How much speaking activities in a one-on-one ESL class?

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  • Anazoe
    27 July, 2020 at 13:43
    • Total posts: 2

    Hi everybody,

    I’m an online teacher (one-on-one classes). I would really appreciate your opinion on a question frustrating me at the moment: how much time (in percentage) should you let/ get your students (to) chat/speak in a class?

    And by “speaking”, I mean :

    A simple chat: non-planned, improvised speaking on a current topic they are interested in, concerning their life or news at the moment
    Speaking on a predetermined topic: concerning the subject/vocabulary we’re working on at a given moment (including various tasks)
    Any other activities involving answering “open-ended” questions orally: questions concerning listening or reading comprehension, interactive grammar or vocabulary activities… (because they are also “speaking” activities, right)?
    – The other question is: how do you structure your class- do you also do all the other types of activities/develop other language skills?

    Even though I believe communication should have the priority, I wouldn’t want to put too much accent on speaking either, just because it’s fashionable or popular, and neglect other skills and activities –grammar, listening, reading, pronunciation, even writing. I still believe language is a whole, a system, and should be taught as such.

    But I find it really hard to find the right balance: between structure and flexibility, activities encouraging accuracy vs fluency, speaking vs other skills.

    So far, my classes have always been thoroughly prepared and very structured, involved developing all language skills, with an important place given to communication. My students seemed to appreciate them. But I feel more and more the need to set completely free from textbooks, make my lessons more engaging and spontaneous and give the speaking/the active use of language (in the real-life French- the language I teach) even more place- as much as it deserves.

    What are your answers to these questions? Thank you in advance!


    28 July, 2020 at 12:29
    • Total posts: 279

    Hi Anazoe

    The great thing about one-on-one classes is that you can tailor them to the exact needs and objectives of your students. So the answer to your question about speaking really depends on this – what [u]are[/u] these objectives?

    For example, if you’re teaching a businessperson whose primary objective is to give an effective presentation, then I would spend a lot of time on vocabulary and functional language for giving presentations, practising this orally as much as possible, and a lot of time on practising creating and giving actual presentations, which would of course involve a lot of speaking. If this student needed to write a lot of emails though, then you would spend a lot less time on speaking , and a lot more time writing.

    If your students don’t have any specific objectives other than “to improve their language level”, then a more balanced approach is called for, including work on all four skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) and the grammar, vocabulary and phonology systems.

    But even here, each one-on-one student will have a different learning style and different preferences. One of the keys to being an effective language teacher is being able to adapt to these different styles and preferences, as well as to the different personalities of your students. So it’s a question of responding to these learning styles and preferences so that the lessons are engaging and motivating for your students, while at the same time making sure that you are prioritising effective communication.

    One way you can set yourself free from textbooks is to let each lesson evolve freely. I would start with a topic of some kind, to give some kind of focus to your discussions, and then see what comes up. For example, you might notice a repeated grammar error during your discussion, and spend 10 minutes working on that, before returning to the discussion. They might be struggling for some vocab to talk about something that comes up, so you could again take 10 minutes out to work on a “lexical set” (a set of vocabulary items related to a topic) for whatever they are talking about. You could have a couple of listening or reading texts related to the topic, ready and waiting, that you can use at an appropriate moment in the lesson. And so on…

    Doing a lesson like this requires you to be confident with the language (being able to give an impromptu grammar explanation, for example). But it can be a great way to go about one-on-one lessons, [u]as long as it suits the student[/u]. You may find that some students feel that this approach doesn’t have enough structure, which brings us back to the learning styles and preferences of each individual student.

    I hope this helps a little – feel free to get back to me if you have other questions.


    28 July, 2020 at 20:13
    • Total posts: 2

    Thank you so much for your contribution, Keith.

    I have posted my message on another site and what strikes me immediately is that the main idea in all the answers is the “individualized approach”- it’s not about being able to make a perfect lesson plan, but the one that responds to the student’s needs.

    The reason why I may have been looking for the latter is that most of my students haven’t had any specific objectives, but wanted to gain general language knowledge. So I’ve been looking for the way to make the most out of a one-hour class, the right balance, without neglecting any skill too much.

    But, anyway, thank you for reminding me to focus more on a particular student’s needs, than on a “universal”, best way to teach- you’re totally right.

    Thank you also for your advice on how to set free from the textbooks: it’ s an interesting idea. I may give it a try from time to time, but I think it couldn’t completely work for me since I need some kind of structure myself in order to feel comfortable (as a teacher, but also in my personal life)… but I do give space to improvisation in my classes, of course.

    Finally, a weird thing is that, now when I look back, I remember (without false modesty) that I had a lot of really satisfied students even while I was working in a much more traditional way, with a textbook and a classic (not too individualized) teaching plan. I felt comfortable with it at the time, and self-confident, so the students must have felt it and liked it.
    But of course, adapting to students’ needs doesn’t really mean giving them what they think they need, but what they really need to progress with the language.

    Anyway, I’m grateful for your contribution and wish you all the best!


    29 July, 2020 at 10:04
    • Total posts: 279

    Hi Ana

    [quote]it’s not about being able to make a perfect lesson plan, but the one that responds to the student’s needs.[/quote]

    In one-on-one lessons, responding to the student’s needs can also mean just adapting to their character and personality.

    For example, a loud and confident student may require a similarly loud and confident approach from you. Coming into a lesson with a shy and reserved student with a similarly loud and bustling approach though may not work. Your approach and your voice may need to be more soft and gentle to get the most out of this student.

    You could in fact have [u]exactly the same[/u] lesson plan for both of these students, but adapting yourself in this way can make all the difference to their perception of the lesson.

    Best of luck with your teaching!


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