Online teaching skills for language tutors

Authors: Regine Hampel and Ursula Stickler


Online teachers need different skills than those normally employed by tutors trained to teach languages in a face-to-face classroom and they also require different skills compared to online teachers of other subjects. Research shows that the medium influences the form of communication and interaction (see e.g. Hutchby 2001). The asynchronicity of communication in written conferencing and the lack of non-verbal clues in audio-conferencing are examples of new challenges for online language tutors.

Table of contents


Recent developments in content, medium and pedagogy impose new demands on teachers, especially in the area of online language teaching: content through access to the Web creates a tendency to be ever up-to-date; new media allow for new ways of interaction; and, consequently, a new pedagogy is developing that harnesses these media for learning and teaching.

The online delivery of language courses depends to a high degree on the quality of skilled tutors as "deliverers". Yet despite the growing number of online courses, there is still a dearth of high quality training to teach online, and much effort and cost in creating online material is wasted without the adequate training of teachers to present and support the learning. According to Salmon (2003), "[a]ny significant initiative aimed at changing teaching methods or the introduction of technology into teaching and learning should include effective e-moderator support and training, otherwise its outcomes are likely to be meagre and unsuccessful" (p. 80).

Because the are a of online tuition is such a rapidly changing environment, it is difficult to know exactly what is needed in terms of training and development, what can and should be offered by the institution and how much reliance can be placed on the self-selection and self-development of tutors. This Guide to Good Practice attempts to give some pointers to professionals who deal with such issues.

Online teaching skills

Online teachers need different skills than those normally employed by tutors trained to teach languages in a face-to-face classroom and they also require different skills compared to online teachers of other subjects. Research shows that the medium influences the form of communication and interaction (see e.g. Hutchby 2001). The asynchronicity of communication in written conferencing and the lack of non-verbal clues in audio-conferencing are examples of new challenges for online language tutors.

From the most basic to the most advanced, the skills that online language tutors require can be presented in a "pyramid of skills" (see Hampel & Stickler 2005).

Illustration 1: Skills pyramid

Illustration 1: Skills pyramid

The first level of the skills pyramid represents basic ICT competence. Basic computing skills, including the use of networked computers, emailing etc., can nowadays be taken for granted when selecting language tutors for online courses. We assume that tutors would not apply for an online course unless they have the skills to use a keyboard, a mouse and some simple software commands. On the other hand, we do not assume that they have to be computer wizards, programmers, software designers or the like to become successful online teachers of languages. The necessary skills for online tutors lie somewhere between these two extremes.

On the next level of the pyramid, tutors should be able to use the specific software needed for a particular course. Depending on institutional preference and requirements, the applications in question can be publicly available and widely used or custom-made. In any case, tutors need to familiarise themselves with the tools before they can be expected to use them for online teaching.

Beyond its technical features, each application has particular communicative constraints and affordances (level 3 of the pyramid). Exploiting the strengths and benefits and coping with drawbacks can be seen as a new level of skills more experienced tutors will reach. For example, tutors accustomed to face-to-face teaching of languages will have to rethink their familiar approach and consider which activities might work and which might not work in a text-only interaction medium like email or in text-focussed media like instant messaging. Successfully coping with these challenges will mean that tutors adapt their teaching materials and content and that they help students to adjust their expectations of the online course.

A particular challenge of dealing with online courses is the sense of isolation often felt by online students. Their relative distance to the teacher and the group, sometimes in time as well as in space, means that they are unable to develop a group identity. Most of the information we take in about individuals is communicated non-verbally, and in some online media, these additional channels of information are not available. Therefore, the skill of creating an online community out of a disparate and dispersed group of learners who may not even be online at the same time constitutes another level on the pyramid of skills. A first step towards creating an online community is for the group to develop a "netiquette", that is, dos and don'ts of online behaviour. Engaging participants, reacting to contributions and encouraging personal features in online communications are also part of this level of skills. Even tutors who are particularly skilled in transforming a face-to-face class into a dedicated language learning group might need additional training in the skill of socialization in an online medium.

So far, the challenges and skills described are similar to those of online teachers of other subjects. On the next level, we discuss a skill specific to language tutors: the skill of making an online environment into a platform where communicative competence can be developed. Clearly, the success of developing such an environment is dependent on a sense of community and trust (facilitated on skills level 4), which is needed to overcome the problem of "language anxiety" that all language classrooms share to a greater or lesser degree. In addition, interaction in an online environment can be achieved through task design (Strijbos, Martens, & Jochems, 2004) , that is, the careful planning and adapting of activities to the online environment. As a further factor in creating a communicative environment, the specific teaching style the tutor chooses also has an impact. Even a course using pre-designed interactive materials still allows the tutor to opt for a teacher-led approach, dominating the interaction, over a more student-centred approach (Stickler, Batstone, Duensing & Heins, 2005; Duensing, Stickler, Batstone & Heins, in press) .

The next level of the pyramid of skills refers to creativity and choice. There is ample scope for creativity in virtual environments where the roles of tutor and learners have not yet been fixed and where the resources and their affordances are very different compared to face-to-face settings. The relative novelty of the medium can make it easier to re-define the role of language tutor as "learning mediator", "guide on the side" (Collinson, Elbaum, Haavind & Tinker, 2000) or co-learner of new technological skills. While all language teachers, whether in face-to-face or online teaching contexts have to possess creative skills to a certain degree, the ability of an online tutor to choose amongst materials already available on the Web is different in scope, if not in quality, from the ability to choose the right exercise or the right text book. The creative skill of an online tutor can be in designing online activities with the communicative principles in mind. Even if tutors are provided with pre-prepared materials, they still need to display choice in selecting the given tasks, and creativity in implementing and adapting them.

On the highest level of the skills pyramid, an online teacher will have developed her or his own personal teaching style, using the media and materials to their best advantage, forming a rapport with his or her students and using the resources creatively to promote active and communicative language learning.

Training for online teaching

As has been shown above, teaching languages online requires a whole set of specific skills. While institutions can support tutors to develop these skills through training and ongoing staff development, tutors also have to play an active role.

Based on practical experience with online tutor training in the context of language courses from beginner's to advanced level as well as research in this area, we suggest the following outline for a training programme of new online tutors:

A. Pre-course training:

  • Automated tutorial (online or CD-ROM): familiarization with software
  • Training sessions with experienced tutor/trainer (preferably using the online medium):
    • more in-depth introduction to tools (through training activities)
    • simulation of class (tutors as students, "taster" using either material for the course or a different language)
    • discussion of tutor-specific issues (e.g. classroom management; creative use of the tools)
    • covering both technology and pedagogy
    • raising awareness of social and affective aspects of online tutoring (e.g. relaxed atmosphere)
  • Practising tutor-role in non-threatening situation (e.g. one-to-one session with peer)

B. Support during course:

  • Helpdesk (available for technical queries or problems)
  • Mentoring system (experienced tutors to induct novice tutors)
  • Contact/exchange with peers (e.g. via mailing list/asynchronous conference/ shared webspace)
  • Possible additional training sessions (e.g. for online assessment, technical up-dates)

Table 1: Training programme for online tutors (adapted from Stickler & Hampel, in press)

If institutions want to offer quality online courses, they have to ensure that they train their tutors in basic ICT use, software-specific application and the affordances of the medium. Initial training as well as on-going staff development should also address online socialization of communities of learners and in the case of languages the need for facilitating communicative competence. As becoming an online language tutor is an on-going process, initial tutor training can only provide limited support for the tutor. Continued staff development is needed, which can include training as well as peer group meetings or mentoring to help with technical as well as pedagogical problems.

Over and above this institutional input, online tutors must also be prepared to change and adapt their teaching style, taking into account new developments and findings in the pedagogy of online language teaching. Although the benefits of student-centred teaching modes are well-known, there is a danger that practitioners adhere to a more teacher-centred style (Mason & Kaye, 1990). An American study (Dupin-Bryant, 2004) has recently confirmed these findings in the area of distance teaching.

To support the necessary "seachange" of online language teaching pedagogy, we need more research into tutor attitudes and teaching styles, tutors' use of the online media, and tutors' awareness of the different interaction patterns of online and face-to-face communication. Further investigation into such areas would benefit the development of best practice in online tuition.


We have argued that training and development of online tutors is both an institutional responsibility and needs to be fully endorsed by the tutors to be successful. A large part of the personal development work will have to be done by tutors themselves. From the continuous updating of technical skills to creatively working with the virtual environment tutors will have to invest time and effort. While institutional support and guidance can kickstart the process of skills development and support tutors in their on-going work, tutors need personal engagement to develop higher level skills after initial training. Reflective practice, for example, clearly cannot function without the full support of the individual tutor. Peer exchanges and peer mentoring can only provide valuable information if knowledgeable tutors are willing to share their experience freely and openly and all tutors remain committed to change and flexibility. Only if we can move online tutor training one step beyond "coping with difficulties", a truly original online pedagogy for language teaching can be developed.


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Duensing, A., Stickler, U., Batstone, C., & Heins, B. (in press). Face-to-face and online interactions - is a task a task? Journal of Learning Design .

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Hampel, R. & Stickler, U. (2005). New Skills for new classrooms. Training tutors to teach languages online. In CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning). 18 (4). pp. 311 - 326.

Hutchby, I. (2001) Conversation and Technology: From the Telephone to the Internet . Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mason, R., & Kaye, T. (1990). Toward a New Paradigm for Distance Education. In L. M. Harasim (Ed.), Online Education: Perspectives on a New Environment (pp. 15-38). New York , Westport , London : Praeger.

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Stickler, U., Batstone, C., Duensing, A., & Heins, B. (2005). Distance and Virtual Distance: Preliminary results of a study of interaction patterns in synchronous audiographic CMC and face-to-face tutorials in beginners' language tutorials. Proceedings of the 6 th International Symposium of Applied Linguistics and Language Teaching , Beijing and Shanghai : University of Northern Iowa Press. (740-750)

Stickler, U. & Hampel, R. (in press) Designing online tutor training for language courses. A case study. In: Open Learning

Strijbos, J. W., Martens, R. L., & Jochems, W. M. G. (2004). Designing for interaction: Six steps to designing computer-supported group-based learning. Computers and Education, 42 (4), 403-424

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