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How to get started with your new language student

Henry Stephens

No matter how often I teach private classes, the first encounter with a new student is challenging. While pleased to have a new assignment, I can’t work out why I feel a bit nervous. In contrast to a group class, a one-to-one is a highly personal event, and can be more intense at the outset for that fact. That’s why it’s important to put a lot of energy into getting the first few classes right and establishing a sound foundation for the rest of the course. The first few classes are hard work! More than likely things will get easier, especially if we think ahead, focusing on two main areas: building rapport and agreeing on goals.

I remember one particular student I started with: I came in with my material, but before long he was standing up and, with marker pen in hand, giving an impromptu presentation on the structure of the banking industry. It proved very difficult to get a word in edgeways for the rest of the course! Not all students are like this. The point is we don’t know at this stage, so we need to be armed with plenty of material.

Getting started can be a nervous time for the teacher and student alike. Planning the first few lessons, many teachers have set pieces that they know work time and again and can rely on.

So what should we bring with us? Even if a level-test has been carried out, we need to find out much more about our student. Why not bring a list of question prompts; they can begin with “my name is…., I work in….” and follow on from there. We can ask about the student’s job, interests, background, day-to-day tasks in the target language, possible future tasks they may need to do, and we can start to build up a picture. This has the double advantage of providing information, and getting the students talking. If we want to gently test their questioning ability, we can reverse it. They ask us some questions, using the same prompts. Equally, we could get them to role-play a situation they are likely to encounter. We could bring material into class, but better still, we can find out what they do frequently – like present findings to their boss, order lunch in a cafe, or answer the phone in the office – and re-enact that situation in class.


Having carried out some diagnostics, you may want to make plans with your student. By now we should have a good idea of what they want from the course. This may not always be completely realistic! Sometimes students believe that because they are having one-to-one tuition (and possibly paying for it themselves) they can expect lightening-speed, turbo-charged progress. Try to adjust the expectations of these students to achievable tasks, like, say, improving at giving presentations, or socializing.

At the same time as setting up a learning path, it’s equally important to balance this against building rapport. There are two things that will help us to do this. The first is not to over-correct. Nobody likes to be interrupted in mid-flow over what may be a minor slip. If the error does relate to something they don’t already know about, you’ll need your student to be open and attentive to any explanation, so let’s wait and choose the moment to address the issue with care. Secondly, building rapport means engaging in genuine conversation and showing a real interest in who you are dealing with.

Finally, it’s a very good idea to do some research before the course begins. We can find out about the language background and typical cultural expectations we might encounter. Talking to the previous teacher is hardly ever a waste of time. Most teachers won’t mind a brief chat, or an email. You may pick up some invaluable forewarnings. It’s also really useful to have a clear mental image of what kind of environment you are going to be teaching in. If you can go the location before the first class, then you will have a chance of ironing out any route difficulties. Also, we can decide what we should wear to the first meeting. It’s important not to shoot yourself in foot by turning up late or inappropriately dressed.


Getting started can be a nervous time for the teacher and student alike. Planning the first few lessons, many teachers have set pieces that they know work time and again and can rely on. If having material you know well helps you confront new learners, and learn about them, why not use it? As soon as possible though, it’s time to start adjusting our planning to the needs we uncover. Above all, be prepared to relate to your student as an equal, not as ‘disadvantaged’. From that point, you should be able to see your way to conducting useful classes, in which learning happens.

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.