Ten Tips for Teaching Private Classes

These days, faced with low pay and poor working conditions in most private language schools, more and more teachers are going it alone and teaching privately. Before starting, it’s good to have certain things in place in order to make it a smoother transition. Here goes:

1. Find out what they don’t like.

Obviously, it’s important to do a thorough needs analysis before you begin teaching a student. However, not every learner knows what they like when it comes to English classes – indeed they won’t know this until they’ve tried a few different things. Students will, however, have a very clear idea of what they don’t like – and it’s this which will stand out more clearly in their memory.

Give them a list of possible things to do in lessons, and ask them which they don’t enjoy doing. Also, if something doesn’t go very well in class and the tell-tale signs are there – not achieving much, smiling politely, etc., you know to skip this type of activity when you plan the next class.

2. Take travel time into account when arranging classes.

This is vital, and something which is often overlooked. As a general rule of thumb, the time it takes you to get to/from the class should never be longer than the class itself.

And expect the unexpected – it may only take you 20 mins to get to the class, but what’s the traffic like in that part of town at the time you teach the class? What are the public transport links/car parking facilities like?

Remember when you set the price for classes, you’re not just being paid for the time you’re teaching, but also travel and planning time.

3. Recycle lexis.

This sounds obvious, I know, but there are two immediate advantages to recycling lexis, if done efficiently: 1 your student will learn. 2 it creates a very good impression on the learner.

Keep a record of any vocabulary that comes up during the lesson – you can simply write it down, or you could use a special app or notebook. Spend 5-10 mins at the start of every class, giving them a list of vocabulary that came up the previous lesson, and ask them to write an example, definition, or translation (after trying different methods, I’ve found that a translation generally works best due to the cognitive processing and personalisation involved – though obviously this will depend on your individual student). Spend another 5 mins at the end of every class testing the learner on what came up (e.g. Which word/expression means …?).

This sounds obvious, but it really does work – Ss remember what they’ve learnt better, and have a clear, written record of their progress. And they’ll thank you for it.



4. Invest in some ‘basic’ technology.

This can really help in both being an instant resource, and also create a professional appearance.

My set up is this – a small laptop and a smartphone. This allows me to use the phone as a wifi hotspot, and therefore have instant access to the internet, wherever I am. This is great as it means if a strange word comes up (e.g. ‘fence’), we can do a quick google image search.

We can also watch videos, and use a word document to write down any lexis which comes up. Also, if we’re referring to any pictures, I can show them on screen rather than printing them out in colour – an obvious saving over time.

Obviously, you can spend more money and have something more interactive, such as an iPad, but this basic set up costs me about 2% of what I earn teaching privately over the course of 12 months.

5. Personalise.

Once you’ve found out what Ss like, personalise the topics you use. For example, I was once teaching a teenage boy who was mad about football, but hated reading, even in his L1. We worked on different reading subskills using match reports, and learning vocabulary related to football (which, incidentally, has a lot of idioms in wider use).

Also, if you’re practising a language point, instead of doing a pre-written gap-fill, for example, rewrite the exercise so that the sentences contains personalised statements which the learner can agree/disagree with. For an example of this, have a look at the last exercise in ‘Virtual Unreality’ available here.

6. Experiment.

Use your learner as a ‘guinea pig’. Try out new ideas for activities, unusual topics, etc., and make it clear to the student that this is what you’re doing. They’ll respect you as a professional for doing so, and appreciate the fact that you’re trying out new ideas with them, rather than sticking to the same old tired, tried-and-tested topics.

7. Be a good listener.

Remember that your learner is a paying customer. You might be having a stressful time outside the class, or having real problems with something, but your learner doesn’t need to know about it at length. Obviously it’s nice to open up and share your life with your student, and you’d expect them to do the same, but they’re not paying to hear you moan on and on about your problems.

Conversely, if your student is having problems with something, listen well and respond accordingly. They’re paying for your time and can therefore use it how they wish.

Also, if your learner has a strong opinion about something which you clearly disagree with, state that you don’t agree in a professional manner, but let them talk about it however they want.

8. Be flexible.

This really covers two aspects: 1 arrangements for classes, and 2 teaching approach.

1 Your student, especially if they’re a working professional, will usually be very busy with things outside the classroom. Classes will need to be rescheduled often, sometimes cancelled and take place at different times and places than what you originally agreed on. You need to be flexible about this, and willing to adapt – if you do, your student will appreciate you for it. However, lay own the basic ‘rules’ at the beginning, in terms of what you are willing to accept. Personally, I take into account travel time, and as long as the student notifies me before this time that they can’t make the class, I offer to reschedule it. If they don’t turn up or let you know 5 mins before, they lose the class. It’s vital that you set these rules very clearly from the start.

2 Be flexible in your teaching approach, and offer the learner what they want. Sometimes when arranging classes, students ask me what my ‘approach’ is, and I answer that I try to find out as much as I can, and adapt accordingly. For example, I hate asking Ss to read a text aloud – it’s generally not a very natural thing to do, as we rarely do it in L1. However, I have one student who really likes doing it. After explaining to them why I’m not a fan, they insisted, so we now do it regularly.

9. Conduct regular feedback with your learner.

This can be formal – give them a questionnaire at the end of each month, or informally – after trying a new activity, ask them what they liked/didn’t like about it. Working this feedback into your classes regularly will help you build a very clear picture of what your student likes/dislikes, and make for a very positive learning environment.

10. Use authentic resources.

Even at low levels, you can adapt the task you use to suit the learner. Youtube is a great resource, even if only for contextualisation (do a quick search of the topic you’re teaching and play the video at the start of the class with a simple task).

Other great resources for one-to-one teaching include the following:

Talking Point Worksheets:

News-based lessons:

Whole host of resources:

Youtube lessons:

this site!

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Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

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