Honestly, most English-learners probably don’t need to take a course or hire an English tutor. (And yes, I recognise the irony of saying that as an English teacher!)
In some previous posts, I’ve made it clear that there are, in my view, several good reasons not to take an English class.
But English classes can be a useful part of your English learning programme. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing several of my students move from a very basic level of English to a much higher level—some even have since become fluent. Not only that, but there are also good reasons to believe that English lessons, and especially private tutoring, can be very effective.
If you’re considering starting an English course, I encourage you to first think about whether you should take English lessons.
Once you’ve done that, and you’ve decided that they’ll be a good investment for you, you’ll need to choose what kind of lessons you should take.
You’ll have to choose between:
- Online courses
- Group, face-to-face lessons
- One-on-one tutoring
That’s what this guide will help you do. I’ll go through the advantages and disadvantages of each and give you my advice about when each kind is right for you.
There are tonnes of online courses that you can take for English, and they range from free to quite expensive. Free options include those in Coursera, edX, USALearns, and Open Culture. Paid options include Udemy, Pimsleur, British Council, and Rocket Languages.
The advantages of online courses include:
- Flexibility. You can study from home or wherever you like. You can also access classes any time, so you are able to fit your studying around your schedule.
- Less expensive. These courses are usually cheaper than face-to-face courses or one-on-one lessons.
- Solo study. It's a good option if you prefer to study alone without other people. You can progress at your own pace.
The disadvantages include:
- Solo study. You won’t have the same interaction with others. This will reduce the opportunities you have to practice speaking and listening to your peers.
- Personalisation. The classes are usually not personalised to your needs or level, so it could be difficult to find exactly the right level. You might end up doing work that is too easy or too hard for you.
- High drop-out rates. Lots of people don’t actually continue with online courses. They tend to start them, but give up after a few weeks. The drop-out rate of online courses tends to be between 40% to 80%.
Who this is best for: This type of English class is probably most useful for those at the very beginning levels of English. These courses can help you get comfortable with learning if it’s been a long time since you’ve learned something or if you’re someone who needs some learning structure. If you want to start learning English, but you’re not sure how or where you should begin, online English courses could be useful to you.
My advice: Start with a free online course to see if it’s for you. If you like it, you want more, and you think it’ll be worth the money for you, you can try one of the paid options. Once you get to an intermediate level, I suggest stop taking a course and create your own English immersion programme. Even while you’re taking the online course, I recommend you supplement the material with other reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities.
Face-to-face English lessons in a classroom
There are thousands of English schools around the world. If you live in a city, you’ll probably find one near you. The quality and methodologies of these vary so be sure to do your research before choosing one.
The advantages of in-person English classes include:
- Comfort. Depending on your preferences, you may feel more comfortable learning in a traditional classroom environment.
- A language guide. In most classes, teachers are either fluent in English or very skilled. They will give you lots of language input. You can also ask your teacher questions as soon as they come up.
- Motivation. English classes are often more motivating because we know the teacher will check our homework and we want to make sure we’re not behind compared to our classmates.
- Language partners. Learning in a class environment with others allows you to meet other English learners. You could ask them to become your conversation partner.
- Completion. The chances of finishing the course are higher when you do it in person vs. online.
The disadvantages of English lessons include:
- Cost. In-person English classes are often quite expensive.
- Varied quality. The quality of instruction varies greatly. Sometimes you’ll have a great class and instructor; sometimes you won’t.
- Speaking time. Depending on your teacher, you don’t always get significant speaking time.
- Personalisation. The class will not necessarily be at your level. Often in group classes, the teacher has to adapt to make it accessible for lower-skilled individuals. Higher-performing students may not be challenged, and you might find the class going at the pace of the lowest-level student.
- Slow progression. Some English schools intentionally progress you more slowly than they should so that you’ll continue to take classes with them.
- Effectiveness. Research shows that in-person teaching is usually not as effective as one-on-one tutoring.
I’ve written about some of the reasons not to learn English in a classroom before. Check these out before you commit to one.
Who is this best for: In-person classes are best for individuals who feel most comfortable in a traditional classroom environment and who don’t mind the cost. Like online courses, these are probably most effective for beginner and lower-intermediate level students. Once you are getting to an upper-intermediate level, my opinion is that group classes stop being as useful.
My advice: If you think in-person lessons are for you, do a bit of research on local English schools in your area. The ones with the flashiest branding are not necessarily the best. If you decide to enrol in a course, ask for a level higher than you are so that you’ll be challenged and learn more quickly. Also, don’t be afraid to talk in class or make mistakes. You’re paying for the time—use it!
Finally, don’t rely solely on your lesson. Make sure you’re continuing to do other activities at home, like listening to podcasts. Use in-person classes only until you’re at an intermediate level and then go out and learn on your own or hire a tutor.
One-on-one lessons involve a teacher or tutor giving individual attention to a student in an intensive way. It may be the right option for you if you need some personalised direction in your studies and you like constant, immediate feedback. It may also be more practical if you have a rigid or unusual schedule.
You can find one-on-one classes both online and in-person. To find in-person tutors, you can contact your local English schools to see if any of their teachers are available. You can also look on your local classified sites: Craigslist, le Bon Coin, Gumtree, OLX, or whatever is popular in your area. If you’re interested in finding online English tutors, try sites like italki ($10 free credit) Preply, Magoosh, or Cambly.
Advantages of one-on-one tutoring include:
- Personalisation. Classes can be (but aren’t always) tailored to your needs and progress
- Attention. You’ll get exclusive attention from your tutor with fewer of the interruptions and distractions that are common to multi-student environments.
- Focus on weaknesses. You’ll be able to work on your weaknesses and master them before moving on to the next topic.
- Feedback. Tutors are able to give much more and frequent feedback on your learning than teachers in a class are.
- Flexibility. Usually, tutors are more flexible than classes, so you can adjust the sessions to your routine.
- Cost. You might think that 1:1 tuition will be more expensive, but it isn’t always. Depending on the price of your tutor, you may spend less money in the long run than if you took group classes since you can learn faster with a tutor.
Disadvantages of one-on-one tutoring include:
- Cost. The price of tutoring really varies. You can find very cheap tutors and very expensive ones. If you’re getting your tutor through an English school or agency, they can be very expensive. If you find them online, they can be significantly cheaper.
- Quality varies. Some English tutors are actually trained to be teachers; some are just people that speak English and are travelling around. Quality is difficult to determine ahead of time and doesn’t necessarily correspond to the price you’re paying.
- Curriculum. Tutors are not always good at creating a curriculum for their students. This is especially the case if you’re using online sites or meet with different tutors each time.
One-on-one tutoring does tend to be much more effective than classroom learning. Although these tend to be more expensive per hour than classes, they may lead to cost savings in the long run. Individualised attention from a teacher can enhance your studies and decrease the time it would take you to learn the language.
Who is this best for: one-on-one tutors are best for individual learners who want to learn at their own pace and who don’t mind paying for it. They are also ideal for people with very specific goals, like learning technical languages, practising for a particular accent, and so on.
My advice: If you’re looking for a tutor, I would do a lot of research and have practice lessons with several until you find one that you like and could work well with. Like other classes, do not rely on tutoring sessions; instead, think of them like a “booster” class. Your real learning will come from the other activities that you do.
I would take tutoring until you get to an intermediate level. Then, depending on your goals, you can continue with a tutor, but less often. At an intermediate level and up, focus more on other learning activities.
How to best use an English class or tutor
So now you have a good sense of which kind of English lessons could be right for you. But no matter which type you take, make sure you make the most of them. Here’s my advice on how to best use an English class or tutor.
Make use of your class time. When I taught classes, I noticed that some students would be engaged and try even though they made mistakes. These were the most successful students. Being worried about making mistakes is one of the most common mistakes people make when learning English. Make the best use of your time by being engaged with the class and speaking when you have the opportunity.
Don’t only take a class. I’ve said this, but I want to emphasise it: even if you’re taking an English class, make sure you complement it with other English activities. Aim to choose some activities for listening, speaking, reading, and writing. There are lots of easy and inexpensive ways to learn English from home, so try to do some of these in addition to your English lessons.
Continue to learn actively. I saw this often in my clients: they would come to class and expect to be able to sit in class, listen to me for an hour, and eventually learn English. They were passive learners. Passive learning doesn’t work very well. To make the most of your English lessons, you have to be an active participant and be engaged.
Adapt as you go. Like anything else, continue to think about whether the English class you are taking is working for you. If it is, great. If it’s not, don’t hesitate to change or quit. It’s normal to search around a bit until you find something that works for you. And that can change over time.
What kind of English lessons you should take depends on your needs
Hopefully, you now have a good sense of what each type of English lesson can do for you. Each of them could be right for you—it depends on your goals. But remember that you don’t necessarily need them. Lots of people learn English without classes and you can too.
And even if you do take lessons, learning English is hard and will take lots of time. The students I’ve had that became fluent were the ones that not only took classes, but listened to podcasts, read, and spoke with English-speakers on the internet. They invested the time and effort into it.
So go for the English lessons if you like, but remember to continue learning English outside your lessons as well!