Many instructors, when approached about teaching in a one-on-one setting, may think first of the negatives: the isolation from colleagues, the lack of a standard curriculum, and the dearth of materials and general support.
Often such “classes” are even removed from a school setting, taking place at the student’s home or work place. However, what may appear to be its many drawbacks can actually be turned into a one-on-one instructional situation’s advantages. An instructor in a one-on-one situation has the unique possibility to schedule and meeting place flexibly, individualize instruction, and build her own curriculum based on student need.
Exploiting the Advantages of One-on-One Instruction
Flexibility in meeting time and place.
In one-on-one instruction, student and instructor have the option of meeting at a mutually convenient time and therefore are less distracted by other obligations and can focus on the class. In addition, they don’t have to meet at the campus; they can also meet at the student’s home, or workplace, or a café. Classrooms are notoriously lacking in context, which means instructors are constantly trying to make up for this lack thorough visuals like pictures and video, music, taped lectures and discussions, and the like. However, a café has a ready-made context through vocabulary and conversations related to eating, as well as the simple conversations related to socializing that occur between customers and staff on a busy day, language in its natural context. In addition, meeting in the student’s workplace creates an opportunity for the acquisition of technical and professional vocabulary; even meeting in the student’s or instructor’s home can provide opportunities for learning the language for appliances, for example, that the student has not yet learned in English. So flexibility of both meeting time and place is one of the unique advantages of one-on-one instruction.
Designing individualized instruction.
An important advantage to individualized instruction is of course tailoring the class to student need. At the beginning of each term with a new student, I administer both a short skills diagnostic, to determine how much English the student already knows, as well as a needs assessment, to find out what the student wants to learn. These instruments will inform me what to teach the student and at what level, and for what situation student most wants to learn English, such as English speaking skills for the workplace. From these two tools, I can build course materials that target the individual student’s needs. This would not be possible in a traditional pre-packaged course. So, for example, if I determine that my student this term is at the low intermediate level and is mostly interested in learning vocabulary and speaking skills for business and professional purposes, I already have an idea of how I’m going to structure the course around conversation and vocabulary for the workplace, supplemented with pronunciation practice. I will also have an idea from the initial skills and needs assessment which kind of textbook and materials to use.
Flexibility in continued tailoring of instruction.
In a typical ESL class of thirty students, the instructor may find himself losing half the class with any given activity: if it’s a speaking and listening activity, for example, he might find those students who are there for reading and writing skills sitting back and looking bored; if he introduces a short academic text, the students who are there for more social conversation will be lost. This is not the instructor’s fault; it is the very nature of the diversity of an ESL class with students there for a variety of needs. In a one-on-one situation, however, the instructor can focus on the needs specific to the single student, such as improved pronunciation and academic vocabulary, and skim over the parts of the text that don’t address those skills—or better yet, skip the text and design activities specific to the student’s needs.
Trying out new material.
If you have a new textbook you’d love to use, but aren’t sure where to use it, the one-on-one session might just be the place for you to try it out. For example, I just tried a textbook structured around a series of episodes from radio talk shows on controversial issues such as capital punishment. The student response to the material was positive, as is almost always the case with more innovative material, as students have grown used to the dry rote conversations and grammar instruction that is more typical of an ESL class.
Developing own curriculum.
Have a book you’re dying to write? Most teachers probably do! This is your chance to write your own materials to meet student need. For example, I have a particular interest in teaching idiomatic phrases, such as “on the other hand” and “in my opinion” that is so common in every day speech as well as informal and formal writing; a lot of language is actually made up of these “ready-made” phrases. However, not much attention is paid to these phrases and idioms in traditional ESL classes. The one-on-one session, then, is a unique opportunity to develop and experiment with more nontraditional curricula, which students nearly always respond positively to. Having received a positive response, the instructor can continue developing materials over the term, which can later be compiled into a book form for future classes or even possible publication.
Innovative and varied activities.
There actually are a lot of inventive activities out there for ESL students, such as the use kazoos, little flute-like instruments that the student can talk into and hear her voice transformed into “music,” as the kazoo, a wind instrument, emphasizes speech pitch patterns when spoken into. This makes it an ideal instrument to teach intonation. The trouble is the logistics of first finding, then purchasing, kazoos for thirty students, then distributing them and showing how they are used, and then trying to collect and recycle them. The instructor begins to do a quick cost-benefit analysis of the value of such an activity, no matter how inventive, given all of the constraints. However, there is little difficulty in providing for and then teaching the use of a kazoo to one student. Because the class is so small, one-on-one instruction is an ideal place to try out those new activities you’d like to but were afraid to. If the activity doesn’t go so well, the teacher just has one disappointed or confused student to placate rather than an entire class of thirty. And if the activity does go well, the instructor can then put it in her repertoire of activities to perhaps use in a larger setting.
At first glance, one-on-one instruction seems to have more potential pitfalls than benefits, such as the lack of materials and support.
However, if addressed correctly, individualized instruction also presents unique opportunities for flexibility and creativity in scheduling and curriculum.