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How to teach one-on-one

    Teaching a student one and one can be difficult. In groups they can work with one another, there is less expectation and you have more time to move between them. With only one student it can be an exhausting experience if you are not well prepared.

    The First Lesson

    “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

    Be professional, look the part and be prepared. Start building rapport by getting to know your student from the first moment you meet.

    Start with your name and a brief introduction of who you are and your experience.

    Next, ask questions to your student to determine his or her level. Start simply by asking:

    • Basic Information – age, birthday, family (including aunts, uncles, cousins, even nephews or nieces)
    • Past experiences, recent events.
    • Likes/ dislikes/ hobbies/ interests.
    • Future goals.

    Pay attention to what they know. When you determine their level and knowledge, you can focus on what they need to improve. No need to go over what they’ve already learned, that way you can help them improve faster and focus on learning new things.

    Ask what they’re having trouble with. Students are often quite aware of their weaknesses. They know what types of questions they consistently miss on quizzes, what topics they struggle with, and what areas they wish to improve.

    Then, find out what their goals are. By having a specific idea of what they want to improve, you can create a personalized plan.

    What are your English goals?

    Why are you learning English? (You can prompt the student further by asking about specific goals such as study/work/travel/ personal interest and so on.)

    Which level (of proficiency) would you like to have in half a year? What about after a year?

    Structure your classes

    Establishing a routine for your student to follow. This will help keep you organized, especially in the case of individualized instruction and the student benefits from knowing what to expect. Try opening each lesson with a conversation about each other’s day. What has happened since the last time you’ve met. If you meet them every day, let them go through their schedule. What did they do? What did they watch? What are their thoughts on things?

    You can share a song or video clip, discuss what you are studying, a book you’re reading, rotate through some games, talk about current gossip or discuss interesting news – international or local events.

    If they are young, it’s a great way to learn if you go through their likes and dislikes. Use flashcards to help you. You can also review what you did in the previous class. Remember, repetition equals retention.

    Most students have a phone. So, encourage your student to take photos during the week and then share some with you. It could be photos of an activity, something special they ate, their pets or friends. 

    Outside my university’s main gate is a coffee shop with an old cat lying outside. The cat attracted so much attention with students taking photos of it that the cat is now a local celebrity. Challenge your student to find something similar in their neighborhood and share the photos with you every week.

    Why is this good? Not only do they get to share things from their lives, which increases rapport with you, but they are using English to relate to their lives which means that it is practical and useful.

    You can also have your student write a paragraph or two, depending on their English ability, about their day or a specific topic. This is a great exercise for writing practice and your student can receive immediate feedback, while also having a record to show progress over time.

    Set goals and establish specific, measurable objectives. This will allow you to set a diagnostic for the progress of your students and program. Speak with other members at your program to see what is already in place.

    State objectives before you start the one-on-one or group activity. Let students know what to expect from the tutoring session. Always keep in mind that you want to have direction when working with your students. Before you begin any activity, state the objective and what it would mean for them to grasp the concepts.

    Having a structure to your lessons will make it much easier. Have these checkmarks of what you want to accomplish in each lesson, the chat comes in between. Don’t base your lesson on simply chatting – have achievable goals you wish to realize for every class.

    If you have them for a set number of classes, plan it out. It would help to have a book to work from. That way you don’t have to plan everything yourself.

    Here is an example of a structure you can use in class:

    • Introduction – Practice – Vocabulary – Grammar – Presentation – Give homework – Fun game or chat to wind down
    • Be consistent. Make it a point to be patient, encouraging, and flexible during each class.
    • Students’ lives may be filled with many inconsistencies. You want to be a constant and positive role model in their lives. This will help you gain their respect and trust. Show up on time and ready to work!

    Increase Student Talking Time

    Now that your lessons have structure – You want to start class by reviewing previous work, checking homework, or doing a fun icebreaking activity. The reason why we do this is to warm the student up for talking. Just like you would stretch your muscles before exercise, most students need to be eased into being in a talkative mood. You could also start by asking questions about their week. Asking the student leading questions about vocabulary or grammar will help the rest of your lesson run more smoothly.

    On the Etateach website, we have thousands of questions on a variety of topics that you can use for your classes. Pick from the questions or take turns asking one another.

    There may be times when a student is unresponsive, creating silence in the class. This more often occurs with younger students who are pushed by their parents to take the class. It rarely happens with adult students because they tend to be more self-motivated and are probably spending their own money to have class.

    When a student remains quiet, it’s up to your creative lessons to generate a response. Using props or flashcards really helps them to focus, visualize and talk about the object.

    Besides organizing learning aids like vocabulary notebooks or timelines for verb tenses, here are some other tips for increasing student talking time:

    • Apply Content and Language Integrated Learning
    • Make it student-centered
    • Use prompts and gestures to elicit vocabulary
    • Motivate/ Engage/ Entertain
    • Create grammatical awareness and employ task-based learning.
    • Give them mini-projects to complete.
    • Employ a holistic approach to improve the student as individual
    • Produce and extend the language- Don’t only use the same question. Add follow-up questions
    • Recycle Grammar/ Encourage learners to ‘notice’ language
    • And remember to bring personality/ background into the class. Building rapport between teacher and student is vitally important for them to buy into learning.

    Personalize your lessons

    Teachers have the chance to customize each lesson to their student’s needs, and the possibility to target activities to a student’s strengths and weaknesses is a huge plus. But the greatest benefits are for the student, it grants them the unique opportunity for intensive practice. If the student speaks for most of the lesson, he or she will make progress faster, and the same goes for other skills. Still, the teacher is the one responsible for maximizing their time with the student.

    Visual materials work very well in most one-to-one situations. Materials such as photographs, graphs, maps, pictures, and so on provide a rich source of vocabulary and conversation and can be used by the teacher to focus on a particular structure. Maps and atlases are particularly useful as most people find them interesting and are ready to talk about places they have visited.

    A sign of fluency in any language is being able to fully describe a situation or scene. Print out pictures, use images in a textbook, or rip out ads from a magazine and have your student explain what’s going on. You can ask follow-up questions to create a dialogue.

    You’ve established the needs of your student in the first lesson. Their goals – if it’s work-related in the case of adult students – is to improve test scores, or to improve their general English communication and their work at their strengths and weakness.

    Use that information to create a curriculum for your students and build lessons that put them at the center point. If they feel that a lesson is valuable, they will be more engaged and motivated to improve – Which is why they want you as a tutor in the first place.

    Maintain a record

    Another challenge is maintaining motivation. After initial progress over the first few lessons, students may feel like they’ve reached a plateau. Their progress is less obvious to them because they don’t have other students to compare themselves with. By keeping a record of what they have done/ learned/ achieved, they have physical evidence of improvement, which will keep their motivation high.

    Consider the following:

    • You can have a list of vocabulary that they have learned each week.
    • Set up quizzes to help them gauge their levels and see what still needs to be worked on.
    • Write short journals. It’s a nice routine that can be done at the start of class about simple topics such as their week, hobbies, and current events, or at the end to review.
    • Set measurable goals.
    • Have a time-based plan for each lesson. Understanding what they will be working on in a timed manner will focus your student’s attention.
    • Be consistent. Make it a point to be patient, encouraging, and flexible during each session.


    Visual materials work well in most one-to-one situations. Materials such as photographs, maps, and pictures provide a rich source of vocabulary and conversation and can be used by the teacher to focus on a particular structure.

    I love asking my students to share a photo from their phones. They then explain the photo and I can engage in follow-up questions, leading up to specific things we are working on in that lesson.

    Audio and video are also useful tools in the one-to-one classroom. Apart from providing the obvious listening-skills benefits, they are also an opportunity for the student to hear different voices and accents and for the teacher to move out of the limelight. As an alternative, try making the student responsible for the activity by giving them control of the audio or video. They will then pause or rewind when they need to do so, not when you think it’s necessary.

    If possible – I would recommend going to your nearest bookstore and look for a workbook that suits your student’s needs and has useful content inside. That way you don’t need to create all your lessons from scratch, and you have a book that you can work through.

    There are many books that I personally prefer, but it’s up to you to pick the one you feel is best. In the future, I would like to create a useful workbook of my own to share, but right now there aren’t many that I would outright suggest.

    Give Feedback

    Many one-on-one lessons can develop into a pleasant chat that fills the entire lesson’s time amazingly quickly. No doubt this is useful for fluency and listening practice for the student, and sometimes that’s what the student asks for. What it doesn’t do, however, is to deal with persistent errors or address weaknesses in grammar and vocabulary.

    Make it a regular practice to have a blank sheet of paper and note down any significant or persistent errors or obvious gaps in the student’s language knowledge.

    Make one column to the left that shows mistakes they have made, and a column to the right for corrections.

    This will enable you to spend ten minutes or so at the end of the lesson focusing on these errors and, where possible, getting the student to self-correct. Students often appreciate this approach because it is very focused and deals precisely with the errors that they make. You can also use any gaps you notice as the basis for future lessons.

    Provide opportunities to succeed. While you should be working toward goals, you don’t want to discourage your student by setting the bar too high. Every session should include exercises you know the student can complete successfully. From there, you can build on the lessons toward more complex exercises that may prove more challenging.

    If the student doesn’t perform at the level you expected, don’t give up! Repeat the exercise until he or she completes it correctly. When they do, heap praise on the student for working through an obstacle.

    Spend time working on errors – they are a great opportunity to make substantial improvements.


    A lot of useful language work (both grammar and vocabulary based) can be prepared as homework and then checked in class. This gives you the opportunity to deal with any problems, and the student can ask you to clarify any areas of difficulty. It may also be a more realistic approach to dealing with grammar on a one-to-one course than up-front teaching, followed by some form of controlled practice. Regular homework can also help to give the course a coherent shape.

    End each session by looking forward to the next one. The end of a tutoring session doesn’t mean the student is “finished” for the week. Make it clear that you expect them to prepare for your next session in the time you’re apart. If there’s any work that wasn’t finished during the session, assign it as homework for the next meeting. If you have a fun activity planned for the next session, tell the student so they have something to look forward to.

    Learners like homework, if it adds value, and teachers often forget how good a tool it can be. Use homework to get your learner to do things you wouldn’t do in the class, for example, extended writing, research, or more controlled practice.


    Some exercises you can use with students include:

    • Role plays/info-gap exercises/skits. Be prepared to take on different roles as a teacher and for pair work with the student.
    • Dialogues based on real-life situations such as work or everyday life
    • provide authentic examples of language – like articles and simulating real conversations.

    Focus on productive skills – writing and speaking and receptive skills like reading and listening. You can combine the skills through activities like diction or playing back conversations.

    • 2-minute presentations
    • Telephone calls
    • Write emails as homework
    • Do drills or games just like you would in a group lesson.

    You can really help your student by participating as an equal partner in many of these activities. For example, if you ask the learner to give a 2-minute presentation, you should be prepared to do the same. When two people are together, they produce a dialogue, not separate monologues which means that as the teacher, you have to interact, provide feedback, and make sure the conversation flows as smoothly as possible.

    By collaborating with your learners in these activities, you provide a language model and a model of how to interact when conversing in English. If you do this well, you may find that your lessons become more enjoyable conversations in which learning occurs.

    Here is a video you can use with games and activities you can use when teaching one on one.

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