Teaching languages. 

A pathway to living abroad. A means of conveying your culture to others. A gateway of transformative communication. A channel for leadership and interpersonal impact.

Whichever category you fall into, language teaching is an empowering route to working overseas. It’s a type of job that remains in high demand and a skillset that offers flexibility many other careers can only dream of.

We’ll look at principles that will bode well for you whichever language you teach along with specific advice on teaching people of different ages. We’ll also cover the practicalities of finding language teaching positions and qualifications should you want to pursue them.

Due to my previous experience of professionally teaching English as a foreign language, I will often use teaching English as the basis for guiding others in the art of teaching languages. As this is a general overview of language teaching not specific to any one language, it will not cover descriptive, receptive and productive skills (reading, writing, speaking, pronunciation, grammar etc.) since the nuances of these differ for each language. However, the advice in this post applies to ALL languages not just English so please read on if you’re planning on teaching another language.

The principles of successful language teaching


I’ve written before about the power of flow state and how effective it is for deep working and learning.

Along with concentration at the task at hand, the key to reaching flow state is ensuring the level at which you are learning a skill is neither too easy nor too hard but just right.

Too easy and you’ll fail to learn anything of significance—you won’t see gains and you’ll become bored.

Too hard and your learning will be deficient—progress is tough and you’ll become frustrated and risk stopping altogether.

But learning the skill at a level that is higher than where you are at (which would become too easy) but not too high (which would become too hard) is the ideal point for maximum engagement of your faculties. It’s the Goldilocks area at which flow state is most likely to emerge.

i+1 aims to do just this for language learners. ‘i’ stands for the student’s current skill level. The ‘+1’ signifies a competency one step above. So ‘i+1’ means teaching a student one level above their current skillset.

This approach is know as the ‘Input Hypothesis’ developed by the linguist Stephen Krashen in the 1970s. It’s important that the ‘+1’ is comprehensible input meaning the student can reach understanding of the input because it isn’t too far in complexity from their current competency.

Use i+1 to keep your students engaged without boredom or anxiety.

Speak slowly

Ever been in a position where you’re trying to understand what someone is saying in a language you only know some of but all you hear is a barrage of sounds?

Chances are you’ve been a learner of a second language at least in school and the answer is yes.

This situation is what happens when someone speaks too fast for your brain to parse the words at your current level. The person isn’t doing it on purpose to make your life difficult, it’s something we all do without knowing. But for language teaching, it’s crucial to have self-awareness of speaking speed to develop control.

If you’re not learning a language yourself and you’re surrounded by the sounds of your native tongue everyday, it’s easy to forget that your speaking speed may not be optimal for a student’s ears. If they often struggle to comprehend what you’re saying, they won’t enjoy your lessons.

In my post on learning languages, I wrote how non-native teachers often speak the language they’re teaching at an easier pace for students to understand. They do this because it’s a second language and because they know what it’s like to be in the learner’s position trying to listen.

i+1 also applies to speaking speed. Refrain from talking multiple speed levels above a student’s capability. If you think your natural speaking speed is very challenging for a student, bring it down to something more manageable for them. Don’t fast forward to 2.0x if 1.25x suffices. However, you don’t want to speak fast on purpose to challenge a student, an unnaturally quick pace doesn’t help you or them.

A slower speaking speed also has the added bonus of poise and authority. Teachers who speak at an even pace are perceived to be more assured in their instruction. When you have a good foundation of speaking speed, language students will be more receptive to what you tell them.

Use visuals

Research has shown the impact that different learning modalities can have. Learning modalities are ways in which we process sensory information: visual (sight), auditory (sound) and kinesthetic (touch).

When teaching students a language, the auditory modality is included since in a good lesson, you’ll be speaking to the students and having them speak to you or others.

Yet the visual modality isn’t always covered enough. This is particularly the case in one-to-one lessons where a teacher might not use a textbook or printouts.

While it can be difficult to know what a student’s preferred learning modality is (especially in group lessons), evidence suggests that the average person learns more effectively if multiple learning modalities are stimulated. This is because the brain has to process information in several ways making it more likely to stick.

For this reason, you’ll want to leverage the visual modality where you can. When explaining new words, show a picture instead of using verbal description. Supplement written documents with images on the page. If technology in the class permits, use a projector or the whiteboard to show scenes of what you’re teaching.

If you’re conducting more conversational-focused lessons with individual students, use visuals on the internet to prompt topics for discussion. You can bring up current news or watch videos and have the student describe what they read or watch before eliciting their thoughts on the subject matter. The novelty of seeing different visuals every lesson can create more interest than words alone which solidifies learning.

Correcting mistakes

Every student makes mistakes and how you help them learn from mistakes will determine your aptitude as a teacher.

All language mistakes fall into three categories: ‘slips’ (mistakes that a student can self-correct), ‘errors’ (mistakes a student cannot self-correct) and ‘attempts’ (a student trying to say something but doesn’t know the correct way).

In addition, mistake correction falls into three types: self-correction, guided correction and direct connection.

Where possible, you want students to self-correct themselves. This is the most bottom-up approach to correction and is the type that will solidify new language the most since the learning is self-generated. When a student makes a slip, you can react to prompt self-correction such as through a facial expression or saying “Sorry?”.

If this doesn’t work or you encounter the other categories of mistakes, you can elicit guided correction. Some techniques for doing this include repeating what the student said up to the mistake or emphasising the mistake, and giving hints to help them activate rules they already know. This style of correction still gives the learner the best opportunity to generate their own understanding about how the target language works.

If none of the above correction styles works or you need to correct a student straight away then use direct correction. This involves telling a student what the correct answer is and/or reformulation of the language. Direct correction is the most top-down type meaning a student doesn’t generate the knowledge themselves so ideally it should only be used to correct errors.

Mistake correction is not only about techniques per category but also the broad context of a lesson. Some students may appreciate frequent and systematic correction due to immediate needs whereas many would become irritated at being corrected at every turn.

In general, instead of over-correcting, focus on correcting mistakes that change the meaning of a person’s self-expression. If you focus on pinpoint accuracy every time, you risk stifling a person’s expression of output, which at worst, can lead to negative associations with the target language. It’s usually better to wait until a person has finished speaking their sentences to deliver corrections than to interrupt them right away.

The art of mistake correction also involves knowing a student’s preferred way of learning and paying attention to their personality so you can deliver corrections in the best way which is where calibration comes in.

Calibrate to the student

This principle is probably the most important.

No matter what method or techniques you teach with, it’s vital that your lesson is fine-tuned to the students’ needs.

With language teaching, you’re teaching someone with a cultural difference from you, big or small. Our own cultures have engrained expected teaching styles on us from our own experiences in school. It’s all too easy to impose these cultural values on our language teaching practices at the expense of our students.

For instance, if you’re from the Anglosphere and teach English, you may expect students to participate actively, openly share their thoughts and develop independence with English as soon as possible. But these aren’t valued traits in many cultures and students from certain countries may not contribute the way you expect, not because they’re incapable students but because it’s unnatural for them to do so.

As teacher and author Jeremy Harmer writes: “Teaching and learning is a contrast between two parties for which they both need to agree the terms. It is not a one-sided affair. Teachers need to understand student wants and expectations just as much as they are determined to push their own methodological beliefs. However, this does not necessarily mean that they have to abandon their own theories because the students are not used to what their teacher wants to do. It means, instead, that some accommodation has to be reached between what the two parties want and expect.”

It’s important for you to have aims for your students to achieve during a lesson. 

In private tutoring or on-to-one lessons, it’s ideal to discuss this with students before starting to ensure that you’re helping them get from A to their desired B. 

In group classes or when teaching children, you can examine the curriculum in place and use the principles discussed in tandem. Or you can talk with senior teaching staff at the institution you work at to see whether there’s scope for altering a lesson if your instinct tells you a certain aim would be better to focus on instead.

Overall, the best way to proceed is for both the teacher and students to monitor the lessons over the course and adjust as you go along as an iterative development. Under this process, you’ll end up optimising the lessons for your students, not forcing them into your style.

Calibration can take longer to achieve in group lessons since there are several, often differing personalities to teach to. The art of successful language teaching in these situations is paying attention to what makes students tick. 

Are some students drowned out by others and need to have a safe space to practice speaking? Do some students prefer visual learning and are stimulated by reading and not only group discussion? Which students prefer learning grammar via drills and which prefer indirect learning via communication?

These are all questions an aspiring teacher can ask to tailor the lessons as best as possible to a group class. Your students will appreciate the customisation you put into their leaning.

Language Teaching Calibrate

Teaching different age groups

Off the back of calibration, understanding how to adapt to different demographics is part of the art of teaching. Different age demographics have nuances that change how they learn best. Knowing these will enhance your lessons.

Teaching children

Children differ in how they learn languages compared to teenagers and adults. Here are some general distinctions about children when learning:

– They tend to learn indirectly taking in information from everywhere rather than directly from the topic alone.

– They like to talk about themselves and need attention and approval from teachers.

– They have curiosity for the world around them but have short attention spans and get bored easily if not stimulated.

– They benefit from multiple learning modalities soaking in what they can see, hear, touch and interact with.

With these in mind, a good teacher will provide several learning experiences in a lesson that will give a child learner variety with the target language. You’ll want to have a learning environment that stimulates them with things they can see, hear and touch in the language. While games can be used for any age group, they should be used especially with children to fuel their enthusiasm and curiosity for learning the language.

Teaching teenagers

Certain evidence suggests that teenagers are in a position to be the strongest language learners.

However, there are certain factors that can disrupt their abilities which a good teacher can deal with. Adolescents are in a phase where they’re searching for individual identity. This ongoing development can manifest itself via self-esteem issues or peer-group approval seeking which prevent optimal learning.

To get around these potential issues, a good teacher will ensure they are in control of the class and that the teenage students are engaged. Like children, teenagers can still become bored quickly so variety and an ability to keep the lesson fun but not chaotic are key.

Another tip is to make the material more relevant to their lives compared to the child age group. In their search for individual identity, teenagers appreciate if their own thoughts and experiences are called upon using the target language since they’re at an age where they’re finding their place in the world via their own language.

Teaching adults

Adults have their own distinctive traits compared to the other two groups:

– They have a range of life experiences providing more material and relevance for lesson activities.

– They have their own expectation about the learning process and will judge in line with this.

– They tend to be more disciplined learners.

– Their motivations tend to be clearer—they know why they’re learning and what they want to achieve with the language.

Teaching an adult well means knowing their aims and honing your lessons so that you can get them from A to their B.

A characteristic many adult learners have is a degree of hostility towards institutional learning that’s the result of bad experiences when they were in school. Many adults speak of associating language classes with boredom or failure due to that time.

Therefore, a successful teacher will overcome these negative feelings by offering their students a different learning experience than the ones they had when growing up. As much as possible, a lesson should be calibrated to an adult learner which is something they might never received as children in school.

Language Teaching Adults

Finding language teaching positions

Now that we’ve covered language teaching theory, here are some practical tips on finding positions so you can actually use the principles.

Job boards and networks for language teaching

Listed below are some notable online job boards for language teaching positions. Some of them also have networks or forums to connect with recruiters or other teachers:

Teaching English


Dave’s ESL Cafe

Teacher Record

Go Abroad

Go Overseas

Teaching other languages

Teacher Record


If you want to teach a language other than English, it’s also worth browsing on search engines in the language itself which will bring up positions advertised in that language by the recruiter/employer that an English language job board won’t know about.

Another tip is contacting a school or institution directly. Search for local schools or educational institutions in a country you can see yourself moving to and send over your resume to the management along with any questions you may have. Most teachers don’t contact schools directly so you’ll be separating yourself from other applicants by doing so.

Online language teaching

The 21st century has seen an ongoing shift in using videoconferencing technology to create new work opportunities that were inaccessible before.

Online language teaching has become one such opportunity.

What started as an experimental drop in the ocean now has waves of people both teaching and learning in virtual lessons. Leading online language teaching company italki has over 5 million students across 130 languages alone.

Online teaching offers the best way for novices to get their foot in the door with basic teaching experience. Some of the most well-known online language teaching companies include: italki, Verbling, Preply, Babbel and Lingoda. Most online companies have a mix of professional and non-professional language instructors catering to all kinds of student needs.

Unsurprisingly, professional instructors have an initial edge when it comes to attracting students to their lessons but this doesn’t mean that those without professional experience can’t do well. Compared to employment in a school, the companies offer you a chance to promote your lesson on their platforms allowing you to set your specialisations, hourly rate, biography, video introductions and more. All these factors can help you market yourself as an online instructor—think about what your USPs are and how you can take advantage of those compared to others.

If you’re a non-professional teacher, once you start gaining clients, your lessons will get ranked and this will help establish your reputation as a notable instructor offsetting any disadvantage you started with as a non-professional.

Along with the flexibility in lesson schedules and self-promotion, the main benefit of online language teaching is the ability to conduct lessons remotely. This enables you the chance to work from wherever you want fitting a digital nomad lifestyle if you choose. It also means that if you’re teaching a less common language, you’ll increase the work opportunities you can find as the online platforms allow students to find you and not only you finding them in real life via a school or institution.

Language Teaching Online


Due to the impact of technology and alternative business models, the industry of teaching foreign languages has been ‘disrupted’ in recent years. There are a range of ways to get into language teaching that don’t need formal teaching qualifications.

Nonetheless, teaching qualifications are necessary for many global employment positions and provide foundational training experience for those who’ve never taught before.

If you’re looking to teach English then a common qualification route is doing a TEFL course. In the US or Australia you may hear TESOL as a common qualification but TEFL and TESOL are used interchangeably. TEFL is accredited and has world-wide renown among employers. You can do a course online or over several weeks at multiple locations around the world. The courses are often reasonably priced and the 180+ hours or so you spend will ground you with language teaching fundamentals that will enable you to teach anywhere.

Other types of English as a Foreign Language teaching qualifications include the Trinity CertTESOL and Cambridge CELTA. These are also a type of TEFL course but are more intensive, usually conducted over a 4-week period with study requirements everyday. They’re also more expensive but have the accreditation backing from major educational institutions and will also set you up to teach anywhere. Bear in mind that these courses are focused around teaching adults so if you’re thinking about teaching younger students, you might want to look into other options.

If you’re planning on getting qualifications for teaching languages other than English, look for qualifications that are at least the educational equivalent of a foundation degree or higher education diploma. This is the level that general TEFL qualifications are placed at and reaching a teaching qualification of that level will provide you with lifelong language teaching accessibility wherever you go. As a general rule of thumb, the less in demand a language is, the less you’ll need qualifications to gain employment opportunities.

Remember, a course cannot replace real-life experience and no qualification will completely prepare you for teaching your first students. Use qualifications as a basis for language teaching theory. Use them as gateways to positions and thus opportunities to live in a country. But don’t treat them as an absolute must to get into the career and don’t listen to anybody who says that you’re not a real foreign language teacher if you don’t have one. If you have repeat students and the management at your institution substantiates your teaching ability, you ARE a language teacher.


Language teaching is a noble profession. At its core, it’s empowerment of communication skills for international use, enabling people previously bound by a single country and language to relocate abroad, connect with other nationalities and broaden their horizons.

Underlying successful language teaching are core principles that will enhance a teacher’s lessons and set students up for progress. These are: using i+1 to optimise a student’s learning trajectory, speaking slowly, using visuals where possible, correcting mistakes in the right way and calibrating to individual students.

Great teachers are defined from mediocre or good ones by their ability to take calibration to another level and cater their teaching style to different demographics. Knowing the different nuances in how to teach children, teenagers and adults will progress your language teaching to the next level.

Use a range of online job boards to locate language teaching positions and don’t be afraid to directly speak to particular institutions you like the look of. Online language lessons continue to boom in the remote work era—they can be a great way for novices to build experience in tutoring and develop the foundation of their USPs and teaching styles. Don’t let qualifications put you off if you lack experience, some employment opportunities require them but there are many that don’t. Language teaching might transform your life by getting into the field.