Teaching 121- Some Considerations

This article is based on work originally prepared for our Delta Module One course, and focuses on one-to-one teaching. For an article on Content and Methodology for 121 courses, click on the link. Here we look at:

a) the advantages and disadvantages of teaching 121

b) how the disadvantages can be overcome

Section a : Advantages

1. Adv : Whatever the specific needs of the learners are, these can be dealt with without risking that the lesson becomes irrelevant for other learners. The syllabus/lesson content can be negotiated with or even specified by the learner.  A typical example would be a BE learner who has an important meeting coming up. The L can be helped to prepare for the meeting in the lesson, planning what they want to say and how to say it, anticipating other participants likely reactions and planning how they will deal with them etc. However, even GP learners may have specific needs which can be focused on more easily in a 121 situation. For example, I once taught an elderly woman at A2 level whose daughter had married an American, and whose recently born grandchild was being brought up in the States speaking English. His (A2 level) grandmother wanted to learn English so that she could play with him, read to him etc. The course therefore focused on the language and subskills needed to play children’s games, and to read stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Where’s Spot?.

2. Adv : Learners who are studying in an English speaking environment, or eg Business English learners who are using English between lessons,  will be encountering a lot of ungraded language outside the classroom, which may confuse or puzzle them and which they may want to ask about. Time can be left for this in lessons (or the planned lesson can even be abandoned to deal with it), making the course even more relevant to their immediate needs.

3. Adv : The learner is involved 100% of the time and has the T’s full attention. There is therefore no possibility that eg confusion over specific points, or important errors may go unnoticed.

4. Adv : Some shyer learners may lack confidence in a class situation and learn more effectively in 121 courses because they feel less anxious. One learner I initially had in a group situation was so nervous that her stutter became so bad that she would refuse to participate in either PW/GW or in full class format, which obviously blocked her from making any progress. When she switched to 121, she gradually relaxed, and started learning and speaking more confidently and without stuttering.

5. Adv : Very strong and very weak learners may benefit from 121 as the lesson/course can progress at their own pace. Stronger Ls do not feel “held back” and therefore frustrated, while weaker learners can be given the extra time to assimilate each new item, the extra practice and recycling that they need. In a course that proceeded at “average” pace, these learners would be liable to get left behind and possibly drop out.


Section b : Disadvantages and Related Solutions

The lack of other learners can mean that:

6. Disadv : Notwithstanding point 4 above, for some Ls, 121 can be too intensive and therefore stressful.

7. Solution : The T. has to be sensitive to the L’s ability to concentrate and plan the lesson so that there is sufficient variety of activity and pace, breaks at regular intervals etc. This will differ from learner to learner.

8. Disadv : The L cannot compare themselves with others and see that others find new concepts as hard to understand as they do, make as many mistakes as they do, etc etc. This may lead to demotivation and to the L. feeling that they “can’t learn English”.

9. Solution : If the course is geared to the L’s learning needs as suggested in point 5 above, this problem may be avoided. However, regular discussion of the L’s progress and reassurance from the T is also essential.

10. Disadv : The learner has no chance to learn from other learners and may come to be “teacher dependent”, seeing T-input and direction as the only way to learn.

11. Solution : Techniques which emphasise autonomy (inference strategies, guided discovery of grammatical areas etc) need to be emphasised so that the L realises they can “do it themself” without becoming over-reliant on the T.

12. Disadv: The T has, necessarily to be the “other person” in all discussion activities. Focusing on participating may mean that they do not have the opportunity to take notes of what is going on, and important learning affordances may be missed.

13. Solution : The conversations can be recorded (preferably on the L’s phone  for privacy reasons and also so that they have a record of it to take away). The recording can then be replayed and learning affordances exploited. For example : i) mistakes and errors can be focused on and corrected; ii) correct utterances can be “upgraded”; iii) the T can focus on language that they themselves used – eg figurative expressions, turn taking strategies etc and work on them with the learner.

14. Disadv : If the L is shy or not particularly confident, they may leave longer silences before responding than the teacher is comfortable with. The T may therefore “jump in” to fill the silence, which will mean there is a tendency for teacher talking time to increase and the lesson to become too teacher-centred.

15. Solution : The T must accept that silence may be a valid learning strategy, and allow the L time to plan what they want to say rather than immediately intervening to “help” at the first sign of hesitation.

16. Disadv : 121 courses depend very much on T/L rapport, which can be threatened if the learners are “difficult” -  eg

a) the L has very different social/political attitudes to the T.

b) the L is (as often happens) a high-ranking individual in an organisation, used to being the leader and having their every decision accepted. This may lead to them imposing methodologies which the T does not agree with. 

c) if this high-ranking L is used to being simply a decision maker whose assistants do the real work, they may consider that the teach can “learn English for them” without their needing to make extra effort – eg completing homework tasks. (See here.)

17. Solutions for Disadvantages 16 a-c : 

a) Even more than in a group course, the T needs to avoid PARSNIPS topics, and avoid following up on any comments which they strongly disagree with.

b) Negotiate the methodology. This was the case with a L who I taught whose company (who were paying) had requested a presentation skills course. On the first day the learner said he did not want to follow the course I had prepared but “just wanted to chat”. I resolved the problem by asking him to follow my programme for two days after which we would follow his idea for another two days. At the end he could decide which approach he had learnt more from. He agreed and we completed my two days. One the afternoon of “his” first day he asked to return to my course, agreeing that it was more effective. (See here.)

c) Firstly, discuss this with the learner paralleling it with something else they have learnt – eg learning to drive – and the role of the T/L in that situation. Secondly, find out whether the “homework avoidance” is genuinely due to lack of time or just lack of motivation. Whichever is the case, negotiate the situation and decide with the L how much homework will be done – which may range from nothing to a more substantial amount. However, ensure that the L understands that i) the less h/w set will mean more to be done in class – which will delay the achievement of the objectives set, and ii)  if the h/w agreed on  is not done it must again be done in the next lesson – again delaying  the achievement of the objectives set. It is useful if the L signs a “learning contract” with these conditions stated, and the T should keep a record.