Giving students individual attention

When I was teaching in Japan, giving students individual attention was not really a problem as most people could study one to one or in small classes if they liked and therefore get as much individual attention as they wanted. Most of the students who were studying in large classes in Japan, e.g. college students, were too aware of the other students to want the teacher to even look their way, let alone give them individual attention during the class.

The situation in most countries is somewhat different to Japan. Students are often restricted by cost or a lack of English teachers (e.g. few native English speaking teachers due to visa restrictions) to classes that are much larger than they would really like, as what they are most focused on is interacting one to one with a native or proficient speaker of English. This can become even more of an issue if they have attitudes to pairwork such as “How can I improve my English if the person I am talking to makes the same mistakes as me?” and if cultural factors make a personal approach by the teacher more important than “technical” parts of their job like subject knowledge and being well prepared. In these countries and classes, the much neglected topic of making them feel like they get a little bit of one-to-one-style attention is well worth thinking about. In fact the tips below couldn’t hurt even in one-to-one or very small classes, in order to make them feel that they are getting the individual attention that they paid for.

These tips come mainly from a context where “larger classes” means larger than the one to four students that many people would choose if they could afford to, i.e. up to about twenty five in a class. For properly large classes, e.g. forty to several hundred, the tips below could also be useful but will need some adapting. You will also notice that many of the ideas are actually about giving the whole class “individual attention”. Those tips provide a useful supplement to the ideas that actually focus on one student by helping you show that to you that class is unique and stands out from all the other groups of students you have had. This article is mainly based on ideas from the presenter and other participants in a workshop in my school in January 2010, so many thanks for all involved.

Tips for making students feel like they are getting individual attention (in no particular order):

  • Face people and make eye contact, e.g. when they are the person talking, when saying hello and goodbye, or when collecting and giving out worksheets and homework. Turning your whole body towards them is even better. Getting down to the level of the person you are speaking to by lowering your chair, crouching next to their table etc also helps.
  • Give out worksheets individually (rather than giving a stack of worksheets per table or asking them to pass them to each other). This actually works out quicker in classes of fewer than 20 students, and it gives you a chance to exchange a few words with each person- even if it is just “Whoops. Sorry, I must be getting arthritis!”
  • Learn names as quickly as possible and use them as often as you can
  • Mention their written work in class, e.g. “Quite a few of you wrote that you want to work in the airline industry, so…” or “Lots of you had problems with paragraphing in the last homework, so…”
  • Always let them know when you have tailored the course especially for them, e.g. “In your midcourse questionnaires, half the class said that they wanted more controlled speaking practice, so this week…” or “This activity is especially for Juan, as he has an IELTS speaking exam this week, but I’ve made sure that it will be useful for all of you”
  • Let them know how you are willing to tailor the course and how they should let you know what they want or need, e.g. by email or after the class
  • Tell them when and how you are available for one to one contact, e.g. “Please come up and ask me at the end of the class if you have any other questions”
  • Do needs analysis in all classes, and preferably mention what you have learnt from it and how it has affected and will affect the classes you give them
  • Mention when you have done something to match their condition or mood, e.g. changing temperature controls, cutting short an activity or doing something energising
  • Move around the class
  • Make sure your attention includes the people at the edges and back of the class
  • Ask an observer to monitor who you speak to, ask to speak and look at to make sure that everyone is getting an equal amount of attention
  • Step a little towards the person who is speaking or who you are speaking to
  • Join in pairwork and groupwork discussions (but not if doing that might disrupt their train of thought, make them self conscious about being overheard by you in other discussions, or mean interrupting someone who doesn’t often speak)
  • Take part in mingle activities (as long as you are sure that the other students won’t need your help too much, e.g. to ask for language or because they don’t understand the activity)
  • Put personal comments on all written work, e.g. commenting on the content of the writing as well as the language, saying how much they have improved, contrasting it to a previous piece of work, or saying something personal (change of haircut etc) that you didn’t get round to in the last class or didn’t want to say in front of others
  • Sometimes take in homework exercises with classes who usually check their own answers
  • Mention how you have tailored the classes/ adapted the book to suit their precise level, age range, interests, first language or culture
  • Preferably in the first lesson, go round asking them how to pronounce their names and tell them to correct your pron
  • Do the “Nice to meet you” exchange with each student in the first class (maybe teaching other forms like “Pleased to meet you” to add a language point), e.g. as you do the name pron learning thing mentioned above
  • Greet students as they come in late and acknowledge people leaving early (as long as it doesn’t make them too embarrassed to do so and so miss the whole class to avoid it!)
  • Give students who missed previous classes copies of things they missed, preferably with their name written on their copy. Alternatively, give them instructions on how they can get copies for themselves or find other ways of practising that language (e.g. on the internet)
  • Type the name of school, class level, date, and/ or class time etc on all worksheets you write or adapt
  • Mention when you have adapted or designed a worksheet specifically for that class, or even if you have just had to search especially for one
  • Recommend self-study resources that are suitable for the class or specific students due to their level, weaknesses or personal priorities
  • Mention the class’s strengths and weaknesses based on the level check results or your analysis (but trying to be positive!)
  • Do correction based on what students said in class, and mention when it is based on a persistent error for that group of students (but maybe disguise who made each error by changing some details such as names of places they mentioned)
  • Be obvious when you are monitoring what people say (as long as they aren’t too self conscious and it doesn’t make them focus too much on accuracy when you want them to focus on fluency)
  • Comment on what people said in groups (maybe without pointing out which group it was) when expanding into a whole class discussion on the same or a related point
  • Remember what they said they were going to do at the weekend and mention that when asking how their weekend actually was on Monday morning or so that you can comment on how usual or unusual that weekend seems to be for them
  • Occasionally go round the class asking everyone to speak (e.g. “How was your weekend?”) or at least vote (e.g. on which form they think is correct or whether the teacher’s answer is the truth or a lie)
  • Pull your chair up to their table as you speak to them or monitor them (as long as it doesn’t make them too self conscious)
  • Ask them to check their homework answers with the answer key and then ask you questions in the next class such as “Is this answer also possible?” and “Why is this answer wrong?” Answer some of those questions one to one and some more generally useful ones at the board so everyone can learn from them or so you can elicit the answer from someone else
  • Chat to people who finish quickly
  • Get feedback from each person or group on how difficult and/ or useful an activity was
  • Arrive early and chat to people as they arrive
  • Adjust the content or explanations to languages they speak and mention how you have done so, e.g. “I know most of you studied French at school, so it might help you remember this word if you know that it comes from the French word…”
  • Call on someone who you know has a particular knowledge of or interest in what you are talking about and maybe say that is why you chose them to speak, e.g. “Klaus is the computer game expert. What do you think about what the reading says, Klaus?”
  • Say “This is connected to …’s question earlier/ yesterday/ last week”
  • Mention it to everyone if you have taught someone in the class before and show everyone that you remember something about them and/ or the class that they were in (but without it looking like you are showing them favouritism)
  • Greet people when you meet them outside class and try to make at least one comment or question specific to them, e.g. “Early as always!”
  • Show that you notice if people have changed their hair, are tired today, etc
  • Put a personal question or comment in each of the admin emails you exchange with them (e.g. sending back their corrected homework)
  • Engage in individual written communication, e.g. sending pen friend style letters or emails backwards and forwards (maybe just one class per term, giving your replies in dribs and drabs or moving onto them writing to each other to stop it getting overwhelming)
  • Ask them to keep a diary or learning diary and read and comment on it (ditto)
  • Have one to one tutorials at least once a term. These can be done during breaks or before or after lessons (if you and they don’t mind losing that free time!), or during lessons (as long as you can give the other students in the class something useful that they can do without your help one you are speaking to students one to one elsewhere)
  • Vary personal questions to suit the person rather than asking the same questions round the class
  • Mention things that happened in previous classes, e.g. presents people gave you or each other, or unexpected interruptions the class went through
  • Say why you chose a particular article or topic, e.g. “I know someone/ most of you are interested in…” or “… got you all talking last week”
  • Mention when you have chosen or adapted something due to their preferred learning styles (which you guessed or learnt from asking them or a questionnaire)
  • Mention when something in the class is different to usual, e.g. people sitting in different places or more men than women for once


As I mentioned in my introductionary paragraph, the last thing some students want is individual attention in front of other students, especially if that might include personal comments or questions. Some students are also uncomfortable with public praise. Although students’ long term reaction might be better than the expressions on their face while it happens might suggest, with such students you might want to start by aiming all comments at the whole class or groups and by keeping one to one chats to email and other communication outside class time. You can then start to use some of the other tips above as they feel more comfortable with you and their classmates.

Tips to make the above techniques easier to do

  • Keep photocopies of all their previous written work to refer back to if you need to. Ditto with other things you give back to them such as progress tests and pairwork needs analysis interview forms
  • Put personal information next to each name in the register to make it easier to remember their names and information about them
  • Design feedback forms so that you can easily tot up the results in a way that you can announce to the class, e.g. five points for “I want much more of this” down to no points for “I want much less of this” on each question on the questionnaire, leading to a grand total for each of those things and therefore a clear class view of how they want the class to change
  • Make a note of how much time the techniques above take up and use that to decide which is most efficient for you
  • Introduce particularly time intensive things like arriving early to chat to the students or making yourself available in the office for one to one chats later in the term. The makes them seem like a nice bit of extra attention, whereas if you start with many of these things in a fit of enthusiasm at the start of the term but then have to abandon some it could make students miffed at losing things that most other classes never get.
Written by Alex Case for January 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • Catalina Henao says:

    Great compilation of incredibly useful tips. Thanks a lot!

  • Haya Dajani says:

    Thanks a lot for these helpful tips. I will keep them in mind all the time.

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