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How to start one-to-one lessons

Alex CaseTEFL Contributor
ESL Lesson Handouts - How to start one-to-one lessons
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You might think this article could be as short as “How to start a one-to-one lesson – with small talk!” While that is a major part of this article, I will also deal with how to do so well, what to do after, and the times when something else would be better.

Starting one-to-one lessons with small talk

Perhaps the most common use of small talk in one-to-one lessons is as a brief icebreaker before changing to the topic of the day. This is more natural than the revision games you might use in group classes, particularly if you smoothly finish with a business meetings style phrase like “Well, I’d love to chat more, but we only have 25 minutes left, so let’s look at today’s topic, shall we?”

Although there’s nothing wrong with such “small talk as icebreakers”, if you regularly have small talk at the start of a lesson, it’s well worth trying to expand students’ conversation skills with some work on improving student responses, unfamiliar small talk questions, encouraging students to extend the conversation by reacting with “really?”, etc. You could also start with worksheets on small talk with suggested small talk questions, good and bad answers to typical questions, etc.

Luckily, ESL Lesson Handouts all include a warm up activity that helps set the mood for the topic/lesson and is a good opportunity to assess students’ ability to generate language as well as elicit target vocabulary used in the lesson. Check out the Lesson Plans in the ESL Lesson Handouts Library

If you use one of the extension techniques mentioned above, it’s usually possible to link smoothly from small talk to the topic of the day, e.g. with “What’s your office like?” if the lesson is about describing places or “How long have you been doing that?” if it’s about present perfect continuous. Such linking can be done with phrases like:

  • “Do you remember the question I asked?”
  • “Do you remember the two questions I asked? How are they different?”
  • “Can you remember what your answer was (to…)?”
  • “You said… How could you improve on that answer?”
  • “You said…, but you could also have said… How are those different?”

Starting one-to-one lessons other ways

Reasons for starting lessons without much/any chitchat include:

  • for a change
  • because small talk tends to go on too long and there’s something more important to cover
  • the lesson content is likely to use up the class time
  • the student has prepared something such as a presentation and it’s best for them to produce it before they forget/ get distracted
  • the student doesn’t appreciate time spent on small talk (even with the techniques above)
  • the student likes to talk about more serious topics such as the news (and heavier topics link to how they use English outside class)
  • checking the homework is a good link to the rest of the lesson
  • you want small talk at the end (e.g. about next weekend to practice future forms)

Suitable phrases for such situations include:

  • “So, hopefully you’ve prepared/done/finished…”
  • “Sorry to interrupt, but I want to get to… straightaway, because…”
  • “I want to start this week’s lesson a bit differently than usual, because…”

Starting with small talk (brief return)

You will also probably have students who are used to starting with checking homework, talking about substantial topics, or opening the textbook, and need to be persuaded that starting with small talk is both natural and a way of improving their English more generally. Useful phrases for such a situation include:

  • “Before we get started on…, I thought it would be useful to spend some time on…”
  • “Before we move on from our conversation, I thought I’d give you some feedback on…”
  • “You said that you have problems with…, so I’d like to do some speaking practice about…”
  • “I have just one more question and it links to this week’s topic…)”
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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