these are some additional tips for rapport-building with recurring online students:

6. Show empathy

If you’ve noticed that your learners seem to have had a hard day or are distracted by something, take a minute to ask them how they feel. Your students will appreciate it, even if you just listen and show concern.

7. Tailor your lessons

Whether you’ve known your students for a while or are still getting to know them, you can personalize the class content according to their interests and personalities. For example, if your student is into winter sports, why not show him some of the best ski resorts around the world? Or maybe you remember your other student’s upcoming trip to Asia – why not create a lesson around the best things to do there? You can also look for places within any lesson you’re teaching where you can segue into a topic or an activity that could be interesting for them.

In this video, check out some sample questions you can ask new students to get to know them better:

8. Help students outside the classroom

Don’t limit your teaching abilities to the class hours you’ve chosen. A student may suddenly have doubts about a presentation in English that she’s about to present to her colleagues at work, or another may struggle with writing a corporate email, for instance. Build rapport when teaching English online by letting students know that they can reach out to you if they ever need help with any English-related tasks.

You may be simply teaching English through bits and bytes, but you can always make your virtual classes enjoyable and meaningful by developing relationships with online ESL students. It may require patience, some effort, and willingness to be a lifelong learner to build rapport when teaching online, but the reward of seeing your students happy and engaged will give you the best feeling any teacher could have.

Learn more techniques for teaching in the virtual classroom in the suite of Bridge Specialized Certification Courses: Teaching English Online.