Monday, March 19, 2012

Approaches to Online English Tutoring

Welcome to my blog!

In this first post, I'll talk about two approaches to online English tutoring that I have seen, and then explain the differences in my own.

The first approach I've come across is what we can call the online classroom. This is the conventional way many institutions teach: using some sort of educational software, they replicate as much as possible the structure of a traditional high school class or university course, working from prepared materials meant to be completed one step after the other. Typically classes of multiple people are taught this way, but I've seen it used for individuals as well. This style appeals to people seeking a structured experience, but is rarely naturalistic, leading to situations where, for example, a student may memorize a phrase or pattern of speech they have been tested on, but have serious trouble employing it in their own writing, or conversationally.

The second approach is in many respects the opposite of the first, and is a common way for people to learn languages for free on the internet and elsewhere: simply having a conversation partner. Especially when combined with total immersion, a conversation-based style provides a strong foundation for language learning, challenging learners to absorb the language in use. Any tutor who is giving well-rounded lessons will naturally want to converse with students. However, the usefulness of  free-form conversation can depend strongly on the talent of the teaching partner.  It is difficult to correct mistakes and maintain a natural conversational flow, so many times a learner will understand meaning only from context, coming away with a rough and imprecise idea of a word or phrase and how it is used.

My own approach is based on guided reading aloud, combined with some aspects of the other two. I normally have my students read aloud a text, for example a magazine or newspaper article they are interested in. We stop after every few sentences or each paragraph, and check both pronunciation and comprehension at the same time. As we go, I highlight grammatical features and the usage of words and phrases in context, and can use the context as a starting point for conversation, if the student is interested. In this way, I can provide more structure than casual conversation, while still emphasizing practical English in use. I naturally tailor my approach to the preferences of my students: I have grammar books and a number of sites that I use to supplement articles, and I also offer help preparing for interviews, which is much more heavily conversational. I use my method as a starting point, working together with my students to adapt to each unique situation. In my experience, it works well for us both!

I hope you found my explanation useful, and I welcome any comments you may have.

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