Friday, November 15, 2013

Four Ways You Can Become a Better Language Tutor by Ron G

It’s tough becoming a good language tutor.

I've had experience tutoring all kinds of people, ranging from students in intensive language programs, to translators needing help passing certification exams, to college students needing to learn how to write better term papers and essays.

Early in my tutoring career, I was frustrated because I could tell I wasn't helping people as well as I wanted to. With practice and effort, however, I improved.

Based on what I learned as a language tutor, here are four ways to become a better tutor and get the most out of your students.

1. Be Kind

Most people get into tutoring because they like to help people. Yet some people think that to really help their students, they have to be hard on them.

That might not be the best idea.

Tutoring is so effective because you’re dealing with a person in a one-to-one setting and can therefore focus more of your attention. That same kind of intimacy, though, amplifies any criticism or negative comments. Being too harsh, even if your intentions are good, can easily cause a student to become discouraged and clam up.

While you’re correcting students, use quite a bit of tact. Err on the side of kindness. It’s definitely better to be too nice than to be too mean.

2. Tailor your instruction to the student

While studying Spanish, I decided to hire a tutor to help me with my conversation skills. My tutor was a native Spanish speaker who was very intelligent and understood Spanish really well. Unfortunately, during our first session together, he didn’t individualize his instruction for me at all. He simply read from Chapter One of a Spanish textbook.

I got very little out of that session. Had he spent even a couple minutes assessing my needs, he would’ve understood that I needed conversation practice and not a grammar lecture. He would’ve also understood that I was at an intermediate level at the time, well past Chapter One of a beginner’s textbook.

Treat each of your students as an individual. Figure out what they’re strong at and where they need specific improvement, and then come up with an appropriate plan of instruction.

3. Keep your student’s goals in mind

What is your student really trying to accomplish? Be specific when answering this question. Is she trying to:
  • Become conversationally fluent?
  • Pass a test, class, or certification exam?
  • Improve a specific skill, like vocabulary?
  • Prepare for international travel?
Each goal requires its own plan of attack. You probably wouldn't teach a student intricate grammar points if her goal is simply to speak better in social settings. You probably would do that, however, if she were preparing for a CEFR exam.

If your student doesn't have a specific goal in mind, help her identify one. Figure out exactly what she wants to achieve, when she wants to achieve it, and how you’ll measure whether she’s successful.

4. Pick your battles

You can’t nitpick a student to death, especially during conversation.

If you use written assignments, administer quizzes, or perform targeted drills, it’s fine to mark a student’s answers as correct or incorrect. Most people are comfortable with being “graded” if the rules and criteria are well-established and the correction is limited to the context of the activity.

But if you’re helping a student practice conversation, you have to let the student talk.

Language learners speaking their new language have to pronounce words correctly, use proper grammar, and remember vocabulary words accurately. With so much to keep track of and so many ways to slip up, they’re going to make a lot of mistakes.

Try not to correct every single error during speaking. Nitpicking backfires for a several reasons. It will slow down the session, and it will frustrate, discourage, and overwhelm the student.

Instead, pick your battles. During conversation practice, try not to interrupt or correct the student unless you:
  • Cannot understand what the student is trying to say.
  • Notice recurring errors.
  • Spot an error that would cause the student social embarrassment.
Wrapping Up

Tutoring well requires quite a bit of finesse, which comes with practice and time. In the meantime, if you try to keep in mind the four tips above, you should see immediate improvements in your ability to connect with your students and help them achieve their language goals.

Ron G. is a technical writer and translator from Orlando, FL. He writes about language learning at

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