How do you encourage a one-to-one student to focus on grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation, when all they want to do in their lessons is chat? Alex Case provides tips for dealing with this situation, along with a sample lesson plan.

The student just wants to chat, but you know he needs to improve his grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. How do you deal with this?

  • If students are resistant to doing specific grammar or pronunciation points in class, the best way to approach these points is through correcting the errors they make when they are speaking. If you can show them a sentence they actually said with the error in it (see Feedback sheet) then the relevance of the point to them has at least been made.
  • Unfortunately, the students who say they don’t need to / want to do grammar, etc are also often the most resistant to error correction. If they do speak English in their work or studies, you can make the error correction more relevant to them by choosing a sentence to correct that they would need to say in their everyday work, or by adapting the sentence they say into a more generally useful one.
  • Make sure they don’t have as their last line of defense ‘But you understand me, right?’ Choose sentences for error correction where misunderstandings are possible. The best way of showing this is by contrasting pairs – minimal pairs for individual sounds (made and mad), sentences where the main difference is the stress on different words (I can do it / I can’t do it), contrasting prepositions and verb patterns (I arrived in London / I arrived at London and I stopped to look at her / I stopped looking at her), etc. Possible comic misunderstandings or stories illustrating them can help make the point. For example, I use a story about a Spanish friend of mine causing hilarity to her host family in England because of her pronunciation when talking about the sheets on her bed.
  • If your student doesn’t really make any mistakes but is just not ambitious enough in their use of language, go into the lesson with a grammatical structure and/or list of vocabulary that you want to cover and either slip these into conversation or try to steer the conversation into an area where they cannot really avoid using it. For example, talking about CVs and job interviews means the present perfect continuous is bound to come up, and ditto with their position in the company or the vocabulary of company structure (reports to / is head of, etc). For this, it is important that the language feedback you give them is not just correction, but also gives them more idiomatic options for things they expressed well, and so on.
  • The tactic above can also be used to tackle a point that a student makes repeated mistakes with. For example, talking about their office is a good opportunity to count the number of errors they make with ‘a’ and ‘the’.
  • Even when you only expect to be ‘allowed to‘ chat by the student, take photocopies from a textbook or grammar book into class. This can help you with prompts for conversation – and if they ask you for explanation of a point you can let them have a look at what the book says about the point and then let them have it to take away.
  • Alternatively, you can introduce the new language as part of a more controlled speaking activity. For example, put the vocabulary into discussion questions and take turns asking each other questions from the list, or do a speaking game where the new vocabulary is the prompt for conversation (see the attached Situation one lesson below).
  • Finally, if they want to chat, you can, of course, let them chat. Set aside the last ten minutes of the lesson after you have gone through the errors you have collected during the class for an informal chat with no error correction or fixed topic – as a ‘reward’ for humouring you with the error correction sheet. Such students also often respond well to idiomatic language and proverbs, so these can also be kept as a ‘treat’ – even if it is not really suitable for the student’s level or language needs.

A typical lesson for this kind of student might be:

  1. a chat about work (10 minutes); 
  2. a quick run through of a language point they had problems with during an error correction stage in a previous class (max. 10 minutes); 
  3. a discussion topic or speaking game based around particular grammar or vocabulary; 
  4. error correction, etc from the Feedback Sheet (10 minutes); 
  5. and, finally, a chat about plans for the weekend.


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