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.