Tips for Tutoring Adult Students

By Eric Roth
Methods and materials for conversation and writing tutors

How do you effectively teach English to a struggling private student? What will you actually do for 60-120 minutes together? How will you make the lessons meaningful enough that your client feels satisfied and wants to retain you for future lessons?

First, you must be very clear about what the client wants and expects. Some tutors even present a written contract outlining their rates, the location and times of meetings, and payment policies. I’ve never been that formal, but I have also never been burned the way some tutors have been. In fact, I’ve had only very positive experiences with clients. Why? Perhaps luck; perhaps because I screen potential clients. I only work with professionals, graduate students, and/or friends and spouses of friends with a solid foundation in English. Be explicit about what you want and don’t want to teach a client. Be prepared to provide options for potential clients that you reject.

For students who want to improve their conversation, I strongly suggest that you select the topic and materials in advance. You can use newspapers and/or magazines to find appropriate articles to begin the conversation. (I usually assign the articles a week ahead and give them my conversation worksheets.) My favorite book – because I wrote it and it provides 45 self-contained thematic chapters – is Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. The combination of poignant questions, vocabulary lists, proverbs, and witty quotations makes your job much easier.

If you have a weaker student looking to improve their speaking skills, then I would advise using a picture dictionary. There are several fine ones. You might use the Oxford Picture Dictionary to open conversations, and I would be tempted to ask the client to bring in photographs and ads each week. You will need patience and be prepared to repeat words. Many students will want to work on their pronunciation. You can also ask/assign them listening activities on the web. I like Voice of America’s Special English programs for intermediate and advanced students. You will have to direct lower levels to websites to practice their listening and speaking skills with drills. They will love the work; you might go mad repeating vowel sounds.

You can also make a good income helping ESL students write college admission essays, practice TOEFL and GRE essays, and proofreading papers. There are many fine books you can use. I recommend Keith Folse’s Great Essays and picking any of the standard test preparation guides published by Barrons or Kaplans. For worse or for better, the focus is on structure and not content. Spelling, somehow, often doesn’t even officially matter. You might also use the excellent Cambridge Vocabulary in Use series and Grammar in Use series. You can also recommend Grammar Troublespots for international students.

Finally, I have had great success sharing insights on adapting to American culture. My favorite book for this challenging task remains Checklists for Life: 104 Lists to Help You. Each chapter focuses on a practical life skill from buying a computer and finding a good mechanic to organizing your workplace and writing letters of condolence. Inevitably the readings lend themselves to engaging conversations and a satisfying exchange of information and insights. I have also assigned readings from Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, but the advice offered often seems very idealistic and naive to immigrant professionals. Still, clients love the idioms and find that the perspective illuminates unknown aspects of American culture – or at least a segment of American culture.

Finally, the key to tutoring ESL students – or anyone else – remains respecting the student, meeting their needs, and providing a solid structure for your lessons. I have found that using a set text, developing a known routine, and combining conversation, vocabulary and writing skills makes for a successful and satisfying experience.

As William Shakespeare noted four centuries ago, “All’s well that ends well”. Therefore, you should also have the grace to know when to end your lessons. Some clients will want to keep working with you. Set a clear goal for your lessons, and conclude when the students have reached that goal. You can then become genuine friends and leave money out of the equation.

Or not. You choose. What are your goals for tutoring students?

Written by Eric Roth for Teflnet September 2007
Eric H. Roth teaches English at the University of Southern California to international students, and occasionally writes book reviews and articles for He is also the co-author of the ESL conversation textbook Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics.
© Teflnet


  • Pamela Thomas says:

    The information you have will be invaluable to me. Thank you.

  • Mina says:

    There are some very useful suggestions in this article, such as providing material the week before or using the picture dictionary. Thank you!

  • Paula B. says:

    I am a new TEFL Teacher/tutor. Your article is beneficial!

  • Ruth Gamble says:

    This is a great article — I already have (and use) Compelling Conversations.

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