More Teaching One to One – Barbi

Barbi Bujitas

Teaching Little Kiddies One-to-One
   – Barbi Bujitas


“Life is like cooking. The cookery book doesn’t always help.” – Gorest Fump

At least for me. As for cooking, I’m impossible. I never have all the ingredients I need for that recipe in the glossy cookery book. And I don’t have time to go shopping, or I don’t think it’s worth all the trouble. I get the inspiration, follow the principles of cooking and simply cook something similar to that recipe. The point is cooking and eating.

Like teaching young learners one at a time, following books is not manageable. I never have the ingredients. That particular student just hates the hedgehogs in the book. He can’t stand that action song! Engagement is missing. Or something. Always.

I’ve got used to the habit of constantly modifying and testing the recipe, tailoring it to what I have. I need to become a skillful cook who can make a great dinner from what I find in the pantry. No cookie cutter approach has ever worked for me with one-to-one students either. If I want them to like the lessons and learn something at the same time, I must keep to the pantry rule. I say don’t try and force coursebooks, syllabi, lesson plans, or other recipes.


Oh, no, there IS one book

A book on teaching one-to-one that I seem to live by, surprisingly is titled  Teaching One To One by Tim Murphy, first published in 1991. I read it in my last year at college, then I forgot all about it, taught 15 years mostly one-to-one, now I’ve read it again and I’m shocked to admit that I’ve been following it all the time! Either the book made its way under my skin, or I’ve come to the very same conclusions and principles. This is not a recipe book, go read it and talk to other teachers who do one-to-one. There’s a wiki for such teachers, and a Facebook group.

Student-teacher / Parent-Teacher

Perhaps my being an impossible cook as well as an impossible teacher lies in my personality. I can’t be serious, that is. There is a ocean of difference between being a school/group teacher and a one-to-one instructor. I am a learning buddy, not the trace of authority.  I need to make my students learn something and I have to be an entertaining mate – otherwise they won’t want to come. I focus on what’s good in our lessons for them. You just can’t count on their extrinsic motivation: if they have some, it fades away in seconds.

Parents won’t treat me like a regular teacher either.  Again, I mostly work in my living room, how am I an authority figure there? Okay, the kid loves the lessons, wants to come in the summer holiday and on Christmas Day, but for the parents you must provide some evidence of learning to avoid feeding the suspicion that we only have fun. If it were a school, this evidence could be a coursebook or a pile of completed worksheets. But then you kill the magic that makes that child want to come.  All my students have a blog documenting what we do in the lessons, explaining to the parents what and why, offering feedback fundamentally different from grades, stickers or smileys.

(If you want to have a look at them, contact me.)


Course/syllabus design, lesson planning

Something I forgot about quite early is that teaching one-to-one requires a peculiar approach to course design and lesson planning.  It’s increasingly true about young learners. Just consider this: do they have a uniform cognitive/social/emotional/moral/physical development design? How accurate is it? Now you see … I don’t think I can’t exclude these factors when deciding on lesson content. I dare say some of these sometimes can be better met in one-to-one.

Some of my students who have taught me tricks that work

G.  She was about 4 when she decided to ask her mom to find her a private English teacher while they were busy making lángos in the kitchen. Now she’s 6.  She always has a toy along, with its own story and personality.  She plays roles, loves drawing pictures of these characters in her life. I accept that these things engage her more than anything else, she labels pretty much anything else ‘babyish’. So I’m game. (Though I manage to feed her a Peppa Pig story every now and then, some children’s songs also win sometimes.)

She is of course not proficient enough to be able to talk about/in her world in English, so what I usually do is I record a quick video of the character, sometimes we create a story and record that. Everything is documented on her blog, she sees it frequently.  She picks up a lot of English. She often grabs her mum’s phone to record similar videos in Hungarian with occasional English words. This is very similar to what Tim Murphey wrote about in Teaching One to One — only not tape recordings but videos.

Á.  A first grader, he loves making things. We make something or experiment, do some fancy science thing. The project boy. He’s not friends with simple video projects, he has the urge to make something tangible.  I either have something up my sleeve for him, more often than not he likes it, or we have an entirely unplugged lesson stuffed with scissors, glue, Pinterest, origami, toilet rolls, what not…In the latter case we first decide on the theme, following the seasons or using whatever happened to him. Then go to Pinterest and look around. He decides what to make, we read it (=I read it and he sees what I read, which is good as he sees that one function of reading is to get info), we check if we have all the necessary ingredients or think about how we can adjust the product to our resources or vice versa. And off we go. (Eye-hand-brain coordination, planning, re-planning, time management, cooperation, etc.)  The whole time I collect the potential learning outcome in my head. (This may sound bad, but I have to post-plan and I am alert for every little language element that can be taught.)While doing the ‘dirty job’ (cutting, tearing, coloring) I usually find a song that is related to the product, sometimes earworms that get stuck in his brain better than a nursery song sang over and over.So I make sure I take photos and videos (here’s a spooky one) to post on his blog, my browser history and tablet are immense help, I also prepare a list of new words in Quizlet with pictures (mostly for the parents).

A.  A. lives in stories too, she’s 6, a kindergartener. She’s a cat or a princess, an owl or a mama frog. We create digital stories on my tablet. I love this! She actually acts out the story, when she’s stuck I add an element so it is quite collaborative, we laugh like hell and document the stories with the help of a collage app, and later I turn them into videos. There are everyday situations in the story (shopping, telling someone off, asking a favor, etc.) which I try to follow up in later before the new story.  It isn’t easy though, in a whole new world.

M.  He gave me an idea of recording a digital story in the student’s voice, sentence by sentence. The end product is something they can watch again and again, listening to their own voice, hopefully learning from themselves. The whole thing started when M. was 20 minutes late and came in, apologizing (in Hungarian) “Hi Barbi, sorry for being late, I had a bit of a technical problem.”

As I managed to unlearn what I’d read 15 years ago (Murpey, 1991), first I thought it was a sort of cheating. Now I’m relieved it’s not, it’s valid, written about in a proper paper book! Go and read that book, really.


Finally, a short list of some things you can do in one to one but not in the big classroom

  • get rid of babyish stuff
  • make nursery poetry  look cool
  • create tasks tailored to that one student
  • talk a lot, fast and naturally in L2:  it is very easy to check if your young learner understands you or not,
  • give loads of (comprehensible) input.
  • use game design fitting your learner’s preferences.
  • make a mess: cook, use science experiments, eat, use their own toys.
  • have a vacuum cleaner and wet wipes ready at all times.
  • let their initiatives evolve.
  • let them go with the flow of their own stories
  • train them to achieve goals.
  •  consider available resources, adjust things, keep time, prioritize, just do projects
  • build a human partnership  (instead of the traditional teacher:students=Tom:Jerries setting)

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More Teaching One to One – James

James Taylor

Teaching One-to-One: How It Feels From A Students Perspective  – James Taylor


I’ve taught English in a variety of settings. Business, test preparation, general EFL, teacher training, I’ve done them all. Teenagers, students, adults, executives, diplomats, retirees, even other teachers, been there, done that. From sixty minutes to one hour, tick. From one to one to twenty five in a classroom, it’s on my list.

So it’s fair to say that in my teaching career so far, I’ve had a fair bit of variety, but as a language learner, I’ve had almost no variety at all. Every language class I’ve ever had, from school, where I studied French in groups of around twenty and came away with a good grade and a complete inability to speak the language, to the Portuguese lessons I had in Brussels to stop me from getting rusty (it didn’t work), have been in groups. Now for the first time, I’m learning a new language, Spanish, one-to-one so I’m here to report back to you on how it feels from a learner’s perspective. Let’s start with…


Time and Space

Like some kind of language Timelord, I feel that my one-to-one classes give me the ability to control time. I can slow things down to suit me as I wish. If my teacher gives me an activity, I’m the kind of student who likes to calmly, slowly and deliberately get it right. I like to look at my coursebook, handout, notes, or the board, take my time and choose the right answer. One-to-one classes give me that luxury.

I can make spaces too. If I feel I want to spend more time on a particular part of the lesson, whether that be on a grammar bit or the general conversation that inevitably kicks off a class, I can. I have the freedom. Obviously my teacher has a plan, but luckily she’s not the prescriptive type, so she’ll happily allow me to slow things down or follow me down a particularly tangential rabbit hole. Subsequently, that means there is no…



No matter how good the teacher is at creating a pleasant, cooperative mood, in a group class there is always pressure. Firstly, there is a pressure to perform to the same level as your peers. I remember my first ever Portuguese lessons a few years back and how most of the other students, whose first languages were also of Latin origin, sailed through the elementary levels, leaving me feeling like the class dunce. At least in a one-to-one class, as well as being the slowest student, I’m also the top of the class!

And who can forget the pressure to finish an activity? There you are, calmly, slowly and deliberately working on the task when you hear a couple of other students muttering to each other. They’ve finished and you’re barely halfway through. Who hasn’t felt their heart quicken, their grip tighten on their pen, and their forehead moisten as that happens? Well, not me anymore, I’m free to dawdle all I wish! Which may not entirely be a good thing, even though this…


No Pressure

… environment means I’m free to do what I want, teacher permitting of course. I’m not sure, however, that that is exactly what I need. Like any student I need motivation to progress and maybe I need some external pressure to get where I need to go. Do I need other people in the classroom to push me along?

I do have some internal motivation. I live in a Spanish speaking country so it would be nice to interact with people, plus it would make my life a bit easier. And when I think of my friends and family back home, the non-teachers, the civilians, as actors would call them, very few of them speak a foreign language and I’m proud of the fact that I do, even if it’s only one and a bit.

But I don’t need Spanish, I can live without it, I just like the idea of it. Is that going to be enough motivation? Only time will tell, but one thing I’m sure of is that, for me…


One Is The Magic Number

… and not the loneliest number, as some would have you believe. I’m an introvert, I don’t like to perform, I don’t enjoy peer pressure and I prefer my own time and space. Like any learner, I need some external motivation to help me succeed, but feeling slow and useless is not it. I don’t feel that I’m missing out by not being with other people. On the contrary, I enjoy the fact that my teacher and I can get to know each other despite my linguistic shortcomings in a way that would be impossible in a group class.

I’m aware that not every student shares my characteristics and situation (and I’m sure my old teachers would be horrified to know that one of their students felt the way I often did). More extroverted types might enjoy the things that I can do without. Good luck to them, but if you can excuse my rampaging ego for a second, this article isn’t about them, it’s about me and one-to-one suits me just fine.


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More Teaching One to One – Ann

Ann Loseva

Personality Matters in One-to-One
– Ann Loseva


The one-to-one classroom is a meeting point of two personalities. Not convinced that the teacher’s personality should be a shadow that completely yields or that being an equal makes a lesson teacher-centred, the observations which follow have at their center the idea that in a one-on-one class the teacher’s personality matters.


Observation #1: My 1-to-1 classroom is unplugged and adaptive.

It took several years and many factors (an increase in confidence being most meaningful) to start feeling more or less at peace with classes going their own way, the way the two personalities in a lesson shape them. As soon as I looked up from a coursebook and into a student’s eyes, I began to notice more of what our class could bring. In this light, my belief now is that there hardly is a better place to test teaching dogme style than a one-to-one class. For me as a non-native teacher of English, the teaching style I’ve deliberately chosen is still demanding in every lesson I give. Going light on materials we use, taking advantage of flashes of “lesson sparks” and turning them into conversations, being focused on every line my students produce – all of these require a certain attitude, as well as experience. And as experience goes, a series of such lessons might easily become a mess of a course. At first, I was too happily blown away by all the potentials and freedom this approach gave me, so no wonder that I kept falling into the trap of having no aim or direction. At this point I’m still not fail-safe as a teacher, but with time have collected a list of tips for myself and worked out a rough scheme of potential course scenarios. The strategies I use include:

Talking about the student: The first class revolves around finding out as much information as possible about the previous language learning experience of a student, its impact, its footprint and basic feeling about English it has left behind. We discuss details, reflect on the effectiveness of methods a student can recall. We pinpoint the situations of current language use and prioritize skills to improve. It’s absolutely necessary to set a realistic aim and objectives to go with it. We also take our time to mind-map the areas of interest, curiosity and “mastery” of a student – which means answering questions like: “What are you good at? What do you know a lot about? What’s in your Facebook feed? What do you need to talk/ learn about?”

Structuring the course: According to the information I find out during the first chunk of lessons, I will usually create an online space for our classes, which for me acts as a way to “hold” the course together by keeping communication with the student in a back and forth regime. I usually feel after one or two classes what fits this particular student. My suggestions include regular emails, Facebook or a shared Google document to accompany the classes, but I’m always open for any other ideas. In the recent year or so I’ve been trying out various ways to get students reflect on their learning on a regular basis, which I now see as a very important feature of my class. Students are informed that the course is flexible and negotiating its contents is one the keys for making progress. To make that work, though, I ensure we get back to learning priorities regularly and revisit our aims. The latest introduction for me is working more seriously on building up a retrospective syllabus for each class I teach. I’m still in the process of figuring it out for myself, but I hope it will help me avoid messing things up and being disappointed.

Advice to myself : On a practical basis, I’ve learnt not to cry over a lesson plan that doesn’t become useful for several lessons in a row. That only means we’ve found a new direction for the learning, and being “present” in a class and aware of the turns it takes for me as a teacher is much more important than following plans. I’m prepared to get sidetracked, use the digressions and their emergent language, as well as recurrent mistake patterns.


Observation #2  My 1-to-1 classroom is hopefully a space of shared trust.

Teaching one-to-one has taught me to be open to, recognize, appreciate and value idiosyncrasies. There’s no other type of class where personality matters more.  A match is not quite the same as building good rapport. It presupposes even more understanding, trust, sensitivity to your student’s concerns, unfeigned interest, and a genuine desire to help. Under these conditions, a teacher is at his/her most vulnerable in a one-to-one classroom. I don’t support the conventional opinion that a teacher should put on a cheerful mask as he/she enters a class. That sounds hypocritical and unfair to both students and teachers. It is definitely easier, but something that pays off emotionally in the long run. I want the 60 or 90 minutes I spend with my student to be a comfortable time for us both, so I shake off any pretense. It does take courage to get the message across – that I’m a teacher but I won’t know the answers to all of the sudden, often untimely and illogical questions. Yet this is how I suggest we should both learn, in a flux of a lesson, as dynamic or low key as my student and I will be on that particular day. And I hope I’m ready to realize that every day of class is another day. Once my class becomes this space of trust, I believe I start seeing the students I teach as interesting people with views that should be respected but which I don’t need to agree with, influence or impose my values and beliefs on. A one-to-one class is ultimately a place of concession for me.


Observation #3  My 1-to-1 classroom feeds my curiosity.

I enjoy the private lessons I give on a very egotistic level, too. I crave surprise, and the format and style of such classes never fails to provide me with amazement and revelation. More than just that, I’ll admit here to being also a greedy and selfish teacher, so I ruthlessly exploit lessons to quench my thirst for knowledge. Together with and from my students I learn the things I’d never know. The diversity of my students’ backgrounds (to mention just a few – advertising, technology, logistics, insurance, tourism, HR, medicine) opens up parallel universes to me. The tricky part here is realizing for yourself and then putting up with the apparent truth that you don’t know more than your students do, so the roles of a teacher and a student are not so rigid. Once you’ve come to terms with this, it takes no more than a deep breath to start learning from your students’, from the best of their skills, from the depths of their professional scopes.

Here are a few things I have recently done which I would never have imagined myself doing had it not been for my private students include …

  • I tried my hand at a certified exam test for auditors (CIA) and answered several questions correctly, at sight.
  • I’ve been offered a job at a senior management position which entitled me to helping bring some brand new snacks to the Russian snack market.
  • I know in detail how the alcohol import industry works in Russia.

Naturally, I don’t practically need all that, but the realization that I can have a chance to peek into some other reality than my ordinary teacher’s life is always too tempting for me to resist.
A one-to-one class can get very tense, especially if you are over personalizing the process. However, I still think that interpersonal skills, being able to sense the moods and their swings can change learning, both for the better and the worse. For a teacher in a one-to-one course there are always options to choose from. There’s the distant way, which is safe and pleasant:  teach the material, be amiable, respond to the learner’s needs and be free till next class. And there’s this shaky, uncomfortable way in which you remain yourself, bring your self into the lesson and share on equal terms.  Which way you go is up to you.


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More Teaching One to One

Teaching or learning one-to-one: what works and why? In this issue Barbi Bujitas, James Taylor, and Ann Loseva offer perspectives, ideas, and activities which prove that one is not the loneliest number after all.


Barbi Bujitas
Barbi Bujitas
James Taylor
James Taylor
Ann Loseva
Ann Loseva


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