What Every English Language Student Needs to Know
English may not be the most spoken language in the world, but it is the Lingua Franca – the common language – of business, science, technology, engineering, research, trade and commerce. If you want to improve your salary and international working opportunities, it is important to know how to speak English well. If you want to learn how to speak English well, you will need a good teacher and good teaching. So I have written this 10-point guide to help you find out how to choose the best English teaching for you.
1. What is your goal?
Why do you want to learn English? Do you need it for work or to improve your job opportunities? Do you need to learn English for academic purposes? Do you want to move to an English speaking country? Maybe you just want to maintain the English level that you already have, or maybe you just want to learn English for travelling or personal achievement. Whatever your reasons for learning English, if you have a specific objective such as job progression or emigration, you will need to know which exam you need to do – IELTS, TOEFL or Cambridge. The website tracktest.eu gives you a guide to the CEFR standard (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) and the various official exams. You will be wasting time and money if you take the wrong one.
2. What qualifications and experience should a teacher have?
English language learning is an investment and you should always invest wisely. Therefore, you should at least choose an English language teacher that is qualified and experienced. Your English language teacher should not only know their subject, but also know how to teach. Whilst some schools promote the fact that they have ‘native English teachers’, teaching is a profession and even a native English language teacher should have a recognised TEFL qualification.
The two most established and recognised TEFL courses are the CELTA and Trinity Cert TESOL. The most established and respected English academies and schools, such as The British Council and English First, will not employ a teacher without a recognised TEFL qualification. If these organisations want the best, then you should want the best also. Nevertheless, a teacher who has done a degree, a postgraduate diploma or certificate in education should be just as qualified if their area of study was TEFL. And if your teacher has both a TEFL qualification and a university qualification, then you should be in safe hands. That being said, learning how to do a job and doing that job are two very different things, which is why experience is also an important factor.
Aside from knowing the rules of English, teachers should know how to teach. The more experience you gain teaching, the better you become. Different students respond better to different teaching methods. An experienced teacher will understand this and they will know how to recognise their students’ strengths and weaknesses. They will have a whole variety of teaching strategies to ensure that their students are getting the most out of their lessons. Whilst a newly qualified teacher with preparation can certainly deliver good lessons, an experienced teacher is almost certainly going to have more to offer.
3. What is your current English level?
Any course of learning is a journey of improvement. In order to know how far you are going, you need to know where you are starting from. So before you start your English course, you need to find out what your current English level is. To do this, you need to do what is called a placement test.
There are many English level tests that you can do online. The British Council have a simple online test with 25 questions to evaluate your level up to B2. English First, the largest English language teaching group in the world, offer an online reading and listening test, while the Cambridge online test evaluates which of their exams you are ready to prepare for. There are many other online tests that you can do to get a general idea of your knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. I recommend that you do at least two of these tests to find out what your general level of grammar and vocabulary is and what you need to improve. Your English teacher should also give you an oral test to assess your level of speaking and listening. If you have a private teacher, he or she may give you an oral test and use your first lesson to assess your level more accurately. However, if you go to a language school that has no formal placement testing system, that is a warning sign to go and find somewhere else.
4. How do you know if your English course is the right course for you?
Education is a business, and like any other business there are good and bad. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad English language teaching out there. However, if you’re reading this, you will have a much better idea of how to recognise the difference between good and bad English language teaching.
In order to get the best out of your English language course, it is necessary to be learning at a level that is appropriate for you. It is quite common for many English language schools to take your money and put you in a group that is not suitable for your level because it is the only course that they have that fits your timetable. I have been asked to do this in the past, and I can tell you, neither the teacher nor the students enjoy these classes.
Within a group of students there will usually be a difference in abilities. However, the differentiation between students on a course should never be more than a gap of one complete level. Beginners should not be studying at the same level as intermediate students, and intermediate students should not be studying at the same level as advanced students. If your course is too easy, then you will not develop. If your course is too difficult, then you will not enjoy it and you will probably give up. If this has happened, tell your tutor and ask to be put on a course that is more suited to your level.
5. What are the best teaching methods?
Some education cultures focus mainly on memorisation and passing exams, but this type of learning doesn’t help students to learn how to think. Although memorisation and repetition are an important part of English language learning, it should not be the only strategy used.
Many schools promote their own ‘method’ and make false promises about how quickly you will learn. The truth is, because students vary between visual learners, audio learners and kinaesthetic learners (learning by doing), a good English course should use a variety of teaching methods. You should be engaging in different types of exercises and activities which include repetition and quizzes, but also task based learning, discussion, reading comprehension and activities that relate to your interests. A good language school or teacher will provide a course that keeps all of their learners stimulated and interested. If you are not regularly speaking or are simply being taken through the chapters of a book every week, then you are not getting good teaching.
6. What are the best teaching materials?
Modern technology plays a large part in modern teaching, but it is just one part. Good English teaching survived for many years before computers and the internet. However, any English language school in a modern country should be providing its teachers and students with more than just exercise books and a whiteboard. A good language academy doesn’t need to have the most state of the art technology, but it should at least have modern audio visual equipment to present recordings, videos and images, and internet access to present online material. Even a private teacher will use their laptop to present learning material, so an English academy should be doing the same.
7. Should you be following a course?
There are many academies who simply hire a teacher, assign them an exercise book for their group and leave them to do what they want. If they have good teachers, this may be okay. However, a proper course should have a beginning, an end goal, and follow a flexible learning plan. This plan – or scheme of work – is designed to help you progress in a methodological way. Sure, you can pay for a few lessons at a time and have a little bit of conversation with a native speaker if you just want to practice, but this is not a course. If you want to progress through the CEFR levels of English and gain accreditation, you need to commit to a course of study. A good English academy or a good private teacher will assess your needs and develop a course structure that progressively leads you towards your goal.
8. How often should you be assessed?
A good teacher will frequently assess you during your lesson and at the end of your lesson. This is called formative assessment, and you may not even notice it is happening as it is often just questions or a quiz that is part of your lesson. Formative assessment is important for you to practice and develop what you are learning, and it also helps your teacher monitor your progress. This helps you to set mini-goals to aim for during your learning progress. It is also good to have a test at the end of each term (trimester) and final test at the end of your course to evaluate how much you have developed.
9. Private Teacher vs. Language School.
Having lessons with a private English tutor is going to be more expensive than going to an academy. However, if you have a good teacher, it is also probably going to be worth it. You will have 100% of the time you have paid for and you will get 100% of the attention of your teacher. You are going to have a course specifically tailored to your individual needs, and you are almost definitely going to improve more quickly; it’s that simple. However, there are also some benefits of going to an English language school.
If you like the social aspect of learning, an English language school gives you the opportunity to meet new people. When you are studying with a group of other students, you also have the opportunity to do pair work, group work and a greater range of task based exercises. However, if you are a little bit shy and lack confidence, it is going to be difficult to assert yourself and you may waste a lot of the time you spend in the classroom. This is going to be even worse if the academy has groups of more than 8 people in the class.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. But if you are serious about improving your English quickly, a private English language teacher is the best way forward.
10. You usually get what you pay for.
There is a Spanish expression that goes: ‘Bueno, bonito, barato’ – Good, nice and cheap. That’s an ideal principal, but an unlikely premise. The English expression – ‘You get what you pay for’ – is more realistic, and this is no different when it comes to English language teaching.
Benjamin Franklin said: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Warren Buffet, who is one of the world’s best investors and richest men, supports this idea; he said: “The best investment you can make is an investment in yourself… The more you learn, the more you’ll earn.” English language teaching is a very competitive business, and there are many English language academies whose goal is to enrol as many students as they can by offering the cheapest prices. This often means that their courses are not the best and neither are their teachers. Do not be tempted by the cheapest course on offer. In the long term, you may find that you have wasted both your time and your money because you have not improved. That is not to say that the most expensive courses are also the best, not at all. However, if you want to ensure that you are going to get the best English language teaching for your needs, you should know what you want, and know what kind of service you should be getting. Hopefully, this article will help you make a more informed decision.
Finally – your responsibility as a student.
Education is a two-way process. You as the student have a responsibility to contribute in the classroom to help your learning progress. You should make the most of your classroom lessons and engage in the activities fully. You should ask questions and use your classroom time to practice and learn. Learning requires commitment, so you should attend at least 80% of your classes. You should also show respect to your teacher and your fellow students by arriving on time. As lessons are not very long, you should always do your homework and try to do activities in your own time. Many students start English courses without actually having the time to commit to the course. If you can, start your English course when you have the time to commit to it. If this is not possible, then be prepared to sacrifice the extra time to do the extra work. If you put in the work, you will get the reward.
What is your goal?
Decide why you want to do English language lessons and choose the type of English language teaching that will help you achieve that goal.
What qualifications and experience should my teacher have?
Invest in high quality teachers with good qualifications and lots of experience – and don’t be afraid to ask. Being a native English speaker is not sufficient criteria for being a good teacher.
What is your current English level?
Do an online level test and an oral speaking test with your teacher before you start your new course.
How do I know if my English course is the right course for my level?
If you start your lessons and you find that they are too difficult or too easy, tell your teacher. You are probably studying at the wrong level and need to change your course.
What are the best teaching methods?
Ask your teacher what kind of things you will be doing in your English classes. You want an English course that is communicative and involves a variety of different activities.
What are the best teaching materials?
It is the 21st century and there is no excuse for a language academy to not use audio-visual material in the classroom. Simply following the chapters of an exercise book is not enough.
Should I be following a course?
Ask your teacher or language school what you will study on your course and what the expectation is for their students at the end of the course.
How often should I be assessed?
You should be assessed during your lessons with questions or quizzes. At the end of a lesson, the teacher should review what you did. You should have learnt something new, or at least feel more confident about using the language you have practiced.
Private Teacher vs. Language School.
Private lessons are more expensive, but they are also much more effective. If you are in no hurry to improve and enjoy a more social learning experience, group lessons in a language school could be for you.
You usually get what you pay for.
Cheaper isn’t always better, but price doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality either. However, if your teacher or language school fulfils all the criteria in this article, you’re probably onto a winner.
And don’t forget – learning requires an effort from the teacher AND the student!