One to one or room 101?

Some teachers love teaching one to one: they enjoy the luxury of being able to focus on the needs of an individual learner and appreciate not having to deal with the stress of large class management and issues of differentiation.

Others shudder at the very thought! They complain that it’s an exhausting slog in which time stands still, and there is nothing to break the intensity for either teacher or learner.

Having taught my fair share of one to one lessons, I can see both sides. I have taught delightful adult learners with whom I have shared laughs and cakes (learners I have kept in touch with long after our one to one sessions have run their course.) Yet, I have also experienced far more challenging one to one sessions: with extremely low level learners whose L1 I do not share, and most difficult of all, with EAL teenagers who looked forward to our one to one English lessons as they would a tooth extraction.

I’m reflecting on one to one teaching at the moment as I’ve been commissioned to write teaching resources for a series of one to one lessons. As a starting point I’ve begun to make a list of what has worked for me in the one to one teaching context.


What works in one to one teaching contexts?


You are not teaching a class of one. You are teaching an individual.

  • Although this may seem an obvious point, things can go wrong when the teacher works through course books/teaching resources designed for large classes. What works with a class of ten (jigsaw readings, group discussions etc.) can fall rather flat with one person.
  • Think about where you’re teaching. Teaching one person in a large classroom, surrounded by empty desks can feel a little bit sad and lonely. Try to fashion a comfortable, welcoming environment for your learner. Yes, this does mean coffee and maybe even the odd piece of cake. Resist the temptation to stand up and write things on the white board. Use a large piece of paper or a mini white board which you can put on the table between you and your learner.



All this cosiness doesn’t mean you can’t prepare. Unless your learner has specifically requested a relaxed conversation lesson, teaching one to one requires just as much, if not more, preparation than a whole class lesson.

This means preparing a range of activities tailored to suit the needs of your learner. These activities shouldn’t be a straitjacket and certainly don’t need to consist of reams of photocopies. They can simply be ideas stored in your head and are just a way of providing you and your learner with the variety your learner will need.

Concrete items you might want to prepare and source for your one to one lesson might include the following:

  • Visuals: one to one lessons provide a great opportunity to use visuals. These could be photos on your laptop or phone or even pictures cut from magazines. The beauty of the one to one lesson is that you and your learner will both be able to see them easily. You can also use the same picture to practise different language points.
  • Realia: depending on the level and needs of your learner you can bring in interesting objects which your learner can examine at his/her leisure. Low level ESOL learners can really benefit from having the opportunity to practise working with real money, for example.


Don’t make it all about you

Okay, it’s a one to one lesson. This doesn’t mean that yours is the only voice your learner needs to hear. With a little creativity, you can easily shift the focus during a one to one lesson.

  • Does your classroom have a phone? Task your learner with finding out some information. For example, your learner can phone three different hotels and ask about prices for a double room which includes breakfast. Lower level learners could phone up the local swimming pool and enquire about opening hours/women’s only swimming night etc. This works best if the phone has a loudspeaker so you can record the conversation and listen to it together afterwards.
  • Providing reluctant teenage learners with the opportunity to escape your beady gaze is a great incentive. Tell them that if they work hard they can have five minutes at the end of the lesson to do some online English learning activities.
  • The one to one class is a fantastic opportunity to practise listening. Why? Well, for one thing you can select texts to suit your learners’ needs and interests. For another thing our learner can be completely in charge of the listening process: pausing the recording whenever s/he wants and replaying tricky bits as often as s/he needs.


Giving feedback

I’m no multi-tasker. In fact, I am virtually incapable of doing more than one thing at once. While I find it relatively straightforward to listen and give feedback to two learners having a conversation it all falls to pieces when I am the conversational partner! My way of overcoming this is to record short snippets of role plays and conversations my learner and I act out together. We can then play them back and listen to them, pausing them at points to discuss issues.

The following links will take you to further ideas and articles about teaching English one to one:

Lindsay Clandfield’s tips and activities for teaching one to one business classes

Ceri Jone’s elt chat summary on teaching one to one

Advantages and disadvantages of teaching one to one

10 activities for teaching one to one lessons


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