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Tips for Choosing an English Tutor (for British Columbians)

Why Am I Offering My Opinion?

I have often been asked, especially by parents, what to look for in an English tutor. So, I am offering a few suggestions here. It is faster to tell many of you here, than to talk to you individually on the phone. Remember, this is my opinion, and I am only one person. I accept no responsiblity for what you do with the suggestions below.

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A Note About Terms

I have referred to a Baccalaureate degree in Arts (a B.A.) with an English major as "an English degree" to keep this explanation short.

An English major usually takes at least 30 credits of upper-level third and fourth year courses in the study of English. That is the equivalent of one school year spent studying English full time. There are at least two types of English major: English Literature, and English, emphasis Language, (which I have called "English, Language structure").

A certified teacher (who will have an Education degree in addition to a Bachelor's Degree) may not be an English major. In addition, he or she might not have any courses in English Language structure (grammar and writing), or in Linguistics (the sound and structure of all language). So, a certified teacher may not have the English education you are looking for in a tutor.

If good grades (a smart tutor) are important, ask the GPA (grade point average) the tutor earned in university. The designation "Dean's Honour List" means the tutor earned first class marks in the university degree. Also, an Honours degree is only open to those who have first class marks in their major. Of course, a Masters degree, or a Doctorate is also only available to those with first class marks.

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My Opinion: What to Look for in a Tutor

For an elementary school child up to Grade 4, look for tutor who is an elementary school teacher, if possible. This person has a degree in Education, and will be more familiar with teaching younger children. Ask the tutor if his or her major was English. If your child has English as a second language, look for a tutor with courses in the structure of English, or in Linguistics. If you think your child is struggling in school, and you want a diagnosis of what is wrong, look for a tutor who is qualified as a special needs teacher.

For a student from Grade 4 to Grade 7, you must decide whether the child is ready for a more intensive English lesson, given by a tutor used to taking high school and college students. If the child is still too young, and needs the familiar feel of learning from an elementary school teacher, then look for an elementary school teacher. If the child is outgoing enough to relate to an adult tutor one-on-one, and if the child can pay attention for an hour, then find a tutor with a degree in English. At the Grade 4-7 level of reading and writing, a tutor with an English Literature major is just as good as a tutor with a degree in English language structure, and vice versa. If pronunciation is a problem, a tutor with Linguistics courses will be able to help.

For a student from Grade 8 to Grade 12, English literature becomes increasingly more important. This is especially true for Grade 12, because of the provincial final exam. The questions you must ask are: does the tutor have a degree? Was the major English, either Literature of Language emphasis? If you want pronunciation tutoring, does the tutor have Linguistics or Speech Pathology courses? The best choice to tutor Grade 12 is a tutor who has marked provincial exams. Another good choice would be a tutor who has taught high school English, especially Grade 12.

A student who wants to pass the LPI, SAT, ACT, IELTS, or TOEFL exam should look for a tutor who has a degree in English Language structure, and who also tutors essay writing, (and speaking if the exam includes a test of speaking or listening). An important part of exam tutoring is coaching in exam skills and how to budget time. Is it necessary for the tutor to have taken the exam? No. Remember, the tutor has a whole advanced degree in English. If you are really lucky, you might find someone who has been a marker for the exam you want to take.

For a college or university school student, who wants tutoring in English courses, a tutor with a university degree with an English major is a necessity. If you particularly want tutoring in a Literature course, try to find a tutor with a degree in English Honours. Honours is a few credits extra in addition to the degree, and a graduating essay. It is only open to students with better grades. (Where I took my degree, Honours was only available in English Literature, not English, Language structure. A double major in English, that is Literature plus Language structure, was not allowed.) Hopefully the tutor will be familiar with some of the Literature you will be reading in your courses. You might even find someone who has taught tutorials in the English department at your university, or who knows your prof.

For essay proofreading and editing in Arts subjects other than English Literature, look for a tutor with a degree in English Language structure. You want a grammar and vocabulary expert who can advise you how to structure your essay and your writing.

To get help with grammar and writing, especially essay writing, look for a tutor with a degree in English Language structure, who also has some Arts courses which required written essays. Grammar and writing training is not part of an English Literature major, and experience writing essays in literature is not the same as experience analyzing and producing grammatical structures, or studying how language is formed.

For conversational ESL tutoring, a tutor without a degree who has a TESL or CELTA certificate can help you. A tutor with a degree in English has taken many, many more hours of instruction in the English language than a tutor with a TESL certificate. The TESL certificate is more about how to teach (method) and not as much about what to teach (grammar, language structure, vocabulary). A TESL certificate on its own is adequate for some non-academic ESL tutoring, like conversational tutoring.

If your main concern is learning pronunciation, you may want to hire a speech language pathologist or speech therapist. This person has taken courses about the sounds of speech and how they are made.

What if the tutor you want to hire does not have a degree with an English major, or a TESL certificate? They may still be able to help you with conversational English, but you should pay them only about one-half of what a qualified tutor would get. Some people think they can tutor ESL without sweating out the training necessary to learn how English works, and your English could suffer because they have no training. It's your decision if you want to risk this.

Should you look for a tutor whose first language is English? Ideally, yes, or at least a tutor who learned English as a child in North America. A non-native speaker can only take you so far before they cannot answer your questions about the language. The only exception would be hiring a tutor who has the same first language you do, to explain things in that language, if you find it necessary.

Some other questions you might ask a tutor: Are you a student yourself, and if you are, do you tutor during exam periods, or summers only? Do you have a business license? Do you give receipts for the fees? Do you charge a deposit? Is there a cancellation fee? Do you take cheques? Will you travel to my home? And lastly, if you want to be tutored at the library or a coffee shop, will the library or coffee shop allow tutorials?

For all of you out there looking for a tutor, good luck!

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