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How Should I use Games for one-to-ne Classes with Adults?

Henry Stephens

In life, when we play a game with a single opponent we generally play to win. Then again, we usually pick an opponent who will provide some challenge, and make the game worth playing for both parties. We might let them win if they need to, but that’s less fun. Games involve an element of competition, and this can entail a problem between language teacher and learner: the odds are stacked in favour of the teacher. Such a situation can jeopardise the all-important element of rapport in a one-to-one class. In my view, a major support to this rapport is when neither party is superior, or overtly advantaged.

On the other hand game playing is naturally collaborative. When we use a game in a group class, we often assign pairs or groups to work together – preparing, advising, and negotiating. Often it’s hard to see how this can work in a one-to-one environment. All the same, we can look for activities that are fun, collaborative, and creative. Here are a few ideas that interest me – they may not suit some students but then again there’s no harm in seeing what works.

If we do bring in an element of competition, it should be competition between equals, not one in which the teacher is bound to win.

How about bringing the student’s first language into play for a change? Work on a dialogue, or presentation together. Record it bit-by-bit, but only after the student has expressed what they want to say in their own language and then come up with a translation, aided by the teacher. For this you need to have a reasonable knowledge of the student’s first language. Translation is natural. As long we discourage a word-for-word approach to it, but go for phrases instead, we should be fine. It also allows the student to express what they want, and acknowledges that they know what they are talking about – it helps to remember it’s the language that’s the barrier, not the ideas.

Some may complain that this is not a game -there’s no winner. We can get competitive to spice things up as long as the teacher is either an equal, or less than equal. Many of the learners I’ve encountered have extensive business experience – far more so than me. This can be a useful tool, because competing with someone who is canny about business balances things out nicely. Role-playing negotiations strike me as a way in which such a dynamic can be exploited. Negotiation involves strategic thinking, bargaining, scoring points in much the same way as a game. Ideally you don’t want your opponent to lose, but at the same time a win-win situation is desirable at the very least.


There are numerous other competitive activities that preserve equilibrium. We frequently use quizzes as a classroom tool. What about devising a quiz where the student comes up with a few questions for teacher about their own country? There are also classic pair-work activities that are lightly competitive; one I personally use frequently is to dictate a picture or graph. This can be used to practise prepositions and describe location. The student and teacher both draw a simple robot-like picture using only agreed shapes – square, triangle, oval and so on. It doesn’t have to be your typical robot with a square head and two arms – it could easily be an industrial-style robot. Both teacher and student describe their drawings, which only they can see. It’s always fun to compare the results. We can dictate graphs in exactly the same way, using and hearing language associated with time and movement, and working towards two representations.

Other games that can be adapted for one-to-one consist of ways of testing. One example that has worked for me is this well-known method for reviewing vocabulary. The learner writes down many items on separate small squares of paper (it’s great if the learner is a conscientious note-taker because it means they can go back over what they’ve written). Next class, these go into a bag. Against the clock, the learner picks them out of the bag and explains them to you.


Of primary importance in a one-to-one class is to build an equal and insightful rapport, where the priority should be on collaborating with the student. If we do bring in an element of competition, it should be competition between equals, not one in which the teacher is bound to win. And yet one of the great things about one-to-one classes with adults is the endless variety of personalities that we meet, their preferences and the range of possibilities that might work for them. If we keep the relationship fair, we can be as inventive as we like in terms of what we can use with them.

About the author

Henry has been working in teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) since 2001. Henry is married with one young son, and he lives in Harrow, London. In his spare time he enjoys playing the piano and practicing his Spanish whenever possible.