Category Archives: Demand High

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