Six Tips to Get More out of Your Language Tutors

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If you’ve followed along, we’ve been enjoying using iTalki for our tutoring needs. So far we’ve used it for Korean, French and Egyptian Arabic. Along the way we’ve learned a thing or two about how to get the most out of it.

The Friend, The School Teacher and The Professional

We recently published an article on finding a great language teacher on Fluent in Three Months, providing tips on differentiating between three kinds of teachers: the Friend, the School Teacher and the Professional.

In summary, the three kinds of teacher you’re likely to encounter are:

  • The Friend: Someone roughly your age who teaches you slang and colloquial language. They have pretty good English and know what cognates and “false friends” exist. They are unlikely to be structured in the way they teach and will need you to take the lead. But they’re cheap, and likely to be a long-term friend.
  • The School Teacher: Usually older, more experienced (perhaps even an ex-teacher or currently a teacher, doing this on the side), and more structured in their approach. They’ll use a textbook. You might read text along with them. They’ll be rigid in their approach. You’ll learn more and progress, but not as fast as you’d like, or in the areas most of interest to you. They’re more expensive than the friend.
  • The Professional: This is the best kind of teacher you can find. More than anything else, they’re a coach. They’ll guide you along your language journey with inspiration and knowledge, letting you set the general direction, but never letting go of the wheel. They know the science of teaching, best practises in learning and will make sure you do what you need to achieve your goals. They’ll drill you on what they know you struggle with, and will make sure every minute of class time is optimised. You’ll work hard with this teacher. And they cost a lot more… but will end up saving you money and time.

In general, learners should try to find The Professional as a starting point. But this isn’t always possible.

Why Finding The Professional Language Teacher is Hard

There are a number of reasons why finding The Professional isn’t always possible.

  1. There aren’t many of The Professional around. You’ll have much more luck in popular languages: Some languages, like dialects of Arabic or Swahili (our next project) have fewer teachers, who might be on average lower skilled, less qualified and less experienced. Those that are around are likely to be booked or perhaps be serving private clients rather than clients via an online platform.
  2. The Professional is much more expensive. In China, in an age where rent for a large apartment in a somewhat central part of town was around $1,500 a month, I had to spend around $2,000 a month on professional tutoring. This is out of reach for many students, especially if you already have high living and education costs. It’s also hard to swallow when you see the price range of teachers online starting from US$4 an hour.
  3. The Professional may be offline, not online. In some economies, it’s more likely you’ll find them at a language school, where they’ll cost a lot more per hour, and also cost you time and money in transport to the school (unless you’re living there).

So what options do you have? It’s not over. If you’re studying a smaller language and/or you’re on a budget, you can still go really far with more limited resources.

Six Tips for Making the Most of Your Tutors

There are a number of things you can do to make the most of the platform without overpaying for tuition. Your aim, if you’re following this approach, is to get maximum tuition at minimum cost. This is our approach for Egyptian Arabic, and will probably serve us well for Swahili and maybe Bahasa Indonesia too.

1. Find the right teachers with the right metrics (and if possible, personal referrals)

After talking to a lot of online tutor users, we found something interesting… most of them refer the best teachers to other students.

All online tutoring systems have rating systems. But while these are useful to a degree, like rating systems on Lyft or Uber, most teachers hover between 4.5-5 stars. It’s not that useful.

What’s much more useful is personal referrals. Various language learning communities (like the Add 1 Challenge’s private alumni group) share teachers between them, and can refer the best teachers for various levels of various languages.

Discover Discomfort - Five italki teachers - Metrics
Five online teachers, all rated 4.9-5 stars, but with different lesson counts and student counts. Which would you choose, if price were equal? (It’s not.)

The next best thing after referrals is Jo’s personal invention: analyse teacher retention rate using italki’s metrics. A teacher might have 400 reviews, but almost as many students. That means that nobody came back! This might be because of aggressively low pricing, but poor quality. Look at the two numbers and make an assessment.

We’d choose a teacher with fewer reviews but higher retention than the opposite.

2. Interview Aggressively

This rule (also from Jo) applies regardless of what kind of teacher you’re looking for. Because finding a teacher should be one of the first things you do when starting to study a language, it’s best to start strong. Build up a list of things you expect from teachers, and line up a bunch of interviews/intro lessons over one or two days. For example

  • Do you give homework?
  • How do you prepare for class?
  • What subjects do you teach?
  • What is your specialisation?

Also score them on intangibles

  • Do they listen to you and show empathy?
  • Did they correctly assess your level, or just blindly start teaching?
  • Did you like them? (kind of mandatory)

You can get a very good feeling from one lesson. The best part about the online process is you have zero obligation to continue with anyone. Zero! Be ruthless (but polite). It’s your time and money. Every time you pick up a new teacher, you have to spend a little time re-calibrating and getting the level right, so it’s wise to do it all upfront.

3. Build a Portfolio of Teachers

There are a few reasons you want a portfolio. We suggest having a portfolio of five if you’re in it intensively, or always two at a minimum.

Firstly, you learn something different from each teacher. One might be a friendly young guy who teaches you slang and jokes with you. One might be a stern teacher who corrects your pronunciation. Another might be of a different gender, forcing you to conjugate differently.

Secondly, teachers tend to fall off the map. It’s a casual job, with no obligations, and people’s personal lives and other commitments take precedence. It can be a setback to suddenly be down to too few teachers, so have backup.

Finally, you need to consolidate between lessons. If you’re talking to someone for an hour, you’ll probably learn 20-50 words in that hour. If you want to keep talking, you can’t keep learning words at that pace. You need to practise them before another lesson! Take a break and come back to it, and maybe speak to that person in 1-2 days.

4. Work from a Learning Plan

If you’re working with a single teacher, they probably need guidance (unless you’ve lucked out with an excellent teacher). You need to tell them what you’re interested in, and learn from that. It might be just a book you’re working from, or a list of topics. But share it with them and let them know what you want to learn.

If you’re using a portfolio of teachers, they won’t know each other. You need to work off one learning plan, and plan to go over certain topics with them all. I suggest creating a document which is week-by-week going over different topics. Otherwise, there is a risk you’ll just devolve into casual conversation on general topics every time.

5. Tell your Tutor What You Expect

When hiring any contractor you need to tell them what you expect. How often you expect them to come to work, what you want them to work on, how you want them to work and what tools you want to use.

Using an italki teacher is the same thing. Teachers are sometimes students, but just as often, they have never been a student on italki. They don’t know the range of quality of teachers and what people might expect of them. Make it clear.

In your profile, put down what you expect. This is what I’ve put down:

Hi, I am looking for teachers and casual language partners. For language partners, you just have to be able to speak natively and be cool! For professional teachers, I prefer that you: 1. Speak only (or mostly) your language 2. Focus on speaking, but help me read where I need to understand 3. Focus on spoken dialect 4. Give me homework 5. Focus on my weaknesses and help me improve speaking 6. Keep pressure on 🙂

You can copy-paste that if you want. I won’t sue.

6. Beware Fake Professionals, and Seek Great Tutors

This final tip is an unfortunately necessary word of warning. Don’t assume a professional is always worth the extra cost. And beware scammers.

In many parts of the world it’s easy to get fake professional qualifications. Someone can get forged certificates, ID cards and other documentation, submit them to an online service and masquerade as a professional teacher (or anything). This would let them charge three times what their peers would charge — for no difference in quality. Egypt is, unfortunately, a place where this is possible.

Of course, italki is a serious company that does proper due diligence on its teachers and takes fraud allegations very seriously. I’m just saying — don’t assume that a qualified tutor that costs a lot is everything they say they’re going to be. Compare someone at $15 an hour with other teachers at $5 an hour and make sure there’s a tangible difference. It’s just as possible to find expensive teachers that are terrible as it is to find diamonds in the rough at low hourly rates.

What have you learned?

If you have any more tips – comment, email or chat with us and let us know

Happy learning!

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1 year ago

I like to adapt my lessons. If I am working with a older and mature pupil then I ask about their personal learning style and take it from there. If I am teaching a school child who requires my help I then adapt my lessons in order to fully meet their learning needs and wants. For example if I was tutoring a ten year old I would ensure I was focusing on the Year 6 curriculum objectives for French. I use past papers as a loose guide and also take practice questions from workbooks. My lessons feature a variety of… Read more »