Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Foreign Language in the Homeschool :: Making a Skype Tutor Work for You!

Outsourcing comes up every time I speak or write about foreign language, and I think it's a tool we as homeschooler don't think through thoroughly enough! After all, it can come in lots of different forms: using an audiobook (instead of reading it aloud myself), having a family friend or freelancer help prepare lesson scripts (instead of writing them myself), asking someone to share in the teaching of a language program I have built (instead of implementing it all myself).

It has been freeing for me to think about the ways I can be in charge of the principles behind our foreign language studies while still taking advantage of resources and support that make the practices more attainable.

One of the wonderful resources for the Charlotte Mason mother who isn't fluent herself is a site like, which connects people who want to learn or grow in their knowledge of a language with native teachers throughout the world. We started using Italki this spring, and I wanted to share with you some tips for finding and utlizing a tutor in your Mason-style language studies.

Disclaimer: This is going to sound like a sponsored post, but it's not. I just really appreciate the wonderful resource italki can be for the non-fluent mother! :) But they DO offer referral codes, so if you would like to sign up through my link, we'll each get a $10 credit for lessons. ;)

A bit about our history with language learning...

The review I have shared here is based on my experience using Italki weekly for the past nine months for my three oldest children, ages 12, 12, 9, in 7th and 4th grades. At first, I thought I would enroll my third grade son as well, but his facility with the language is too far below the 12yos that he wasn't getting much out of it. I plan to start a separate lesson for my Form I kids once they are both in Form 2.

My oldest two have been doing bits of Italian slowly but surely with me since kindergarten. They were at the point where they could understand a decent amount, knew a lot of vocabulary about everyday objects, and could use those words in present-tense sentences. My 9.5 year old has been doing some Italian for a couple years but at a lower level than her siblings.

Our approach so far has been entirely based on Charlotte Mason's methods, which I have researched, written, and spoken about in various places. (I have a webinar planned for this winter too! More info to come.)

I know some Italian because it is my family's language and I took a couple years in college, but I am not at all fluent. So I am able to prepare our resources and implement mostly on our own, but I am usually just a few steps ahead of my children.

Defining your goals

Before contacting anyone, I thought through my goals for lessons. My aims were to...

:: Add an element of novelty to our lessons. A native speaker outside the family is great inspiration to learn, just as an upcoming trip would be. It also injects the "cultural interest" that Mason recommends.

:: Give the children a chance to do more questions and answers in a conversational format. I rely heavily on scripting during our lessons, which works wonderfully for building fluency slowly and thoughtfully. But at their age in particular, I thought they could benefit from more "chat" in Italian, which it is hard for me to provide.

I think it's very important before getting started to define your goals for lesson time -- what role do you want your tutor to fill in the overall scheme of your foreign language studies? Having this clear in your mind will help you state this up front to any prospective tutors and save a lot of time and effort in the long run.

Finding a tutor

Some things our family was looking for:

:: Clear accent in Italian and in English. Each tutor has an introduction video, and I selected potential tutors whom I could understand in both languages. They also have ratings for their fluency skills that can help you narrow this down. I wanted a speaker whose native language was Italian but who also had high facility in English. Had the lessons been for me, I would not have been so picky, but I knew for my children, a strong accent when speaking English would be challenging for them to follow.

:: Willingness to work with children and in a group. Some tutors are open to this and some are not. I emailed five prospective tutors to see if they would be willing to tutor my elementary-aged children all at once. Not only did I want it to be time-effective and cost-effective for me, but I also knew that if they did the lesson together, they would be more likely to continue that practice together between lessons. Three of the five that I emailed were open to this arrangement; the other two weren't.

:: Open to Mason methods. I had intentionally shaped our language lessons for years in ways that I thought built good intellectual habits rather than worked against them. I wanted someone who would be willing to chat with me about methodology and not work from a standard curriculum. Each teacher chooses the style she wants to offer. Some are flexible and some want you to follow a progression of lessons from a text. You can select the kind of tutoring you want to help narrow it down: Formal or Informal. I only searched Informal lesson providers.  I will say that if you are starting with NO knowledge in the language, tutors may not be willing to go the informal route. We were starting with some understanding, a good amount of vocabulary, and ability to form sentences to say things -- so there was enough there for our tutor to have conversations about. Some are more particular about this than others, so you can always ask!

:: Price. No brainer. :) There are tutors at all price points. Since there were so many to choose from, I set a limit and let that be part of my search criteria.

:: Calendar. Some tutors are very busy. And they are on the other side of the world, which greatly reduces how many hours we both have available; my kids are not taking classes at 10pm. ;) If you already know the general slot you want these lessons to fit into, you can scan their calendar in advance to see if they even have space that fits your needs.

Trial lessons

We did three half-hour trial lessons, which Italki offers at a discounted rate. This was a great way to feel out a tutor, which I think is more important when working with children than if I were scheduling lessons for myself.

Since Italki offers tutors of all kinds, some are far more comfortable and experienced than others. We found this to be obvious during the trial lesson! The first lesson we had was with a tutor with fewer reviews and less hours logged, yet I really liked her introduction. As soon as we started, I could tell she must have had lots of experience off-line teaching and working with kids. She was upbeat, knew how to help them track and follow the conversation without being heavy-handed, and had some conversation topics and games ready to go.

The second tutor was far less prepared and far less adaptable. She seemed like she didn't really know what to do and suggested afterward that the kids should be signed up for formal lessons instead of conversational time if they wanted to move forward with her. We could all tell right away that it wasn't a good fit.

The third was fine and open but relied on much more English than the first did. She wasn't able to move as flexibly through their time together.

So there is the option to consider style, pacing, comfort, and personability during these trial sessions. I don't sit in on their regular lessons, but I sat in on these so I could assess.

We went with the first tutor and have had weekly sessions with her for months now, and it has been a great match so far. Some weeks we skip; other times we do twice a week. I love that it is customizable and doesn't take us out of our home. It has been so simple to fit into our schedule.

Weekly lessons

My main goal for their lesson time is conversation, and that is what I told our tutor. So they do a lot of back and forth during the lesson, asking and answering questions. As conversation fodder, she has them tell about what they have been doing since last time they chatted, shows pictures and has them describe and discuss, asks them to narrate to her the stories they have read with me, talks about likes and dislikes, and so on. She has them ask her and one another questions and keeps the conversation moving along. Often they will play games like 20 Questions. She will also sometimes tell a simple story or describe a picture and then have them narrate.

I told her up front that I didn't want to use multimedia, and she was fine with that. I also told her that my focus was aural/oral and that I didn't want her assigning written work just yet. She often types in the Skype chatbox or sends a link to a Google Doc with words/phrases they worked on for my use, and that is very helpful! But she doesn't engage with the children in writing.

She probably gives about 90% of her instruction in Italian, occasionally moving to English when they ask for her to clarify or when she is describing a task or activity.

Some last thoughts

First, there are a lot of teachers! It is worth trying out several to find a good match.

Second, be clear about what you are looking for. The teachers appreciate the guidance so that you all walk away happy with the process.

Third, try taking a class yourself! I have done just one lesson so far with the same tutor and chatted with her (in Italian) about educational philosophy. I would love to do more! It is great for both of us: she gets clear direction about her client's needs, and I get some extra practice.

All in all, this process was MUCH simpler than I thought it would be. I had it on my to-do list to try out Italki for several years, but I never got around to it...and now I did and I wish I had done it sooner.

Hope this is helpful!

If you end up clicking over and signing up to try out this service, I would love to hear what you think and whether you enjoy it as much as we have. I think it is an untapped resource in the homeschool community!


  1. Hi Celeste,
    Thank you for this post. I've been following your foreign language blog posts, trying to work out how to teach foreign language CM style. It seems to make so much sense. Listening, then talking, then reading, then writing. I have Italian heritage and learnt some Italian growing up, but only basics. And not enough to feel confident to teach my children. Thanks for sharing this resource. What a great idea. I'm actually thinking this would be good for me to brush up on my skills! And then down the track, do with my kids too. Are you able to share who you are working with? She sounds brilliant. Thanks so much, Emily

    1. I will ask her if I can share her information. :) But there are so many tutors to choose from! :)

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  2. Thank you for sharing! I'd like to recommend Lingo Bus if anyone is thinking about conversational Mandarin with a native speaker. My son loves it! They also offer free trials, like italki.

  3. Thanks for the details! I haven't had an italki tutor work with my kids yet (but soon), but this got me going with a tutor for myself. I signed up after I heard you talk at CMI West, but didn't have the guts to start before reading this. I also just hired my first Upwork translator/voice recorder to record a series for me. Thanks!

    1. I haven't heard of Upwork! Celeste, is that who you are using now instead of elance? I've been wanting to do that, but just haven't gotten everything together yet... Foreign language scripting and prep is always so intimidating that it is easier to work on other projects.

    2. Amber, yes, I think elance got bought by Upwork? So I use Upwork now but it is the same process.

      Emily, I am so glad you have found some help through these resources!

  4. Wonderful posts! I'm curious, Celeste. If you were studying Spanish would you use Cherrydale Press series along with the songs and such? And you mentioned you may have started italki sooner. What age or level of Spanish understanding would you introduce the tutor?

    1. Yes, I like the Cherrydale Press and actually make my own series for Italian, which I use alongside picture narration and songs/rhymes/poems. :) I think the italki tutor is most effective when the children have a bank of nouns to work with (something to talk about!) AND they know how to form sentences with them. The series helps a lot with this! They are spoken in complete sentences, and we do a lot of mixing up sentences, adding in new nouns, changing person/tense etc. I would do some work like that before starting with the tutor personally, just because it is a better use of funds. :) The intro stuff is easy to do at home; I needed more help with the conversation aspect, which they really can't do until they can form sentences. So I definitely think it depends more on ability than age. Hope that helps!