How do you teach ESL one-to-one?

Before looking at the specifics of how to go about teaching a one-to-one lesson, we need to be aware of some procedures that you should go through, before making any plans about teaching.

The first thing you must do is find out what level your student is at. This is done by using a level test.

A level test is typically verbal initially to give a general impression of the student's level. ESL levels are often on a five point scale from the lowest level to the highest indicated by the following names:

  • Level 1 Starter
  • Level 2 Elementary
  • Level 3 Pre-Intermediate
  • Level 4 Intermediate
  • Level 5 Upper Intermediate

A simple level test might be a conversation style, asking a series of questions which are grammatically more and more complicated as you go through, to indicate where the student begins to have difficulty and therefore the level they are at.

Having completed the level test the next requirement is a needs analysis.

As the name implies, this is to find out what the student needs to learn English for. This will vary depending on the student. For example, a young student may wish to improve their general English skills, an older student may be learning English for an external exam such as IELTS, and an adult may require some level of English skill for their job.

The information gained from a needs analysis will determine what and how you teach.

One extremely important aspect is to learn something about them. It is very important to have some background knowledge of each individual student. Knowing something about their background and experiences, what hobbies they have and what they like to do, can be an enormous advantage when you are planning lessons. With this knowledge you will be able to 'individualize' your lesson plans to suit them and their interests.

Also read: Is it easier to teach English to children or adults?

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Teaching one-to-one


Teaching one-to-one

There are going to be some obvious differences when teaching one-to-one when compared to teaching a group, both for you as the teacher and for the student. The most obvious is that there will be no peer interaction during the class, including doing activities. All attention will be on the individual student throughout the whole lesson and whereas in a normal class setting we would recommend that you do not involve yourself in activities, here you probably will have no choice but to do so.

Each of these points will necessarily need to be taken into consideration when planning the lesson. Some of the major considerations are outlined below.


As mentioned the structure of your lesson will change from that of a group class. If in a normal group setting you were going to elicit information from 20 students, you are now going to have to try and do this with your single student. You will need strategies to help them out here.

  • If an activity would have been done as pairwork, you will need to be the pair partner, making sure you do not take up too much talking time from the student.
  • Activities such as mill drills and surveys will not be possible in a one-to-one situation so these will need to be adapted in some way for a single student.
  • Something that can help the student and help you bring down your teacher talk time is to be as visual as possible. Avoid lengthy descriptions and explanations and draw diagrams and charts as often as possible to help describe concepts and grammatical features.
  • By using information gained about the student you can help maintain their motivation throughout individual lessons and a series of lessons by individualizing the lesson content to their needs and their interests.

Also read: Where can I get free ESL lesson plans?