One to One TEFL Students: How Much Control To Give Them?

I taught an advanced level one-to-one student who didn’t feel very confident about her English and had said she was ready for a focus more serious than conversation…yet she was not at all receptive to this kind of work in our lessons. She liked reading aloud (“so I can correct her pronunciation”) and politely resisted roleplaying or practicing new functional language. As a person – and as a conversation partner – I thought she was great, and I didn’t think her English was anywhere near as “bad” as she thought it was. But I realized that if we continued in the same way, she was unlikely to make the progress she said she wanted to.

She mentioned that speaking activities we did to practice, for example, phrasal verbs or prepositions were useful and helped her learn. Yet when it came time to shift the focus of the meeting from the introductory “how are you” phase to the “let’s have an English lesson” phase, she would sometimes literally get up and start re-arranging her desk (“I’m listening though!” she’d say). More than once she invited me into the office kitchen to make tea and continue our informal conversation rather than start a business reading.

The question this raises in my mind is: how much control should a teacher give the student in a one-to-one lesson?

With experience I’ve grown more and more confident “imposing” activities which I believe will meet the student’s needs and wishes, subtly if need be, but within limits, I generally respect what the student requests.

Yes, I’m the teacher, and it is my role to guide the lesson, but especially when the student is an adult (very often older and more professionally senior than me) paying for lessons, I don’t feel comfortable dragging them through a lesson they don’t want. Within limit, of course, and there are student requests which I wouldn’t heed. My training is in communicative language teaching, done in the target language, so for example, I wouldn’t bring in a list of vocabulary to translate, memorize and drill, even if the student wanted that.

Generally, students who sign up for lessons know that you are a teacher and are happy for you to provide direction. As long as others are clear about what they want – and you are clear about what you can and can’t provide (or whether you think the results of the lesson will be as they expect) – I think teaching adults means respecting their wishes.