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The Seven Deadly Sins of the One to One Lesson, from the Point of View of a Learner

By Eve Conway

They say that teachers make the worst students to which I can attest myself. As much as I encourage my own students to study hard and go the extra mile, I can never seem to do the same myself when it comes to my own studies. As a language teacher who has moved around a lot, I’ve had quite a fair few language lessons in my time. Spanish is my second language and the one that I have dedicated the most hours to, but in the past I’ve also studied Vietnamese and have had brief stints of learning French and Catalan. Over the years, some of these lessons have been successful and some have been unsuccessful. Like any language learner, there are days where you feel like you have made progress and other days when you feel like you want to throw in the towel.

I don’t know if the rest of you teachers feel the same, but what I realised is that being a language teacher and teacher trainer makes me quite demanding as a language student, a bit like a chef who finds themselves a customer in a restaurant. I don’t go in there viewing it as a lesson observation or anything like that, but it just seems to naturally happen that I end up thinking

What’s the objective of this activity?” or “Is any learning really happening now?” plus the inevitable “I wouldn’t have done it like this.

Now of course, nobody wants a teacher who is a carbon copy of themselves, we learn from others quite often precisely because they do things differently to us, but there are some things that do not work for everyone pedagogically and I think being in the position of learner for once instead of teacher helps us to be more conscious of the influence that our teaching has on different learner types. I’ve rounded up 7 things that I found really did not work for me personally when I was a language student and have influenced my approach to teaching accordingly.

1. Doing a needs analysis and then forgetting the learners’ needs

Whether you’ve asked to improve speaking yet the teacher keeps bringing you gap fills, or you’ve asked to work specifically on pronunciation to improve your accent and the teacher doesn’t do any focused pronunciation work, you are left feeling frustrated and that the classes are a waste of money. This has happened numerous times in my one to one classes and has taught me that if the student is paying for the class, really it’s his or her class and my job is to help them improve the aspects of their English that they feel they want to work on. Make sure to do a needs analysis and then refer back to it whilst drawing up a scheme of work for the learner.

2. Reading aloud

Reading aloud seems to be like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. When I’m asked to read aloud it sets me on edge thinking

Are we practicing reading or pronunciation here?” “Are you going to let me have time to read it quietly to myself before the reading questions?” and “If the objective is pronunciation, couldn’t we do a more focused pronunciation exercise?

I am aware that people and teachers fall down on both sides of the debate and sometimes reading aloud can be used effectively if well thought out, but quite often in my experience of being a student in one to one lessons it seems to be the default option when dealing with reading. The easy solution? Ask your students how they prefer to read.

3. Over-dependence on translation

Before anyone says it, I know that there are some benefits to translation in the classroom. I am not saying that we should not do it, but I think that the teacher should not be delivering the entire lesson in the learners’ L1. As a student of French, I was a strong reader and listener but very weak with the productive skills, particularly speaking. My teacher chose to spend 30 minutes of every lesson translating news articles from French into English and I felt that my speaking improved not one bit as we would just end up chatting in English. If translation is used, try to make it a vehicle to help learners to understand or use the target language, not a means in itself.

4. Telling learners “Make me a sentence with this word”

I’m always left not knowing how to respond when a teacher presents a new word, for example lend, and then says “give me a sentence with this word”. I am always at a loss because in the moment I have very few ideas and it involves almost plucking something out of the air. I get that the teacher wants to check that I’ve understood the word, that I can conjugate it or that I know some collocations, but making up a sentence on the spot is hardly communicative or authentic. In contrast, when a teacher asks me a question with the word, for example

When was the last time you lent something to someone?

I have a reason to communicate and don’t have to scratch around for ideas, I can personalize the word and own the piece of language.

5. Providing learners with lengthy word lists and expecting them to ‘know them’ for the next lesson

Word lists seem a bit old school but do seem to be commonplace in some parts of the world such as Asia. My own experience of word lists was when learning Vietnamese. My teacher gave me long, lengthy word lists that seemed to be chosen at random without a common theme. Once she asked me a question in Vietnamese, which I did not understand and her reaction was

It was on the word list that I gave to you three weeks ago.

I am still not a fan of word lists but I think a good rule of thumb for teachers who want to use one is to make sure they are organized thematically or around a context and to ensure that class time is dedicated to review and practice games, don’t just expect that learners will “know” the word next week because it is on the list.

6. Correcting every mistake and forgetting to mention the positive

Another lesson learned from being a student is that there is nothing more demotivating than producing a piece of writing, feeling proud of it and then having your teacher go through it with a fine-tooth comb and rip it to pieces, particularly if, like me, writing is your weakest language skill. I think there is something about a one-to-one setting where the teacher feels like they should spend time correcting everything, perhaps because learners have your full attention for the hour, unlike in a group class where the attention per student is limited and feedback more succinct. Remember to give balanced feedback focusing on both what the learner did well and a few things that they can do better. Use the famous “praise sandwich” and frame the negatives with positives in order to help it go down better. Unless the learner explicitly requests to be told every single mistake, just pick out the areas that you think are the most important for development, rather than marking every single minor error.

7. Not revising goals or reviewing progress periodically

In all the one to one language lessons that I ever took, my progress was only ever really measured in exam preparation classes. Whilst in group classes, there is a natural sense of progression in terms of moving to a next level or taking an end of term exam, it can be easy to forget these things in a one-to-one setting. Remember, students are parting with their hard-earned cash to take lessons so the more evidence of progress there is, the better, whether they do a mini-test for homework or you comment briefly on the things that they are now doing better, it’s good for them to be aware of learning. Remember language learning goals may also change so it’s important to review these with the learner every now and then to check that they are getting everything that they need from the lesson.

I’d like to point out that while it may seem quite negative, I have also had some extremely positive experiences with some very talented teachers.

Quite often, the difference between “good pedagogy” and “bad pedagogy” is simply asking the learner which way they prefer to do things and responding to their needs and preferences.

I’d love to hear what you think, are there any “turn offs” for you when taking a foreign language course?

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