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I often tell my students that learning a language is like going to the gym.
The more you go to the gym, the stronger and healthier you get.
At the gym, sometimes you work out alone and sometimes you join a class. Weights one day, zumba the next.
At the gym, you work on different muscle groups. Legs one day, arms the next.
At the gym, you might spend most of the time working out on your own, but when you feel that you need extra help, you can hire a personal trainer for one-to-one sessions.
The more you work on it, the better you’ll get.
You can learn independently and as part of a class.
One day you might focus on listening, the next writing.
And much like the gym, having a “personal trainer”, otherwise known as a private tutor, can be incredibly helpful.
A good private tutor should be able to help you with all aspects of your language learning journey. They should be able to find your weak areas and give you special advice to learn faster.
They should motivate you, like a gym trainer. They should help you set goals. Sometimes, they may push you to work harder.
Learning English is easier with someone to guide you.
Yes, a private tutor costs more money, but they can certainly be worth it.
I’d encourage you to think about them as an investment, not a cost. What’s more, hiring a tutor may also be cheaper than you think!
Where to find a private English tutor
Most English teachers are happy to give private lessons. After all, it's a way for them to earn some extra money - and teachers are not always well-paid.
You could try approaching someone who teaches English at a local school.
They are likely to offer you lessons in the evening or at weekends. Many retired teachers also take on private students.
If you have a family member who goes to school, ask them to put you in contact with their English teacher.
Or you could approach a teacher from a private language centre. They are likely to have a more open schedule if you want daytime lessons.
Why not drop by a language centre and enquire about private tutors? Many centres can help you arrange private lessons with one of their teachers. As an example, the British Council offers one-to-one “coaching” for IELTS.
If you do arrange private lessons through a school, remember that they are likely to be a lot more expensive than if you paid the teacher directly, so they are not a good choice if you are looking to save money.
You could find a college student who is willing to give you private lessons when they don’t have classes themselves.
Of course, a college student is not a professional teacher. But if your goal is simply to practise conversation, this could be a good option.
Another thing you could do to save money is to team up with one or two friends and ask for a small, private class instead of one-to-one tuition. Your tutor should be able to lower their prices if you do it this way.
For example, if a teacher charges $30 per hour for a private lesson for one person, they may lower this to $20 each for two or $15 dollars for three.
You pay less, the teacher earns more and you still get personal attention. It is what we call a “win-win” scenario (where everybody benefits).
Offline vs. Online tutors
Generally, in the “real world” a tutor will either come to your house, or you will go to the tutor’s house. However, don’t forget that you can also find private tutors online.
Online tutors need not be from your city or even your country. Websites such as iTalki, Preply, Cambly and Verbling can help you find online tutors from all over the world, for as low as $5 per hour. You can even get a trial with EnglishScore for just $1.
There are many other benefits to learning with an online English tutor:
- Tuition websites offer access to thousands of different tutors, including native speakers.
- Since no travel is involved, you save time and effort.
- If you are not happy with your teacher, it is easy to find another.
- They are often cheaper, because there is more competition
In short, tutoring websites offer more flexibility.
However, learning offline has its advantages, too.
When you meet a tutor in person, you will be able to build a stronger personal connection. You will not just be faces on a screen.
Many online teachers work long hours for little pay. Compare this to a retired teacher, who will be happy to spend time with you.
Ultimately the most important thing is whether the individual teacher will be a good fit for you.
Assessing what you need to learn
Before thinking about the kind of tutor you want, think about what you actually need to learn.
The majority of learners who hire private tutors are looking for conversation practice. They want to become more fluent and speak more confidently.
But this is not the only reason for hiring a private English tutor. Here are some others:
- You want to prepare for an exam, such as the IELTS.
- You want to improve your writing because you will soon be going to college where you will need to write in English.
- You want to improve your in English in order to get a promotion at work
- You simply want to learn English as a hobby.
If you are looking for conversation practice, this is something that any teacher should be able to provide. You may even be able to skip hiring a tutor and find a conversation partner online.
On the other hand, if you are preparing for a test, then you need a teacher who knows the tips and tricks to help you pass.
To improve your writing, you are going to need to discuss grammar, and that means you need a certified teacher and not a college student.
Academic and business writing are more specialised fields that not every teacher has experience of. If one of these is your goal, you will need to search harder to find a suitable tutor.
Choosing an English language tutor
Now that you have thought about your reasons for hiring a tutor, here is my checklist of things to consider when finding your perfect English tutor.
Are they a native or non-native speaker?
Do you need your teacher to be a native English speaker? That’s an interesting question.
On the one hand, a native speaker is likely to have better English and a more natural accent. On the other hand, a non-native speaker has gone through the process of learning the language just like you.
Ultimately, it is up to you to choose. We’ve written a guide on Native vs. Non-native English speakers if you want to explore this subject further.
Do they speak your language?
You can choose a tutor who speaks your mother tongue. This way, your tutor will know some of the common mistakes that you make in your English.
For example, I speak some Chinese, so I know that my Chinese students struggle with verb tenses (because there are no verb tenses in Chinese).
Even a little knowledge of your language means that a tutor will be able to give you more specific advice. If they are fluent in your mother tongue, this can also be helpful when it comes to explaining more complicated concepts.
Do you like them?
This may seem like a strange question, but you are going to spend a lot of time with your tutor in a one-on-one situation. It is important that the tutor is a person who you like and trust.
You need to feel comfortable and safe with them. Not only does this mean you’ll be relaxed during the class, but having a sympathetic native speaker you feel comfortable with is an important part of Stephen Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis.
If you feel that there are any “red flags” (things that seem strange, such as the tutor looking at you in a strange way), it is better to simply choose a different tutor.
Do you “gel” with them?
If you “gel” with someone, it means that you immediately feel a connection to them.
For example, a retired teacher may be nice and likeable, but you might really “gel” with someone closer to your own age. You might have common interests and find you can comfortably chat for hours.
How much do they charge?
Of course, tutors charge different rates in different countries around the world. Your best option is to get prices from three or four different tutors and compare.
Online tutors charge as little as $5 per hour, although the average is $10 to $20 per hour.
How much you want to pay is up to you. However, you should know that cheapest is not always best.
Tutors are justified in charging more if they are fully qualified and experienced, or if they are able to offer specialised tuition, such as test preparation or academic writing.
Remember, your time has a cost too. If you pay $5 per hour for a poor quality tutor, not only have you lost $5 but you’ve also lost $5 of your valuable time.
We explored this idea further in our guide on How Much Does It Cost To Learn English?
Are they experienced?
There is a big difference between an experienced teacher and a new teacher. An experienced teacher has “been around the block”.
They will be able to answer any question that you put to them. They will also be better at understanding your weak areas and giving you ways to improve.
Also, note that online tutors are not always what they seem. I have encountered some tutors that claim to be native speakers when they clearly are not. I have also encountered fake teaching certificates when helping to hire online teachers.
When are they available?
Many tutors are only available in the evenings or at weekends, due to work commitments.
If you are having trouble finding a tutor during the daytime, then I advise you to find a tutor online. Many tutoring sites have thousands of tutors available and you can easily find one to fit your schedule.
Are they willing to adapt to your needs?
Remember, when you hire a tutor, YOU are the one in charge.
The tutor can advise you on what you need to learn. In the end, however, it is up to you whether you wish to focus more on writing or speaking, for example.
Don’t forget to discuss homework. Is the tutor willing to assign you work outside of your class session? Are they willing to spend time marking it? This is particularly important if your goal is to improve your writing.
It’s another thing to bear in mind when thinking about the price of a tutor. One tutor might charge $10 an hour but doesn’t prepare or mark homework for you while another might charge $20 an hour but prepares you homework and marks it for you.
Evaluating your tutor’s performance
Tell your tutor that you would like to try one or two classes before deciding to proceed further. I recommend two classes since, during the first class, the tutor will still be getting to know your needs.
Remember that most tutoring websites offer a free or discounted trial class, so you will not be paying full price. It is another advantage of finding a tutor online.
After the second class, ask yourself if you are happy with the tutor’s performance. Here’ a checklist that I suggest you go through:
- Did they teach the entire hour without wasting any time?
- Did they focus on the lesson, or did they seem to be thinking about other things (such as checking their phone)?
- Did they provide lesson materials especially for you, or did they photocopy a lesson from a book?
- Did they correct your mistakes?
- Did they introduce new vocabulary and language items, or did they simply “chat” with you for an hour?
- Did they offer to help you to set goals?
A good, experienced tutor would do all or at least most of these things, and would interact with you in a friendly and helpful way.
At this point, you should know if you have found the right tutor for you. If not, don’t be afraid to tell them that you do not wish to continue.
Some final thoughts
You do not need to stick to only one tutor, especially if you are using a tutoring website. You could have more than one tutor at a time! Perhaps you could have a conversation tutor and a writing tutor, for example.
Once you do find a good one, you should stick with them for as long as possible. Depending on where you live, it may not be easy to find a replacement.
Remember, learning a language is like going to the gym. Set goals, set a schedule and be disciplined in sticking to it. Try not to skip lessons, even when you get busy.
One more thing about goals - you need to work hard to achieve them. If a private tutor can help you do this, they are certainly worth the money.