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The “good” English language learner

Student questions in one-to-one classes

Alex CaseTEFL Contributor
Photo by Artem Podrez

Although the techniques presented in this article can be used in all classes, they are crucial in private classes, where expectations are usually higher and the reality of the student asking and the teacher answering questions can be more problematic than in group classes.

Issues which often come up in one-to-one classes include:

  • The student asking too many questions and so derailing the class.
  • No or very few student questions (even when they don’t understand).
  • Answering questions making the teacher speak more than the student.
  • Not having other people to direct questions towards (making elicitation more difficult and raising teacher talking time).
  • The student interrupting to ask questions at any moment.
  • Many student questions unrelated to the class content or target language.
  • Student questions that the teacher cannot answer (related to the student’s specialist area, their hobby, some recent news, a movie they watched, a cultural difference, etc.
  • The student quickly forgetting the answer.
  • The student having problems forming English questions.
  • Questions which are usually asked a different way in English (“When was the first time that you…?”, “Why were you there?”, etc).
  • The student using questions which are taboo or too direct.

There can also be problems dealing with two or more of those issues at one time. For example, work on grammatically correct questions could stop students asking questions they want to know the answer to because they have become more worried about their accuracy.

Possible solutions include:

  • Having a fixed number of student questions (e.g. three questions related to their job, reading, homework, etc at the beginning of each class).
  • Suggesting questions they could ask you (“For example, you could ask ‘What does… mean?’ or ‘What is the difference between… and…?’”, perhaps also displayed on a classroom poster or Classroom Language handout).
  • Giving possible answers for the student to choose from (“Do you think that it means stubborn or supportive?”).
  • Giving the student ways to answer those questions themselves (such as using or recommending a good dictionary app).
  • Writing questions on the board to be answered later.
  • Writing questions down to be answered in the next class.
  • Writing your answers down in a way that means the student can easily get a copy (directly on some blank paper for them, onto a doc which you will email to them, etc).
  • Use a worksheet with typical small talk questions, take turns asking each other some, then use those to present question formation (with gapped versions of the same questions, the same questions with mistakes, key words to make questions out of, etc).
  • Work on small talk questions like above, but with some taboo questions that should be avoided.
  • Use the ESL Lesson Handouts Classroom Language handout (requests and checking or clarifying questions like “How do you pronounce this word?” and “Does… mean the same as…?”), ask each other some of those questions about recent or upcoming vocabulary, then go through an activity to test their memory of the questions such as putting mixed up words into order.

Questions activities for one-to-one classes

As well as lessons on classroom and small talk questions like those mentioned above, you can present and/or practice asking questions during classes on any topic by having the teacher and student ask each other questions from a list, underline the useful question stems in those questions, then use those to ask each other extra questions on free time, the recent past, future plans, etc.

This can be combined with or replaced by a list of vocabulary that the student and teacher take turns making questions from.

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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