Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guilt-Free Private “Conversation” Lessons

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

In addition to classroom teaching, I have also taught private lessons for most of my career. Although I felt justified in charging the going rate for tutoring children or teaching specific grammar or pronunciation lessons, I had always felt a twinge (albeit an extremely small twinge) of guilt when taking someone’s hard-earned money for an hour of “Conversation Practice.” My time is valuable to me, of course, but I sometimes found it hard to charge someone to talk about things I talk to my friends about for free.

In the past few years, however, I have had three experiences that have helped me reconcile the fact that I am, indeed, earning the money that private students seem to happy to pay me: I taught, I learned and I read.

I Taught (my Friends).

When a group of my friends were dissatisfied with their English lessons, they asked me if I could teach them privately once a week. Specifically, they wanted more Conversation practice. At first, I wasn’t sure about how it would work. I was their friend. Was it right to take their money just to sit around and talk? However, after a few weeks, it became apparent that I was doing much more work during our lessons than I was when we went out to eat together.

First, I came to our lessons prepared. I planned our time together, I brought activities and lists of interesting questions to prompt conversation, and I gave them homework to reinforce troublesome grammar items or to teach conversational language such as phrasal verbs and idioms.

Second, during the lesson, I wore the hat of the teacher, not the friend. I corrected the grammar and pronunciation errors I heard (both on the spot and by writing the errors down and correcting them later as a group), something I would never do when we went out for dinner. I also gave mini-grammar lessons as the need arose, and I could see they felt more comfortable asking questions than they would in a social situation.

I Learned (from a Friend).

However, it wasn’t until I decided to start private lessons to boost my French conversational skills and vocabulary that I really learned how valuable one-to-one Conversation practice really is to a student. My teacher, Isabelle, is also a friend. We chat about things like family, food and books, all the great topics. In this way, I get one hour every week devoted solely to my French. I don’t have to apologize for my mistakes, and I don’t have to self-consciously hurry through a halting sentence because I think she could say it better in English. Instead of writing my mistakes down, as I do with my students, Isabelle writes the corrections, along with new vocabulary and tricky grammar. Being on the other side of the table, so to speak, I know that Isabelle is worth every penny I pay her for her time.

I Read (in Voices).

Kristina Noto recently published an article in IATEFL’s Voices newsletter called “One-to-one lessons become ‘121 Professional feedback sessions’.” In it, she outlines some strategies for successful and meaningful private lessons, or “sessions” as she calls them. During the session, Noto recommends that the student or, in her words, the “client” guide the conversation. She also suggests correcting only pronunciation errors on the spot and asking for clarification when communication breaks down. Grammar errors should be treated, according to Noto, in a following feedback session.

After the session, Noto reads through her notes or listens to her recording of the conversation. From this, she types up a feedback sheet for the student. “The feedback sheet is a way for the learner to have a record of the lesson, review the vocabulary, and have a space in which to have a second chance to correct the sentences with errors.” (Noto, 2010, page 10) She divides her feedback forms into 4 sections: Vocabulary Learned, Pronunciation, Phrases to Make Better, and Positive Points.

Private lessons can be a significant investment for students, both in terms of time and money. I have always felt a burden to make sure that the students’ individual needs are met, even more so than in a classroom setting. However, as Noto points out, this means that private lesson teachers may need to invest more time than usual in planning and writing up feedback. In fact, she says that for every hour of lesson, the teacher works 2 hours in reality, and that is nothing to feel guilty about!

Noto, K. (2010) One-to-one lessons become ‘121 Professional feedback sessions’, Voices, pages 9–10.


Comment from Liliana
November 6, 2010 at 8:40 am

Thank you for this article. I have found it very useful. I will be glad to get the article by Kristina Noto “One-to-one lessons…”. Can you help me, please?

Comment from mahmoud
November 8, 2010 at 5:21 am

I need your help for speak english perfect

Comment from Tamara
November 8, 2010 at 5:28 am

The article by Kristina Nota is in Voices, which is available from IATEFL (

Comment from LAURA
November 11, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Thank you for this information its very interesting for me, could you helpe me and give me more information about her time and pay.

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 11, 2010 at 11:17 pm

I am not sure how much Ms. Noto charges per hour, but having taught private lessons around the world, I know that that information is really context-specific. In other words, the going rate in Seoul, Korea is wildly different from the going rate here in Belgium. You would do better, I think, to ask other teachers in your area how much they charge.

Comment from Andy Walujo
November 13, 2010 at 9:28 pm

I also often feel guilty for charging a large sum of money for a one-on-one session. However, I feel that’s the only possible way to make it happen. If the student can’t afford the expensive fee of a one-on-one session, that’s fine. He or she can still study in a regular class. The choice is hers or his.

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 14, 2010 at 11:34 pm

I agree. I’ve also had students “share” a private conversation lesson. They share both the cost of the lesson and the burden of keeping the conversation going for an hour.

Comment from Andy Walujo
November 15, 2010 at 5:54 pm

I think two or four students in a private conversation class are ideal so that they can carry out pair-work activities.

Comment from Tamara
November 16, 2010 at 4:58 am

I agree. That configuration also redces the possibility of “the teacher driven “tennis game” conversation” (I ask a question. The student answers. I ask another question.) that can be the norm in a private lesson.

Comment from Fiona
September 11, 2012 at 4:20 am

I think your post is very interesting. I realise this reply is rather late, but if you have time, could you tell me how you would set up a lesson, so that the student guides the conversation? Most of my Ss are quite passive, and while I love the idea of letting them take a more leading role, I’ve no idea how I could get them to do it.

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 11, 2012 at 11:00 pm

Oh, that sounds like a GREAT idea for a future blog! Stay tuned!

Comment from Jonathan
March 5, 2013 at 10:08 am

I’m a private IELTS tutor, but I also have conversational lessons. Teaching IELTS is easy for me because there’s a purpose and goal. And I know I’m helping my students and I’m not guilty for charging them a high price. However, when it comes to English conversational, I always struggle because I really don’t know what to teach! I teach in Singapore and teach mostly Asians and they want structure. Yet it’s hard for me to come up with a structure for one to one conversational lessons like I can when I teach IELTS!

Comment from Tamara Jones
March 5, 2013 at 10:12 am

I agree that structuring a private conversation lesson can be difficult. I usually start with some review of previous vocabulary and then use conversation questions from sources I list above to loosely guide the conversation. We finish with a review of the good language usage and some error correction. I hope this helps.

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