One-to-One Teaching Within a Group

This post includes: (1) an article by Adrian Underhill (2) a one minute video clip of Adrian talking on the same topic (3) a reflection task which you are invited to comment on (4) a practical experiment which you are also encouraged to try out – and then comment on.

There is a way of teaching one-to-one within a group and making it useful for all

(Adrian Underhill)

(Building on an idea from the recent #eltchat on Demand High Teaching. Thanks to Lizzie Pinard and the participants)

Working one to one can be very precise. But, when done within a larger class  there can be a tendency to think that only that individual concerned is benefitting and that the rest of the group are somehow idling.

But my experience (and for many of you it may be the same) is that you can harvest that learning yield for all the others in the group. This requires the usual things: 1) a certain attitude from the teacher 2) a set of interventions 3) watchfulness. Here is a true story:

For the first years of my teaching I worked with groups of about 18 learners at all levels. Then I began to spend my time teaching scientists, doctors and business people in small groups or one to one, perhaps spending hours across a table from a single learner. One thing I found was that in the absence of the clamour of a group I could focus my attention on what my student was thinking, and I learned to watch and wait, to track the student’s processing and to include what I saw in my interventions and our conversation.

I was not especially aware of doing this until a year or two later when I returned to teaching larger groups and found that it was possible to maintain this individual focus even within a larger group.

Not only that, but the whole group was magnetized by the work that the individual was doing in front of them, by seeing the moves of learning made visible just for half a minute. And they were tracking that individual’s effort and using it for their own insight. I didn’t ignore the rest of the group, but I didn’t fret about what they were doing, so my attention for the individual learner was complete, and that is what helped make the action palpable and engaging. I might look at the others as if to say “Hey this is pretty interesting”. And out of this developed a different quality of attention in the class and a vivid impression of a closer learning relationship between all of us, in spite of the group size.

This was an area of experience that had not been included in my training to teach groups, where the aim had been to keep everyone occupied all the time. Perhaps it is quite difficult to discover until you do some one to one teaching. Maybe it is less possible in crowd activity to catch sight of the inner movements of learning.

My one to one experience had enhanced my confidence and ability to follow an individual learner’s subtle inner moves, or at least to recognise them and to make them visible using a variety of interventions. I think of this relationship as close up teaching simply because I feel closer to the learning moves the student is making, as if I am in amongst the learning action rather than prodding it with a long stick from some way off

I think that I can only demand high in an accurate and appropriate way when I can to some extent see the learning moves going on in front of me. If I don’t see the movements then my kind of demanding high is like traditional teachers I had at school, who meant well but simply gave us excessive work and a tough time which was not targeted, as if they were just lobbing it over the wall and hoping for the best.

Video: See Adrian talking about One-to-One within a group

Reflection Task: Thinking about your own teaching experiences, can you recall instances either of raising the demand by working one to one in a group or of somehow getting in close to a students’ learning moves?

Practical Experiment: In a suitable language group class, try out the idea of working for a short time one-to-one with an individual while the rest of the class listens and looks on.

Afterwards, consider whichever of these questions seem relevant:

  • Was this any different from what you usually do?
  • If so how? What did you have to do differently to do this? Was it difficult?
  • In your view, did the experiment succeed? How do you know?
  • Regardless of the student’s learning, were you learning?
  • Did you feel that the individual you worked with learnt differently than might have been the case if you had worked with him/her in a more usual large class manner?
  • Were the rest of the class engaged by what was happening? Did they learn something?
  • Were you completely committed to that single student or was your attention dispersed by anxiety about the rest of the class?
  • Was there any connection between the quality of your attention to the individual student’s work and the degree of engagement of the rest of the class in what was happening?

We encourage you to use the comments section below to answer or discuss any of these issues. We are particularly keen to hear of your practical classroom experiences and observations.


Filed under Challenging learners, Classroom management, Close-Up Teaching, Demand High, ELT, Engaging Learners, Hands-on with language, Learner processing, Learning Potential, Reflective teaching, Teacher Training, Teaching Ideas, Teaching Interventions, TEFL, TESOL, Whole class teaching

22 responses to “One-to-One Teaching Within a Group

  1. I think, in a way, this happens a bit with open class feedback or modelling for the group so I wonder how to help students to observe these internal movements as much as possible, especially as by your own admission it took a while for you to start noticing them.

  2. demandhighelt

    Yes, I agree it does happen a bit, and I think your question is spot on, and I don’t have the answer, though for me a key starting point is to develop my own noticing, on the wing, in the moment, in the interaction. And to allow that noticing to be visible to others (not because it’s right, but because I’m doing it), to let it be part of the unfolding class event, and to draw on it for what to do next. A small example comes to mind which is probably well known to everyone, but I’ll make it anyway. Whatever mistake student A has been struggling with, let’s say the pronunciation of ‘ought’ or the inclusion of past tense ‘ed’, that St then becomes “Professor / ɔː/” or Professor ‘ed’, and arbitrates or corrects in future instances of this mistake until no longer needed. The fact of naming that person ‘Professor ed’ turns the whole mistake thing on its head, and immediately a different dynamic is created. Even if I don’t name them Professor, I will like many teachers always go for guidance to the last person who made the same mistake. In this small way, an inner game, an inner noticing, which does not have to be named, is created in the class. Attention is cranked up, and it starts with the teachers noticing, but everyone gets embroiled, and one thing leads to another….
    I bet you have a little story about this Chris, about your own noticing of a subtle learning movement….?


  3. I think we have done this (perhaps a bit unaware) but we focus on a student and (asked or not) their peers turn and see what’s happening. Those who do pay attention to what’s going in depth will definitely learn something out of it whereas those uninterested might see what’s going on but would rather do something else while that happens!

    I reckon we can actually exploit these moments more by making all Ss aware of that (perhaps talking to them when any lesson starts and asking them to be aware of those moments and learn from them, by making notes or asking further questions)

    Although most of all, if not all teachers have experienced this one-to-one moments in a group, perhaps we haven’t really committed to exploiting them as we should (for both teachers and students benefit)?

    i’ll do more of this in my groups and see what happens as a result!

    • demandhighelt

      Please do have a go! What we’d really like from this blog is for teachers to try some practical in-class experiments and report back. That way, we can start to find out more about what seem to be useful classroom strategies, and how to do them better.


  4. Luiz Otávio

    Hi, Adrian / Jim,
    I know this is not the sort of reply you’re expecting (I’m not teaching any groups at the moment), but I thought I’d throw in my two cents anyway.

    Before I play devil’s advocate, let me assure you that the two main assumptions behind the one-to-one in a large group idea make an awful lot of sense to me:

    1. You can only set higher output standards if you develop a keener awareness of how the input is being processed.
    2. The other students will be interested – and profit from – watching the teacher’s 1-1 interventions.

    Number 1 is hard to dispute, irrespective of teaching context. Number 2, though, is nowhere near as straight forward, I think. Let me explain.

    You see, if I’d read this, say, 10 years ago, and you’d asked me “Does this kind of intervention work with adult students?”, I would’ve given you a whole-hearted, full-throated YES. Today I’m not so sure.

    Most adult students in Brazil (I’m talking A1 to B1ish level mostly) are learning English because they have to, not because they want to. Given a choice, they’d rather be anywhere but in an English class. They’re learning the language either to keep their jobs or start to climb the corporate ladder. This means that they usually approach the whole process from a rather self-centered perspective, whereby the classroom is essentially a place where THEIR needs should be met first and foremost. This means that they tend to equate relevant learning with T-self (as opposed to peer) interventions.

    It seems that most adult students are in a hurry and have no time to “waste.” If I’m drilling comparatives and student A is concerned with the report he has to write tomorrow, then that’s what he will be focusing on – whether or not he says it out loud. If I’m doing a pre-listening and student B thinks she might not get that promotion because of her poor pronunciation, then that’s what she’ll be thinking about as I try to activate relevant background knowledge etc. There’s always been a certain tension, I know, between the teacher’s agenda and the learners’. Over the past few years, though, this tension has become more and more tangible, as if my own teaching agenda was simply being (begrudgingly) allowed to run parallel to the each student’s own internal syllabus. And I’m not talking about organic, developmental sequences here – I’m talking about a student-set inventory of things he or she feels ought to be prioritized in class.

    This means that in my teaching context, the sort of 1-1 intervention you’re describing might be regarded by some students as a waste of precious classroom time – unless the issue being addressed HAPPENS to be immediately relevant to the other students and by relevant I mean professionally useful.

    This inability / reluctance to sit down and WATCH seems to be even more acute with adult students in their 20s – 30s, who, unlike their older peers, grew up with Google. It seems that their approach to problem-solving and information-seeking is much more no-nonsense, much more product vs. process-oriented. Their “internal syllabus” (and, again, I’m not talking about developmental sequences and all that – I’m referring to an internal inventory of what needs to be learned) seems to always be one step ahead of what the teacher is doing. So, to those students, sitting down, waiting, watching and learning from T-peer interventions might be tantamount to watching a friend google something up and hoping that the results will be personally relevant and that he or she will click on the right links.

    It’s really as if adult students are always mentally reaching for a mouse, you know. A mouse that will let them click on another link if they perceive any activity, language area or intervention as irrelevant. A sort of “What? I was stuck in traffic for over an hour for THIS?” mindset.

  5. demandhighelt

    Very interesting observations, Luiz. Thank you. If I have understood correctly, I have to say that your description of students and classes leaves me quite worried.

    Obviously, there will be some classes where learners are mainly operating autonomously – and may be mainly interested in their own projects and outcomes. But if this is the norm and they never feel any value from the social context they are in, then I can’t really see the point of it being a “class”. Do they feel no need for peer support, or to work together?

    If a class is a gathering of people who are each working almost entirely separately, privately and autonomously on their own “road” (albeit with a teacher’s support) then the very definition of “class” has changed, and not for the better. In this scenario, the prime reason for joining a “class” is only as means of accessing the teacher’s time and help and the only reason it is done alongside others is that they cannot afford to pay for a private lesson (which would be preferable to them).

    What is the point of a teacher? Well, it is partly to provide input, information, feedback, guidance and support to individuals – but also to creatively make use of the people and context to create new opportunities for learning – many of which would not be possible in a purely one-to-one situation. Given a class full of students such as you describe, I’d be tempted to spend some energy showing them (even forcing them to notice) the value they can gain from the others in the room.

    Personally, I’m quite a solo learner. I mostly like to work on my own. But the experience of having had good facilitator-teachers over the years has been to show me what I can get from also working with others, even against my natural inclination to work alone all the time.

    And part of that has involved learning to learn from observing other people learning. My learning would be the poorer if I hadn’t had that “training”.


    • Luiz Otávio

      Jim, thank you for your thoughtful reply. It is such an honor to be able to interact with you.
      What I described in my post was the teaching context in which I operated until very very recently. And you see, while in my post I didn’t mean to generalize beyond that kind of context, at the same time I think it’d be fair to say that the scenario I described is no exception either.
      You see, for a long time I, too, was baffled by the kind of profile shift that I attempted to describe in my post. Things began to make more sense, though, when I started looking at this new generation of students and all their idiosyncrasies from a socio-economic perspective.

      Today, if you’re an A1, A2 or even B1 EFL student in Brazil it means you probably – and I say probably:
      1. Come from a lower middle class family;
      2. Didn’t study English as a kid or teenager;
      3. May have never traveled abroad;
      4. Tried to learn English once or twice before, without success;
      5. Need to reach B1, B2 level relatively fast because your job is at stake;
      6. Don’t like the language all that much;
      7. Didn’t go to the top schools / universities in the country (with obvious implications in terms of learning strategies, for example)
      8. Will miss at least 30% of the classes you paid for because you’re stuck in the office, working overtime. Or perhaps stuck in traffic.

      Most adult students (at least the ones I was in contact with from 2001 – 2011) either leave work and go straight to their English classes (which means that they’re in “corporate” mode at least for the first 30 minutes of the lesson) or go to work straight after school (meaning they often spend the last 30 minutes of the lesson thinking about work). So the English class has become a sort of extension of their offices, which kind of explains the lack of “sharing and caring” you’re so alarmed by. The workplace is fast-paced, fiercely competitive, pragmatic, no-nonsense, results-oriented. Language learning is slow, organic, collaborative, process-driven.

      This clash in a way explains why (1) drop-out rates among adult students tend to be so high at A1, A2, B1 levels and (2) why there’s been such a mushrooming of schools countrywide promising to make students “bilingual” in 18 months.

      This issue has been nagging at me for so long that I actually wrote a post on my own blog describing a lesson to an A2 group in which I felt like an alien:

      • demandhighelt

        Hi Luiz,

        Thanks for your summary of my points (your 1st post). I understand your objection that the content of the 1:1 might not meet the internal agenda of the others. To which I might add that a group activity can also miss agendas just as easily. In fact a group activity could miss everone’s agenda, whereas 1:1 at least hits one agenda…

        I understand too one of the points in your second post, that students’ attention is so scattered today that there is not much left for learning English… and you feel like an alien in the class…!

        However the idea I wanted to convey, and thanks for pushing me to be clearer, is this:

        1. That in a class of 16 sts there are 16 private lessons going on, not only a single group lesson. (in fact 17 private lessons counting the teacher’s). If we teach only the group lesson we may fail to engage with all those privates. Therefore we need to develop more ways to meet that challenge of multiple simultaneous private lessons. Movies do this. Sport does this. Stories do this. Why not lessons?

        2 . And aside from content where everyone may indeed be after something different, there is something else on offer, namely the deep attraction of being engaged by one’s own learning (both sts and teacher). Spotting that learning, flagging it (for me perhaps starting with a one to one moment as I said), holding that space open, inviting others into it so that they are learning together albeit on different bits of content, that is the skill of one-to-one-in-a-group that I am trying to pursue, and perhaps it might touch even some of the distracted guys that we all know that you talk about on your blog….and thanks for the link


  6. I saw Jim’s presentation on Friday and got really very excited because the idea of 1:1 teaching for a couple of minutes is something I’ve done in the past but wouldn’t necessarily have admitted to. But actually I would argue that as far as teaching goes, or rather learning that’s where I can say “there it is”, because I was there, because I taylored an eplanation to the learner in front of me, because I was able to diagnose where the problem for that student was at that moment and lead him to understand what he was doing wrong and how to get it right. Now that sounds really very ego-driven, right? And maybe it is – there’s a lot of me as a teacher in there, and I freely admit I really get a kick out of those moments of understanding and real learning, the before/after picture as so often I walk out of a lesson and think “was it really necessary I was there today?” often the class in front of me is made up of people supposedly of one level (more or less), but so different in where they are within the level but also what they want out of the lesson, i.e. are they there to learn the language or merely pass the test… Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching and always have done, but it’s largely for moments when I can see the “lightbulb” come on – it is a real joy because it affirms my belief in own skills and perhaps we as teachers need to discover these moments more.
    As I said at the beginning, I wouldn’t necessarily have admitted to these kinds of mini 1:1s. Not only was I following the dictat that no learner should be allowed an opportunity to feel their attention is not required, but I also felt a bit guilty that I wasn’t able to offer the other students something right this moment. I think I need to work on this and think of ways to invite other learners to watch and learn.

  7. Hello Adrian & Jim,

    I loved the post on one-to-one teaching withing a group. It makes us see the classroom not as a whole, but as individual students with individual needs and reflect on the best way to reach each one of them. It’s easy to blame it on the number of students we have in a group, but in the end, it comes to ‘how can I reach each student and address individual needs?’.

    I had a similar experience as the one above. I started out with groups of 10-20 students at the beginning of my career, but it was only when I started teaching 1-2-1 SS and small groups of corporate clients that I noticed the gap when addressing individual problems and adapting the lesson according to students’ needs.

    I gave a talk last weekend in a city 260km away entitled: Promoting Individual Teaching withing Large Groups. The talk opened the Braz Tesol Natal Chapter one-day event and it was very interesting to see teachers from different backgrounds suggesting ways in which they promote individual teaching. I used some of the ideas from your post and others from my own experience.

    Thank you for brilliant ideas and for making us reflect on our own teaching and how to improve it with the practical experiment suggested above. I look forward to seeing you (Jim Scrivener) at the ABCI Conference in São Paulo in July.

    Eduardo Santos (@eltbakery)

  8. Hi Adrian and Jim,
    I agree that there is value in 1-1 interventions within a larger group, but perhaps the key challenge is making the students aware of this value. When the teacher is engaging with one student, this is not a cue for the rest of them to switch off. On the contrary, there are all kinds of opportunities for them here to learn about how others learn and compare their own strategies, as well as just getting some very useful listening practice. Adrian, I think you alluded to this in your original post when you mentioned how you would occasionally look to the rest of the class to show how you were finding the intervention interesting. The rest of the group needs to be made aware that the intervention is for their benefit too.
    It’s also interesting how Katja said that this is something she’s done before but wouldn’t have previously admitted to. It’s not the sort of thing that is generally seen as good practice, and most teacher trainers would probably hammer trainees for doing it. Is there something wrong with the way we re being trained?
    By the way, it was good to see you in Stirling last week, Adrian – I enjoyed our chat.

  9. bucktucci

    After reading about the concept of HD teaching on this blog, I decided to bring it with me to my group classes and 1:1 lessons.
    Most of my teaching is about Cambridge ESOL exams preparation, which inevitably limits the amount of time and freedom I have to dedicate to more creative, less exam-focused activities with my students. I find that running exam courses is a real challenge in that I have to cram in as much as I can, as time is of the essence, but at the same time, make the whole experience as meaningful and enjoyable as possible to engage students and facilitate learning.
    So, I was very attracted to the idea of giving my students a gentle nudge, as Adrian put it, but a bit sceptical as to whether I would have to incorporate it into my already overloaded agenda at the expense of the main objectives of the courses.
    After pondering what and how I could challenge different group and/or private Sts, I began to appreciate that the greatest reward, actually comes from the process of analysis and observation of what is happening in the classroom. One can’t decide what would be a challenge to a student if one does not dedicate some time observing that student’s learning movements and surroundings.
    Some students enjoyed it when I highlighted some features of connected speech and got them to speak a little faster, while others were happy to spend a bit longer on exercise correction than we normally do. E.g. instead of moving on from one exercise to the next, desperately looking at the clock, students were encouraged to go back to a corrected exercise, observe what they had learnt from the experience and share it, either with me or others in the classroom.
    I’m thankful to both Jim and Adrian for pointing out the relevance of staying focused on what is happening in the classroom rather than ticking off the tasks on the class plan, or biting my nails if I haven’t covered everything I had planned to do on that day. I feel more present in the classroom and I feel greater engagement takes place.
    Would love to hear other people’s experience with DH.

  10. Pingback: Detailed Practical “How to” Guide: Teaching One-to-One-in-a-Group | Demand High ELT

  11. Pingback: Does using “one-to-one-in-a-group” help overcome embarrassment at performing in a group? | Demand High ELT

  12. Víctor Alarcón

    Thank you, Jim and Adrian, for your enlightening posts on the “one-to-one” teaching within a group and the specific techniques offered, and of course, the concept itself.

    In classroom environments, It’s very often that we find ourselves, as teachers, having to “deal with”, or respond to, or comment on students’ performance and language. This is part and parcel of our role as communication facilitators in a foreign language class.

    Sometimes, however, we might, in our eagerness to stick to plans and “cover” what is there to be “covered”, find that devoting time to one particular student’s language struggles, especially if we were not anticipating or “planning” to deal with them, is making us feel anxious and feel that the class is being waylaid in some way.
    I certainly have had that feeling, despite being aware of helping a student!

    After reading your posts, I feel I’m much more aware, when such “one-to-one” situations arise, that I am helping everybody else in the classroom as well, and I’m finding myself “grabbing” the opportunity, even dwelling on it and cherishing it.

  13. Víctor Alarcón

    Reblogged this on Yours Truly, and commented:
    In classroom environments, it’s very often that we find ourselves, as teachers, having to “deal with”, or respond to, or comment on students’ performance and language. This is part and parcel of our role as communication facilitators in a foreign language class.

    Sometimes, however, we might, in our eagerness to stick to plans and “cover” what is there to be “covered”, find that devoting time to one particular student’s language struggles, especially if we were not anticipating or “planning” to deal with them, is making us feel anxious and feel that the class is being waylaid in some way.
    I certainly have had that feeling, despite being aware that I’m helping a student!

    On their blog Demand High ELT, Adrian Underhill & Jim Scrivener blog about teaching “one-to-one” within a whole group, and state that it can benefit the whole group. They also offer specific techniques for carrying it out successfully.

    After reading Underhill & Scrivener’s posts, I feel I’m much more aware, when such “one-to-one” situations arise, that I am helping everybody else in the classroom as well, and I’m finding myself “grabbing” the opportunity, even dwelling on it and cherishing it.

    Thank you, Jim and Adrian, for your enlightening posts on the “one-to-one” teaching within a group and the specific techniques offered, and, of course, the concept itself.

  14. Pingback: Learning awareness « Carol Goodey

  15. jonnylewington

    I tried to think about this over the last week. My personal results:

    “Was this any different from what you usually do?”

    I think its something that I do fairly often, so it wasn’t that new to me. Isn’t it fairly natural to jump on what learners are saying sometimes? But I did try to concentrate on whether it was helping other students or not.

    “In your view, did the experiment succeed? How do you know?”

    I think it depended on the length of time I was working with a student. In short bursts it was fine. Students were attentive and often also played my role (helping them find vocabulary or phrases they were looking for, for example) but if a longer dialogue developed, a lot of classic signs of students switching off appeared (checking times on phones, doodling, looking at desk, looking at phone under desk etc). About 20-30 seconds was a maximum.

    “Were the rest of the class engaged by what was happening? Did they learn something?”

    I think I would need an outside observer to tell me whether all of them were paying attention. It felt like they were, but I suspect it was mainly the 2-3 most attentive students giving me this feeling. I think about half of them were silent, making it very hard to tell.

    “Was there any connection between the quality of your attention to the individual student’s work and the degree of engagement of the rest of the class in what was happening?”

    Well, how the hell would I measure that 😉 ?

  16. Diana Ailenei

    Hello, Adrian / Jim.
    Luiz Octavio’s posts gave me the courage to write to you. He describes his students’ particular case and wonders how this approach would work with his students. Complex socio-economic conditions determine the level of motivation in his class.
    What happens, though, when the cultural background is the issue? I’ve been teaching in a private high school near Tokyo since 2001. Japanese students are terribly afraid of making mistakes in front of their peers. Doing too well in front of their peers can also be a danger, as it could represent a case for bullying, so there are returnees (students educated abroad for a number of years) that basically hide their real English proficiency in front of their peers.
    So how do you think we can adapt this approach to an Asian environment?

  17. Rachel

    Hello Adrian and Jim,

    Thank you so much for all your brilliant ideas.

    As I outline in my blog post,

    I have been trying to do more one-to-on in a group teaching for the past year or so, but have been held back by fears about embarrassing students and not entertaining the rest of the class.

    Your post and particularly the attached “How to Guide ” has helped me realise that it is ok and useful to use this method and I am going to try and implement more of it as soon as I can

    I do have one question though. You describe using clues or hints to help learners understand their errors and possibly self-correct. I often find this reasonably easy to do with grammar and punctuation errors but much more difficult with vocabulary (As in your “Are you talking about the PAST?” example). I have also noticed this when using error correction codes on written work. Students are rarely able to correct their own word choice errors. Are there any ways of helping them work towards this? Or is it the case that the teacher needs to provide the input in this case?

    Many thanks,


  18. Hi, this is possible with a group class of 15-20 learners. I teach 40 students and it’s really tough to do one to one with them. Just checking their papers alone is a daunting task. Teachers would be spreading themselves to thinly.

  19. Valeria Casanova

    Hello, I am really interested in DH because of Personal Best. However, I was wondering if there were any new updates, information, workshops, or even videos on the matter.
    Thank you

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