Drilling in language teaching
Competition in one-to-one classes

Competing against one-to-one students

Alex CaseTEFL Contributor
ESL Lesson Handouts - Competing against one-to-one students
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To add the fun and motivating aspect of competition to one-to-one English classes, the most obvious, natural and entertaining way is for the student to compete against the teacher. However, there are potential problems with that, including:

  • The teacher having an unfair advantage due to language knowledge, cultural knowledge, seeing the material before class, taking part in similar competitions in other classes, choosing a game that the teacher will enjoy more such as one that involves a lot of imagination, knowing more about the student than they know about the teacher, etc.
  • The student feeling bad when they lose especially when it happens often or the first time they compete against the teacher, perhaps even when it is just due to bad luck.

Giving students an advantage

One solution to the problems above is to give the student an advantage. Possibilities include games with a physical factor that the student has an advantage in (e.g. volleyball with a beachball if you know they like that sport), and questions using the target language that involve local knowledge (explaining local food with defining relative clauses, answering history questions with past tenses, etc).

It is also possible to give the teacher a handicap, e.g. playing Pelmanism with the cards face up but the teacher closing their eyes, the teacher placing blocks on the tower with their non-dominant hand, the teacher’s hangman starting with some body parts already there, and the teacher only being allowed to ask 10 questions in a game of 20 questions.

Giving students an equal chance

Although giving students an advantage is necessary in some situations, whenever possible the best solution is to play a game where the student and teacher have a genuinely equal chance of winning. For example, in a board game where people speak about the topic in each square, I would usually get the students to give each other points on how well they spoke. As this is not fair in a one-to-one class, you should obviously just use a dice. That is not ideal, however, as a student could still end up losing more often just due to bad luck, and it takes away a reason for them to think about the language that they use. Therefore, the best games are ones where it is not just luck that evens things up.

The best student vs teacher games

The best games for teachers to compete against students with include:

  • Make me say “Yes”. Award one point every time the other person says “Yes, I…”
  • Boasting games. Award one point every time you can accurately say how something about you is more … than the other person’s, as in “I’m fatter than you” and “I never eat any crisps. I guess that is healthier than you.”
  • Guessing games. Guess what time others wake up, what animal they are thinking of, the place they are giving you directions to, etc.
  • Trivia quizzes where students make up their own questions.

As most of these could be made easier by the knowledge about the student that the teacher has gained from previous classes, their course application, etc, the teacher should make sure that they use guesses instead of things that they already know, although sometimes showing that you remember their personal information would be good for your relationship. With most of the games above, it is also easy for the teacher to have a few deliberately bad attempts to even up the score without that being obvious to the student.

Other competition in one-to-one classes

Students can also compete with teachers in their self-study and general progress if the teacher is learning a foreign language with similar techniques and mentions how far they have progressed through an app, how many words they have learnt this week, etc.

It is also possible to have competition which doesn’t involve competing the teacher, dealt with in the article Competition in one-to-one classes.

Alex CaseTEFL Contributor
Alex has 25 years' experience as a teacher, teacher trainer, manager, writer and editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, Italy, Korea, the UK and now Japan. He is the author of the "Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities" series of e-books on business and exam skills.

Disclaimer  We aim to provide useful ESL and EFL teaching resources and educational ideas. Our articles are written by educators with extension TEFL experience. They contain only general information about teaching English as a foreign language and are meant purely for informational purposes.

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