10 things you can do with one student that you can’t do with a class: the magic of one-to-one

The magic of one-to-oneHow is one-to-one teaching different to teaching a group of students? Most online teachers teach on a one-to-one basis, and it’s a totally different ballgame to teaching groups of students such as those you’d find in a classroom. In this article you’ll discover the differences between one-to-one teaching and teaching groups, and how you can make the one-to-one experience better for both your student and yourself.

1. You go at the student’s speed

When you teach a class of students, you have to think about the class as a whole rather than individual students. If Carlos doesn’t get the first conditional or can’t answer the questions about a reading passage, and everybody else has finished and is twiddling their thumbs and texting their friends, tough luck, Carlos. We have to move on. With one to one teaching, you have to go at the student’s pace, so if Carlos doesn’t get it, you give him more time, more support or more explanations. If Carlos messes up the task, he gets to go back and do it again, ideally better.

2. Classroom management is irrelevant

A great classroom teacher isn’t simply someone who knows lots of stuff and knows how to explain it. They are also great at managing a class of students. Classroom management is a bit like conducting an orchestra, ensuring that everyone knows what they’re doing and is on task, and that a pace of some sort is maintained. While one-to-one teaching has to be organised, it doesn’t need to be orchestrated. A teacher can just teach.

3. One-to-one is a partnership

With a class of students, the teacher has a number of different roles: classroom manager, lesson director, timekeeper, doorkeeper, instructor, authority figure and, especially with younger learners, a disciplinarian. One to one teaching is more of a partnership. In fact, it’s like a dance: your student is your dancing partner and every move, every step counts. Are you going too fast for your partner? Are your steps too big? Are you treading on your partner’s toes, for example by interrupting their talk or their thoughts, or correcting them unnecessarily? Are you doing the waltz (because the syllabus says you should) when your student would rather be doing the tango? If one-to-one teaching is a partnership, then it suggests that getting on with your student is important. But relationships aren’t perfect: we get bored, irritated or even angry with each other, so don’t expect the teacher-student relationship to be perfect all the time.

4. The student can control the content

One advantage to one-to-one teaching is that you can let the student decide the content of a lesson. What is your student interested in? What does your student want to be able to do with English? In a class, letting the students decide is not practical so the content is often decided in advance by the teacher or, more usually, by a coursebook. Coursebooks typically choose content that they think most students might be at least moderately interested in, such as nanotechnology or UFOs and they tend to go for the unusual and remarkable. Trouble is, most communication is about the mundane and the unremarkable, like the football results, the weather or your bad back, but these are the very things people like to talk about. So let your student decide the content, freeing you up to focus on the language needed to talk about the content.

5. You can help the student reformulate their work

One way of allowing your student to choose content is by making the starting point of a one-to-one lesson a piece of the student’s own writing or a short talk given by them, prepared by them prior to the lesson. Much of the lesson can then be about you helping your student improve this language. This is known as reformulation. Reformulation is more than just correcting errors; it’s about enhancing the language by pushing the student to use a wider range of vocabulary and grammar in an appropriate way. Reformulation isn’t meant to be a haphazard, interruptive process, but a structured one which seeks to bring about in the student a greater awareness of how English works. The end result of this reformulation process? The student has a piece of model language that emerged out of their own talk or writing. Once the reformulation has been done, the teacher can then direct the student’s attention to any new language that cropped up during the reformulation.

You simply can’t do reformulation like this when you have several students in a class. Instead, classroom teachers will usually take student writing home and laboriously correct it. This not only means that teachers get overworked, but the student is removed from the reformulation process and gets to play no role in improving their own work. They simply get their writing back covered with lots of impenetrable red ink. So it means more work for the teacher and little benefit for the student.

6. You can teach what your student really needs

A lot of classroom teaching is based around assumptions about what different learners have in common, such as they all need to revise the second conditional or they all need to learn some ways to describe food. These assumptions are turned into a syllabus. Such a syllabus will contain things that students may or may not understand already, or that they may or may not ever need to use in the future. Syllabus design is a bit like pinning the tail on the donkey; the syllabus writer, whatever their good intentions, is effectively writing a syllabus blindfold. But when you teach one-to-one, you can teach the language that your learner really needs. You can prepare them for doing the things they want to do with the English language, rather than what some syllabus designer or coursebook writer thinks they might want to do. Therefore one of the one-to-one teacher’s most important roles is to help students to identify their language needs. We do this by carrying out a needs analysis.

This is hard to get used to. Learners may have spent years being taught in classrooms in which the teacher decides everything for them and where their individual needs are subordinated to the needs of the whole class (or the coursebook). Suddenly, their needs are everything, but it can be difficult to express them clearly when they’ve spent years repressing them.

7. Reading is authentic

In a classroom, especially when using a coursebook, students usually read in order to answer comprehension questions; sometimes this is done as a list of statement to which students must respond ‘true’ or ‘false’. But in real life, we usually read to get the main idea about something, or to get important details. Or simply for the sheer pleasure of it. We don’t give ourselves comprehension questions, but we do often have to summarise a text or make notes about it. People working in business or studying at university may have to read a report or academic paper and quickly summarise it to colleagues.

One-to-one teaching is more suited to a real life approach to reading. A text becomes something to discuss, something to summarise, something to respond to, rather than something to ‘answer’.

8. Speaking is authentic

It perhaps goes without saying that in one to one lessons, there’s a lot more time for the student to speak.  But there’s more to it than that: a one-to-one lesson is essentially a social situation, which means that a lot of the language students get to use in a lesson will be social English, precisely the sort of language they will want to use in their everyday lives. In a class, a lot of teacher talk will be about explaining tasks and giving instructions, such as “open your books, turn to page 32 and do exercise 3.” But in a one-to-one lesson there’s room for things like “how are you, how did your football team do last week and what did you get up to at the weekend?” It’s difficult to lever in such language into a classroom with groups of students. Also, when your one-to-one student doesn’t understand something, they have to say so and ask you to clarify; in my experience, this rarely happens in a class because students don’t want to look foolish in front of their classmates. But here’s the thing: having to say that you don’t understand and asking for clarification is precisely the kind of language that language learners will need to use a lot in real life because they’re, well, language learners.

9. For the student, there’s no hiding place

In a group, unless some kind of communicative task such as a role play is taking place, only one student is likely to be speaking. More often than not, though, it’ll be the teacher speaking. This means students get a lot of down time, time in which they’re not expected to be saying anything. They can relax, zone out, gaze out of the window, think about tonight’s dinner, even take a toilet break.

In one to one teaching, the student is expected to be ‘in communication’ for the whole lesson. Even if they just have to listen to the teacher, it’s often listening that will require a response of some kind. They’re on show for the entire lesson. This is good: it pushes the learner to use English for an extended period of time; but it’s also hard: the learner has to be ready to speak the whole time, with no respite. This can be stressful, especially for shy or low level learners, and it can take time for learners to get used to this. But at least they get to know what it’s like being a teacher!

10. Students have more room to self correct

I love it when students make mistakes, when they say stuff like “yesterday I go to the zoo”, because it gives me an opportunity to get the student to correct themselves. In classrooms, there is less scope for giving students opportunities to self correct. Usually, it’s the teacher who does the correcting, but the place where language learning takes place is where the learner makes mistakes but is able to correct themselves. With one-to-one, there is room for this to happen.

What do you think? Can you think of any more differences between one-to-one and class teaching? Please leave a comment below.

Peter Wilberg, One-to-one: a teacher's handbook

Peter Wilberg, One-to-one

Some of the ideas in this article have been adapted from a book I found gathering dust in a corner of the British Council’s library in Bangkok, Peter Wilberg’s One-to-one: a teacher’s handbook (Language Teaching Publications, 1987). It’s a great book. I plan to relate more of the ideas in the book in future articles.

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4 comments on “10 things you can do with one student that you can’t do with a class: the magic of one-to-one
  1. melinda says:

    premature to write comments, but this program will really help uplifting filipino’s economic status.

    • Charlie says:

      Hi Melinda, thanks for your comment. I agree with you. Certainly one of the Philippine’s greatest assets is its strength in English. Living in Thailand, I know that a lot of Filipinos come over here to teach, but with online teaching they can make the same or more money working from home.

  2. Cynthia Pinon says:

    Greetings! How can i apply and teach English online?

    • Charlie says:

      Hi Cynthia, thanks for the comment. Please look around the blog – we’ve got a few tips that may answer your question, and there’s much more in our ebook. Check out the link to the ebook in the menu at the top of the page. Good luck!

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