Teaching 1-1: The first class

The first class can be crucial for how the rest of the course pans out. It will set the tone. Especially in a 1-1 setting. After all, there’s just the two of you. So the first set of aims to bear in mind is affective:

  • build rapport (break the ice, get to know each other)
  • motivate the student
  • set the tone for the future classes (learner-centred, relevant, enjoyable, useful)

The next set of aims concerns generating the course content, as well as the objectives and goals. The key principle of 1–1 teaching is that “the student is the syllabus” (Osborne 2005: 3). So as much as possible, the content/topic of the class should be based on students preferences, or even generated by the learner. So ideally what you want to establish in the first class is:

  • what the learner wants to know (wants)
  • what the learner doesn’t know (lacks)
  • what the learner needs to use their English for (needs)
  • what topics and activity types the learner enjoys (preferences)

All this should ensure that the course aims will be relevant, realistic and achievable.

Uff! Seems like a hell lot of work for one class. So how the heck do I go about it then?

As you can imagine, bringing and using a course book in the first class, even if one has been assigned one by the Academic department, is probably not the best solution, albeit a very tempting one. After all, you might not feel at ease coming in with nothing to the first class. Something which can prompt and focus the discussion may come in handy.

Below are some ideas for activities which involve very little prep and materials, and which can help you go about achieving the two sets of aims discussed above in a communicative way:

  1. Spidergram – write down key words or phrases which are answers to some questions about you (e.g. hobby, favourite dish, etc.). Afterwards the student writes down the phrases connected to their lives. This can be done on small separate cards which are turned one by one or all on one piece of paper/whiteboard. Student tries to guess the question. NOTE: It helps to a) identify student’s lacks b) upgrade their lg c) it is also a great ice–breaker and stimulus for further discussion. Modify the content according to the student’s level (i.e. only present simple questions) 
  2. Topic cards – cards with everyday topics face down. You/student turn the first card around and use it as a stimulus for discussion. NOTE: a) encourage the student to ask you questions (apart from the obvious communicative purpose, it also can serve as a diagnostic) b) if you already know something about the student, you can tailor the topics to match their interests, knowledge, job, etc. 
  3. Life Circles – divide the whiteboard/piece of paper into three parts: past, present and future. Put some ideas in each part related to your life. The learner does the same. Apart from being a good ice–breaker and GTKY, the activity helps elicit varied lg, which can serve to identify student’s lacks. As above, it’s a good idea to encourage the student to ask you follow up questions. 
  4. True/False – write some facts about yourself on pieces of paper. Try to make them as interesting as possible. Write at least one false sentence. The learner does the same. Turn the cards one by one. Ask questions to identify the false one. You both try to pretend all sentences are true. See who’s a better liar. It serves well to check question formation. 
  5. Needs analysis – a questionnaire which prompts the learner to express their course needs and expectations can be of excellent use for the first lesson.
  6. Meaningful objects – often 1-1 teaching takes place at student’s workplace, their or the teacher’s house. Use this as an opportunity to select some objects that are meaningful for the student, or can be used as springboard for discussion.
NOTE: all of the above, apart from their affective and communicative purposes, can be used diagnostically, i.e. identifying student’s language lacks for immediate or subsequent remedial work (you can find some ideas on how to deal with emerging language and offer on-the-spot practice here). They can and should be adjusted to the student’s level. Ease the student into the idea that they should ask questions as well as you. After all, the above are all discussion activities.
Have you got any favourite activities for the first class? Looking forward to your comments.
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