Many students around the world are discovering that it is possible to learn English online with a personal tutor.
(Note: This is one of a series of four articles reviewing online English tutoring companies. If you find this article useful, you may want to read the others: Preply, Cambly (coming soon), Vebling (coming soon))
italki’s website can be found at www.italki.com. Let’s see how easy it is to sign in and get started. If you like, you can open the site in your browser and follow along with this article.
If you don’t have an account, the first thing you will see on italki.com is the signing up page. You can ignore everything else for now and just click the Get Started button.
The process has three simple steps that you can complete in under a minute:
1. Choose a username and password
2. Answer some simple questions about which language you wish to learn and specify your level
3. Click on the link that appears in your email account
You do not need a credit card to sign up.
Finding your language level
To make sure that your tutor can deliver the best lesson to you, you will want to specify your language level.
italki uses the CEFR levels to measure your level of English (or other languages). A1 means you are a beginner and C2 means you are proficient.
You specify your level of English when you sign up. However, I found that it was difficult to change my level after that. I needed to first remove English as a language I wanted to learn, then add it again as a new language. It was confusing.
What if you do not know what level you are? italki offers two methods to help you find out.
Scrolling down the main page, you will find this link:
Click on the link to take the language test if you like. But be warned, it is not free and there is a cheaper option available.
The standard italki placement test is $30. However, if you click on the tab shown below, you will find that they also recommend the Oxford Online Placement Test for only $10.
If $10 is still too much, you can find plenty of free tests online that will tell you your CEFR level. An example can be found here.
Remember, you do not need to take a test to start using italki, and a good tutor will soon know your English level after a few minutes of conversation.
Before we look at finding an English tutor, it is interesting to note that italki claims to offer tutors for 150 languages.
In fact, looking through the list, I can see lots of very uncommon languages, such as Assamese and Amharic.
This sounds very impressive. However, if you choose some of the more unusual languages, you will simply get a message saying ‘No teachers found’.
Luckily there are plenty of English tutors to choose from.
Have you ever considered teaching your own language? Perhaps you could sign up as a tutor at italki yourself. It could be a fun way to earn some extra cash and you could even pay for your English lessons.
Finding an English teacher (part 1)
Let’s set aside other languages and focus on italki’s English tutors.
On the top right corner of the page, click on Find a teacher:
You will come to a page with a list of teachers. There are currently 7,965 English teachers available. With so many teachers available, how can you choose the best one for you?
The first step is using italki’s filter system to narrow down the choices. You can see the filters at the top of the page. Click on each one to see what they do.
The first filter (“Also speaks”) allows you to choose an English teacher who also speaks another language.
Why is this useful? For example, if Spanish is your first language, you can choose a teacher who also speaks Spanish. This way, your teacher might know the common mistakes that Spanish speakers make in their English.
The second filter (“From”) allows you to choose where your teacher comes from. You may want a teacher from your own country, or you may prefer a British or American teacher. It depends on which kind of English you prefer.
You should also consider the tutor’s time zone. If you live in Japan and your teacher is in America, this could cause problems. When it is 5pm in Tokyo, it is only 4am in New York and you are unlikely to find a suitable tutor.
Use the third filter (“Price”) to set how much you wish to pay. The cheapest English tutor I found was $4 an hour and the most expensive was $80 an hour. (Note that the prices may be automatically listed in your own currency.)
I chose to search for a teacher who also speaks Spanish, who is from the United States and who is priced between $10-20 per hour. There were still over 1000 teachers available!
Let’s see what else we can do to choose.
As you look through the teachers’ profiles, you will notice that the teacher’s level of English is given as a set of red bars. Five bars means level C2, but why are some of them grayed out (as in the second image below)?
Do you need your teacher to be a native 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. For more on this, here’s our guide on Native vs. Non-native English teachers.
Are all the teachers really proficient?
Each teacher has a video profile as well as a written introduction.
If you view the teachers’ profiles, it quickly becomes clear that not all the teachers are really proficient in English.
For example, one profile was written without any articles whatsoever!
Another video was full of mistakes, even though the teacher was clearly reading from a script.
In another video, the tutor explained that he was a college student and was attending English classes himself.
How carefully does italki really check its thousands of English tutors? It looks like they need a better way to check their teachers’ actual proficiency.
Are all the tutors professional English teachers?
Again, the answer is no.
Just below each teacher’s name, it indicates whether they are a professional teacher or a community tutor. So, as we can see below, Catherine is not a professional teacher, whereas Jessica is.
"Community tutor" is just a way to say that the person works as a tutor on italki, but does not have professional qualifications.
One confusing thing about italki is that even though many of the tutors are NOT professional teachers, the word ‘teacher’ is used throughout the site to describe them.
Unless you simply want conversation practice, it is better to choose a professional teacher. They will be better equipped to help you with grammar, writing and vocabulary.
Finding an English teacher (part 2)
Using the fourth and fifth filters, I was able to search for a native speaker who is a professional teacher. I still have 178 choices!
The sixth filter offers different categories of English. The basic choices are below:
If you click on a category, you get further choices. I am going to choose General English for grammar and writing:
Amazingly, this still gives me 108 teachers to choose from!
Now, I can start looking at the teachers’ profiles more carefully.
As you can see from Daniel’s profile below, there is some really useful information in the teachers’ profiles.
We can see that Daniel has a five-star rating and he charges $11 per hour. We can also watch a short video of him.
Next to the Video tab, you can click on Intro. This gives a short, written biography. Next to that is the Calendar tab. This shows when Daniel is available for classes. The times listed are in YOUR time zone, not the teacher’s.
Click on the teacher’s name to get even more information, including their class statistics:
One thing to check is the number of lessons compared to the number of students:
This teacher has conducted 325 lessons with 95 students, about 3-4 lessons per student. This is a good sign as it shows students often come back for more lessons. Many other tutors have only conducted 1-2 lessons per student.
Making the final decision
italki offers you three trial lessons, which you need to use with three different teachers. This is a great feature that you can use to your advantage.
A smart plan is to use all three trial lessons before making your final choice of tutor. After all, you may really like the first tutor, but you may form a strong connection with the second or third.
Here are some questions to consider when choosing:
- Was the tutor easy to understand?
- Did the tutor give you enough time to talk?
- Could the tutor explain grammar and vocabulary points clearly?
- Were you happy with the tutor’s answers to any questions that you asked?
- Was the tutor patient, or did they rush through the lesson?
How do you pay for lessons?
Once you have found a teacher, you still need to do one thing – you need to find a way to pay for the lessons.
Note that italki has trial lessons, but this does not mean they are free! They are simply at a discount from the usual price. The discount is different for different teachers and you may find that new teachers offer the best discounts, because they are trying to make a name for themselves.
Paying is very straightforward and you have several options. From the main page, look for this section on the left side:
Click here to go to the payment page. Then click BUY CREDITS:
As you can see, italki uses a credit system. You buy credits and then you can spend them on classes.
The process is very simple and you have the following payment options:
- credit/debit card
- bank transfer
You can buy any amount of credits that you like at one time using the Other tab:
Note, italki adds a “Processing fee” to every credit purchase.
What's more, if you sign up to italki through this link you will automatically get an extra $10 in italki credits after you make your first top up.
The community section features free content, which sounds very interesting. However, it is basically just a chatroom where you can type messages to share with other learners.
For example, you can answer the question, “What kind of accommodation do you prefer when you travel?” and you can read answers from other users.
This kind of activity is fun and useful, but I would prefer to go on social media and discuss more interesting topics.
There is one useful feature on the community page – the podcasts. These offer listening practice on a range of interesting topics. Unfortunately, there are only five podcasts currently available, so you could run out of them quite quickly.
How do the lessons work?
Lessons are not always one hour. You could choose to have a lesson of 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes or 90 minutes.
As you’d expect, the longer the lesson, the higher the price.
By default, you will communicate with your teacher using the italki communication tool. However, you can also choose to use Zoom, Skype, Facetime or other options.
These tools allow you to see and speak to your teacher and send them messages. You can share your screen and your teacher can share their screen. You can also share notes and work together on a document.
The exact way that the lesson works is up to the teacher. They may spend most of the time conversing with you, or they may go through notes or slides to explain a grammar point.
As a teacher myself, I like to do online exercises together with my students. Sometimes, we may watch a short video together as a listening exercise.
Remember that you are paying for the lesson, so you can ask the teacher to customise the lesson for you. Perhaps you want more speaking practice or perhaps you want more feedback on your grammar mistakes.
To get a good idea of what an italki lesson looks like, you can watch a recording of a live lesson here:
One of the best is the instant lesson feature. When you search for a teacher, click this feature to see which teachers are available right now.
This is great for students who are eager to get started as soon as possible.
Refer a friend
You probably have some friends who also wish to learn English online. If so, there is good news for you. By referring them to italki, you can get free credits that you can use for a lesson.
Just click on this button on the main page:
Alternatively, you can buy a gift card for your friend so that their lesson is free.
Hidden away at the footer of the page (scroll all the way to the bottom) are some further features to explore:
- italki apps – use these to access italki on an Android or Apple device
- italki business – companies can have a business account to buy lessons for their employees
- italki language challenge – win prizes by setting goals and competing with other people from around the world
- language hacking – get tips for learning French, Italian, German and Spanish
The bottom line
italki, like any online tutoring platform, has some good points and some weak areas.
italki’s strongest point by far is the number of tutors available. Its other main advantages are:
- easy to use
- easy to buy credits
- cheap trial lessons
- easy to search for what you want
- classes available anytime
- instant classes
- interesting extra features, such as podcasts
- reasonable pricing
The weakest area seems to be the community and free content.
A second disadvantage is that some “proficient” teachers do not really seem to be proficient.
Are the best teachers on italki?
Remember that italki is not the only company that offers online English lessons. These companies offer good alternatives:
You should also consider whether the best teachers are online at all.
If you are only paying $10 per hour, how much is the teacher earning after italki ‘takes a cut’ of their money?
Teachers on any of these platforms may be less experienced than a teacher at a local language school. Or they could be forced into earning less than they deserve.
See this video for more on the topic:.
It is good to keep all options open, including self-study, live classes at a language school and live classes with a personal tutor.
Is italki a good choice for you?
This is a question that only you can answer.
However, italki does have some very attractive features.
It makes it easy to choose a teacher, easy to pay and easy to start immediately with its instant lessons. Your trial lessons can help you find the best teacher out of three options.
The prices are reasonable and the number of teachers available are more strong benefits. You can even specify what kind of English tutoring you want, including IELTS and Business English.
Best of all, if you do choose italki, you could be starting your first lesson within ten or fifteen minutes of clicking on the website.
If you think italki could be the one for you, feel free to use this link to get an extra $10 in italki credits.