How to Teach Small Groups Online

Teaching offline is not the same as teaching online and teaching 1:1 is not the same as teaching groups. I’ve worked with groups in the past and hope that my observations from those lessons will be helpful.

Internet connection

Group lessons require more bandwidth than 1:1 lessons. This is something that both you and your students should know. I’m currently in Peru and have an average download speed of 8Mbps. That sounds enough but I wouldn’t risk teaching a group with that speed using Skype. When the connection is not 100% stable, the quality already suffers when I teach 1:1. No comparison to the high-speed internet (80Mbps) I had in Lisbon.

Students should have a 2 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speed minimum. Unlike you, they have the possibility to switch off their camera if their internet connection isn’t fast enough.

In most European countries and Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, or Singapore, a download speed of a couple of megabytes is no problem at all. However, in many Asian, African, and Latin American countries, fast internet may be available but tends to be quite expensive, so people choose the cheaper packages of 4 or 8 Mbps, for example.

Software to teach group lessons


When you use Skype, you need a minimum of 2Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speed. However, the more people you talk to, the more bandwidth you need. Adding 1 Mbps download per additional participant gives you an idea of how much bandwidth you need. If you want to teach a group of 4 people, 6Mbps download speed is the absolute minimum. Skype itself lists slightly lower numbers but in my experience, their recommended download/upload speed should be regarded as the minimum speed, especially when you use Skype for professional reasons.


Zoom is the most powerful application and offers you the most options but you cannot use the free version when you teach groups as the application will automatically close after 45 minutes.

Zoom requires less bandwidth than Skype for group meetings. Here’s a short summary taken from the Zoom website:

Recommended bandwidth for Meetings and Webinar Panelists:

  • For 1:1 video calling: 600kbps (up/down) for HQ video and 1.2 Mbps (up/down) for HD video
  • For group video calling: 600kbps/1.2Mbps (up/down) for HQ video. For gallery view: 1.5Mbps/1.5Mbps (up/down).
  • For screen sharing only (no video thumbnail): 50-75kbps
  • For screen sharing with  video thumbnail: 50-150kbps
  • For audio VoIP: 60-80kbps

Zoom Pro costs US$14.99/month and also enables you to work with up to 100 participants which means it’s suitable to host small webinars. Well, you can record your lessons without having to install extra software.

Google Hangouts

For some reason, I’ve never really liked GoogleHangouts. Half of the time, I tried to use it, and it caused me problems. It didn’t recognize my microphone or camera and that was simply annoying.

Hangouts require a bandwidth of 3 – 4 Mbps for groups with up to 5 participants. The few times I’ve used the application, I always had much faster internet so I can’t say how correct this is. However, I’ve watched enough GoogleHangout recordings to say that I wouldn’t recommend it as a first choice because people do disappear during group calls or are only able to use audio.

Starting the lesson

If you’re lucky, all students will be there in time and you won’t have any problems. But what if only half of the students show up punctually? It’s perfectly all right to wait for 2 – 3 minutes and do some small talk. However, then you should start with the lesson. Say “hello” to students who come late and tell them quickly what you’ve been doing but don’t lose time with small talk at this point.

If you’re teaching an event-like lesson and not a course where all the students already know each other, let everyone shortly introduce themselves. You wouldn’t want these introductions to become too long, so just ask your students to tell you and the others where they come from and why they learn the language.

After the introductions, it’s time to present the lesson’s topic to the group. Don’t rely on the fact that students are familiar with it, there will always be people who book a lesson quite spontaneously. Your presentation shouldn’t be longer than 2 – 3 minutes, though, then it’s time for you to switch roles and let the students do most of the speaking.

The role of the teacher

When teaching 1:1, you’re the teacher and your student’s conversational partner. In a group, you’ll find yourself much more in the role of a moderator. Instead of actively taking part in a conversation, it’s your job that each student gets more or less the same amount of speaking time. And yes, that means you will have to interrupt someone once in a while.

You should also take notes when students talk and at the end of the lesson, some common mistakes can be discussed in the group.  And don’t do all the explaining yourself. Point out the mistake and then ask the group to discuss and correct it. That way, chances are much bigger that it will stick.

Different language levels

The lesson is aimed at students with a B1 level but 5 minutes after you started, you already know that one student is A2, two are B1 and one is B2. So what now?

First of all, this should only happen when you teach event-like lessons in groups. If you intend to teach a course lasting a certain amount of time, you should test the student’s level before accepting him. This may even include a quick 10 – 15 minutes Skype call.

I taught two courses for a Russian online school two years ago and they just sent me students without testing their level. As a result, I had A1 students in a B1 course and that was really frustrating and annoying.

However, an event-like class is different. Hopefully, you won’t have a complete beginner in a B1 class but A2 – B2 is very possible. When this happens, you will have to intervene more. Try to support the lower level as much as possible by asking easier questions and challenge the B2 student by going more into depth. Don’t exaggerate it, though. It’s a B1 lesson and in general, the language should be B1.

And keep in mind that personality plays an important part, too. There are A2 students who are very communicative and not shy at all. So sometimes, they will be more active than a B2 student who’s reluctant to talk and afraid of making mistakes.

Adapting to your student’s needs is more than adapting to their language level, it’s adapting to their personality, too.