One to One : Content and Methodology

Teachers are often justifiably nervous about taking on a one-to-one lesson. There is the feeling that it should be somehow “different” from a group lesson, and the fear that it will be much more demanding. So, how does the course content and methodology that you use in a one-to-one course differ from that of a group course? Should it differ at all?

At elementary and intermediate levels I think students need to follow a set programme, in order to provide a complete syllabus and a coherent course. If you are a beginner, it doesn’t matter how specific your needs are – you still need to learn the verb to be and then the other basic structures of the language, and you still need to do lots of practice exercises. This may be an ordinary coursebook, and/or an on-line course, presuming that there is a computer in the room where you are teaching. Including an on-line course in the programme gives you the chance to provide a change of focus during the lesson – particularly useful if you are with the student for any length of time, as you might be for example on an intensive one-to-one course. One which I’ve built into several intermediate level courses as supplementary material is Ten Days in Manchester from the BBC’s Learning English site.

Beginners also need to do all the things that they would do if they were working in a group. Teachers are often frightened, for example, of asking students to repeat phrases, to read or do written exercises in a private lesson. Don't be – they need repetition work as much as any other student and, especially if they're not doing homework, they also need written consolidation. Sometimes they benefit from working on an exercise with the teacher watching them as they write the answers and confirming or helping as they go along. At other times, however, they need to work independently. I always take an article to read or some marking to do while they work – so that they don’t feel I’m hovering and observing all the time. But they also need to know that they are my priority – as soon as they finish (or if they get stuck) they tell me and my attention switches back to them.

What about other aspects of methodology ? One commonly expressed misconception about one-to-one teaching is that “You can’t do pairwork!”. You can, and you should. Otherwise, the student will never have the chance to try out the language she needs to use in the real situation in roleplay and simulation activities. It's just that you have to be the other member of the pair! This obviously means that you can't monitor at the same time, but try taping the activity. You can then play back the conversation, the student can try to correct his/her own mistakes or reformulate the things s/he had difficulty with. Some pairwork activities can also be adapted to become individual activities in the one to one situation. For example a spot the difference activity with pictures, intended to be done with one student having each picture and describing it to his/her partner, can be done by letting the student see the first picture for ten seconds, then turning it over and showing him/her the second. The student then has to list, from memory, the differences. As the student is monologuing, the teacher is free to take notes as s/he listens.

Although I said above that I would generally want to follow a set course, the advantage of 1-to-1 is that you can also focus on things which are particularly relevant to the student. For example, with one beginner, I taught the simple past form of verbs (affirmative only) very early on. We then started each lesson with her telling me the things she had done in the preceding days. Because she was saying things like I went to a meeting about ... I had a problem with... the specific vocabulary she needed for her work came up almost from the beginning - which it wouldn't have done if we'd just ploughed through a standard beginners’ course. At this level, this often means using reformulation to help the student express his/her ideas. S/he tells the teacher what s/he wants to say (either in inaccurate English or in the L1), and the teacher restates it in correct English. If you do this keep two things in mind :
  • Firstly, simplify the phrase so that it can be expressed within the student’s current competence – for example. If the student wants to say I’ve known him since 1978 but hasn’t yet met the present perfect, rephrase the sentence as I met him in 1978.
  • Secondly, remember that if you say the correct form and the student just says “yes!”, she won’t learn anything. Always get him/her to repeat it. I also write it down in the L1 or in abbreviated form I - meet - my husband - 1978 and at the end of the lesson ask him/her to remember what they wanted to say and to say it again.At higher levels the course can be made far more specific by working on authentic materials based on the student's own interests - which may be professional or personal. One good source of listening material for example is Words in the News from the BBC Learning English site mentioned above. This covers a range of topics and comes complete with lesson plans. However, bear in mind that developing tailor-made materials is much more time consuming in terms of preparation than working on a coursebook, and if you’re setting your own fees, you need to factor this into the course price. You need not only to develop a unit around the material, but also to find it in the first place.

If you want to provide tailor made courses, where can you get your materials? At the moment, for example, I have one person responsible for energy issues - we're working on EU and other documents concerning initiatives on pollution (provided by the student or from the Net), as well as documentaries and news items from the BBC. Another, who I have been working with for about ten years now, has had two jobs in that time – both in local government but one concerned with vocational training and another with social services. Over the years we’ve worked on documents from British local government bodies, and documentaries and news items from the media.

Tailor-made courses don’t always have to focus on a student’s professional interests however. At the moment I am working with one person who is suffering from professional burn out and has asked to drop the job-oriented texts. He’s currently taking a high level sailing licence, so we're working on a diary of a round-the-world race, again from the net. In each case I divide the text into sections, and then turn it into a "unit" with pre-text discussion activities, general and detailed comprehension tasks, vocabulary study etc. As he wants to improve his listening skills, I again use short clips of video from BBC World which I work on in much the same way (we’ve just looked at a news item on the London Boat show).

Of course, you don’t always have to provide such detailed materials to personalise a one-to one course, and if you’re not being paid enough to make it worthwhile, you might decide mainly to follow a published course but occasionally to personalise without developing too many materials. For example, as Keith Taylor pointed out in his article on using DVD and video, you don’t always have to exploit the text in video material. Had my student been at a lower level, I might simply have asked him to watch the video without sound and to say what he thought it was about, before asking him to describe the last boat show he attended in his own country. Preparation time in this case would have been limited solely to the time necessary to find the material.


Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by
septuagesima via flickr

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