How to choose a good online English tutor: A 5-step guide

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The market of online English language teaching is undoubtedly competitive.  There are countless online language learning marketplaces, such as italki and Preply, to find a tutor, not to mention popular classified ad portals where tutors advertise their services. Therefore, it’s a tough task to choose a good online English tutor that will put their heart and soul into helping you reach your goals. 

Check out this 5-step guide on how to find the best online English language tutor for you straight off the bat. 

1. Establish your goals first. Do your objectives match a teacher’s skill set?

Above all else, you need to establish why you want to take classes with an online English tutor. What is it you want to achieve?It’s important to make a list of goals and set a time frame in which you wish to achieve them.

I am currently developing a British English pronunciation course. Therefore, I'm reading up on the theoretical and practical perspectives on English pronunciation theory, research and practice. However, if you've inspected my blog and learning strategies page on my website, it wouldn’t take you long to realise that I’m more into lexical teaching, especially collocation

In light of the above, it’s worth exploring teachers’ profiles to see what their niche, or niches, are in regard to teaching English. I believe that the courses I offer on my courses page are both a reflection of my personal interests and extensive teaching experience.

2. Forget speaking with a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent. Consider whether a teacher has a plan or strategy that will advance your language skills

Over the years, I’ve had quite a few students express their wish to “speak like a British person”. Such students tend to quit their studies almost as soon as they’ve started them. I suspect that the reason is because they soon realise their dream of sounding like a Brit is simply unattainable. 

Interestingly, several of my students have told me that I speak with a “pure British accent”. I tend to accept the compliment graciously. However, what does “pure” mean? Is my accent “purer” than the King’s? Is it “purer” than a Scouse (Liverpool) accent? 

People from cities like Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester do speak very differently to me. However, just because they have stereotypically broad accents and distinct dialects does not mean that they are worse English teachers than someone like myself who is from central or southern England.

As you browse teachers’ profiles, you want to look for signs that a teacher has a plan or strategy that will enable you to overcome the intermediate plateau and become a more confident, advanced-level speaker of English. Personally, I encourage my students to adopt a language learning strategy (the Word-Phrase Table) which helped me to become fluent in Serbian in a short space of time. 

Forget speaking like the King. You should be looking to choose a good online English tutor who has a number of tricks up their sleeve to raise your level of English language proficiency and motivate you to learn English in your own time.

3. Does your tutor have knowledge of your mother tongue and negative language transfer?

It’s not absolutely essential but it would be handy if your tutor had some knowledge of your mother tongue. Specifically, it would be useful if they knew WHY you struggle to grasp certain rules and repeatedly make the same kind of mistakes.  

Having taught Polish learners of English since 2006 and also possessing a solid command of the Polish language, I have developed an interest in negative language transfer among Polish learners of English over the years. For those of you who don't know, negative language transfer occurs when writers and speakers directly transfer (or translate) language items and structures from their mother tongue into the target language. 

When speaking in the heat of a conversation, many language learners aren’t able to refrain from directly translating structures from their mother tongue into English. Indeed, they haven’t begun to master the all-important skill of “thinking in English”. Of course, this is not an easy skill to acquire. It takes a lot of extensive reading and conscious internalisation of the various subsystems (i.e. lexical, grammatical and phonic subsystems) of the English language to be able to “think in English”.

Typical mistakes Polish learners of English make

Anyway, towards the end of my first year of teaching English, I began to realise that the typical mistakes Polish learners of English make are due to the first-language negative interference. For example, the Polish present tense does not have two separate forms as English does with the present simple and present continuous tenses. Therefore, I noticed that many learners had a tendency to overuse the present continuous tense when the present simple was needed.

Another example of language transfer occurred with prepositions. Depending on the context, the Polish preposition ‘na’ may be translated as a multitude of English prepositions, such as into, for, on, to or at. For example:

Kupiłem mu zegarek na urodziny = I've bought him a watch FOR his birthday

Jedziemy na lotnisko = We’re going TO the airport

I noticed that my students would translate ‘na’ to ‘on’ in the vast majority of cases. I suspect that they’d only really learned about how to use ‘on’ as a preposition of position/place, as in My cat likes sleeping on the sofa, in their lessons at school. Therefore, without greater knowledge of the English preposition system, they assumed that ‘on’ would be the correct preposition in almost every circumstance.

All in all, if you’re finding it difficult to choose a good online English tutor, you may wish to mull over whether a teacher has knowledge of your mother tongue. There may be an argument here that non-native English teachers might have a one up over native speakers.

4. Pay heed to tutor personality

I’m of the opinion that extroverted teachers are not necessarily better teachers than introverted tutors, particularly in online one-on-one settings.

Even though your gut instinct may be telling you to seek out an outgoing and bubbly person, your talking time may often be limited. This may become frustrating for you over time. Some outgoing teachers like to natter away to their heart’s content and they may not be very good active listeners.

I’ve been teaching English as an introvert since 2006. When it comes to retaining new students after the first class or a trial class, I’ve never had an issue. I genuinely believe that most students respect my qualities and teaching methods and are able to overlook my quite serious and introverted nature.

All in all, I believe that introverts thrive in one-on-one settings as they’re able to create a very calm and focused learning environment. Still, I respect that there are students out there who simply wouldn’t be able to get along with an introverted teacher. That’s why it’s useful to have a trial lesson with a tutor to see whether you might be able to get along.

5. Find a tutor who is non-materialistic

In this day and age, it’s difficult to find anyone offering a service who’s actually genuinely interested in a client’s well-being and self-development.

Whether you consult with a language tutor, a dietician or a life coach, I believe there’s an increasing tendency for such “professionals” to give their clients the hard sell (books, products and monthly membership fees) rather than give it their all to help clients.

I think that most online English language teachers are client-oriented. However, many tutors suffer from burnout as they have busy schedules and often one or two other side hustles on the go.

One of the first things I would ask a tutor is what their schedule is like. If they say that only have one slot free at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, it’s a sure sign that they’re:

(a) Inflexible when it comes to rearranging lesson times in case you might not always be able to meet at the regular time 

(b) Burned out

I have a lot of free time for students in the mornings and in the evenings so I’m always willing to reschedule classes if students have to cancel. Personally, I try to avoid teaching between 12-18 as I do need some time away from the laptop.

My classes tend to last between 15-25 minutes. On the topic of the ideal length of online language lessons, I prefer to meet students two or three times a week for around 15-25 minutes. When it comes to communicating in a second language, regularity is key. I could probably persuade some students to meet me once a week for 90 minutes. I’d earn more money doing this. However, it would be unscrupulous of me to go against my principles and beliefs as an English language teacher. Besides, who’s got the attention span these days to focus for 90 minutes?

Final thoughts on how to choose a good online English tutor

It’s not easy to choose a good online English tutor who’s willing to go the extra mile to help you reach your goals. It is a teacher’s duty to share their personal take on language learning strategy theory and offer advice on how you can develop your skills between classes. If your teacher is purely focused on what goes during the duration of each class, it’s a sign they’re too materialistic, underqualified or uninterested in your development.

Present perfect continuous exercises in a language classroomEnglish word stress rules