Up Close and Personal: 5 Keys to Success for One-on-One Teaching

Up Close and Personal
5 Keys to Success for One-on-One Teaching

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 17,845 views

I have taught ESL in many different contexts – an ESL class in an international school overseas, classes at a university in the U.S., university level classes for a corporation, and one on one both in a tutoring center and with business clients.

I appreciate different aspects of each of my teaching positions; they have all been memorable in their own ways. But one of my most interesting experiences was the one on one teaching. There is so much potential when you are working with only one student. You can tailor what you teach to their exact needs. You get to know them and their culture in a deeper, more personal way. But teaching one on one also comes with unique challenges. If you find yourself teaching one on one, no matter what the context, here are some tips to help you make the most of your teaching time and ensure that your class is a success.

5 Keys to Success for One-on-One Teaching

  1. 1

    Know the Cultural Issues That Could Come into Play with Your Student

    When you have one and only one student in your “class” cultural issues can become more obvious. If you do or say something offensive in your student’s culture, they might take offense whereas a full classroom might buffer those offenses or make it clear that the issue is cultural and not personal. To avoid cultural missteps, once you know who you will be teaching do a little research about the cultural expectations for teachers in that culture. You might want to pay special attention to acceptable forms of body language, eye contact, personal space (how close to stand to someone when talking to them), and gender roles. That way you can know what triggers might cause a cultural misunderstanding between you and your student and take special steps to avoid them.

  2. 2

    Know What Your Student’s Specific Goals Are

    When your student is paying for one on one teaching, the (higher) bill for them will often come with higher expectations for you. Take some time at the beginning of your teaching schedule to assess both the perceived needs (what your student thinks he needs to know) and the real needs (what you evaluate what he needs to know) of your student. What does your student want to learn? How will he be using English once he has finished your program? Knowing what your student wants to learn will help you keep him satisfied. But you’ll also have to teach what your student needs to know. Is there a specific area of grammar in which he is lacking? Does he need pronunciation practice whether or no he knows it? Once you know these real needs and these perceived needs, you will have to walk the fine line of teaching what your student wants to learn while also teaching what he needs to learn.

  3. 3

    Be Personal

    If you are accustomed to teaching in a more traditional classroom, you might be tempted to jump right into instruction with your student at the start of each day. Teaching one on one, however, requires a more personal beginning to the lesson. Take a few minutes to build rapport with your student before you start your lesson plans. Ask polite questions and take time to chit chat. Building this relationships is important for successful one on one teaching. It is also good for getting your student ready to learn. And don’t feel as though you are wasting time being social at the start of class. Your student will be learning and practicing polite conversation skills, speaking, listening, and pronunciation as you talk together.

  4. 4

    Make Your Lessons Practical

    You probably already know how important it is to include realia in class. Materials created for native speakers present a different challenge for English as a second language learners. But realia isn’t the only way to make your lessons practical. Whenever possible, include materials your student will have interaction with after your program, whether those materials include business memos or academic texts. When you give assignments, angle them toward how your student will use English in his real world. Have your student write an email rather than a personal letter. Have him fill out a real job application rather than talk about his family tree. Whenever you can, apply your student’s ultimate language goals to what you use in class and the work you assign him to complete outside of class. Doing so will give your student a leg up when it comes to his post instruction English use.

  5. 5


    When you are a classroom of two, reviewing homework may not seem a valuable way to spend class time. But even if there are more important or interesting things to do in class, assessing your student’s performance on yesterday’s work is still important for you. You need to know what he does and doesn’t understand so you can teach the appropriate material today. So instead of having your student sit there in silence as you correct his homework, plan on multitasking. Have an independent assignment ready for your student to work on as you look over his homework at the start of class. Beginning class this way offers many benefits. First, you will have a guilt-free moment to look over yesterday’s homework. Second, your student won’t feel like they aren’t getting the full attention they are paying for since they won’t have empty, purposeless minutes in your class. Third, it’s a good way to get your student in the mindset to tackle today’s lesson. You have many options for the independent work your student completes at the start of class. Give him a review sheet. Have him attempt a new skill that you will be teaching today. Give him a reading passage, listening assignment, or grammar exercise to get him thinking about today’s topic. All of these will be a beneficial start to your student’s class session.

Whether you are a seasoned teacher or getting ready to start your first teaching position, one on one teaching is something different from having a full classroom.

When you know the expectations your student has and what he plans to do with English in the long run, you will be able to design lessons that give him just what he needs and keep him satisfied with your role in his education, too. Keep these tips in mind, and you are sure to get off on the right foot with your student.

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