One-to-One Lessons by Alan Marsh 

Some teachers love them, some hate them: one-to-one lessons, 121, Private Lessons, Individual Lessons – they go by different names, but they all come down to the same thing – you’re alone with a learner, and usually you’re their only teacher. Sometimes they may also be taking part in a group course, and may have opted for an extension. Their reasons for doing so are various, but usually it’s because they want to focus on a specific area, or they want individual attention, or both. I’ve often been asked to write down some tips and advice for teachers who feel unsure about teaching one-to-one, and perhaps to run a workshop. I’ve been to several workshops myself, and although they often provide useful insights and some practical techniques, they have the problem that every learner is different, with different personalities, learning styles, strengths and weaknesses, practical needs and language learning experiences. As a result, 121 workshops (including my own) tend to gloss over the topic and end up being somewhat unsatisfactory. So I decided to sit down and think about what I actually do with my one-to-one learners. 

    • What are the principles I (sometimes unconsciously) adopt? 

    • What techniques and activities do I use over and over again? 

    • What risks do I take? 

For the purposes of this article, I’ll be looking at levels Pre-Intermediate (B1-ish) and above, as for lower levels following a course book will often suffice. I also group together both Business and General English one-to-one learners, although there are of course differences. 

Breaking Through: Setting the Tone 

One of the advantages of 121 lessons is that of course you’re dealing with an individual learner, and not a group. This means you can do all sorts of things you can’t do in a group. These include: 

    • Give the learner maximum attention – including listening to them talk about anything that 

       interests them

    • Focus on one learner’s particular strengths and weaknesses 

    • Develop a rapport that can be closer than is normally possible  

I think the last of these points is particularly important. It’s so easy to lose sight of the person because we’re focused on the role. I often like to say “We don’t teach English. we teach people.” It’s the same when it comes to English for Specific Purposes (ESP), including Business English. We teach people. We teach people who need to use English for business. So first and foremost, I think, it’s important to break down the barriers and try to get through to the person, rather than the student/client/ executive/learner. Here are some thought-provoking aphorisms from Mark Powell, who has written several Business English courses and is an internationally renowned teacher trainer: 

1 We don’t teach business …… we teach people who do business 

2 Nobody is ‘just a business person’ … and yet everybody does business 

3 Knowing a lot about people will give you … what you really need – rapport 

4 Get to the person first …… and leave the job for later 

5 ‘Executive’ is a role … not an identity 

(Adapted from Teaching English to Professional People, Mark Powell.) 

Having said that, you need to establish some sort of face validity first of all. That is to say, you need to set the tone and establish that the lessons are professional and based on the learner’s real and perceived needs (they’re not always the same). So carry out some kind of professional needs analysis. There are plenty of these in course books, but often the simpler, more direct and shorter they are, the better. I like to give these questions out and ask my learner to think about the answers to them. 


1 What do you do for a living? What’s your job? What do you do, exactly? 

2 Do you use English in your job? Will you use English in your job in the future? Do you need English for anything else, for example travelling? 

3 If you use English (now or in the future), do you/will you use it ….? - on the phone - to write (emails, reports, messages) - face-to-face - with native speakers - with non-native speakers 

4 How have you learnt English in the past? When? How long? 

5 Think about your spoken English. Where would you put yourself on this line? 


1            2            3            4            5            6            7            8            9            10 

Beginner                                   I can keep                                                          Expert 

                                         a conversation going 

What about your ability to understand natural spoken English. Where would you put that on the line?   

 6 Think about your ability to read and understand authentic English (newspapers, articles, emails, reports etc). Where would you put yourself on this line?


1            2            3            4            5            6            7            8            9            10 

Beginner                                   I can understand                                                Expert 

                                         newspaper/internet articles 

What about your written English (formal and informal letters, messages, emails etc)? Where would you put that on the line? 

7 How do you feel about English? Do you like it, or not? Is it easy or difficult for you? 

8 What do you expect from this course? What do you want to be able to do by the end of the course? What’s most important for you? 

9 What are your spare time interests and hobbies? 

10 Is there anything else you want to tell me? 


After that, the learner talks, using the questions as a framework. As they talk, it’s important to leave silences. If they pause, don’t jump in, but give them a chance to formulate what they want to say, to search for the word they need, to think. Don’t be afraid of silence. It can be very productive. By leaving silences, you are allowing your learner space and time. Often teachers feel they need to jump in because a silence can embarrass a learner, and they want to help out. But if you give them space and time, they will usually come up with something themselves. So leave some silence first (say 3-5 seconds), then offer a prompt, a help if need be. 

As they speak, ask any follow-up questions e.g. So what do you want to do most. What are you strongest/weakest in? How do you feel about (grammar)? Are you good at it? Is it a priority for you? Can you use it well when you're speaking? Do you feel you need more words and expressions (vocab)? How do you feel about your pronunciation? Is it good enough for you? Do you want to practise it? Do you understand when people speak quickly? Can you speak quickly, or do you find yourself searching for words? 

Regarding the question regarding spare time interests, here’s an extract I received from a teaching colleague here in Malta: 

I also found out that it's very important to find out what the student enjoys talking about. I had a Japanese lady who was mad about football so I found this e-lesson from Macmillan about Ronaldinho and she really enjoyed it and said it was a good change from the usual stuff women tend to talk about like fashion, family etc

Breaking Through: Getting Personal 

To be able to work on the learner’s needs, you need to get them to provide data. When it comes to speaking, they need to speak. And most people like talking about things that are relevant to them: their experiences, their hopes, beliefs, families, jobs, cultures, their favourite food, music, holiday experiences etc. But many may be reluctant to … unless you give them a way in. And one effective way of doing that is by talking about these things yourself. So be prepared to talk about your own life, family, hopes etc. Once you’ve opened the door and invited the learner in, they’ll walk on through and feel comfortable talking about their own lives. Below is an original task (there are two versions, one for General English and one for Business English) which enables you to do this. This is how it works: 

1   Each of you has the ME-diagram. You take the A Instructions and your learner takes the B instructions.   (Diagram and instructions at the bottom of this page)

2   You each fill in information on the ME-diagram, following your individual instructions. 

3   You both put your instructions aside, look at your ME-diagram and try and remember why you have written what you have. If you don’t remember, go back to the instructions. 

4   Exchange ME-diagrams. 

5   Ask your learner: Why have you written […] for number [4]? Your learner tells you. As they do so, ask back-channelling questions to get them to expand, clarify, explain e.g. ‘Why was that exactly?’ ‘Really? [pause]?’ That’s interesting .. can you tell me a bit more about that?’ etc. Remember to leave pauses, silences for your learner to fill. 

6   Then your learner chooses a number on your ME-diagram and asks you ‘Why have you written […]? Explain, describe, expand, and give lots of information. The aim is to share your experience(s), and also to show your learner that that is what is expected of them. 

7   Every 15 minutes or so stop and give some feedback on language used (again, this gives the chat more face validity – it looks good!). Comment on language used well; show errors (grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, phrasing) and ask your learner to see if they can correct them; introduce better, more idiomatic ways of saying what your learner wanted to say. To do all this, keep brief notes while your learner explains their ME-diagram – but do it so that it doesn’t stem the flow. 

More Tips 

•  By all means revise and extend grammar, but remember that learners want to use language (grammar and vocabulary) to talk about the things that are important to them eg their lives, experiences, jobs. families, holidays, hopes, hobbies etc. Don't let grammatical accuracy be the yardstick for everything. 

• Allow lots of time for speaking fluency activities. Look at Discussions A-Z, for example. Chatting in English gives most learners a sense of achievement - they may never have been able to do this before. 

• Sometimes, record them. Give them the cassette player and ask them to stop the cassette whenever they want feedback (they ask you if it's right, or if there's another way of saying things etc. Try not to correct them WHILE they're talking. Play back the cassette afterwards, and you or your learner can stop it whenever you want to focus on a particular utterance. 

• Learners often 'know' a lot of basic grammar, but often have difficulty in using it in real-life communication. So focus on real-life communication - but don't forget the supporting systems (lexis, grammar, phonology and discourse) work. 

• Learners often have limited vocabulary. Extend it. Look at English Vocabulary in Use, for example, Pre-Intermediate and Intermediate. Get them to do the exercise(s) first. If they don’t do it well, teach/elicit the rules and uses. Then get them to do the exercise(s) again. Make sure you do the exercise where they personalise the new knowledge by extending it to their own lives and experiences (usually the last exercise). Don’t be afraid to extend these conversations by asking lots of questions. 

• Recycle vocabulary. e.g. Set up a vocabulary box where you put each new important item of vocab. on a slip of paper into a box. On the next day pick out some items randomly, give the definition and the learner has to give the word. Remember, most learners need to encounter vocab items at least 7 times before they’ve learnt it! 

• Keep getting focussed feedback e.g. not 'Is everything OK' but rather 'What would you like to do more of/less of?' 

• Change environment now and again, if the learner is willing – a museum, café, garden. But take materials with you, so that the lesson goes on. Check that your DOS knows, and approves. 

• Take regular, short breaks - both of you! One-to-one is tiring! 

• Stand up and move around – again, both of you. Can be done in roleplays, or if the learner comes to the board to explain things to you. 

• Try and set up a meeting with someone local in the same line of business e.g. a bank manager, a politician, a factory manager. Prepare interview questions and go along to the meeting. Do feedback together afterwards. 

• Have a variety of tasks, so that boredom doesn’t set in and pace is right. 

• If a learner needs to do something in English when they go back home, prepare and practise it in the lessons (a presentation, speech, report, showing people around their company). 

• If learners are going to be asked questions in English, get them to think of as many questions as possible they might be asked. Help them put these into English. Prepare answers and rehearse them (and record them if possible for feedback). 

• Rehearse real-life tasks, record them and do feedback. 

• Recycle language and repeat tasks. 

• Use a course book as a framework, but use your own materials too. 

• Ask if your learner wants homework. If they do, give it regularly and give feedback on it promptly. 

And remember: 

   – Listen. Show you’re interested (eye contact, back-channelling, body language. 

   – Keep up rapport 


The ME-interview - General

Interview A 

On the drawing below, write down the following pieces of information about yourself: 

1. Write down the name of a beautiful place you have visited 

2. Write down the name of one of your favourite relatives 

3. Write down three essential characteristics of your ‘ideal’ partner 

4. Write down your favourite time of year 

5. Write down the name of a book you really enjoyed 

6. Write down what you are most looking forward to over the next year 

7. Write down the name of your favourite teacher when you were at school 

8. Write down the biggest challenge that your country faces in the near future 

9. Write down three things that annoy(irritate) you 

10. Write down three things you don’t like about your job 


Interview B 

On the drawing below, write down the following pieces of information about yourself: 

1. Write down the name of a person you really admire (living or dead) 

2. Write down the name of a film you really enjoyed 

3. Write down your three most positive personal qualities 

4. Write down the name of the town that you consider ‘home’ 

5. Write down what you are most looking forward to over the next few weeks 

6. Write down three things you would like to know about Malta 

7. Write down the name of the person who is closest to you in life 

8. Write down the year when you were happiest 

9. Write down three ambitions you have (personal/family/work/travel/?) 

10. Write down three things you like about your job


Business English

Interview A

1 Write down the name of a city or country that you have visited in your job. 

2 Write down 3 of the most important things you have to do in your job. 

3 Write down the biggest challenge your company or Institution faces in the future. 

4 Write down the three most essential qualities of a person who does your job well. 

5 Write down three things that you would like to improve in your job performance. 

6 Write down the name of a book or article that you have read which has really influenced you in your work. 

7 Write down three things that would irritate you in a colleague. 

8 Write down what you are most looking forward to in your job in the weeks or months ahead. 

9 Write down the year when you were happiest up to now in your professional life. 

10 Write down a personal achievement in your work that you are especially proud of. 


Interview B

1 Write down the name of a person you really admire in your field, or anyone else you really admire because of the work they have done. 

2 Write down the name of a person you enjoy/have enjoyed working with. 

3 Write down the 3 most important qualities of a person in your line of work. 

4 Write down the name of a country which you consider is good for business for your company’s product, or which has contributed a lot to your field. 

5 Write down what you are most looking forward to in the next few weeks (or months) in your job. 6 Write down 3 things you would like to know about your partner’s job. 

7 Write down the most challenging (difficult?) aspect of your job? 

8 Write down 3 things you really like about your job. 

9 Write down 3 ambitions you have in your job.

10 Write down what job you would like to do if you didn’t have your present job.

© Alan Marsh

© Malta Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language