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The state of my one-to-one teaching, and a way forward

November 17, 2011

One-to-one teaching

In this post (originally written for the British Council Teaching English Facebook page:, I’m going to briefly describe how I see Dogme situated in common practices in one-to-one teaching, describe a lesson that I taught last weekend, then finally discuss how my own teaching has developed recently,  perhaps influenced by my experiments with Dogme. I started writing my blog as an alternative to a personal teaching journal, a way to reflect on my lessons and my teaching. It seems that people really enjoy reading other teachers’ reflections, though, so I’ve started writing about my teaching in general. I hope you find it interesting and please feel free to comment – blogs thrive on the interaction between people out there!

Many people’s reaction upon encountering Dogme for the first time is: “Well, I pretty much do that anyway.” They’re usually referring to their private teaching. I’m sure most of us can relate to an approach to one-to-one lessons where we talk with the learner, scaffolding their language, essentially helping them say what they want to say while talking with them as much as possible, perhaps stimulated by an article or similar that the learner has brought to the lesson. We might then come up with a few exercises on the spot based on what they’d had problems with and then set something for homework that would allow them to practise further.

If your own private teaching is anything like the description above then you already have Dogme in your teaching blood!

1) your lessons are driven by conversation on relevant topics

2) you use your learner’s emerging language as a basis for language work

3) any materials you use are relevant to the learner, either because they’ve brought it along to the lesson themselves, or because you’ve used your familiarity with them to select a text suited to their needs or interests.

This method of teaching deals with most General English students’ learning needs very well, and I think a diligent teacher can do well with this. This is true only insofar as the learner is getting personal attention. Transplant this into group teaching, and you have a very different kettle of fish because it’s impossible to attend to everyone’s needs, as they emerge, all of the time. A lot of the approaches to navigating Dogme lessons that I write about in my blog are basically ways to stimulate conversation democratically – ensuring that all learners are engaged, contributing and hopefully benefitting more or less equally. Seemingly innocuous activities like: “tell each other 3 good things and 3 bad things about your weekend” actually fulfill an important function, because you’re able to immediately move the focus of the group away from you, the teacher waiting to ‘teach’, and towards the learners themselves and what they have to offer to each other.

But this post intends to deal with one-to-one teaching.

After an unreasonably long time between lessons, I saw one of my long-term students Naoko last weekend. We were rather short on time (1 hour), and I set about the lesson in my usual fashion. It was only when we’d finished and gone our separate ways that I reflected on the lesson and realized how different it was to how I would have taught a similar lesson even 6 months ago.

It’s interesting for me to note that, despite what I’ve written above about an ‘organic’ approach to teaching one-to-one lessons, the more experienced I become, the less ‘free’ my lessons are becoming. In fact, it’s clear that I’m imposing quite structured series of activities on the learner during the lesson. Why the move in this direction? On the face of it it seems rather anti Dogme principles. In group teaching I work so hard to create communicative situations, but with an amenable one-to-one student it’s much easier; the information gap between teacher and learner (L2 vs L1) is there from the start, thereby generating the authentic communicative situation – the need for the learner to make herself understood. So perhaps I feel that, with this burden lifted, we can get down to the nitty gritty language work more quickly.

The lesson

Level: Advanced. Time: 60 mins

Pre-lesson: there is no preparation. However, I have a photocopy of her entire lexical notebook which I look at before the lesson, noting down a selection of words and phrases that I know will be useful for her to revise and that are likely to come up in conversation. I’ll often choose lexis with some kind of function in discourse e.g. ‘at the same time’, ‘all in all’.

1) ‘So what’s been going on since the last time I saw you?’

2) She tells me about her father not being so well and a trivial family feud

3) I don’t interfere linguistically. I listen and respond as naturally as possible, asking a few questions.

4) We her situation and possible solutions to the problem, throwing in some phrases and expressions that I think she’ll like, and fitting in some language for recycling from previous lessons . Some discussion of those follow.

5) Among other things, I give her some ‘sentence frames’ based on what she was trying to say: ‘I don’t want to antagonize him, but I don’t want to avoid the issue either.’ This becomes: ‘I don’t _________, but I don’t ________either.’ We take a detour and come up with some substitutions for this frame.

6) ‘Right, tell me it all one more time.’

7) Naoko repeats the story. She’s a little reluctant at first, but appreciates the value in it. If she forgets bits I ask for details in as natural a way as possible – clearly there’s an element of ‘display’ here, but it serves a purpose

8 ) Some more feedback and discussion. ‘Ok, and one last time.’

9) It’s very good this time. She’s very bright and is already incorporating most of the language we’ve discussed, making very few mistakes. What to do? Really the only thing that’s setting her apart from a native speaker at this point (other than her accent) is that it’s sounding too good. It sounds prepared, like the Best Man’s speech at a wedding. “I first met Peter…”. Furthermore, in the back of my mind I’m thinking:  ‘as good as this is, she’ll have forgotten most of it by next week.’ I decide she needs to relate what she’s saying to authentic speech.

10) ‘Now I’m going to tell you the story myself. Just listen and tell me what differences you can see between our two versions.’

11) I tell the story, making a point of telling it just as if I were in the pub, throwing in all the elements of natural speaking you’d expect: false starts, hesitation, repetition etc.

12) We talk about these features a little.

13) I used her iPhone to record myself telling the story. Homework is to transcribe it word for word, false starts and all!

Commentary – What am I doing differently?

The main thing: we really did much less than usual. There was very little superfluous chat, or any speaking that didn’t have a pedagogical purpose in the back of my mind. I’d usually spend some time just chatting with the student, warming into the lesson (who doesn’t?) but it’s very interesting how a bit of time pressure made me focus much more quickly and spot potential directions for the lesson. It just so happened that she had a story to tell me, but a simple ‘how was your weekend?’ could have brought about similar results.

I’ve been struggling recently with ideas for consistently recycling language from previous lessons. How can it be done naturally in Dogme? I don’t know how useful the above method is, or just how far it can work. Clearly some language is easier than others to slot into new contexts. Honestly, though, given that I have been guilty of not recycling language so thoughtfully in my teaching in the past, right now I’m just happy to be thinking about it!

The language I’m giving her is different to before. FIrstly, I noticed that I chose to focus on a relatively small amount of new lexical items over the course of this lesson. Perhaps 6-8 at most. There were so many things I could have brought up, but I resisted the temptation. This meant that, in the detours we did take to discuss language, we could go into sufficient depth.

The more experienced I become, the ‘larger’ the language that I focus on. That’s not a particularly eloquent description, but here’s what I mean. I wouldn’t have spotted/conceptualised language in a way such as ‘I don’t _________, but I don’t ________either,’ in the past. These ‘sentence frames’ (also known by a variety of terms) are an approach I’ve used a lot recently as they seem to be very easy for learners to get their head around. I think they’re open to criticism on some levels, for example many elements of the frames themselves can be changed (e.g. ‘she didn’t ____, but she didn’t ____ either). However, by focusing on language on this more sentential level you’re encouraging learners to think more holistically, which will ultimately impact on fluency.

I got her to repeat the speaking ‘task’ twice. This approach, borrowed from Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT), has many benefits and by the third time learners are usually really getting a handle on what they’re doing. Although I have always liked repeating tasks, I’m finding myself actually insisting on it now; not just once, though – do it twice! I have found that not all learners see the value in this approach initially, but it’s really worth sticking at it because when they come round they really appreciate it.

Dogme principles state that any listening work done in class should use recordings made by the learners themselves. This has seemed rather counter-intuitive to me, because what of the value in exploiting authentic texts? However, with this method of recording a ‘better other’ version of Naoko’s own language, I believe I might have found a cunning compromise. After all, it’s highly relevant to the learner (she came up with it!) and ‘meaning’ is already taken care of. She’s free to study the gap between her version and my version. By coming at the end of the lesson, I see another parallel with TBLT, in which the language focus stage of a lesson may come right at the end.  Being set for homework it provides a sense of continuation between lessons. Learning takes place in a continuum and does not end when the hour’s up. She’ll take this recording home and really study it. I have no idea what she’ll take from it linguistically, but there’s a rich source of language there that we can discuss in the next lesson and possible the one after.

Some questions to think about

How could this be continued into the next lesson?

What would you choose to focus on?

Would any of these ideas work in your own teaching?

Would you change anything? Why?

How do you recycle language from previous lessons?

  1. Hi Oli, you said: “I’ve been struggling recently with ideas for consistently recycling language from previous lessons.” How about this: take a phrase that came up, and add to it. Subtle changes, replacing a word here, a word there, both of you doing this. When Naoko uses a word, think of a similar one, be a thesaurus. Natural language is like this too, it’s not just a teaching technique divorced from reality. “Lovely day, isn’t it?” “Beautiful, really nice!” I’d obviously make a plant with these adjectives, but the mindset itself of adding to language fits with dogme, even if (heaven forbid), you wrote all the phrases linearly.

    • Thanks for the ideas as always David. What you describe is great, and it seems to also apply very well to language emerging during the course of a lesson.

      It made me think of a turn based ‘game’, maybe drawing a plant on a large sheet of paper: you take it in turns to add an additional word to the basic structure (extension or substitution), growing it as much as possible on the page. That could be taken home and copied out neatly/made into a full on plant!

      I think what I was getting at in my post, though, was not so much a matter of what exercises to use, but how to bring it up in the context of a naturally evolving Dogme lesson. In other words, how to avoid a part of the lesson where you stop whatever else is going on and say: ‘right, we’re doing revision of last week’s language now.’

      Could a topic-based ‘syllabus’ approach be a solution? Perhaps you could negotiate the topics of the lessons in advance, aiming for some kind of continuation that makes recycling of language a more natural reality (much like a course book might aim to do). To what extent would this kind of approach be in line with Dogme principles? The ‘here-and-now’ clearly suffers in this scenario and I can envisage spontaneity being lost.

  2. Really helpful! Reflections with legs – meaning I think I can use them to improve my teaching.



  3. Really nice write up Oli. Finally had the time to read some of your posts. I really like the idea of the sentence stems and the recording of the story. I don’t do one to one teaching but I would definitely try something like this out. It would be even more interesting to try and incorporate this into a larger class. I might try something like this tonight, depending on what comes up. Keep up the good work.

    • Cheers Adam. How did it go?

      You could always do a recording and then make it available on the Internet. That way the whole class can access it for homework.

      Thanks for taking the time to read, I’ve been struggling to keep up with reading anything recently!

  4. lam_noreen permalink

    Fantastic! Finally something focused on one-to-one classes, hurray! I found myself with lots of private students last year and lacking books and general resources. Seems that many ideas are designed with groups in mind and not always adaptable for one-to-one. Interesting bit about getting the student to repeat the speaking and incorporate the language, and then listening and transcribing…. Never thought about that before, so thanks very much Oli!

    • Thanks for your comment and I’m really happy you found it interesting. When I first started teaching, the advice from my tutors was always that ‘you can do the same things with one-to-one as you do with groups’ (meaning that the teacher acts as a student at the right times). I’m still working through that problem. It doesn’t work for me all the time and I think the reason is that the dynamic of a one-to-one lesson is very different from a group and my teaching adapts accordingly. Especially since I started unplugging my classes. I very rarely use materials. Blogs that are written for unplugged groups, as you mention, are usually geared toward groups, but I think they can definitely be adapted for one-to-one. The key at all times, I’ve found, is that whatever you do, make the interaction natural. (ie would you have this conversation in real life?). If it is, then you’re addressing communicative needs and useful language will arise.

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