Take the Wheel: 17 Hacks for Designing the Best Online Lessons with Your Language Tutors

Looking to optimize your time spent in online language lessons?

I’ve long been collecting advice, wisdom and hacks from polyglot podcasts and blogs, from books on the science of language learning and through my own many years of experience as both a language student and teacher—in the classroom and online.

In this post, I’ll whittle all that down to the best of the best.

The basic premise is that you get the most out of your one-on-one online sessions when you, the student, take the wheel and design the classes yourself.

You’ve likely never planned your own lessons before, which is why I’ve put together this post of 17 hacks.

And just in case anyone’s still on the fence about online tutoring, here’s an ultra-quick rundown of the main benefits:

  • They’re usually one-on-one, so you don’t waste time listening to others mangle the language.
  • You also won’t be wasting (relatively significant!) time getting to and from class, or paying a teacher to come to you.
  • Online classes are a relatively cheap way to have a native-speaking tutor from anywhere in the world.

So with so much to gain, let’s get started!

17 Hacks for Designing the Best Online Lessons with Your Language Tutors

Resource Hacks

1. Use Verbling, italki or WyzAnt for finding teachers

Verbling is a site that specializes in online language tutoring. You can search based on price, availability and, of course, language. Plus, this site has its own video technology! This means you don’t need Skype or another third-party program, so if you find a tutor on Verbling, you can skip the next step below.

italki is currently one of the most popular options for finding language tutors, and offers a wide variety of tutors for various languages. You can select a language, browse tutors for that language and schedule an online lesson, all right on the site.

WyzAnt helps people find online or in-person tutors for a variety of subjects. It’s a great option for finding an online language tutor if you want to get really specific about what you’re looking for in terms of payment or schedule, or if you’re looking for someone who can fit into a certain timeslot ASAP.

2. Connect with the best tech for video calling

Skype is the most common choice for language classes, so your choice of video calling may be settled by the fact that it’s what your tutor already has. In my experience, Skype tends to deliver more acceptable sound quality on slower Internet connections compared to Google Hangouts, whose image quality is a bit better. Good sound is obviously more important for a language class.

Google Hangouts does have Google Docs (see below) integrated, but there’s nothing to keep you from using Google Docs separately at the same time you’re on Skype.

3. Use Google Docs for correcting texts together in real time

I’ve compared Google Docs to Microsoft’s offering, Word Online, and while the latter may come out on top in terms of some word processing features, Google Docs tends to be better for editing your attempts at written language together in real time during an online class. Word Online has more frequent lag when saving; Google Docs just works, allowing you to more instantly see the changes that your teacher is making as you edit a document together.

Google Docs also has a chat feature next to the document, so you can use that as scratch space for looking at grammar issues without writing in the document itself.

4. Have access to quick translations

The quickest way to get a decent answer for a puzzling word or phrase in many languages is either Google Translate or WordReference; I keep them both open during classes.

A better way to look up words however is with Google or Bing’s image search feature. If you’re having trouble understanding something that your teacher says, and it’s a concept that could be understood quickly visually, encourage your teacher to share a link to pictures of what they’re talking about, rather than a translation.

For example, my Serbian teacher recently sent me this link to explain the kajle, or blinged-out necklaces worn by certain classless hooligans in her country. A picture is worth…

5. Use online whiteboards

If you like to doodle, draw or diagram concepts and conjugations, a whiteboard can be convenient. There are several sites that allow you to simply pop in and start drawing, and you can get a link to share what you are doing with your teacher and allow them to contribute too. A Web Whiteboard is one good one.

Choosing Your Tutors

6. Use more than one tutor

There’s no reason you should have just one tutor—you’re not planning on speaking your target language with just one person, who has just one speaking style and viewpoint on life, are you? Language learning is hardly a monogamous commitment, and no tutor should expect as much.

I’m usually working with two or three tutors at any one time on a target language. Aside from giving me various perspectives and speaking styles, it helps me cross-check things. Even the best teachers get some of their explanations a bit wrong sometimes.

Changing things up also keeps the lessons more interesting for me, and even for the tutors. I can repeat the same basic lesson plan with several different tutors if I’m having trouble with a subject, without the risk of boring any one of them to death.

7. Work with native speakers

Of course you should work with native speakers! You want to be able to speak with them someday, right? One of the principle advantages of online tutoring is that you can work with someone from anywhere in the world for a reasonable price.

Also, consider the target version (dialect/accent) of your language. Don’t, for example, learn Senegalese French if you’re planning a move to Montreal! If possible, get someone who was born in and still lives in your target region. Even grammar rules can vary widely in most languages; the most educated Spaniard from the south is still going to occasionally use different conjugations than someone from the north.

I’d also recommend only focusing on one dialect and trying to get only teachers from that region, so that you don’t have contradictory inputs about grammar and vocabulary, which can be frustrating. If you’re a glutton for punishment, wait to take on other versions of the language until you’re firmly comfortable with one of them.

I can think of one counter-example in which you’d learn a language that you intend to actually speak only with non-native speakers: Business English in many parts of the world functions this way. But even students learning English for purely business purposes in Siberia, for example, tend to prefer to learn with native speakers—from anywhere—for aesthetic reasons. We’d all like to sound like natives, in the end.

8. Consider if you want to learn the academic dialect

A related consideration is whether you want to learn the academic (“correct”) dialect of the language—as David Foster Wallace reminds us, it is just a dialect—or the street-y, conversational version you’ll actually use when speaking.

I’m not planning on ever writing scientific papers in Italian or business proposals in Serbian, so personally, I’m always going to choose the latter in my language adventures. My guess is that many readers of this blog have similar goals, but most of our tutors are at cross purposes; they feel some innate, mysterious responsibility to foist the academic version of their language on us. It can take some convincing to get them to focus on conversational grammar and vocabulary. If you land with a teacher who absolutely doesn’t want to teach you the language as it’s used in everyday conversation, get another.

On a related note, when I was learning Russian I found it hard to get female Russian tutors to utter or explain even the mildest swear words. So, where there are strong gender and socio-economic divides in how the language is used, you may have to take this into consideration in choosing a teacher. In the example of Russian, if you need to learn to understand and use swear words (which are a huge feature of that spoken language), you may need a male teacher.

9. Ensure your teacher has a solid Internet connection

If you frequently have problems connecting, don’t hesitate to change tutors.

10. Find a tutor who is a pleasure to talk to

Having a rapport with your tutor is important and underrated. A funny teacher is always better than a boring teacher with tons of degrees! The lessons will be more memorable if they’re amusing, and if you’re motivated to speak with a great person, you’ll stick with it for longer.

Other qualities that factor in: Does your tutor speak slowly and clearly? Is your tutor patient, or does he/she get frustrated? A big warning sign is a teacher who insists on explaining things in English rather than the target language. It’s better to have a teacher who knows how to use pictures and words that are simple enough for any level. The best teachers can explain most things entirely in the target language for any student—and know better than to try to explain those few things that are too complicated for the student at that point.

11. Look for someone who fits your learning style

As the great overview of language learning studies “How Languages Are Learned” points out, students tend to do best when they’re learning from a teacher whose style matches the one that they believe is best.

This is also a safe excuse to ignore all Internet advice (including mine, dang it!) on language learning; you’re going to be motivated and have better learning and retention when you’re learning in a way that seems correct based on your habits and previous educational experiences.

12. Sometimes inexperienced tutors can be better

A little tip that I picked up from language-learning addict Judith Meyer’s interview on episode 12 of David Mansaray’s fabulous podcast is that you may sometimes want to have an inexperienced, untrained tutor. Highly trained and seasoned teachers are more likely to have firm and antiquated ideas about language learning, and are less likely to be willing to let you plan your own lessons (see the last section).

Even worse are the inexperienced and highly trained teachers. And many countries produce a surfeit of academics who have studied the intricacies of the grammar of the academic dialect (usually as more commonly used in a politically powerful region some 50-100 years back), but have not studied how to explain the language to foreigners, which is quite a different subject.

Inexperienced teachers generally charge less and are more flexible about working with you towards your goals.

Experienced teachers can, however, be lifesavers when you need a grammar point explained and your textbook or Internet references aren’t making any sense. Experienced (often older) teachers have taught grammar points to foreigners many times, have honed their explanations and examples, and know the exceptions to watch out for.

Meyer suggests that inexperienced tutors are better for experienced language learners, and experienced tutors are better for inexperienced learners. Personally, I tend to work with several inexperienced tutors, but have at least one experienced tutor that I can check in with once a month or so for the more vexing grammar issues.

Lesson Planning

13. Yes, you should plan your own lessons

It’s nice and easy to just show up for your lesson and go through something that your tutor has planned.

But if you’re an active, self-directed learner you’re going to get a lot more out of your tutoring sessions.

Lessons that you plan yourself are going to be perfectly suited to your own grammar issues, interests and language level. In my classes, I’ve recently been learning to talk about home repair and modernist cooking, because these are big interests for me right now. Doing so makes the lessons more enjoyable for me, but it also ensures that I’m learning vocabulary and constructions that I’ll be more likely to use when I’m having conversations in my target language. On the other hand, I’ve never in my life had a competent conversation about sports, even in English, so a class that focused on that subject would probably not be so useful for me in real life.

14. Prepare by finding material before your lessons

Hopefully you already have a good textbook—I happen to like the Teach Yourself language books, which are targeted for self-directed learners and available for lots of languages.

You can plan your lesson based on a lesson in your book, but you can also use pop songs, real-world videos from FluentU, short stories, news articles and any other material from the target language.

I’ve even planned lessons around my Facebook chats with friends who are native speakers, wherein I try to learn the new slang and expressions, and practice using them myself with my tutor in new contexts.

15. Nail your self-planned grammar lessons

I’d suggest that you don’t waste time talking about grammar during your lesson, at least as much as possible. You can learn about the rules from your book, which hopefully has excellent explanations. The goal of the lesson should be to practice and apply them. (You certainly should, however, prepare to ask your teacher about any issues that you don’t understand—and you may want to email trickier questions to your tutor ahead of time so that he/she has a chance to prepare for them.)

To prepare most grammar lessons, what you want to do is think up situations that trigger the specific grammar point in question. One sticking point for learners of Slavic languages, for example, is verb aspect. But for purposes of not traveling quite so far, let’s look at how we’d study aspect if we were learning African-American English, whose aspect system is distinct from Standard English.

A very polished teacher of the African-American dialect for non-natives (good luck finding that!) might be able to give you an explanation, but you could find that anyway in your grammar texts.

For your lesson, you’re better off trying out the aspects you’ve learned, and discovering which one is most appropriate for a given situation. When should you say “You makin’ sense” and in what situations should you say “You be makin’ sense”? (The answer, if you’re curious: The second is the continuous aspect, so say “you be makin’ sense” to compliment someone who is wise; the first sentence is only a valid response to a one-time sense-maker.) Practicing like this reveals the grammar in a much more concrete way, and, more importantly, ensures that you can then spit that grammar out correctly in context, when the appropriate situation arises.

The same applies to learning prepositions, cases, conjugations, valency, etc. Learn the rules from your book, look at the examples, and then create and use more examples with your teacher. In what situations does this rule work? What are the exceptions?

16. Limit your lessons

Languages are Pandora’s boxes of beauty and complications, and learners can be tempted to devour them voraciously. A lesson about the simple past tense can quickly devolve into the intricacies of the past subjunctive, and a simple, early lesson in talking about the weather can wander off into hail, tornadoes and mudslides.

But, if you want to remember anything afterwards, you’re much better off learning just a few limited words and phrases, and how to employ them in lots of different contexts. Likewise for grammar, if you get just one construction down really well, it’ll stay with you—save the variations that it can lead to for your next lesson.

17. Have some unstructured “conversation lessons”

Conversation lessons are probably less useful than the more structured lesson ideas presented above, but they’re more fun, and they can also uncover very important vocabulary and constructions that you can focus on in future lessons.

If you do an unstructured lesson (for example, on a day that you’ve been too tired or busy to prepare anything more concrete), at least take a minute or two to think of a few areas that you want to discuss. Perhaps there are things that you haven’t yet tried to talk about in your target language? Or an area that needs more practice?

During the lesson, make sure that you or your tutor notes down the new words and phrases that you discover, so that you can go back to them later. A great way to review after such a lesson is to write up a short text about your opinions, using the new vocabulary, and then submit it for correction either to your teacher or to lang-8.com, a lovely website where native speakers correct each others’ texts.


I hope that these hacks have given you some useful ideas for optimizing your lessons and integrating them into your total language learning plan. If done right, online tutoring sessions are something that you look forward to during the day, and think about long afterwards.

Mose Hayward is a polyglot who blogs about the scientifically proven benefits of (and excuses for) tipsy language learning, among other silliness.

And One More Thing...

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