With close to one billion people worldwide learning English, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are tens of thousands of English language academies around the globe. This can make choosing a language school difficult, with some places promising a lot but delivering little. Some academies have shiny, modern facilities, but the quality of teaching is poor, while others employ good teachers, but cram as many students as possible into tiny classrooms. So how do you choose? Here’s our guide for 5 things to look for when picking an English language academy.
The EFL industry is big business, and as a result, it’s attracted a lot of business people. The problem with that is many of them have never taught or worked in the education industry before, so while they know how to make money, the academies are often run like factories, with students treated as customers rather than people. I taught at one school where they pressurised all the students to study certain subjects, something I couldn’t understand at the time. I later found out the school was only being paid if students were accepted into certain university courses, hence management’s insistence. In my opinion, it is wholly unethical to give students education advice based purely on making yourself a quick buck, but sadly that is the reality in many private language schools.
TIP: When you go to see an academy, ask about the owners and managers. What experience do they have in the industry? Have they ever taught before? Friendly advice is okay, but if they try too hard to sell you certain courses, get out of there as soon as possible.
I’ve taught English in Korea for 10 years and have experience teaching at many different institutions, from small private academies to the more prestigious SKY universities. What I’m about to say might shock you: the vast majority of places had absolutely no curriculum. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had the following conversation:
“What shall I teach them?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Well … Reading? Writing? Business English? Conversational English?”
“I don’t care. Just keep the students happy.”
For a school not to have a curriculum is – in my mind – almost fraudulent. Read any teaching book, and it will tell you that each lesson should have a goal and a plan to realise that goal. The same is true of curricula. Each course you study should have clearly defined goals and a syllabus that tells you what you’re doing in any given week. Of course, teachers have to be flexible and adjust the lessons according to class dynamics and the progress of the students, but in my opinion, an organisation without a curriculum should not be allowed to call itself a school.
TIP: Ask to see a detailed syllabus for each subject. If the school can’t tell you what you’ll be learning in Week 3, or what the goal of each topic is, they’re failing to satisfy the most basic fundamentals of teaching.
3. Native English Teachers
Learning from a native English teacher can be a great thing. Native speakers are able to decipher collocations and play-on-words in a way that most second language speakers can’t. This is especially useful with high-level classes, where subtle semantic differences can be difficult to spot. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met many non-native English teachers who were excellent at their job, some of whom have a better understanding of English grammar than most native speakers, but for idioms, cultural understanding, and the latest buzz words that haven’t made it into the dictionary yet, you probably need a native speaker.
Language academies know this, and as a result, some of them are desperate to hire native teachers – literally ANY native teacher – to make their schools look more attractive. As a result, Americans, Brits, and Canadians are often hired because of their passports, regardless of whether they have any experience or qualifications. Unsurprisingly, the quality of teaching can vary a lot. Again, I must stress that there are a lot of excellent, passionate native teachers out there, but on the other hand, I’ve taught with some who didn’t have a clue what they were doing.
TIP: If a school boasts about having native teachers, ask about them. What qualifications do they have? How long have they been teaching for? What kind of institutions hired them before?
A school’s website is often your first point of contact, so take the opportunity to look around. What kind of information do they give you? Is the website a helpful resource for learning English, or does it read like a giant advert? Some schools have websites that only try to sell you courses, text books, or private lessons, and those schools tend to be more focused on the business side of things than the educational. Look for websites that have useful information about your studies, free video lessons, or anything that suggests they care about teaching English.
TIP: Check the website. Is it a giant sales pitch, or is it run by people with a passion for educating? If it’s the former, try and find an academy that cares more about educating than making money.
Referrals are almost always the best way to find out how well an academy treats its students. Of course, every place will have mixed reviews, but if the ex-students are generally happy with the way they were taught, chances are you will be too. The best schools will be happy to let you talk with their ex-students, while the more shady institutions will do everything they can to keep those secrets. Be careful – some schools pressurise students into being interviewed for their promotional purposes, and the resulting videos end up looking like prisoner-of-war confessions! For a similar reason, you should be sceptical about online quotes from ex-students. I know of one school where a manager trawled Naver chatrooms advising people about the amazing language academy she was attending! There’s a lot of misinformation out there.
TIP: Ask to speak with ex-students on a one-on-one basis (either by phone or in person) away from the academy. That way, you know you’ll probably be getting the truth from them.
There are a lot of language schools around the world, with the industry spending billions each year on advertising. It can be tough to know which academies offer the best service, or which ones spend lots on advertising at the expense of developing a decent program. Is it possible to see through the mist? Not always, but hopefully these 5 pointers will help give you a start into finding the English language education you deserve.