I have been both a student and a teacher on italki for a while now and I wanted to share my experiences and opinions about how to choose an online language teacher. The only platform I’ve used is italki, but I am sure that, for the most part, these tips will hold true for any site.
What’s the difference between a professional teacher and a community tutor?
First, you have to become familiar with the types of teachers available and the types of classes they teach. On italki, it can seem a little overwhelming to some people. Italki has two types of teachers: professional and community tutors.
Professional teachers are, well, professionals. They are people who have certificates and/or degrees in teaching a language. Community tutors generally aren’t certified to teach a language, but want to help others learn their native language (or another language that they speak fluently).
Community tutors offer what is called “informal tutoring.” This means that they aren’t expected to provide specific lesson plans or formal lessons like you’d expect in a traditional classroom. Most of the time, lessons with community tutors are conversation-based and informal. Professional teachers can offer a variety of classes, including informal tutoring. Some offer many specific types of formal lessons such as language for business or travel, intensive conversation, or advanced grammar.
However, each teacher will approach their lessons very differently. Some professional teachers prefer to keep all of their lessons conversation-based and some community tutors will provide you with a variety of materials or even homework.
How do you chose who you want to work with?
First, think about your current level and your language learning style. Are you a total beginner and need someone who can help you navigate learning a completely new language? Or, are you a more advanced speaker who understands grammar rules, sentence structure, and has a good grasp of vocabulary and just needs someone to practice with? Also, think about your learning style. Are you someone who likes structure and plans, or are you more comfortable with a more laid-back approach to learning? Are you a self-motivated learner who is always reading or listening to something in your target language or do you crave more guidance?
Your answers will help you determine if you should look for a professional teacher or a community tutor. Complete beginners, people who like structure, and people who want more guidance may be better off with a professional teacher. Those are more advanced in the language, who are okay with an informal lesson, and who love to learn on their own may prefer a community tutor. Please keep in mind that these are only generalizations, of course.
After you’ve thought about how you learn, think about what you want to learn. I know this seems obvious — I want to learn French! — but there’s more to it than just picking a language. Do you want a native speaker or would you be open to working with a non-native speaker with a high level of fluency? Does it matter which variation of a language you learn — for example Brazilian Portuguese or European Portuguese; American English, British English, or Australian English. Do you want a teacher who can communicate in your native language?
Take time to think about your language goals. Do you want to learn a language for travel? Are you trying to communicate with your spouse’s family? Do you need to take a college entrance exam or have an job interview in your target language? Do you just want to be able to read a foreign-language newspaper or a book in the original language? Do you need to know business-related or career-specific language?
Narrowing down your focus will help you narrow down your choices. Many teachers on italki use tags to show that they are experienced in teaching beginners, language for business, or test prep. Using these tags may help you find a better fit for what you’re looking for.
Now you’re ready to do your initial search for a teacher. You can specify if you want a native speaker, someone who is experienced with beginners or test prep, someone who also speaks your mother tongue, and even what country they come from. You could decide at this point to also narrow down by price or availability, but I rarely do that. Even though I have very specific times that I’m available and a budget, I prefer to start off by casting a wider net and narrow it down bit by bit. For a teacher that seems like they’d be a good match, I can usually arrange my schedule or find an extra $2 per lesson.
Your search will result in a list of teachers. For some languages, like English, your list will be very long. For other languages, you may have fewer choices. Professional teachers will be on one tab, and community tutors on another. You also have an option to view them all.
Scroll through the list of teachers and read their short introductions. You can see at a glance how many lessons they’ve taught, their teaching specialties, the starting price of their lessons, their rating, and where they’re from. Bookmark the ones that interest you and who seem to match your qualifications. When you a book a teacher, they will appear on your “My Teachers” list, even if you’ve never had a class with them.
After picking 5-10 that you think might fit the bill, take time and read each of their long introductions. Some teachers are naturally verbose and therefore have long, detailed introductions (I am one of those if you can’t tell by the length of this post). Some teachers write much less. You have to decide if what they’ve written is detailed enough for you. I like to check out how long they’ve been teaching, how many lessons they’ve taught, and how many students they have. Personally, I think that the lesson-to-student ratio is important, especially for more established teachers (new teachers are just too, well, new to have a long track record usually). In other words it matters more to me that a teacher has repeat students than if they have a lot of students. I think that is more indicative of a good teacher than someone who just has a lot of students, but those students have each only taken one lesson.
Each teacher will have a video. I think that having a video is one of the best things about teacher profiles on italki. The video is a great opportunity to get a feel for someone’s personality; I think you can tell quite a lot about someone by their video. Do they smile? Do they slow down in order to make their native language more easily understood by lower-level learners? Do they sound sincere? Do they seem nice/funny/engaged/any other adjective that is important to you?
I’m sure people will disagree with me, but I really think that you need to find a teacher who is a good personality fit for you as well as a good educational fit. You can choose who you want to work with; why wouldn’t you choose someone who seems to have a good personality? I think that, especially for beginners or nervous learners, this is particularly important. You want someone that you will feel comfortable with, who will support you on your language learning journey. But, even for more advanced learners, you want someone that you won’t get bored talking to about higher-level subjects.
When you’re reading the teachers’ long introductions it’s also a good time to make sure that their price range and availability work for you. You can look at their schedule and see when they generally have availability. You’ll find that some people have more open schedules than others. You can also see if their pricing falls into your price range. Remember to look at the different pricing for different length lessons. Sometimes you may not want to pay for a full 60 minutes, but would be okay with paying for a 45-minute lesson.
I’ve picked out some teachers, now what?
Because I am a beginner in my target languages, I usually like to message the teacher first to confirm that they’re okay teaching a true beginner who is starting from scratch or who has a very low level. If they don’t reply, I don’t book a lesson. However if they send a nice message back, I am more inclined to schedule a class. This is also your time to ask the teacher any questions you may have or to discuss any specific goals or requests. Most teachers are prepared for informal conversations, but if you want to really hone in on grammar or accent reduction, for example, it’s probably good to ask before you book a class so the teacher knows what to expect and you aren’t disappointed if they aren’t able to provide what you’re looking for.
If you are a more confident speaker who is looking primarily for conversation practice, I think that messaging before booking a lesson is not as important. However, I think many teachers appreciate a small introductory message either before or included with your lesson request just so they know about you , your goals, and any other background information you want to share.
Then you need to decide if you want to book a trial lesson or a regular lesson. Trial lessons are usually cheaper than regular lessons, but keep in mind that most teachers offer more than one length of lesson. I would also suggest booking a class with at least two different teachers. That way you have something to compare your experience to. If you only take one class, you won’t have any frame of reference for that lesson.
Is there anything I should do before, during, or after my lesson?
Before your lesson, make a note of when your class is so you don’t miss it. Make sure you have the chat platform that you’ll be using downloaded (Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.) and that you’ve recently tested your microphone and camera. You may want to jot down any questions you want to remember to ask the teacher or subjects you want to discuss. If you are a beginner, you may want to make a cheat sheet of commonly used vocabulary so you have an easier time of answering questions about yourself. Think of a couple of topics that you could talk about in case the teacher gets stuck (it happens sometimes). Make sure you’re online and ready a couple of minutes before your class is supposed to start.
During class, pay attention to how the teacher makes you feel. Once again, people will argue with me and say that the most important criteria for a teacher is how well they teach. That is important, but let’s be honest, if you don’t feel comfortable with someone, it will be more challenging to learn from them. So, listen to your gut and see if you feel like this teacher makes you feel engaged, supported, and comfortable. Do they have a personality that you like? Do they try to gear their lessons to your level and interests? Do they ask you why you’re learning your target language so they understand your motivation? Do they seem kind, funny, earnest, sympathetic, or any other adjective that’s important to you? Do they seem to fit in with the way that you want to learn language: structured or more informal; lots of conversation or more traditional grammar/syntax/vocabulary study?
Also, during class make sure that you are fully engaged. Try your best to speak as much as you can. Be an active learner. I know that it can be really hard and even scary to have to speak in a language that you’re not fluent in, but teachers are here to support you and encourage you. No one will judge you if you mix up your verb tenses or forget your subject-verb agreement.
During your initial lesson is also your time to ask any questions that you may have. I love it when students ask me questions, so don’t be shy. Think of the first lesson as an interview; you’re determining if this person will be a good partner and guide for you on this language learning adventure.
After the lesson, take some time to reflect on the class and if you think this person is a good fit for you. If you’ve talked to several teachers, this is a good time to compare them. You may have gotten lucky and found 3 or 4 people that you adore. However, you may also have one teacher that really stands out for you. Some students only want one teacher. However, there are just as many students who rotate through several teachers in a week. Nowhere does it say that you only have to pick one teacher. Each teacher will offer something different and unique and you may want to use several to meet all of your needs.
After you’ve taken some classes, hopefully you’ve found a teacher who you like, who suits your needs, and who meets your price point and availability. The rest is up to you and your teacher to work together to meet your goals. Good luck!