Is 1-2-1 teaching intrinsically better for students than being in a group?

Background to the question

This is a summary of the lively ELTChat on this subject, on 6th June 2012, moderated as well as ever by @Marisa_C and @ShaunWilden. See if you’re not familiar with this great institution!

I volunteered to write the summary, as I had proposed the question (so it was my fault!;) ). What sparked the question for me was an interesting post by @ukteachers on his blog An example quote:

The fact that teachers work with groups is part of the problem. The individual needs of each person simply cannot be met in a classroom environment. So teachers have to pitch things at the lowest common denominator in the classroom who is the student who more or less understands what’s going on. A great deal of what happens in classrooms is an exercise in training yourself to put your own needs last and the needs of the group and its consensus first. You don’t understand something? Tough – the teacher doesn’t have time for that.

The chat began by discussing 1-2-1 teaching in general.

Advantages of 1-2-1

Lessons can be tailor-made

@theteacherjames suggested that ‘An obvious benefit of 1-2-1 is that the lessons should be focused on exactly what the st needs to learn’ and, similarly, @Shaunwilden added the benefits of ‘personally selected material, run at sts pace, easier to monitor class.’ @Kevchanwow also pointed out that, ‘1 on 1 allows for all (2) participants to focus in on a clear set of goals.’

And @andivwhite made the point that ‘More than 1 student immediately means multilevel in terms of personality, interest, language, etc.  ‘

Some students will prefer this way of learning

@hartle and @RichmondELT mentioned the need to meet individual learning styles as well as goals and @Elawassell said, ‘Learning with a group may be frustrating 4 some Ss. The ones that get things quickly or for those who are slow…’

Several participants (such as @TutorMe_Online) also mentioned that students would need to participate more in a 1-2-1 setting, which might be good for shyer or less confident students.

Benefits in terms of accelerated learning

@TheteacherJames, ‘The st gets a lot of time to speak & listen to a high level language user. More demanding in that respect.’ And @rliberni felt that ‘It is tiring but very rewarding as you can see the student develop & improve before your eyes.’ @Elawassel referred to a student who was very clear that they found 1-2-1 much more effective.

@TutorMe_Online: Think 1-2-1 has the edge in terms of productivity & how much improvement a single student can make in 1 lesson

Disadvantages of 1-2-1

Difficult for the teacher?

Not everyone agreed that 1-2-1 was any more difficult for the teacher, but this was certainly the majority opinion. For example, @Marisa_C talked about being ‘on’ all the time, and AlexandraKouk said she found preparing and teaching ‘intensive’. @JoHart mentioned the difficulty with a shy or uninterested learner. @rliberni added ‘it can be tiring, also need to address issues as they arise which means you have to be on your toes always!’

On the other hand @theteacherjames felt that with experience, it was not necessary to do a lot of preparation, and @shaunwilden felt that there were ‘ways of taking a back seat’.

Not always best for the learner?

@esolcourses suggested that 1-2-1 could be isolating for the student and @teflerinha added that it could also not be the best preparation for the outside world. @worldteacher added that ‘many students gain confidence from a group setting’.

@kevchanwow made an interesting point, that ‘the power of peer modeling can’t be overestimated. The closer the peer is socially, the greater the impact.’ @worldteacher also mentioned the benefits of a group: less pressure, peer teaching, moral support, sharing, etc and @RichmondELT said ‘In groups independent learning is encouraged, students can help each other rather than always depending on the teacher.’

@teflerinha mentioned the fact that if we learn by negotiating meaning, that having to do so with a variety of people, some of whom might struggle to understand more than a ‘helpful’ teacher, could only be a good thing. Similarly, e_clements suggested a problem with 1-2-1 was that there was only 1 teacher voice and that ‘In a group Ss can interact with other NN/lower level speakers – probably more realistic for what they’ll need to do in real life.’ And @kevchanwow said, ‘Groups allow exposure to wider array of truly learnable structures, not structures teachers think should be learned.’

That said, @theteacherjames said he encouraged learners to listen to different voices outside the class, and a couple of people said that 1-2-1 classes in their context involved different teachers on different days.

Points about teaching 1-2-1 in general

 The conversation turned to how people actually teach 1-2-1. A lot of people pointed out the danger of 1-2-1 simply turning into a ‘chat’. This provoked a lot of discussion, as several people pointed out that a chat was a great basis for learning- provided that students were enabled to ‘notice’ language and learn and develop. For example, @theteacherjames said, ‘I always start conversation led, then introduce relevant activities based on the conversation. Chat is priceless!’ or @andivwhite,’If the chat is structured with feedback and error correction, it’s perfect.’ Dogme was mentioned at this stage, but not really picked up on. (Incidentally I think 1-2-1 is perfect for a dogme approach, even IS a dogme approach..certainly that’s what I was doing 20 years ago teaching 1-2-1)

@ukteachers pointed out that ‘If u approach 121 as if you’re in a classroom and barricade yourself behind materials then sure – it’s dull as dishwater.’

@esolcourses reminded us of the danger of the teacher dominating, which point was taken up by several others. For example, @kevchanwow, ‘In 1:1 it’s hard to remember that silence is often necessary for production and consolidation.’

@Ukteachers said’I think of 121 as a specialised form of pairwork rather than being a TEACHER vs STUDENT situation.’

Horses for courses

At this point the talk moved on to whether groups were better. Many of the points had already been made when talking about 1-2-1, and the general consensus was that they were different things (not better or worse).

Essentially, most people seemed to agree that 1-2-1 was best for learners with very specific needs, but that groups had advantages too. Many of these are outlined above, but added were:

@hartle in 121 you can’t use grp activities that allow students time to repeat and consolidate new language etc. @teflerinha seconded the importance of task repetition.

@RichmondELT In groups independent learning is encouraged, students can help each other rather than always depending on the teacher

@MrChrisJWilson: #eltchat a teacher only has a set number of experiences, stories, input. Having other students increase the knowledge/stories in the room. Also allowing development of group skills as well as knowledge of grammar vocab and lexis

@ukteachers asked the question as to what we, personally would prefer. Obviously the answer varied according to the individual. Some preferred the intensive nature of 1-2-1, others the group experience- bringing up the intriguing notion that this might, like learning styles, be something that teachers had preferences for- and were thus in danger of assuming that everyone felt the same way as themselves.


 Next there was some discussion about cost, and whether students expected more ‘spoonfeeding’ for paying more (@MrChrisJWilson), or whether the extra benefit was worth the extra cost (@Michaelegriffin. The question was asked about usual rate in UK- and this seemed to be between £9 and £50 an hour.


@esolcourses brought up the fact that many classes she taught had a combination of 1-2-1 and group work (This is/was common in the ESOL context, but disappearing with funding cuts). Many people agreed that a combination of 1-2-1 and group would perhaps be the perfect scenario.

Perhaps the last word should go to @hartle ‘Lots of good points here about both contexts, but a good teacher should be able to manage both and the challenge is to adapt your skills.’


Filed under ELT Chat summaries, Teaching methodology

3 responses to “Is 1-2-1 teaching intrinsically better for students than being in a group?

  1. Pingback: Preview #ELTchat: Is 1-2-1 teaching intrinsically better for students than group teaching « EFL Notes

  2. You know if you keep producing like this, there’s gonna be a world wide carrot cake shortage. Thanks for the summary. It was a great discussion.


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