What I Learnt from a Year of Being a Freelancer

I never wanted to be a freelance teacher, but COVID-19 did not ask me what I wanted. I was given lemons, so I had to make the best lemonade I could 🙂 This week, I am celebrating my first anniversary of being self-employed, and I figured that the best way to do this is to write a post with some useful advice for those teachers who are thinking of going freelance or have done it recently.

1. Setting Up

The first question every teacher asks when weighing their options is “How can I make sure I have enough students?” What I recommend is find some online schools to work for at the beginning. You will not be able to set your own hourly rate, but it will give you certain stability, and you can then give the remaining hours to your private students. Gradually, as you are getting more private students, you can decrease the number of hours you work for those schools.

Personally, I do not recommend teaching on platforms because the competition is really high there, so you really need to market yourself, and this is not something everyone enjoys doing. I tried several platforms and did not like any of them, but of course, it is up to you, and I do know teachers who are thriving on Preply or italki. Just not my cup of tea.

Next thing you must do is officially register as self-employed. This usually means that you have to set up your own private company. The procedure is different in different countries, so this is something you will have to figure out by yourself. Once you have set your own company (i.e. registered as a sole trader), you can start providing teaching services to both businesses and individuals. Keep in mind that as a sole trader, you will have to issue invoices to your clients, keep sales records, do accounting, submit your tax statements, etc. Make sure you understand your rights and obligations and consult with an accountant or a lawyer (or both) if there is a need for this. Know the law! For example, in Norway, you cannot issue invoices created in Excel because it is a legal requirement that they are numbered automatically, so I use PayPal Invoicing Tool.

On a positive note, as a company, you can have business expenses. This mean that if you happen to buy some textbooks or attend a conference, their cost will be deducted from your tax.

2. Finding Students

I would say go with the local websites. Post free ads and rely on the universe to help you out 🙂 You can also post in groups for English learners on Facebook, but make sure this is not against their rules. However, the best way is still the good old word of mouth.

Do not expect quick results. Typically, it takes at least a year or even a year and a half to build a solid client base.

You can invest in paid advertising if you wish so, but I would first do some quick research on its effectiveness and consult with a marketing specialist to make sure that your money is not wasted.

Finally, try to schedule a free ice-breaker call with each new student. This way, you will be able to see if you kind of click with this person, how serious they are about learning English, what their learning needs and goals are. As for terms and conditions, I am quite strict about it. No money – no lesson, so all payments have to be transferred one day before the lesson. Any cancellations or changes should also be made not later than one day prior to the lesson, otherwise, the money will not be returned. I explain these rules during the initial call and if the new student agrees to them, we sign a written agreement and schedule the lessons. I personally do not like the idea of teaching a free trial lesson because I prepare thoroughly for every lesson I teach and deserve to be paid. Students have the right to terminate our agreement at any time if they do not like the way I teach, and I make sure to tell them that it is totally okay to do so.

3. Timetable and Payments

When you are a freelancer, it is really easy to stop keeping track of your actual working hours and end up working pretty much all the time. I teach from Monday to Thursday and then I have Friday to plan lessons and do the admin stuff (mostly sending out invoices). Saturdays and Sundays (especially Sundays!) are untouchable. The only exception is the ELT Lesson Jam 😉

Do not hesitate to use paid websites that offer ready-made lesson plans. I personally love Linguahouse and ESL Brains: their lesson plans are superb, you will need just a few tweaks here and there, and you are all set. Onestopenglish and Fluentize are also great.

Another nagging problem is which payment system to use to get payments from foreign students. According to the majority of freelancers I have talked to, the best one is Wise (former TransferWise). I found it a bit confusing, to be honest, so I use PayPal. The fees are higher on PayPal, but those can also be written down as business expenses, so no problem here. Plus, their Invoicing Tool is awesome.

4. Social Media and Marketing

I have briefly touched on this in 2. Basically, in many cases, free ads and word of mouth are enough to get the ball rolling. To build a strong public profile, be active on social media. Write about your work, how your lessons go, questions your students frequently ask, etc.

If you wish to build your personal brand, you might need to hire a marketing specialist to write a content plan for you and manage the advertising. Alternatively, you can take some introductory courses to be able to do it yourself in the future, but in any case, this is something that does not come naturally and has to be learnt. Be ready to invest time and money.

It is a good idea to create your own website. You can use free website builders, such as Tilda and WordPress. I am currently working updating my website; I am using Tilda, and it is awesome although not always intuitive.

5. Community

As a freelancer, you might feel disconnected from the ELT community, but it does not have to be this way. There is an amazing group on Facebook run by Cecilia Nobre, where you can always ask a question and get plenty of support.

There are also ELT Lesson Jams organised by Freed with me, Liza Fedotova and Blanka Pawlak as hosts, where teachers from all over the world gather to share their lesson ideas (by the way, the next session is this Saturday, 14:00 CEST, hurry up and register, we are awesome!).

You will also find the recording of this Fireside Chat interesting; there were four of us and we covered pretty much all the basics of being a freelance English teacher.

So this is it. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me via Twitter or FB. And good luck!

Reflecting on Teaching Groups Online

Since I became a freelancer, I haven’t had a chance to teach groups bigger than 2 people, so when I was offered an intensive summer course, I immediately accepted. I was given a group of 11 B2-level Italian teenagers aged 14-16 and we embarked on our language learning journey.

The students were really nice, and I genuinely enjoyed working with them. 99% of my students are in their late 20s or early 30s; I don’t know much about modern Russian teenagers, let alone European teens, and I must say I was impressed by how motivated and hard-working most of them were. They even did homework! I don’t think I was supposed to assign any but I did (short 10-minute tasks). Of course, not all of them were equally active, but I am totally okay with some students being less active as long as they aren’t being disruptive, and there were no discipline issues at all so all good.

I learnt 2 things from this experience:

  1. I actually like teaching teenagers, they inspire me a lot
  2. Teaching groups of 4+ people online isn’t my cup of tea

Basically, what I didn’t like was the fact that I was unable to move between the pairs/groups quickly. In a real – physical – classroom, I can do it easily and I can also hear everyone at once, so I can catch bits of speech here and there and get enough data for the feedback stage. In a virtual classroom, this becomes a challenge. A colleague of mine suggested keeping students in the same pairs/groups and visit half of the BOs during the first task and then visit the other half during the second task – this way, you can spend more time in each BO and get more data. Yet still, it felt different. The students were nice, the lesson flow was good, but something was just not there, and it felt artificial.

I’ve been thinking about it and I came to a conclusion that what felt artificial was the fact that students were separated from each other when I paired/grouped them. In an offline classroom, they’d be still there, all of them; there’d be that specific background noise that you hear when many people are talking to each other in small groups at once. And I’d walk around, behind their backs, inserting an occasional comment or asking some unplanned follow-up questions, etc. I can make comments and ask questions in BOs but I can’t hear all of them at once, I miss that buzz, that sense of unity, sense of involvement. I think this is something you can’t feel as strongly in a virtual classroom.

Distance education is more inclusive, it’s hard to deny that, but being in a physical classroom and interacting with your teacher and classmates face-to-face is an important part of a learning process that can’t be replicated in a virtual environment. Call me old-fashioned but that’s how I feel. As a learner myself, I do take short online courses but I’d never do a degree online; I’m not doing Delta Module 2 until they resume face-to-face courses because those opportunities for spontaneous communication and the sense of belonging face-to-face courses provide are invaluable to me. This is what made my undergraduate courses and CELTA so rich and memorable, and I’ve never felt anything like that on any online course I’ve taken before. Maybe just one course where we only had 5 participants including me, and this brings me back to what I said above about groups of 4+ people not being suitable for online teaching (in my opinion).

This post might be a bit muddled but I wanted this reflection to be as authentic as possible so I’ll just leave it as it is. I’d really like to know what you guys think about teaching groups online. I’ve discussed this with one of my colleagues, and we agreed on the prefect group size being 4 people (6 max), but I’ll be interested in reading various opinions, including those opposite to mine.

PSLLT 2021

As some of you know, instead of attending the IATEFL conference, I ended up attending the 12th Annual Pronunciation and Second Language Learning and Teaching conference. This was not planned at all and I learnt about this conference one day after the registration had been supposedly closed, but the organisers were kind enough to let me register and attend. To make a long story short: this conference literally blew my mind, gave me an understanding of what my next CPD step should be (will be announced later), and pushed me to start planning how I am going to re-design my pronunciation course.

Below are short summaries of some of the talks I attended yesterday and the day before yesterday (I simply cannot summarise all of them!).

1) Foreign language learners’ views and attitudes towards the type of label used in perceptual training: phonetic symbols vs. keywords
If you ever wondered, which is better – phonetic symbols, keywords, or something else (e.g. pictures) – here is the answer: more students prefer phonetic symbols, so it is definitely worth teaching them. The use of keywords only will most likely confuse them and create a double cognitive load because, as we all know, letters do not equal sounds. I usually use phonetic symbols + keywords to create a stronger link. You could also try using pictures, e.g. flags, geometric shapes, etc.
Another thing to try is the Color Vowel Chart developed by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson. I have not used it with my students but it seems to be pretty popular among ESL/EFL teachers in the U.S. and Canada.

2) Whose input matters? The influences of various input sources in adult L2 phonetic learning
The aim of this research was to see if adult learners actually differentiate between teacher’s pronunciation and other L2 learners’ pronunciation, and which they prefer as a model.
A fake language was used. Participants were exposed to 3 models: teacher, students, and test (teacher and student). Different voices were used to ensure reliability. For the test model, they had to decide which pronunciation is better based on the knowledge of how these words sound when produced by a teacher or student.
Results: Participants showed a preference for the teacher talker pronunciation. This means that not only are they sensitive to various phonemic features (in this study, aspiration), but it also matters who produces target words. For us teachers it means that we have to be aware of what kind of pronunciation model we give to our students (does not come as a surprise, right?).
Personally, I think that aspiration, for example, is an important feature and should be practised and acquired by students as it enhances intelligibility because in fast speech, an unaspirated /p/ can sound very similar to /b/. However, as for /th/ sound, it seems that more and more people nowadays do not articulate it as clearly as they kind of should. Some speakers pronounce it as /f/ and /v/, some go for /t/ and /d/ or /s/ and /z/. As Dan Frost said, when middle-class women in their 20-s stop using these interdental consonants, we will know that /th/ is officially dead, and this might happen even earlier than we think!

3) Talks about teaching prosody: Put prosody first and Using lip synching to teach L2 prosody
These two talks introduced great ways of working on prosody which is usually the most crucial point in acquiring a more intelligible L2 pronunciation, especially if we talk about learners whose L1s are syllable-timed. One of the activities was very similar to what I do with my students, but it was using phrases instead of numbers, so I will definitely give it a try! Another activity focussed on students doing regular lip-synching exercises to better understand how rhythm in stress-timed languages works. They would start with slower songs and slowly progress towards faster ones. I have never tried anything like that with any of my students and am excited to actually try and see how it goes. These talks also made me think that I do not focus on prosody as much as I should (probably due to the fact that my students are mostly Russians, and Russian is a stress-timed language). I do have one Japanese student and several French and Italian students, so I already know who my guinea pigs are going to be 😀

4) Multiple talks about the use of visual feedback in pronunciation training
Research has shown that students are likely to improve their pronunciation faster if they can see their speech; for this, we can use software like Vowel Viewer, Audacity and Praat (I am already working on this). Unfortunately, to be able to use these tools effectively, you need some advanced knowledge and understanding of lab phonology, which is, obviously, not taught to CELTA and Delta candidates (so a degree in Linguistics/Applied Linguistics will be of great help).

I officially pronounce PSLLT conference the best conference I have attended in 2021!

Image source: https://brocku.ca/psllt-2021/

Lesson Plan: What Does It Mean To Live Your Life To The Fullest?

As a voracious reader, I absolutely LOVE working with texts; maybe I can even say that I tend to prioritise texts in the classroom over audio and video materials. I guess the reason for this is that I grew up reading books and almost didn’t use to watch TV at all. Even now, I’d rather read an article than watch a video, and oh my, I absolutely can’t focus on podcasts for longer than several minutes and am always in need of transcripts. Obviously, if someone decides to look through my lesson library, they’ll find tons of text-based lessons – no wonder, right? In our latest ELT Lesson Jam, I decided to share one of them because I just can’t keep it to myself! 😀

This lesson is based on an authentic text (or rather four short authentic texts) and includes a vocabulary focus, a reflection part and a meaningful discussion. What’s more, it’s rather flexible, and the framework it uses can be adapted to any other lessons that use an authentic text.
Basically, when I teach a text-based lesson, I spend most of the time helping students analyse the text and understand the nuances. With each student it’s different; I let them take the lead and decide where this text exploration (that’s what I call it) brings us. This helps my students process the text better and kind of own it (if you know what I mean).

Lesson Details

Level: B2-C1 (you could give it a try with B1+ but you might need to make some adjustments)

Format: 121 (online) but can be adjusted to groups

Duration: two 1-hour lessons / three 45-minute lessons / one 1.5-hour lesson / one 2-hour lesson

Materials: lesson slides, reading, and vocabulary worksheet

Procedure:

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Lesson Plan: Zoom across an Icelandic glacier

Since I moved my teaching entirely online, I have been experimenting with different online tools and websites to see if I can find something to use on a regular basis. Wordwall (great but most of my students said they needed a printable copy to revise at home), Baamboozle (love it!), WheelDecide (one of my most used tools), Jamboard (kind of a free alternative to Wordwall), Padlet (good for webinars)… And obviously, I have also tried various resources that provide lesson plans and online exercises based on authentic videos – a great way to save time on adapting YouTube videos if you are a very busy teacher (which I sometimes am).

This lesson is based on one of the videos I found on the Sensations English website. What I especially like about this resource is that each video comes in 5 levels and can therefore be used with many students at once as long as you differentiate the tasks. I used it with my B1+ student (I went for the B2 version of the video to add a bit of a challenge) and it turned out to be a really nice and engaging lesson, so I hope your students enjoy it too if you decide to give it a go.

Level: B1+-B2

Length: 60-80 minutes

Framework: Integrated skills lesson (vocabulary, listening, speaking)

Mode: 121/online (but can be adapted to groups/offline)

Materials: these slides, this video

Procedure:

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5 Awesome Tools for Audio & Video Editing

As someone who teaches pronunciation on a regular basis and prefers to do it with authentic materials, I have to edit tons of audio and video files. So here’s my selection of the best tools you can use for editing audio and video.

AUDIO

1. Audio Cutter

There are many online tools similar to this one, but mp3-cut.net is my ultimate favourite. It allows to trim your audio as precisely as possible by adjusting the start and end time manually. Pay attention to the last number: it’s deciseconds, guys, and it’s amazing. You can also fade in or fade out your audio. Finally, you can change the speed, volume and pitch of the audio. For more advanced users, there’s an equalizer function, too.

2. Audio Joiner

This tool is provided by the same platform as the previous one and has similar functionality. Before joining the audio files, you can trim them if necessary as well as fade in / out or crossfade them. Another good thing is that you can choose the format for your output audio file.

If you need more format choices, you can use this audio joiner tool instead but keep in mind that it doesn’t have the trimming function.

3. Voice Recorder

There’re various options available here. I know many teachers use Vocaroo, and it’s a good one with basic functions like retry recording, remove background noise and auto-adjust volume.

This voice recorder has a nice add-on: you can trim your recording if, for example, there’s a long pause at the beginning.

However, if you want to have some fun, go for this one. It allows you to modify your voice to sound like a man (if you’re a woman), a robot, or even a space squirrel.

VIDEO

4. Video Trimmer

If you already have a video and need to trim it, this is the best tool you can find. The functionality is impressive (for a basic user, of course): manual input for start and end time; rotation, speed and volume change; and other functions like cropping and looping your video.

Another great way to use this tool is when you do decoding practice with your students. By adjusting start and end time, you can play and re-play precise bits for your students to listen to be it just one word or a whole phrase (I found it wat easier to use than Aegisub).

5. Add Subtitles to Your Video

Now, this is something I’ve discovered recently, and it’s a real gem. Before, I used to add subtitles manually using a .txt file and time coding (to get precise timings, I was using Tool #4). I then reformatted the .txt file into the .srt one and added it to the video using a corresponding function in the video player. However, this tool allows you to do this much faster. It’s pretty intuitive: you type the phrases in the boxes on the right and then adjust the timing for each box at the bottom. Easy-peasy!

That’s it. I hope this info helps! These tools have made my lesson preparation easier and I can’t see why they can’t do the same for you 🙂

Lesson Plan: What’s in Your Kitchen? TPR for Adult Learners

As someone who has been teaching (young) adults at a mostly intermediate level in strict settings from Day 1 of my teaching career, I haven’t had a chance to incorporate TPR into my lessons until last week. Everything I knew about TPR was served under the YL sauce and, therefore, I deemed this approach redundant.

While having the recipe lesson, my student realised that her knowledge of kitchen-related vocabulary was not as good as she would like it to be so we decided to devote our next lesson to filling this gap. I turned to the Internet in search of some inspiration but wasn’t excited about numerous gap-fills and other typical tasks offered for adult learners. Lesson plans designed for YLs seemed way more engaging and I thought that I could give it a go. This lesson was a pure experiment, and it turned out to be one of the best lessons we’ve had so far.

Focus: Vocabulary
Level: A2-B1
Duration: 60 minutes
Learning objectives – by the end of the lesson, student(s) will have:
– been introduced to a range of most common kitchenware-related vocabulary
– practised using new vocabulary in speaking / writing by giving orders to the teacher / fellow students
Setting: online, you and your student(s) should be sitting in your kitchens; could be taught face-to-face if you don’t mind bringing a whole suitcase of kitchenware to work
Materials: These slides and a whole kitchen of realia
Procedure:

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Lesson Plan: A Cooking Recipe

It’s a vocabulary and TBL lesson based on this authentic blog post: Super Creamy Vegan Mushroom Sauce Pasta. Originally, it was designed for a 121 lesson, but it can be easily adapted to a group one. It’s good for any student(s), but especially for those who LOVE cooking 🙂

Level: B1+ and higher
Objectives: to introduce a set of useful lexical items for reading (and understanding) and writing cooking recipes; to provide practice in writing cooking recipes
The ultimate goal: to write and publish a cooking recipe of student’s choice
Duration: 1.5-2 hours
Materials: The Recipe, Gap-fill
Procedure:

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Lesson Plan: Travel Guide – What to Do in…

This is a lesson plan based on this blog post: https://whatoliviadid.com/2016/09/how-to-spend-48-hours-in-copenhagen/.

Skills: Reading, FL, speaking

Level: B1-B2

Learning objectives – by the end of the lesson, students will have:

  • been introduced to a range of functional exponents to make travelling recommendations;
  • practised using these exponents in speaking/writing by making recommendations on what to see and do in a city they have visited in the past.

Duration: 60 minutes

Materials: This article, this vocabulary match task, and these slides.

Notes: Can be used with both groups and individual students

Lesson Procedure

Continue reading “Lesson Plan: Travel Guide – What to Do in…”

My Top-10 Resources for Teaching Pronunciation Physically and Visually

I am a strong advocate of the physical approach to pronunciation teaching. I mean, how can you pronounce a sound if you have no idea about what’s involved in the process? Articulation comes first, and only then it is followed by imitation. So if you want to teach pronunciation physically and visually, here is the list of 10 invaluable resources for you to use:

  1. Introduction to Articulatory Phonetics: Vowels and Consonants.
    These are two short but informative videos aimed at teachers and linguistics students that give you insight into how vowels and consonants are articulated.
  2. Seeing Speech
    This is a product of collaboration between researchers at six Scottish universities, including my alma mater, Edinburgh University. The sounds on this website are visualised in three different ways: MRI, ultrasound, and animation. This is a great tool to use in class.
  3. SPAN: Speech Production and Articulation Knowledge Group
    This is a project similar to the one above. Some differences are: MRI only; separate words and sentences are recorded as well.
  4. Tools for Clear Speech and Sounds of Speech
    These are two different resources for animated versions of English IPA sounds. Both of them are using American English, which means that some vowel sounds are missing though.
  5. Interactive Pronunciation Animations
    This one is good for introducing the sounds of British English to young learners. Funny cartoons contextualise each sound and make it memorable.
  6. English Club’s Learn English Pronunciation
    This page offers a range of resources, from an interactive phonemic chart to various pronunciation games, that will keep your students engaged.
  7. The Sounds of English
    This is basically a ready-made British English pronunciation course on YouTube. Not a single sound is missing! What I like the most about these pronunciation videos is that they focus on contrasting sounds and minimal pairs as well. Can be used both in class and at home.
  8. Pronuncian.com
    Good for practising minimal pairs and getting ready-to-use lessons on American English pronunciation.
  9. Youglish.com
    This is an amazing website that lets you listen to the pronunciation of whole sentences, not just single words. You can search for any phrase, e.g. a famous movie quote or just some common everyday expression, and listen to all possible pronunciations. Other resources you can use for this purpose are TubeQuizard and Playphrase.me (the second one is limited to three phrases per search).
  10. Tongue Twister Database
    I personally think that tongue twisters are a great way of practising pronunciation, from single sounds to the features of connected speech to stress and rhythm. This is probably the biggest tongue twister database out there.
  11. BONUS! A 15-minute morning pronunciation practice with the amazing Hadar Shemesh. As someone who is taking singing classes and studied drama and acting (for a short while though), I know that your vocal apparatus needs to be warmed up before you can use it fully. This video introduces a range of exercises for the muscles involved in speech articulation. A tip from me: don’t resist yawning – it’s unavoidable!

Know any other useful resources? Give me a shout, and I’ll add them to the list 🙂
Have a question? Get in touch, and I’ll help you out 🙂