Avoiding the Rut and Isolation: Issues in One-on-One ESL Instruction

Avoiding the Rut and Isolation: Issues in One-on-One ESL Instruction

Most language instruction, including ESL instruction, traditionally occurs in a group setting, the classroom, whether it’s a large or small class.

However, occasionally the ESL instructor will be called upon to tutor an ESL student in a one-on-one situation, usually because the student can’t attend a regular class because of work or other scheduling difficulties.

One of the most effective methods of learning is actually one-on-one instruction and coaching because of the ability to target the student’s specific learning needs, among other advantages. However, especially in a language class, one-one-one tutoring can also have a number of disadvantages such as the following.

3 Difficulties in One-on-One ESL Instruction

  1. 1


    Focusing on one student’s needs is intense, for both the instructor and the student. The class session is not broken up in the usual rhythm of moving, calling, on different students, and transitioning between activities, both of which provide at least short breaks for everyone. This intense focus on one student can be tiring or even exhausting.

  2. 2


    One-on-one instruction can also be monotonous. In the first week of instruction, usually, the student and teacher usually target the student’s specific needs and favored learning style and often fall into a set routine of a couple of favorite activities.

  3. 3

    Lack of Variety

    One-on-one instruction often takes place in the student’s home, and the curriculum materials are brought in by the teacher, which therefore limits options. In addition, even within these limited materials, often a few activities are focused on, as noted, because they are the most favored by the student and teacher.

    In addition, because there are only two people in this setting, the conversational practice and groupings are limited between the student and the teacher rather than between the student and one or more peers, as usually would be the case in a larger classroom.

These concerns can leave the instructor holding up a stop sign if asked to tutor. However, there are also methods to turn these disadvantages into advantages.

7 Methods for Transforming Difficulties into Advantages

  1. 1

    Intense Practice

    Because of the intense focus, a lot of ground can be covered both in a class session and a term. The teacher can read more student work outside class as well as teach more material during, and the student can practice more both during and after class.

  2. 2

    Chance to Vary Curriculum

    Because there is only one student, the specific student needs can be targeted and the curriculum can be changed rather than sticking to one text and set of standards and course objectives, as is usually the case in a regular semester classroom with thirty students, where the text and the curriculum is usually firmly established, often by people far removed from the classroom, and the curriculum can’t be altered even if most students are failing or bored.

    In one-on-one instruction, the teacher can find out student interests and areas for development and bring in related materials.

    If the assignment isn’t working, the lesson isn’t working, the student did not complete the requisite homework, finds the work too easy or too difficult, the instructor can alter the curriculum based on changing need.

  3. 3

    Opportunity for a Variety of Practice

    In one-on-one instruction, there is freedom to expand classroom walls into the community, and therefore the monotony of student working only with instructor can be eliminated. The student and teacher can go into community of shops, cafes, parks, bowling alleys, golf courses—whatever appeals to the student and where language is used—rather than just reading about these places in a book. The teacher and student can also, rather than sticking to the book, go online for practice on sites of student interests. Finally, the student can bring in texts or work from other classes that can be the focus of instruction.

  4. 4

    Opportunity to Address Variety of Issues

    Often students come to class with questions related to living in the community, adjusting to college, and US life in general that is of more pressing concern than the unreal conditional verb construction. In a one-on-one class, these more personal issues can be addressed, setting aside the regular curriculum for a moment. Addressing these specific life needs of the student can become “teachable moments” in which authentic language and culture become the curriculum.

  5. 5

    Opportunity to Pace Classes

    Because the class and instruction take place outside of a regular class setting, the class can be paced according to student/instructor need: lengthening and shortening classes according to student need or taking breaks during the class session as appropriate. In a traditional class setting, the time for class is rigid and fixed whether or not it meets most students learning and life needs.

  6. 6

    Freedom from Bureaucracy

    Because the class takes place outside of a regular school, there also tends to be less bureaucracy: fewer forms to fill out, fewer surveys given to students, fewer meetings and workshops and classroom visits, all of which eat up valuable class time.

  7. 7

    Freedom to Design Curriculum

    If the instructor has an ambition to write a book or design curriculum, the one-on-one class is a great place to begin gathering materials, designing activities and learning projects, trying them out with the student, and getting honest feedback. And it can all be done without designing a formal survey!

Without a doubt, the one-on-one tutoring session has the potential to be both intense and boring. However, with careful consideration, these disadvantages can be turned into the advantages of freedom from set curriculum, timing, and bureaucracy as well as freedom to design one’s own class and materials to meet student need.

What are some strategies you can recommend to keep one-on-one instruction active?

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