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How To Deal With Difficult Questions From One-To-One Students

Students often use the freedom of one-to-one classes to ask too many unimportant questions or questions the teacher can’t answer off the top of their head. This article offers some solutions.

Questions from the student to the teacher about things that aren’t in the lesson plan or syllabus are generally much more common in one-to-one classes than group ones, and also have different selling points and possible issues from those in larger classes.

Generally, questions from students in one-to-one classes are very much to be encouraged because:

  • They help with needs analysis and planning future lessons.
  • Being able to ask questions is one of the main advantages of one-to-one classes, and what makes the extra money students pay worthwhile.
  • Being able to answer such questions is one of the main things that sets a good teacher apart.
  • It’s a great opportunity for the teacher to give personalized self-study and other learner independence tips.
  • Knowing that they can ask questions in class should make students do more work outside class and pay more attention to the language they come across.

There are, however, some reasons why student questions might be a problem:

  • The teacher doesn’t know the answers, e.g. because it is about very specialized language.
  • The teacher doesn’t know how to answer the questions in the most efficient way, e.g. each item of vocabulary takes two to five minutes to properly explain and so up to half the lesson can be gone before it’s properly started.
  • The teacher doesn’t think that answering those specific questions would be the best way to spend class time, e.g. because the language is too high level or because the student already has good grammar/vocabulary and should work on their skills instead.
  • The teacher has prepared something to answer the student’s questions from last week, but never gets to it because of all the questions this week.
  • There is pressure to stick to the syllabus or use materials the student or their employers have paid for.
  • The teacher answering lots of questions leads to the student getting little chance to speak.
  • The student becomes too dependent on the teacher.
  • The questions come at a random time, e.g. halfway through doing something else.
  • Answering all the questions doesn’t leave enough class time to do any of the things the teacher has planned.

Possible solutions to these problems include:

  • The teacher asks the student to always email their questions at least 24 hours before the class.
  • The teacher asks the student to always given the questions in written form at the beginning of the class for the teacher to think about (and possibly research) while the student is busy doing something else.
  • The teacher asks the students to give their questions in written form and promises to always answer the most important ones in the next lesson or by email.
  • The teacher asks the student to always prioritize their questions, e.g. writing numbers one to five next to them in their notebook or on the list of questions they give the teacher, or by labelling any questions that must be answered before the next lesson or their next working day with a star.
  • The teacher asks the student which questions really need to be answered in this class, e.g. which are for some work they have to do this week.
  • The teacher tells the student how many questions they will answer or how much time they will allow before they start on what they have planned.
  • The teacher answers the easiest questions and tells the student that they’ll answer others next week.
  • The teacher asks the student to leave all questions until the end of the class.
  • The teacher asks the student to leave all questions until a certain number of the things that they have planned have been covered.
  • The teacher takes in things to help them answer student questions, e.g. an internet-enabled computer or Business English dictionary, and uses those or helps the student use them to find the answers.
  • The teacher gives tips on how the student can find the answers for themselves rather than/as well as answering the questions.
  • The teacher and student quickly negotiate a combination of answering their questions and doing (some of) the things the teacher has planned to cover.
  • The teacher tells the student that at least one of their questions will be answered during the lesson anyway due to what they have planned and that they’ll deal with (some of) the other questions after that stage.
  • The teacher tells the student which future class that question will be answered in and asks them if it is possible to wait until then.
  • The teacher explains why the thing they have prepared is more important than the answer to that question and asks the student if they agree.
  • After the teacher answers some questions in a class the teacher and student discuss how useful that was and what the policy should be on answering questions in future classes.

Sample Lesson Plan for this kind of student

  1. Teacher asks how work is going and if the student has used or is going to use English (5-10 minutes)
  2. Teacher deals with a question or two that can’t wait and are not connected to the stuff teacher has planned (5-10 minutes)
  3. Teacher explains the relevance of what they have prepared and works their way through it (25-40 minutes)
  4. Teacher deals with as many more questions as they can, maybe using dictionaries and/or the internet together (5-15 minutes)
Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | June 2012
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.

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