The Teacher’s Handbook for Great One-on-one ESL Lessons

You’re about to go mano-a-mano with an ESL student for the first time.

Wondering how to make a one-on-one lesson as awesome as possible?

Well, we just happen to have a great formula for one-on-one ESL lesson success.

Every classroom and every student is different, so there’s not one trick that will help you teach everyone.

But we’ve started to notice a pattern.

Many ESL teachers start off without being fully prepared for the variations that come with adapting to one-on-one lessons.

Figuring out the appropriate structure, content and overall teacher-student dynamic can be challenging when you’re used to classrooms or group lessons.

One-on-one lessons aren’t quite as cut and dry as you might expect.

That’s exactly where this guide will come in handy.

The Teacher’s Handbook for Great One-on-one ESL Lessons

A Brief Introduction to One-on-one Teaching

For starters, one-on-one teaching can fall into two categories: English instruction or English tutoring.

There’s a big difference between the two categories that ESL instructors need to be aware of, especially if the lessons are part of a structured course or English training center. The concept behind tutoring is that the tutor’s goal is to get the student to learn on their own—the tutor acts as a guide without providing lectures unless absolutely necessary. A tutor should provide feedback but shouldn’t make specific corrections — they should lead the student to find the correct answer. The officially endorsed approach to tutoring is outlined by the National Tutoring Association.

On the other hand, English instructors are more responsible for learning and building the student’s store of linguistic knowledge. As an instructor, you’ll provide your own detailed lesson plans and content targeted to your student’s learning level and style. You’ll need to explain grammar rules, introduce new vocabulary and actively teach the student new concepts in the English language.

Before getting started, consider which style of one-on-one lessons you’re preparing yourself for.

Either way you go, by reading the following guide you’re going to learn how to avoid major pitfalls, reap the benefits of one-on-one lessons and create a lesson plan that just works.

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You can explore the platform by requesting a free trial to see all of the fantastic ways FluentU can level up your one-on-one classes.

Let’s start with some of the difficulties you might expect to face along the way.

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The Advantages of One-on-one Classes

Individual lessons can be beneficial for students and more rewarding for teachers. When you know what the student needs and how to achieve that goal, you can target your one-on-one lessons to produce more rapid results.

By spending more time with a single teacher who knows the student and his/her abilities, the student will receive greater individualized lessons. In larger classes there are always students ahead of and behind the average. Those students either become bored or frustrated; either way those students don’t receive the lessons they need to succeed in English. Those same students can be given better focused instruction in a one-on-one environment—advanced students can be challenged while lower-level students can be brought up to speed to compete with their peers.

The Formula for Structuring a One-on-one Lesson

One-on-one ESL lessons can be structured in a similar way as group lessons, but without the group work. Many activities can be adapted for individual students, though there are some that are impossible without additional students (most children’s games are designed for multiple students to encourage social interaction).

While you’ll need to add your own unique flavor to the lessons, and you’ll also need to make adjustments based on the individual student, the following formula will help give you a basis for one-on-one teaching. These are the major steps that should be covered over the course of any class, regardless of length.

  • Build rapport
  • Get warmed up
  • Conversational exercises
  • Reading and writing exercises
  • Homework

Now, we’ll explore these in further detail.

Build rapport

Usually a one-on-one lesson will not begin the same as a group class—instead of jumping right into a warm-up exercise, you’ll want to rebuild your rapport with the student by having a friendly conversation (the content and length of the conversation will vary depending on the student and how often you meet). The questions you ask during that conversation can lead into your planned lesson or warm-up exercise. For example, you may ask about the homework you previously assigned or about a story in the news that’s related to your student’s interests. These conversations are fun for the student and reinforce grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation lessons.

Warm-up exercises

This should lead into a warm-up exercise, which could be a review of the previous class or a preview of the current one. Asking the student leading questions about vocabulary or grammar will help the rest of your lesson run more smoothly. Depending on the level of the student you may incorporate some dictation or other listening exercises.

Going over the last session’s homework is always a good start, since they’ve thought through the assignment thoroughly and should be able to start on the same page as you without much preparation. This is a good time to make corrections and cover any lingering questions and areas that were confusing.

Conversation exercises

Because your one-on-one lessons are really just constant conversations, you won’t have to provide too many extra opportunities for your student to speak. For some students, you might prepare a dialogue—business English students usually want these exercises to focus on their specific career needs. The warm-up exercise will usually involve eliciting information from the student to incorporate in the planned dialogue, such as a situation, vocabulary or verb tense.

The conversation/dialogue exercise can be combined with a reading exercise, but the two can also be entirely separate. When using a reading exercise in a one-on-one ESL class, it’s best to have the student read the material aloud so you can correct pronunciation. Another option for this is to have the student read the material before class and use it as the basis for a conversation. In the second case, you can ask the student questions to ensure they understood the text.

Writing and reading exercises

Writing exercises are the most difficult part of a one-on-one ESL class. Just like the reading exercise, older students will feel like it’s a waste of time because they could have done it at home, alone. To avoid this common complaint, you can use some short editing exercises or grammar exercises.

When providing grammar exercises, it’s important for the student to write out a complete sentence to get a feel for the overall structure. If you’re teaching a student about the past progressive verb tense, you can provide a few sentences written in simple past or present progressive tenses and ask the student to rewrite the sentences and then read them aloud.

Because you’ve just taught this grammar point to the student, they won’t see it as an exercise that can be done at home. Instead, they’ll understand that you’ve organized things this way to double-check their comprehension of a freshly taught concept.


Before you finish the lesson, you should give the student some homework. Be careful with what types of assignments you provide.

Why? In a group class, you might correct homework while the students work in groups on another exercise. This can’t be done in a one-on-one class.

To correct a writing assignment you can either review the assignment with the student and try to get the student to recognize the mistakes along the way, or you can ask the student to email the assignment to you before class so you can correct it beforehand. You could also take the homework assignment and correct it after the lesson, being prepared to discuss mistakes in the next lesson.

Gear homework towards whatever major goal they’re striving for — whether that be an English proficiency exam or submitting job applications with an English language company.

Overcoming the Challenges of One-on-one Classes

You can’t fall back on group work.

When we teach classes, we typically plan our lessons to incorporate group work. It’s easier for some ESL students to work with their peers than to participate individually, and they’re able to learn from each other. Students with a better grasp of the material are able to assist their peers and help them improve. All of this cuts down on teacher talk time and allows students to spend more time talking and actively practicing English. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be done in a single student class.

One-on-one classes involve more discussions between the student and teacher, which can also lead to more tangents within the lesson. In some cases, students will steer the class in directions they want, which means you’ll have to steer the class back to its focus to ensure the student learns the target material.

This doesn’t mean that veering off course every now and again is bad for the class. Students might lead you to another topic that needs to be covered, or bring up important questions they have regarding challenging or confusing points. This often helps to ensure that there are no major gaps in learning.

Lessons need to be more personalized.

If you haven’t had experience teaching individual students, the first lessons can be some of the hardest. In fact, the first few one-on-one lessons with any new student will present a challenge — even if you’re totally experienced — because each student has their own personality, learning style, interests and educational needs.

The first step to creating an environment conducive to education is to build rapport with your student. This is just a matter of getting to know your student and what they need to get out of classes. Students may have an idea of what they want to learn, but it’s your responsibility to figure out if they’re ready for these subjects. It’s also your responsibility to determine how to best help them reach their language goals.

Students will get to know you better.

In many cases with adult students, you may need to prove your knowledge of English to gain the trust of your student. Since the two of you will be alone, this allows the sole student more opportunities to scrutinize your knowledge and teaching methods. This requires confidence and self-assurance. Once you have earned their trust and proven your merit as a teacher, you can lead the student through the lessons that you know will be most beneficial to them.

You’ll have to keep the ball rolling.

One of the greatest struggles in a one-on-one class is dealing with silence. It’s not as bad as the awkward silence during a date, but it’s close.

In group classes, you may give students an assignment to work on as you go around and check on progress. You may decide to split everyone into groups and have them work on a project together. You may even go around the classroom and have everyone talking or practicing a certain concept.

It’s much more difficult to tell an individual student to work on something all alone while you check out for a little while. They might think you’re a lazy teacher because they could just as easily do the assignment outside of class, without you being present. Any such assignments will need to be completed in a conversation style with the teacher discussing each answer with the student.

Students in private lessons, particularly adults, want to talk more. They appreciate the value of strong conversational skills. For those who need a little extra push, there are ways to get them to do more talking in class.

There may be times when a student is unresponsive, creating a silence in the class. This more often occurs with younger students who are being by their parents to attend class. It rarely happens with adult students because they tend to be more self-motivated and are probably spending their own money to have class. When the student remains quiet, it’s up to your creative lessons to generate a response. In these cases, it’s acceptable to give the student an assignment that requires independent reading or writing. It may take time to get a quieter student to open up and discuss topics with you, but using a variety of activities that are fun or specifically geared to the student’s interests should produce results.

You’re on your own!

Another problem that may come up with lower-level students in one-on-one ESL classes is translation. In some group classes, teachers have a local assistant or co-teacher to explain the language in the students’ native tongue. Even without a helper, you’ll often have some more advanced students that can help out their peers along the way.

None of this is possible in one-on-one lessons. Given that language lessons are more effective when the entire class is conducted in the target language, the student will have to really step up their game, and you’ll have to make sure they’re keeping up.

Teaching technology is part of modern language instruction.

Some students will rely heavily on bilingual dictionaries and electronic translators. These tools are beneficial for beginners, but they don’t help intermediate or advanced students who may still be clinging to a safety net. You may also have to teach students how to use their translation resources properly. For example, too many students make the mistake of typing entire sentences into the translator, which generates gibberish. Poor usage will slow down the lesson unnecessarily, and poorly generated translations will only serve to further confuse students.

While it may be more challenging in some ways, the one-on-one ESL lessons can be more beneficial to students and more enjoyable for teachers over time. Not all teachers are adept at teaching such lessons, but with better preparation any ESL teacher can effectively instruct a student in an individual lesson. The better you know your student, the easier it will be to plan a one-on-one lesson.

And One More Thing...

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