How to choose an English Professor or a Language Training Academy
With 12 years of teaching English in Spain, I know about the ‘highs and lows’ of adult students attempting to find competent help to learn English. This help usually comes in the form of a school, academy or ‘one to one’ classes.
An example of a ‘high’ is a student who took a summer group immersion class and came away markedly improved. An example of a ‘low’ is a student who decided on an academy where the only topic for three months was aerodynamics. Then there is the student who took ‘one to one’ classes only later to get married to the professor. If the primary language used in their relationship was English…this is truly a ‘high’ and ‘win win’ for both!
There are more stories, too many to include in this piece.
In the examples above there are two assumptions. The first is the student’s strong desire to learn. The second is that they were armed with both subjective and objective information about their chosen learning process.
With that said, I will attempt to lay the groundwork for choosing an academy, school or a ‘one to one’ professor for your learning needs.
This article may also be useful for teachers as they will better prepared and understand the students’ needs.
What are your motivations and expectations?
If your motivation as a student is to improve your English in the business sector the obvious decision is to take classes in business English. If you need to pass the First or CAE exam make sure you attend an official exam center. If your need is to expand your skills for personal reasons, you can join the multitude of academies and schools that offer these services.
However before signing up for these classes it is important to objectively evaluate your level. I would do this in two to three ways. The first is to go online and take a free test from a number of sites which offer this. The second choice is to solicit a test from an academy or school. Do not make a commitment to the school before taking the test. Simply ask them if they have one. Take the exam, and meet with the appropriate person to further evaluate your level. The third possibility is to grab a native or even a non-native English speaker to assess your skills. This is particularly useful to discern your conversational skills.
Your evaluation should include grammar, speaking, reading, writing and listening. Once done you can determine the areas you need the most help with. Fortunately, most students in Spain have a good understanding of English grammar and consequently are looking to improve in other areas. As a recent article in El Pais pointed out, Spanish Students sometimes forget this stuff, but once in an advanced class seem to quickly remember. This has been by far the case for most of the students I have taught.
After assessing your level in these areas, it’s time to objectify your expectations. What are your expectations? Do you want to speak like a ‘Spy’? Someone who could be dropped in mid-west America or the center of London with no discernible accent, or will you be satisfied achieving a basic level communicating? Learning English is an ongoing process. Very few reach the level of the ‘Spy’. This takes years of practice and perseverance. If you are like me or most of us who take on another language, we are satisfied with a basic solid ability to communicate. Personally, if I can understand what the person is saying and can respond in comfort, I would be happy. Carrying a conversation beyond the usual informal hello or goodbye might be another goal. Speaking your new language on a specific subject may yet be another.
In order for your goals and expectations (directly linked) to be met by the school or the ‘one on one’ professor, they should periodically examine your progress. What I would suggest is going back to the internet or request the school test you every two months. Of course if you are taking classes to prepare for Cambridge or other certified exams, you can monitor your progress every class based on the questions and examples required for each lesson. Even so, I would take an overall exam every two months or meet with an English friend, engage in conversation and see what he or she thinks of your new level.
It is important to know what you want and expect from your school or ‘one to one’ professor. Do they offer progress reports? Is there a methodology? Will they move you into a higher level class or increase the level of course work if needed?
Let’s look at the student mentioned in the first paragraph who took an English course in which the sole topic was aerodynamics. Whoa… how did this happen. Well the first thing she told me was that the school had an excellent reputation and the building looked nice. “Fine and good” I said, but what info did they have about course material and the qualifications of their professors. The answer was none. So blindly she committed to taking the 3 month course only to participate in a windy discourse (in English) on jet dynamics and other unrelated stuff.
Don’t be fooled by the appearance of the building, office or surroundings of the school. This is secondary to your needs. What are important are the course material and the method and qualifications of the teachers. Are they qualified with TEFL or TESOL certificates? Do they hire based on minimum number of years for teaching? Also realize most academies in Spain are not official exam centers. The main official one is still Cambridge or those approved by them. Some academies will issue a certificate and state that it is equivalent to A1, B1, or C1 based on the European Framework. Fine and good but recognize they don’t hold as much weight as getting certified with the First or CAE from Cambridge.
A further question if you can find out… who else will be attending those courses? You don’t want to be stuck in a class with students at a lower level.
So before making a decision to pay for the courses, ask a lot of questions. Speak to the lead recruiters or student coordinator and drill them until you are satisfied. Ask for brochures on the courses, ask for information about the teachers, and ask them about their methodology. In other words, any questions you may have related to your expectations.
Learning a language is difficult, plain and simple. One of the biggest complaints I get is that classes are boring. If in some way the school or professor can make the process less of a burden or make it less of an obligation, you will be better off. This is done through the selection of topics, using media like music and movies or the teacher’s ability to bring real life experiences into the class. I am a big proponent of this and developed an entire book for teachers on this subject. (See here)
Should you choose a native teacher? Is it necessary and should they speak Spanish?
This is a hot potato. According to the British Council, the majority of English teachers are not native…they happen to be citizens of the country. Huh? Even the prestigious Cervantes Institution, is not concerned with their teachers being native. However, both organizations place emphasis on qualifications, and teaching methods. But here is the thing. The vast majority of students I come across want to be taught by a native teacher. This makes sense when you consider most Spanish students were taught English by Spanish teachers. The overwhelming response from students has always been…”We need to hear the accent…We need to hear the tone, the inflection and cadence for speaking.” This doesn’t even take into account their desire to learn phrasal verbs or local idioms.
As far as the teacher speaking Spanish…most don’t, especially when they first arrive. Knowing Spanish does have its advantages especially when explaining the grammar differences between the languages. However, most students would prefer only English be spoken in the hour or two hours per week they dedicate to learning the language.
Should you choose the British English or American English?
It doesn’t matter. It is up to your ear. Whatever you feel more comfortable with. The exception I would make is learning Business English. There are minor but distinct differences between the two.
Should you choose ‘one to one, private’, an academy or school?
From a teachers perspective the answer to this is pretty clear. When teaching a student ‘one to one’, there is more focus and the classes are easier to prepare for. In addition, there is clear path of communication and attention with little or no interruptions. Most importantly the classes are ‘customized’ for the students’ needs. It is the opinion of this author that the student will learn more. While teaching groups the teacher loses some of the direct interaction and always is concerned with trying to get all the members of the group to participate.
From a student’s standpoint, within groups, the main advantage is the participation and support from other members. The students will have the opportunity to hear other members’ stories and accents. This can be helpful and lead to rapid confidence building, especially in classes at lower levels.
If you are at the intermediate or upper level it is best to seek out an experienced professor with the ability to directly tap into your needs. Some at a lower level are better off learning in groups.
In both scenarios the students should do due diligence. If you find yourself with little time to make a decision, a good trick is to ask for references from former students or view on line sites like LinkedIn, profesoringles.net or You can also visit the academy or school’s websites to view any comments from former students.
Hope this helps and much luck in you learning endeavors.
Acerca de eric
American Native English and Business Teacher and Coach. Over ten years experience teaching Native and American Business English. I am also a writer and have 7 books which are self published. Two books are on the subject of teaching English. I offer classes at my house or at your domain depending on the distance.