Well, I didn’t get invited to the EFL Magazine TOEFL Teacher Summit, but if someone asked me how to be a successful TOEFL teacher, here’s what I would say.

About Success

First, though, a few words about success.

No one has ever gotten rich teaching TOEFL, so maybe there has never been a successful TOEFL teacher. That said,  I’ve never spent a penny on advertising and my website is just a crappy WordPress template… but I’m still really busy.  Maybe that’s a kind of success.

About these Methods

Overall, this article stresses the need to be (and be known as) an expert in all things TOEFL.

Other approaches are possible, of course.  I’ll pass this article on to some other teachers and post a follow-up with their suggestions.

1. Read Everything

You have to do the research. Every month a different TOEFL tutor scolds me for suggesting that students should write more than 300 words in the second writing task.  They insist that that isn’t allowed. But the Official Guide to the TOEFL clearly states that there is no penalty for a long word count. These teachers haven’t even done the most basic research. Additionally, I still see claims like:

  • The unscored reading and listening passages are “experimental” content.
  • Personal examples should not be used in the second essay.
  • There are always 10 questions per article in the reading section.

None of these things are true, but I see them all over the Internet. Even the most cursory research  disproves them. One day I’ll make a recommended reading list, but off the top of my head you should read: the three official books, the TOEFL Insight series, all of the relevant articles from the ETS database, Carol Chapelle’s book on the validity of the test, the SpeechRater book from Rutledge, the e-rater book, and the teacher training manual from ETS.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Bottom line: The point here is that you should become a TOEFL expert. This will make you a better teacher, and will also generate word of mouth recommendations that mention your expertise.

2. Understand Grammar

Don’t be that teacher that says “that’s just more natural” whenever a student asks a question about why you made a certain correction. English has grammar and you should understand it. Know how to use the proper terminology to give explanations.  Sadly, this will require more reading.  Start with Michael Swan’s book.

You won’t be successful as a tutor if you know less about grammar than your students. I’m not saying you need to be a perfect writer.  I make grammar mistakes in all of my blog posts. I’m just saying that you need to have the ability to explain things to your students.

Bottom line:  Be a grammar expert. Grammar sucks, but it is important on the TOEFL.

3. Don’t be Annoying

Write good content and put it on the Internet in a clear and straightforward fashion. Good content that is easy to access will expose a lot of students to you and your work.

Remember that you must not annoy people with a giant pop-over advertising your newsletter.  Don’t force people to submit their email address to get your stuff. Don’t write “SEO rich” content.  No one likes that. Remember how frustrating it was last week when you were trying to find a recipe for french toast?  That’s how your readers feel when they get sucked into your e-mail funnel nonsense. Actually, they feel worse because their search for information actually matters.

Bottom Line: Quality content presented in an easy-to-digest way will let students know you are an expert.

4. Quit and Teach IELTS Instead

Hard statistics aren’t available, but most experts agree that the IELTS is a way more popular test.  My guess is that it has an 80% market share, compared to TOEFL’s 20%. If you want to make money, consider just teaching IELTS instead.

And, meanwhile, the Duolingo is chipping away at both tests.  Not to mention the growing importance of the CAEL.

Bottom Line: You can make more money doing something else.

5. Remember who Takes the TOEFL

If you stick with the TOEFL, remember who is actually taking the TOEFL.  Test-takers are mostly: Chinese + Koreans + Japanese + Pharmacists in the USA.  For the first three categories that 80/20 split is probably reversed.  And the last one is 100% TOEFL. If you want to be successful teaching TOEFL you should figure out those markets.

Bottom Line: Understand your market.

6. Remember that Blogs Still Exist

Word of mouth by way of blog posts can really help your business. This might sound strange to some readers, since blogs died off in the United States more than a decade ago.  But they are still really popular in non-English markets. I’m not kidding!  This is especially true in the aforementioned big three TOEFL countries: China, Korea and Japan. When students from those countries contact me out of the blue I ask how they learned about me, and the response is generally that they read some international student’s blog.

This compares favorably to the trend of getting students to post endorsements on Facebook.  I see a lot of great comments about teachers on the big TOEFL Facebook groups, but those lovely comments all sink down into the algorithm’s black hole within 48 hours. Never to be seen again.

Bottom Line:  Word of Mouth, Damn it!

7.  Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

If your schedule permits, I recommend that you do 30 minutes or an hour of pro bono work each day.  This might mean answering questions on Facebook, or Reddit or even Quora (LOL). This may help to establish your expert credentials, but it will also help you keep up with what students are thinking, and what they need. The latter is quite important but often overlooked – student needs change as time passes, based on the available resources. Emerging ed-tech really changes what students can do on their own, and what they need a teacher for. It is likely that many students nowadays need specialists rather than generalists. 

Bottom Line: Keep up with the changing world.

8.  Don’t Place Your Faith in the Algorithm

It was once possible to rely on Facebook and YouTube for a steady stream of clients. That is still an option, but it is more difficult than in the past. Those spaces are a lot more crowded now, and the demands of the algorithm for constant content can be a bit overwhelming.  If you rely too much on those streams you might burn out.  That’s why point 6 (word of mouth on other people’s blogs) is relevant.  You should also try to maintain  quality static content of your own (I mean building a frigging website). Getting eyeballs that way is a bit more manageable than dealing with the feed-the-beast aspect of social media.


Anyhow, I realize now that this is all “big picture” stuff.  It doesn’t really go into the nitty-gritty of day to day teaching, technology use, scheduling, marketing, etc.  Hopefully I’ll have a few words to share about those things in the future.

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