Imagine you had your own English language academy in Spain. What would you do to promote it and make it stand out from your competition?
Wandering around Vigo last year, I passed an English academy with an eye-catching image on its window. I walked straight past it, did a double-take, and started to laugh:
I looked through the window and saw kids in one of the classrooms. Like many English academies in Spain, young learners and adults studied English there.
Did the parents who dropped their kids off at the academy understand the meaning of the catchy slogan used by the school?
ENGLISH MOTHER F****ER! DO YOU SPEAK IT (at the risk of being a punctuation Nazi, there’s a missing question mark).
Once I stopped laughing, I started to think about how English academies in Spain promote their services.
Here in the province of Granada, there are hundreds of English academies – yes hundreds! – and many of them don’t survive for very long. There are a few which have been around for decades, which indicates they are doing something right – providing great teaching – or have established a brand loyalty which means they can perhaps afford to rest on their laurels.
So, how do English academies in Spain promote their services? What strategies do they use to attract students? Why do some academies thrive while others fail to get off the ground?
When promoting any product or service, you have a choice of focusing on benefits or features. It seems to me that many English academies in Spain promote their features.
The (dubious) appeal of native English speakers
As a teacher and teacher trainer, I find it difficult to step into the shoes of an academy owner, but I do know that most of them (but not all) prefer to hire native English speakers. Like it or not – and I don’t – there are a number of reasons why English academies prefer to employ them.
- Many parents and other stakeholders believe that native English speakers are more effective teachers for their children than local Spanish teachers.
- Many Spanish people believe that only native English speakers can teach ‘correct’ pronunciation.
- Many older Spanish people who failed to acquire a good level of English at school with local teachers assume that they can only find success with native English speakers.
- Non-Spanish teachers may only stay at the academy for 9 months, so the academy does not have to offer them a long-term contract and may decide to pay them (in part) cash in hand. Non-Spanish teachers, especially the archetypal gap-year student, are more likely to work for lower wages and can be easily dismissed if necessary.
How important are qualifications and experience?
A common complaint among EFL teachers in Spain and many other countries is the lack of promotion opportunities. Many academies hire native English speakers without official teaching qualifications – would this happen in any other industry?
Other academies require a teaching certificate but don’t distinguish between online TEFL certificates, weekend TEFL certificates, unaccredited courses, and accredited 120hr courses such as the Cambridge CELTA and the Trinity Cert TESOL.
More professional academies make a virtue of their teachers’ qualifications. They actively seek to hire teachers with advanced teaching qualifications (such as the Diploma DELTA) and have salaries grades based on qualifications and experience.
The problem is that the industry struggles to demonstrate the difference between TEFL I and TEFL – Q teachers. Many advertisements for teachers ask for a TEFL, CELTA, TESOL, or DELTA.
For info about continuous professional development in ELT, read this guide from the British Council.
TEFL – i = Teachers with an initial teaching qualification such as the Cambridge CELTA or Trinity Cert TESOL. Accredited courses are graded as Level 5 qualifications in the UK (equivalent to the second year of a university degree).
TEFLQ = Teachers with an advanced teaching qualification such as the Diploma DELTA and Dip TESOL and considerable teaching experience. These courses are graded as Level 7 in the UK (equivalent to a Master’s degree).
TEFLQ teachers are considered to be capable of undertaking teacher training, academic management, and syllabus design duties. Their wider range of skills should be reflected in terms of their salary and their position at academies. How often is this the case?
For an insightful read on native English speaker teachers, click here.
Facilities and Resources
Another option for academies is to promote the quality of their facilities, in particular, their adoption of the latest teaching technologies. When I started teaching, computer labs were all the rage but where are they now? At the moment, the ‘must have’ technology for English academies is the interactive or digital whiteboard.
I’ve have worked in several institutions (language schools, teacher-training centres, universities) and suspect that they are ‘white elephants’ in many English academies, mainly because relatively few academies have somebody available to train teachers in how to use them. Read here for some pros and cons of digital whiteboards.
Just last week, I walked past an English academy with a large street-level window, which meant that anybody passing could watch the class. The teacher had uploaded a document with complex grammatical explanations to the interactive whiteboard and seemed to be reading out the rules to the learners, who were trying to stay awake.
There was very little that was interactive about what was presented on the interactive whiteboard!
The main issue with promoting the facilities of your English academy is that most Spanish learners use smartphones. There is a trend away from interactive whiteboards in some countries and towards a BYOD (bring-your-own-device) approach. The use of technology in English classes has provoked much debate, but smaller academies might be wise to invest in training their teachers to deliver effective classes rather than expensive technology.
If you spend any channel hopping in Spain, you’ll come across Vaughan TV. Richard Vaughan, probably the most famous English teacher in Spain, has his own language-learning method – called the Vaughan method, strangely enough!
No matter what you think of his method (oral-based with lots of instant translation into Spanish), you cannot deny its success. As well as TV and radio channels, there are Vaughan academies and bookshops are full of exercise and reference books promising to teach you the English you never learn in school.
One way to promote your English academy is to offer a unique teaching method or approach. Lots of academies highlight their uniqueness but read a few websites and you’ll notice that many of them offer the same ‘innovate, modern, dynamic, and interactive’ classes.
I wonder if these words have any impact nowadays. Increasingly, English academies in Spain are using content marketing (blogs, podcasts, videos) to promote their services.
Here are some interesting methods or approaches I’ve seen:
- Immersion classes
- Classes in cafes
- Unplugged classes (no coursebooks)
- Coaching rather than teaching
- English through play (especially for kids)
- Blended learning (online and face-to-face)
- The Flipped approach (students study online and use what they learn in the classroom)
- Task-based learning.
- Project-based learning.
Most marketing experts advise companies to identify a niche and conquer it.
Have you ever watched Gordan Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares? The premise of the show is simple; renowned chef tries to turn around a failing restaurant. He usually starts by ripping up their inflated menus with tons of dishes and tells them to specialise in several they can cook really well.
I wish English academies in Spain would do the same. Many of them offer every type of class under the sun and proudly state that their teachers are experts at all of them.
I’ve been teaching for over two decades and I know that I’m not particularly good and not very experienced at teaching kids. Ask me to teach a TOEFL class and I’ll politely decline (taught in very badly years ago). Getting to know an exam or a type of class requires time, effort, training, and feedback.
Many of the more successful academies invest in training for their teachers. They become experts at teaching specific exams or types of classes.
Other academies become self-professed experts at teaching exams. Walk around your city or town and look at how many academies claim to have 90% – 100% exam success rate – effective marketing strategy, isn’t it?
Wouldn’t it be interesting to ask these academies to prove the veracity of these claims?
As well as exam courses, here are some other types of specialist courses:
- EAP (English for academic purposes)
- ESP (English for specific purposes: Legal English, English for Tourism, English for Health Professionals etc.)
- Business English
- English for teachers (very relevant with more bilingual schools and CLIL programmes).
It’s clear that the English language teaching industry in Spain is led by market forces. Most parents want their kids to learn English to prepare them for the world of work. Adults take classes to increase their chances of finding work or improving their current situation. Which means that a majority of learners take English in order to pass an exam which will demonstrate their English ability.
The impact of online teaching
The rise of online language learning is starting to impact the industry in Spain. Online teachers offer classes at very low prices (sometimes as little as five euros).
Academies obviously have to evolve and consider the competition. The world of language teaching is changing rapidly, as is the wider world of education. Many universities now offer free courses (MOOCs – Massive open online courses) so students can learn for free.
What is going to happen to English language academies here in Spain? Are prices going to continue to fall? Should academies offer incentives to ensure they don’t lose the price war?
What extras or incentives can these academies offer?
- No enrolment fee
- Free conversation classes
- Online materials and resources
- Online courses for free or at a reduced cost
- Sliding scale fees (reduced prices for certain groups: children, pensioners, unemployed, students).
- Loyalty schemes
- Refer a friend schemes
- Discounts for long-term students
- Outcome offers: If you fail your exam, we’ll return your fees.
- Social events
- Free trial classes.
Opening an English language academy in Spain is a risky proposition. Although there are more academies than ever before, many of them close within the first couple of years. Also, as the level of English in Spain increases, learners are likely to become more discerning – which is a good thing surely for decent academies.
Are most academies just riding the wave of the demand for English classes? When will the bubble burst?
How would you market and promote your English academy in Spain?