Sell ESL Programs. Not Classes.

As we slowly come out of the pandemic, we can see that there is a huge demand around the world for ESL (English as a Second Language) training. English is the medium of international commerce, science, engineering, medicine and more, which is driving a need for better global communication skills. Many people who need to improve their English ability are highly motivated and have the financial resources to pay for effective results.

In this post, I will talk about how you can sell your language training service through a “program coaching” rather than a “class based” or “session based” approach.

Why are programs better?

Imagine walking into a travel agency. You have some vacation time coming up and you really want to get away for a while but you require some help in planning the trip. Now imagine the agent shows you a brochure for an ocean cruise. It doesn’t list your ports of call, doesn’t tell you what to expect onboard the ship, and doesn’t even tell you the duration of the journey. Would you be encouraged to step aboard?

Now imagine the same travel agent shows you a different brochure. THIS one shows you the departure and return dates, the ports of call, the facilities you can expect to enjoy during the cruise, and more. It’s transparent and the benefits are obvious. Wouldn’t you be more likely to commit to this option?

Selling “class based” or “session based” training is a bit like promoting the first vacation cruise I described above. You are more or less telling students, โ€œTrust me to take you someplace good”. Each lesson doesn’t necessarily fit into a pre-agreed roadmap. We HOPE that the student gets value out their time with us but often the client might just be frustrated at the random “ports-of-call” that aren’t really moving them toward a clear destination.

Program based instruction, on the other hand, follows an itinerary that students can identify with because it addresses the practical challenges and pain points they are experiencing. Instead of asking the client to take lessons and then pass everything through their own contextual filter, the program-based instructor adds incredible value by distilling everything the student needs into a concise, logical and practical format.

Ask yourself the question. Would you rather plough through dense textbooks to learn a new skill, or would you rather work with an enthusiastic personal coach who can give you a fast track to the skills you need to acquire? Most people, all things being equal, would choose the later. THAT is your business opportunity as an ESL professional.

How do I create a program?

The essential, critical, unavoidable first step in selling program-based coaching is to clearly conceptualize your niche. Who do you want to help? What problem do you want to help them solve? What transformation are you going to deliver for them? If you aren’t solving a problem or delivering a transformation that clients want, then you don’t have a business.

Find out where your client spends time on social media. Is it in Facebook Groups? If so, which ones? Join those groups and start conversations. Same applies if your ideal student is on LinkedIn, Instagram, Reddit, Twitter or elsewhere. Find your tribe and start connecting with them.

Next, ask what specifically are the things that cause them fear, frustration, or embarrassment? These can become the “pillar modules” of a program. Don’t rely on guesswork, otherwise you may end up creating a program that nobody really wants.

As you are engaging with your target audience, ask them what language training approaches they have tried in the past that they didn’t enjoy or didn’t work well. This is also important information because you can use it to design a teaching approach that offers something more appealing.

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Isn’t curriculum building difficult?

I think one of the concerns which independent instructors have about program teaching is that building a curriculum sounds difficult. But it really doesn’t need to be. 

Online teaching presents the opportunity to easily introduce “realia” (real world content) into your lessons. Depending on your audience and the target of each module, that might be a BBC news article, an online pizza store menu or a funny YouTube video.

Whatever you decide, you can use that piece of real-world content to segue into vocabulary activities, listening activities, reading comprehension, speaking tasks… the only limit is your imagination. 

Students are going to be more motivated by your “realia” than a corny, dry or possibly out of date textbook. As tempting as it might seem to use mass market pre-made ESL curriculum, you are offering massive value to your clients by creating something original and specific to your niche and your program roadmap.

In the long run you are going to actually SAVE lesson preparation time as you recycle and iterate your own lesson material. Each time you deliver your program you can improve and sharpen the lesson material so that over time it becomes a finely honed tool, unique to YOUR brand.

Watch the following video as Robbie Kane demonstrates his approach to building curriculum for private lessons and groups.

Shouldn’t I customize each lesson?

Yes, absolutely! Clients will put more value on your skills if you can modify your lesson delivery to make each interaction relatable for THEIR CONTEXT. But that doesn’t mean you need to completely re-write your program for every student or group. Not at all.

The best analogy I can think of is music. As famously demonstrated by comedy rock band The Axis of Awesome, vast numbers of popular music tunes from the past 40 years follow the same four chord progression. Similarly with Blues music. The overwhelming majority of Blues follows a repeating 12 bar chord progression.

But does that mean that each pop song of blues track is the same? Of course not. Each artist selects a different tempo, lyrics, solo embellishments etc. 

Similarly with your lesson plans. You can take the same program and customize it for each individual or group by spending more time on some exercises than others, changing up the parameters of your role plays, setting different listening goals for same piece of audio, … the list goes on. Once again, the only limitation is your imagination.

How do programs help me scale?

“Scaling up” is a common challenge for independent language coaches.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of being “busy” rather than “profitable”. Program coaching helps solve that program.

First of all, as previously mentioned, by having a program that solves specific problems for a specific audience, you should be able to drastically reduce your “non-billable” lesson prep time.

Second, once you have refined and battle tested your program, you should be able to scale your business horizontally by bringing onboard OTHER instructors to help you deliver the same program. Effectively, it helps you make the transition from “business owner” to “entrepreneur”. The key difference is that entrepreneurs build systems and infrastructure that allows them to physically step back from their own business whenever they choose to do so.

The third, and maybe most important benefit is that your programs should be attracting clients with similar circumstances who have similar needs. That makes it is easier for you to create additional revenue streams around those clients.

For example, let’s imagine you have a 10-week program that helps non-native English-speaking IT professionals to be effective project team members. Maybe you can create a video course as a “cross-sell” product that teaches them how to negotiate with clients in English.

Or maybe you can offer your private students a master class group workshop where they do a deep dive together on project presentations, or meeting management, or team member recruitment. Once you know your target audience well, new products or services that you can introduce to maximize each client’s lifetime revenue should start to become obvious.


Program based ESL coaching is a great strategy if you want to start charging more. It allows you to attract motivated clients within your chosen niche, deliver high-value outcomes for them, and reduce the level of unproductive effort on your end.

Your program becomes an integral part of your brand and helps you to differentiate yourself from other language coaches.

With a well-researched, original, and customizable curriculum, you can start to scale your language business to support the income and lifestyle you wish to achieve.

More About Robbie Kane:

Robbie has generously offered us his Masterclass Bundle (for attendees of the workshop shown in the video above).

He has also offered a 50% discount on his ready-made business curriculum.

Just use the coupon code babelteq

Learn more about Robbie and his work with Bowie Strategy by listening to our podcast interview.

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