Review ~ Learning One-to-One

A useful and unique guide for those who need to adapt their classes to teach individual students.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Kate Mastruserio Reynolds
Learning One-to-One

Learning One-to-One

My favorite kind of professional text is books of practical techniques that are full of thoughtful, creative and interactive language tasks and activities. These kinds of books can range greatly in quality and usefulness, however. The most notable exception is the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series, guided by Scott Thornbury. Like all the other valuable contributions to teachers’ professional libraries that Cambridge has produced, Wisniewska’s Learning One-to-One does not disappoint. As the title succinctly indicates, this is a book for ESL/EFL instructors who work individually with learners, in person or at a distance. It fills a gaping hole in the field today, as many teachers have been trained to teach classes of English language learners (ELLs) but are being asked to pull learners out of mainstream courses for one-on-one support or to teach an individual online. This text orients teachers to both of those two types of environments, as well as the intellectual shifts necessary to teach one individual well.

After a brief introduction to this instructional format and its challenges, the book has two large sections entitled “Basic Principles” and “Activities”. These are followed by references and a slightly annotated list of useful websites. The text also includes a CD-ROM of photocopiable worksheets.

The Basic Principles section discusses methodology, roles, planning and other fundamental concepts. I was particularly struck by the section in “Getting Started” in which the author discusses the choices in the learning environment, from temperature, noise and brightness to seating arrangements. Clearly, she speaks from experience. Starting with the environment is also a solid choice for how to start this section, as it orients the reader in preparation for the next section on teacher roles. The author describes the differing roles that a private instructor needs to fulfill: conversation partner, observer, listener, feedback provider, mentor, guide and learner. There are also example dialogues and a summary of theoretical and practical literature on the topic. Although the author does a superb job in summarizing all this, she obviously could not cover all the relevant issues of second language acquisition, methodology and assessment, and teachers would need some background in the field to truly appreciate this text.

The next chapters all deal with modifications of practices for working with the individual learner, organised as (1) needs analysis, course design and lesson planning, (2) selecting and adapting materials, and (3) feedback and reflection. The chapter on needs analysis sold me on this text as I teach an Assessment of ELLs course to pre-service teachers in which they design and conduct a needs assessment, then tutor the learner throughout the term and assess the progress of that individual on areas of linguistic need. This chapter illuminates this process so that the trainee teachers can easily see the relationship between assessment, planning and instruction. Prior to even writing this review, I ordered this book for my Spring 2011 teacher training course.

The Activities portion offers some 70 activities for integrated skills language instruction on academic and work-oriented topics, mainly at low intermediate to advanced level. This section is subdivided into five parts that correspond directly to the teacher roles listed in the previous section. For example, if an instructor is serving as a conversational partner, as the needs and goals of the learner dictate, there are numerous conversation-based activities for two people (with the instructor participating, of course). Examples include Wordpool Bingo, Friends or Enemies, and How Green are You? I was particularly impressed by the creativity in the Learner Role section in activities such as Famous Entrepreneurs (in which students describe entrepreneurs they admire), and the Choosing a Home (in which students tell the instructor about the best places to buy or rent a house). On the whole, the activities are interesting, engaging and well-structured for one-to-one interaction. One drawback, though, is the activity offerings for beginners were scant and none too innovative. Wisniewska’s activities are strongest and most creative at the higher proficiency levels and most suitable for mature, vocational/professional and literate populations of learners. I enjoyed the range of activities, but find that a few were quite familiar. Furthermore, an index of activities cross-listed for language skill, proficiency level, grammar/phonological/lexical patterns and topic is sorely needed.

Written in British English as Cambridge texts are, there are quite a few typically British expressions such as “Question: When do you usually go shopping? Answer: At the weekend.” (from Word Bingo, p. 105). Since these are examples, they can be modified easily by the instructor to the variety of English being taught, but it is more challenging when it comes to the photocopiable worksheets.

Despite the minor drawbacks, this text aids in the professionalization of one-to-one teaching and elevates it above tutorial status. This text is a unique, and much needed, contribution to the field for educators who are required to modify their lessons, materials, and perspectives to teach individually. If Wisniewska could also write a book on working one-on-one with lower level and/ or younger learners, including those who don’t know the Roman script, that would also make for a great book.

Reviewed by Kate Mastruserio Reynolds for Teflnet January 2011

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