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April 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Fascinating One-to-One

Dagmara Łata is a freelance English teacher, teacher trainer and PASE auditor located in Warsaw. She is interested in arts and develops tools for using it in class. Current professional interests are the student’s autonomy, online teaching, and the teacher’s professional development. She enjoys working with low levels and young learners. Email:

You heard me, teaching one-to-one (1-2-1) is really fascinating! At the same time it is challenging and exhausting, being the reason why some teachers gladly embrace this kind of lessons while others simply avoid it. I have seen, met and talked to both types and can honestly say it is all about attitude.


Who and why?

Teaching one-to-one might seem unattractive as it is about being exposed to expressiveness, personal stories and sharing. Sometimes this is too much for those educators who prefer to withdraw and just listen to what the group has to say, invisibly facilitating and supporting. Secondly, meeting the same person for weeks, months or even years appears dull and ineffective as there no ‘crowd’ interaction, pair/group work and lively discussions with many people’s opinions being verbalized. The teacher needs to be an equal partner in the process, adjusting to the student’s personality, needs, expectations and moods. Last but not least, the question I have been asked million times in my director of studies career was: What on earth am I going to do with that student for 90 minutes? Just talk? Nope, it is not just about talking as all the elements of any group course are there (testing, evaluating, planning and checking needs, to mention the most important ones) and this is a regular learning process, the difference being we have just two people in the classroom.

So what makes teachers actually do this? Obviously, because of all the factors mentioned above – the challenge, the possibility of creating a special bonding, maximum attention given to a student, having a less restricted syllabus, quality talk, time to revise and cater to needs. Plus many, many more.

And how about students? Why do they want to take up one-to-one lessons? There are as many reasons as people but to cut a long story short, such individuals are ‘classophobics’ (to quote Tim Murphy). They are not fans of studying in a group, wish the teacher to be focused exclusively on them, have very specific needs and understand these might not be shared by others. But believe me, they are not homogeneous. Some need to learn the language fast, or have unusual working hours, or perhaps have all the time in the world; others like to socialize, chat, study for fun. They plan to take exams, tests, are in need of certificates or simply travel a lot and are ashamed they have not learnt the language yet. And let us not forget about children and teenagers who also are the clients of one-to-one courses (their reasons might range from taking exams to improving grades at school).


Is it natural?

So is teaching one-to-one an innate way of learning? According to Peter Wilberg, it is. He states: just imagine how much time a day you spend talking to groups. Precisely – not much. As it happens, we usually chat with one person only (a friend, a teacher, a student, a partner, a shop assistant, a parent, or a king or a cave fellow in the past) so a conversation between two people is simply in our genes. Teaching/learning one-to-one seems to be the oldest way of exchanging information and the most natural one too (just think about your own driving or bike lessons, watching tutorials or asking your mum for that great apple pie recipe!). Yet what we need to remember is why our students choose this system of learning a language, and here a decent needs’ analysis comes in handy. Do not worry, I am not going to bore you with obvious and easy-to-find elements of such an analysis (e.g. linguistic strengths and weaknesses), but let us not forget to ask questions which might not be our first choice here:

  • Why did a person pick out teaching one-to-one?
  • What do they expect from this way of learning?
  • What are their fears and doubts and how can we help dispel them?

Very much needed information indeed!

On the other hand, teachers must not forget about their needs and doubts. Just think:

  • What preferences do you have when it comes to teach a one-student course?
  • Who is your student (a rebellious teenager or perhaps a motivated CEO) and how to approach them?
  • Do you have required tools and methods? How can you get them? Can you be helped by a DOS or perhaps your own student (who can provide necessary materials from work or school)?
  • Why do you want to teach one-to-none?



We have already discussed why teachers and students (don’t) decide to teach/learn one-to-one way, so it is time to examine roles they play. Ingrid Wisniewska mentions five teacher roles: conversation partner, feedback provider, observer and listener, mentor and guide and finally leaner, and her list could be easily supplemented: advisor, therapist, parent, informer, consultant... The situation looks similar with student roles: they are not only our clients but also partners, experts, teachers, patients and sources of information. The roles overlap constantly, shuffle whenever there is a need and not losing sight of that fact makes teaching one-to-one a lot easier for both sides. Just remember – the ancient master-apprentice format is definitely gone, otherwise discouragement will be your ‘best friend’.

Bearing the never-ending shift of the roles in mind is one of the essential elements of  something I call one-to-one dynamics. Here are other of its components:

  • Making sure any task is ‘reversible’, that is whatever you do to your student, you student should be able to do to you too (constructing questions in such a way as to make them teacher-answerable, asking students to make quizzes or Kahoot for you, allowing them adapt elements of exercises, etc.);
  • Using task-based learning by following Willis’ framework of a pre-task, task cycle and language focus, which allows for taking what the students already know and empowering them in this way;
  • Appreciating the power of surprise (altering the structure of the lesson, using non-standard tools like haikus or ads, asking out-of-the-box questions, pretending not to understand a word in L1, etc.);
  • Making use of real-life tasks (we do things we are expected to do in the outside world);
  • Giving the student autonomy (here the range is especially wide from allowing them to choose what to do in the lesson/as their homework to showing them how they can explore the world of the language on their own). By the way, by autonomy I mean strengthening their independence and self-belief without so much focus on improving their level (which will happen anyway).

In a nutshell, let us treat a lesson with a one-to-one student as a sparring session and a possibility to see what a particular person is trying to teach us.


To talk or not to talk?

Do you recall some teachers’ doubt: What on earth am I going to do with that student for 90 minutes? Just talk? I can see this might be one of the biggest challenges related to teaching one-to-one. Many educators are convinced we need to babble to satisfy a student and fill in every second of silence that happens on the way. Far from it! We need to give a person time to think things over, perhaps note their thoughts down, digest. Instead of TTT (Teacher Talking Time) let us embrace SSS (Student Silence Space). Do not assume the student does not know – they keep quiet as they not only have to be equal conversation partners but also react to correction, feedback and instructions!  Believe me, it is a tough job so do not make it even harder. I usually wait about 10-15 seconds (or even more if necessary) when a student is pondering over the answer, and then offer a hint. The result is my students know they have time, can react according to their own pace and rules and will not be served a ready-made solution.


Doing it online

To finish up, a word on teaching one-to-one online, which I have been doing (and still experimenting with) over the past year. It might appear striking but online lessons:

  • are more dynamic than those face-to-face ones
  • almost solely yet successfully depend on the Internet or digital tools and materials (for example Google Docs)
  • allow for meeting people anytime, in the environment convenient for them
  • save plenty of time usually spent on travelling to and from languages schools
  • can build an extremely positive rapport between people who have never seen each other live

Correct me if I am wrong, but I do feel this is a growing part of teaching one-to-one business, which will soon need to be investigated by researchers in a more regular manner.


Try it yourselves!

There is nothing more to say in this short article except for I recommend teaching one-to-one with all my heart. It can be a fascinating journey for teachers and students, giving space for self-development, experimenting and sheer fun. And I strongly encourage school managers, directors of studies and teachers to observe such lessons for a simple reason of widening their professional horizons.



Murphy, T., (1991) Teaching One to One, Longman

Wilberg, P., (1987) One to one, Language Teaching Publications

Wisniewska, I., (2013), Teaching one-to-one, English Teaching Professional (Issue 89 November)


Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.

Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Leadership Skills for Teachers Creative Methodology for the Classroom at Pilgrims website.

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