Teaching one-to-one: a Twitter overview

Tip: Here is a really good overview of the issues surrounding teaching one-to-one. It comes from Ceri Jones’ highly recommended blog.


The post is Ceri’s summary of a Twitter discussion on ‘teaching one-to-one’ that she participated in. See the post ‘Twitter discussions’ in the Other section of this site.

Overview of teaching 121

The conversation covered a wide range of different teaching contexts and class types from executives to exam preparation classes, from  younger learners to students with learning difficulties and special needs, both face-to-face and online.

The conversation kicked off with chatters listing their general attitudes to 1-2-1 classes and this grew into a sizeable list of advantages:

  • I love 121
  • lots of chances for personalization
  • Much easier than a bigger group
  • Some new teachers find it easier to start with 121
  • Some started out as 1-2-1 teachers and found it a great way to learn
  • Some commented that new Ts elt less pressure teaching 121
  • Fewer class management issues
  • More room to meet the students’ needs
  • Ss can control the direction of the class
  • Ss get to direct and choose content more than in a group
  • The student has all your attention and you can tailor the lesson to their individual needs
  • The teacher can focus on things that are particularly relevant to the student
  • The ultimate in student-centred learning
  • You can establish a great relationship with your student

And disadvantages:

  • It can be very tiring
  • Sometimes more demanding than a class full of students
  • sometimes it is more work because you want to tailor it to their interests
  • New teachers sometimes find it daunting
  • Some 1-2-1 students can very teacher-dependent
  • Classes can lack the energy and variety of interaction in a group
  • Students aren’t exposed to other’s mistakes – can’t learn from peers
  • The lack of discussion opportunity with a peer rather than the teacher
  • The classes – and the relationship with the students – can get very intense
  • Classes can sometimes become more like a therapy session
  • The success or failure of the course can often depend on rapport
  • With a difficult student there’s the danger of teacher burnout

These were the main issues we discussed, more or less in the order they were first raised:

Needs analysis

The approach to needs analysis often depends on the client (and not necessarily the student) and some chatters talked about conducting needs analysis interviews or distributing questionnaires before the course started, although this also has it drawbacks. Students don’t always respond and it was noted that they don’t always know how to identify their needs. There was agreement that needs analysis has to be ongoing and that needs and wants change during the course, sometimes in response to new approaches and materials introduced by the teacher, sometimes through a growing student awareness of possibilities. It was also felt that some students need guidance and training in setting personal goals.

Needs analysis was also felt to be a good starting point for the first lesson with a new student, and it was suggested that with lower level learners needs analysis could be conducted in the student’s L1.  One chatter talked about the enjoyment involved in trying to figure out what exactly his students need, especially when they don’t know themselves!

Planning and materials

It was suggested that in a lot of cases a coursebook might not be appropriate and it was often better to start with materials that the students brought from their own work place such as emails, reports and other documents.  This was seen as different when working with younger students preparing for an exam. It was felt that there may be need for more variety of materials and topics in a 1-2-1 class, and that it may be necessary to plan more activities and switch more quickly from activity to activity, being ready to ditch activities if they aren’t successful, especially with younger learners.

It was considered important to find out what the student is interested in (sports, music, cinema) and what learning styles and approaches they prefer.  And it was suggested that asking students to teach the teacher about something in their culture or specialist field was particularly empowering.  It was also stressed that plans should be open and flexible, responding to the students’ specific needs.

Teacher Talking Time

The nature of TTT was thought to be different in a 1-2-1 class.  It was considered to be a valuable resource, with teachers involved in role plays and offering live listening input, as well as opportunities for real communication. It was thought to be particularly valuable as input for lower level students.

There was still a feeling that we need to be careful in controlling the quantity of TTT. It was felt that there is sometimes a danger that 1-2-1 classes can be dominated by talk and that there is a need to find a balance between talking and quiet time, speaking and writing or reading.  It was felt that silence, thinking time and processing time were all important and some teachers felt more comfortable with silences in a 1-2-1 context.

The lack of variety in the interaction, with the teacher needing to participate and monitor at the same time, was seen as a potential problem, but a lot of chatters agreed that recording speaking tasks (e.g. on a laptop or mobile phone) helped ease the pressure on the teacher, and the recording could then be used for feedback and to focus on language.  Some chatters said that they invited guests into their classrooms by using skype, moodle or voxopop chat (see link at the end).  Another suggested swapping students occasionally with other teachers to provide variety.

Using technology

A lot of chatters integrate technology in their classes, many using smartphones and laptops for a variety of activities:

  • recording students, inside and outside the class
  • going online to research or find something
  • watching videos on youtube etc
  • making and recording powerpoint presentations, pecha kuchas or short prezis
  • chatting
  • texting
  • bringing students together through e.g. skype or eluminate

Web tools were thought to be a great for letting the students work while the teacher prepared the next task or feedback.  Recordings and chat transcript were felt to be very useful for reviewing, reformulating and pushing students to perform at a higher level.

We also discussed lo-tech or no-tech solutions.  Chatters talked about the use – or rather non-use – of whiteboards, preferring to use paper which could be taken home as an instant record of the lesson and also makes it easier for the student to join in. One recommended using carbon paper in order to be able to make an instant copy for both teacher and student.

Setting homework and encouraging contact with English beyond the classroom

One chatter reported the biggest challenge as being getting students, and especially busy executives, to study in their own time. Various solutions were suggested:

  • use email, use text messages, done on their laptops, phones etc so they have less of an excuse
  • start from very small bits: ask them to voice record something small every day, then bring to class
  • give them a list of links e,g, for Self Access reading or listening -they do the tasks and then report back
  • get them to sign a contract which they create – what how often and how much they can deliver
  • let the SS choose how much HW to do, then really praise them for doing it.
  • slowly & gently lead them to manage their own learning & take responsibility for it

Building rapport

Rapport was seen as another key area.  It can be really uncomfortable if there is no rapport, but it was felt that the responsibility for building rapport lies with the teacher.  It was suggested that when there is poor rapport or resistance from the student, then the best thing to do is to keep the relationship as professional as possible and base the classes on hard work while trying through trial and error to find materials and topics that stimulate and interest the student.

Tracking progress

Again approaches varied depending on context.

  • show old work – highlight the difference.
  • most have a goal to achieve, build back from that
  • use a wiki to keep track of activities and collect materials
  • track progress on productive tasks
  • get the student involved in the tracking too
  • decide on the goals for the month, make a table and revise it at the end of period
  • timed readings, keeping drafts and re-writes of writing tasks, vocab tests,
  • plan the course in chunks of let’s say 5-6 lessons, re-evaluate / re-negotiate the course lightly and often
  • with a young adult, use blogging/tweeting etc. Non-teacher feedback is so useful for 121


We touched briefly on the question of correction, and more specifically on the problem teachers face when students want to be corrected all the time.  It was agreed that this can depend on the culture and the individual student. Chatters suggested correcting lightly and often, negotiating what and when to correct with the students, and using recordings to help the students self-correct.


Another area we touched on briefly was that of discipline, although it wasn’t generally felt to be a big problem, there can be issues such as time-keeping, overuse of L1 and a tendency to ask too many personal questions.  Chatters felt that this could be countered by setting boundaries, establishing clear rules about use of L1 and time-keeping and not asking students for any information that we would not be willing to give about ourselves.  .

We finished off with a brainstorm of favourite activity types

  • Vocabulary games
  • Games in general – either against the teacher, or against themselves (ie past performance)  or against the clock
  • craft projects
  • poster-making
  • science-based projects
  • read and re-tell activities
  • make cartoons to get the main idea out of a reading text
  • tell me, ask me game
  • take the students out of the classroom
  • always soend first 5-10 minutes chatting
  • generic board games, sets of questions for different square
  • dictogloss
  • film presentations
  • elevator/lift pitches (sell yourself in ten floors)
  • discussing news headlines
  • BBC one minute world news as a good starting point
  • bringing in local free paper and student translates headlines/stories
  • cook together
  • eat together
  • make a video together using eg quicktime player

One Comment


This is a very interesting and useful work, especially for novice teachers in 121 contexts.

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