Author and teacher trainer Tim Bowen offers ten practical tips for making one-to-one teaching work.

1. Logistics

Think about your position in the classroom and about where the student sits. In a group classroom, the teacher often stands at the whiteboard or sits at the front of the class. In a one-to-one class, this may not be the most appropriate solution. A round table is ideal for one-to-one. Try sitting next to the student as a variation on sitting opposite each other. This will enable you to work together on visual materials and language tasks. Remember, too, that sitting in one place for an hour or more can be tiring. Try breaking up the lesson by moving around a bit and encourage your student to do the same thing. This can have noticeable benefits in terms of concentration and motivation.

2. Visual materials

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 simple map-based discussion could focus on questions such as ‘Where were you born?’, ‘Where did you grow up?’, ‘Where did you study?’, then ‘Where do you live now?’ and ‘Have you been to X?’. The student can also be asked to ask the questions as well as answer them. This can provide very focused (and fairly communicative) practice of the structures in question.

3. Use the student

Most one-to-one classes tend to be with adult professionals. Many such students want job-related content in their one-to-one lessons, and some have very specific needs. It would generally be inappropriate for the teacher to attempt to teach them their job (e.g. pharmaceutical research), but some brief research beforehand can pay dividends. Find out what the student’s company does. If it’s a large company they will almost certainly have a website. Access the website and download the latest company news. If you are informed about the general activities of the company, this will enable you to ask informed questions. In the case of pharmaceuticals, the latest products and their general areas of treatment will normally be listed on the website. You can then get the student to explain in detail what each product does.

4. Give feedback

Many one-to-one lessons can develop into a pleasant and interesting chat that fills the lesson time amazingly quickly. No doubt this is useful fluency and listening practice for the student, and some students may even ask for ‘conversation’ and nothing else. What this doesn’t do, however, is 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. 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.

5. Authentic material

If the student works for a company, ask them to bring in examples of the English material they need to work with. This may range from reports they have to write to forms they have to fill in or documents they have to read. Using authentic company material will help you to plan your course and keep it focused on the student’s real needs.

6. Use the internet

The internet is a superb resource for one-to-one lessons, providing material related to the student’s company (see above) and also a wide range of material from the student’s field of expertise that can be used as a basis for homework and then for a variety of useful classroom activities such as summarising, making a short presentation, working on vocabulary and working on grammar. Many students will also need to write emails in English. A regular email writing activity with the student writing job-related or simulated emails to the teacher and vice-versa can be very beneficial and also presents an alternative to the normal classroom routine.

7. Presentations

A lot of students will need to make presentations in their work. These can range from a presentation of their latest product to a presentation of a piece of research or giving a paper at a conference. The one-to-one situation is an ideal forum for the student to practise this in a relaxed environment, with the teacher giving feedback on the language used and the effectiveness of the presentation. You can help the student with the language of presentations and with presentation techniques, such as using visuals and graphs.

8. Audio and video

Both are very 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.

9. Homework

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.

10. Using silence

Don’t be afraid of silence. All learners need space and thinking time. It is very hard to maintain a discussion in a foreign language for an hour or more. Try breaking up the lesson with a short writing activity, or perhaps ask the learner to research a few words in the dictionary. You might even leave the room for a few minutes just to vary the pace of the lesson. Above all, get to know your student and their preferred learning style. Talk to them about your approach and ask them regularly if what you are doing is what they want and need. It may be a case of feeling your way at first, but in the long term this should ensure that you both get the maximum out of the course.