Teaching in an individual, one-on-one setting in some ways sounds ideal.
The student has the full attention of the instructor, focus on her specific problems, and no distractions from peers. However, any instructor who has taught one-on-one can tell you that individualized instruction presents its own unique challenges. Fortunately, those challenges can be addressed with planning on the part of the instructor and turned into advantages.
Disadvantages of One-on-One Instruction
Lack of interaction
Language learning, and language use in general, is based on interaction with others. In a regular-sized classroom, the instructor has the option of setting up a number of opportunities for interaction: small groups of three to five students, pair work, and surveys, in which the entire all of the classmates interact with each other. In one-on-one instruction, however, these opportunities are obviously reduced to student-teacher interaction, which can grow monotonous over the course of a two-hour block.
Lack of commitment
In a traditional-sized class, students are often kept coming to class because they feel a sense of obligation: their help is needed on their group project, for example, or they are completing some exercise with a partner. Or they may simply want to see their classmates because of relationships that have formed over the course of a term. In one-on-one instruction, however, there is only the instructor depending on the student (and of course the instructor doesn’t really depend on the student), so that sense of obligation for showing up is diminished. It is easier to just reschedule class when you don’t feel like going if you are the only student in that class. The class is mostly according to the student’s own schedule, and therefore there is an informal quality to the class that can create less commitment.
Lack of focus... this can create a situation in which instruction rapidly disintegrates to “Well, what do you think we should to study today?”
Along with the cavalier attitude toward the schedule that the informal nature of one-on-one instruction brings is also a lack of focus to the instruction. In a more traditional class, there is a set curriculum: the students and the instructor both know that they are there to teach and learn intermediate grammar skills for ESL, for example. In a one-on-one class setting, however, things are not nearly so clear-cut, and for the teacher inexperienced with one-one instruction, this can create a situation in which instruction rapidly disintegrates to “Well, what do you think we should to study today?” Generally, of course, the student doesn’t know, having reasonably expected the teacher to have figured that out.
Fortunately, using some basic principles of one-on-one instruction, each one of these disadvantages can be turned into advantages.
Advantages of One-on-One Instruction
Increased interaction with the instructor
A smaller class size does mean more one-on-one attention to the student’s specific needs. In a large class, it may take two weeks or more to even learn each student’s name. In a one-on-one class setting, however, at two weeks into the class, the instructor not only knows the student’s name, but also what his goals are professionally and academically, what his strengths and weaknesses are as a learner, his preferred learning modalities (e.g., visual or auditory), what skills he really needs to build in English, such as pronunciation or writing, and what his needs in English learning are: academic writing, for example, or conversation for social purposes. In addition, the instructor will have picked up on some personal information, such as significant life experiences and favorite activities. The term might very well be over in a regular-sized classroom before the instructor learns this information about even one student. Knowing more about the student—and of course, letting the student know you as an individual—increases the student-teacher bond and makes the student less likely to want to miss class. And of course knowing more about your student helps in tailoring instruction to his specific skills level and learning needs.
Building the relationship with the student
Again, the teacher and student are more able to get to know each other in a one-on-one setting than in a traditional class. This allows the teacher to build the relationship with the student and establish a certain amount of trust. In a larger class, the individual student can feel alienated from the instructor and other students, and this is particularly problematic in a language class, especially for shy students, who already fear being judged by others. In a one-on-one situation, however, the student is more likely to build trust with the teacher that will allow her to take the risks necessary to advance in language learning—not fearing other students will laugh at her pronunciation, for example, or that the teacher will come down hard on her for using the wrong word ending.
Focus on student needs and increased motivation
One major reason students stop coming to ESL class is that the class is simply not meeting their needs, and adult students “vote with their feet”—that is, their displeasure is expressed by leaving. It’s not always the teacher’s fault, of course—she is working with an established curriculum that is antiquated, focused on conjugating verbs, when students really need to learn how to use every day conversation, for example, or most of the students are at an advanced level and need vocabulary and reading skills for professional purposes while the curriculum is based everyday “survival” English. This problem of mismatch is avoided in one-on-one instruction as the curriculum is built for the needs of the specific student, creating more motivation to keep coming to class.
Ability to shift gears and focus from what isn’t working to what does.
Another difficulty with teaching a regular-sized class is that when the teacher does realize the curriculum is not matched to student need, it is often too late to fix: the syllabus has been designed, the books and materials ordered, and the students placed in that class, so adjusting the course is very difficult, and the teacher just slogs on the best she can with the existing curriculum. However, in one-on-one instruction, making adjustments to the curriculum is easy: the teacher can simply note if the material is too easy or difficult for the student, for example, and fine-tune the level accordingly for the next session. Or the teacher can ask the student after each session what she thought of the class and if it is meeting her needs: students generally are able to answer this, and again, the teacher can make adjustments accordingly.
So while it may seem at first that one-on-one instruction has none of the advantages of the regular classroom as well as many difficulties of its own, those disadvantages can be, through careful planning from the teacher and clear communication with the students, transformed into the unique benefits of individualized instruction.
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