One-to-One: Creating Comfort


One-to-One: Creating Comfort

In the purely linguistic sense, the notion of creating comfort is pretty much the same in one-to-one and group contexts. It is linked to the concept called Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). A teacher’s task is to grade the input and tasks in a way to match the student’s ZPD – in simple words, to make sure that the tasks are neither as easy as to bore the learners, nor as difficult as to overstrain them. The difference between group and individual classes in this respect is that in 1-2-1 the teacher can tailor the load more precisely to the student’s current level without having to compromise and consider other student’s interests.

In this article I’d like to focus on some other aspects of comfort in the classroom which don’t have much to do with the language itself. One of my basic work principles is to keep asking myself “What is the student paying me for?”. What they are paying for in one-to-one classes, apart from language instruction, is a higher level of physical and emotional comfort than in group lessons.


How does it affect your learner if she senses you are nervous? If you speak too fast or in a high-pitched voice? If you close up by crossing your arms on your chest? Osbourne emphasises how important it is to be aware of non-verbal communication clues, such as facial expressions, body language, gesture and tone of voice. (Osbourne, 2006) In 1-2-1 these things are easy to notice because the student is focused on the teacher the whole time, there are no peers to divert her attention.

In my blog post on awareness I talked about a 1-2-1 student of mine who was into NLP and drew my attention to my physical presence. When I started monitoring the way I moved in the classroom, I discovered that I tended to slouch, grimace, fiddle with a pen, etc. In the lessons that followed I made a point of trying to be more relaxed and at ease, breathe deeply and project confidence and calm through my pose. Listening to recordings of my lessons helped me to get better at controlling my voice. As a result, I now feel that the quality of contact between my students and me increased and they seem to be more comfortable in class.

The non-verbal signals you want to send out in 1-2-1 are a bit different than in a group. Without the need to “manage” the classroom, you can let go of any domineering vibe – unless you feel that the particular student is more comfortable with a traditional “teacher” figure. I liked Wilberg’s idea that one-to-one classes are all about “creating space” for the student, their input and their learning. Using calm, supportive, non-pressuring body language can be a step towards creating that space.


Another good question to ask yourself in regard to one-to-one classes is “What can I do in this context that I couldn’t do in a group? What possibilities and freedoms do I have that my student can benefit from?” Using the physical arrangement of your classroom to make the learner feel more at ease is one such freedom.

Is your learner quite laid back? Maybe you could you sit on the couch instead of chairs. Is she shy, with an acute sense of personal space? You might not want to sit too close in order not to invade it. These decisions are more effective when taken consciously, when you can explain why you’re sitting the way you’re sitting – because this arrangement makes this particular student more comfortable.

By the way, does it have to be “sitting”? Osbourne points out that one-to-one classes can be tiring because both the teacher and the student are very static. However, I’ve had some positive experiences of “mobile” one-to-one classes. One of my students sometimes spends the entire lesson pacing around the office. Another one likes walking with me in a nearby park. The kind of energy these changes bring into the learning process are well worth the limitations they entail (impossibility to do written exercises). Studies have shown that we think better when we are moving around and from what I’ve seen I readily believe it.


When it comes to emotional comfort, I like to view it in terms of identifying and removing constraints. This technique is described in Brian Tracy’s “Eat That Frog” which I mentioned in the post on managing time. He writes that in any activity there is a limiting factor. Identifying and removing it can give your progress a boost you which wouldn’t be able to achieve by just putting more effort into the work. The question to ask is “What is it in me that’s holding me back?” 

For EFL learners, this main constraint is often a psychological block or trauma associated with learning or using the foreign language. In a group you probably won’t be able to allocate time for analysing the personal attitude of each student to the language. However, in 1-2-1 it’s a valid and highly effective use of classroom time. Osbourne points out that individual tutors often assume the role of a therapists or a confidante. As I see it, one of the best ways to use this role is to work with psychological blocks.

I have a high level student who, when we started working together, used to stop speaking and freeze up if he forgot a word. He also apologised at length if I attempted to correct a mistake. I talked to him about his experiences with English and found out that his university teacher had mocked and degraded students for making mistakes. Our first lessons consisted almost solely of conversation with zero error correction. I talked quite a lot myself to take the pressure of constant questions off him. In several weeks his speech became much smoother. I’m sure such rapid progress wouldn’t have been possible if I had tried to force the more traditional manner of teaching on him before minimising the negative effect of his psychological block.

Recommendations like “praise the student, give positive feedback, don’t focus on mistakes” are quite obvious. What I’d like to suggest in addition to these very helpful techniques is to raise the student’s awareness of his or her psychological barriers. What worked for me in the case of the student mentioned above was saying “you see, you got it right the first time, no need to doubt yourself” or “you see, you understood the sense perfectly, no need to know every word” etc. Let them notice when and how exactly they limit themselves, and it might help to push these limits back.


The last point I’d like to mention is that, as Thornbury emphasised in his talk at IH ELT conference in Barcelona, language learning is a fluid, uneven, chaotic process. When it seems we’ve taken everything into account and can now proceed with our lesson plan, something will come up and threaten to disrupt the class. In my experience, minimising detailed lesson planning and concentrating on follow-up makes you better prepared to face such challenges. It is especially effective in one-to-one context as a way to “suit new or evolving requirements” of the students or respond to their mood on a particular day.

A few days ago I came to a class and learned that there had been a huge fire in my student’s neighbourhood and everyone’d been evacuated from their homes. The student didn’t seem to be able to concentrate on anything but this event so I went along with it. We googled a news article about it, watched a video and discussed her own experience. It seemed to me that talking the issue through took some of her stress off as well as enabled the student to practice relevant and realistic language.

On the whole, we want to turn a one-to-one EFL classroom into a comfortable space where a student can bring his or her unique input and safely work with it through the medium of the language they are learning. I like to think of it as of right climate conditions for growing a crop. When we consciously try to create physical and emotional comfort for our client, we create a favourable environment for their abilities to grow and flourish, and the fruit might exceed our boldest expectations.


McLeod, S. Zone of Proximal Development. From

Osbourne, P. (2005) Teaching English One to One, Modern English Publishing

Samsonova, O. Awareness in Teaching. From

Scrivener, J. Teaching One-to-One: Teaching Tips – Tips for Longer Lessons. From

Tracy, B. (2007) Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Wilberg, P. (1987) One to One. Language Teaching Productions

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