English Learning Box

10 Ways to Help Slow and Struggling Students


If you’ve thought about teaching English privately to adults who speak English as a second language, you may not be aware that it is actually easy to organize the first lesson. It is a lot harder to get the second. If you don’t do a good job in the first lesson it is unlikely students will come back for the second!

So, before you even have the first lesson it is best to be prepared. Make sure you ask a number of questions of your potential student when you first schedule the lesson so that you are able to take along the appropriate exercises or conversation topics that the student wants. Obviously every tutor will want to prepare for their student but there are other qualities you need, to make the lesson successful, that have nothing to do with lesson planning.

The following checklist is helpful, and, in some cases, crucial in getting your private adult ESL students to come back for more lessons.

1. Patience

Patience is extremely important. You can’t do this job without patience. Patience to listen carefully to what your student says. Patience to understand completely what they are saying before jumping in with your answer. Patience to speak slowly and clearly.

2. Focus

If something bad has happened in your day, or you’ve had an argument with someone, or are worried about something, this will show up in your lesson and you may scare your student off. Be focused on the lesson and the student and don’t get distracted.

You must leave all problems at home. Your sole responsibility is to your student at that time. If you don’t think you can do that, reschedule the lesson.

3. Understanding

If you have strong opinions on things, you have to leave them at home too. It’s rare to get a student that will want to demonstrate his or her feelings for something, but if you do, and you strongly disagree, it’s better for you to ask them to explain their point of view.

Not only does it help them practice their English, it might also give you information that you can use in your next lesson, because, if a student finds you agree with them, they’ll be more comfortable with you and will want another lesson.

Of course, there are students that want to discuss and debate controversial topics, but you probably won’t find this out until after you’ve got to know your student over a few months. I’ve only met two students who were happy to pay me to debate a topic that they felt strongly about.

If this looks like you’ll need to be hypocritical, think of it as practicing your acting skills. “That’s an interesting idea”, “I haven’t heard that view before” and, “We must discuss this at length at another time, but now let’s move on to…” are good phrases if your student touches on sensitive topics, like ‘whales are delicious’ or ‘women should stay in the kitchen’ or ‘Come along to my church/Amway meeting this Sunday!’

So, understanding the characters, personalities and ideals of your students is a good way to continue your tutor relationship with them.

4. Be interested in everything

One skill I have that keeps students coming back to me is that I’m interested in almost everything. I can talk about bosing tang, cancer, Winter Sonata, Japanese chat shows, Brazilian criminals, Thai insect dishes, Chinese business development, Australian Aboriginal folklore, politics, economics, reincarnation, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity etc. The list is endless, but because I read from various different areas regularly I always have something to talk about and almost always have a ready comment on just about anything the students ask.

“What do you know about the latest developments in microparticle physics and time travel?”

“Why is Freud more famous than Descarte?”

“Is it true that Shiitake Mushrooms cure cancer?”

But if you don’t have the time or the inclination to be interested in everything, what can you do?

The first lesson is where you ask all the questions about hobbies and interests. I’ve learnt that surfers of huge Hawaiian waves need to be taken up to the top of them by speedboat, or that there’s a skydiving wind tunnel available in the States for people afraid to jump from a plane, purely because I had two students interested in those subjects.

Watching the news every night is good too. Avoid sports news. No use to you in a lesson unless you’re teaching someone who only wants to talk about sport. And you should focus on international news. After all, do you think foreign students are going to be fascinated by the local news?

So, after they’re happy with your first lesson, and to be prepared for your second lesson, go through all the hobbies and interests they brought up and produce related articles, news reports or exercises on them for the next lesson. I’m sure there’s at least one website out there with articles related to what you need!

5. Acceptance

Well, this is extremely important. You must accept everyone and everything if you want to be a good private English tutor.

So, if you have any racist attitudes, no matter how many stories you have to back up your view, you should accept every person as a unique individual. They may even surprise you!

I’ve learnt that just because 10 unrelated students, that originate from a particular country in Asia, have been late to my lessons, doesn’t mean that the 11th from that country will be. Or that even though some students from a particular country want to negotiate a lower price, some from that same country actually want to pay the full price for 10 lessons in advance!

So, you can’t stereotype your students. Treat everyone as different.

You also need to be flexible. Awhile ago while teaching at Adult English School I had a student whose schedule had been delayed and he hadn’t had time to visit his mosque before visiting me. He asked if he could use my office for a few minutes to pray. Of course I agreed and organised a space for him.

You must be able to appreciate and embrace the differences everyone has. Showing interest in another person’s culture or customs will enable you to better understand the problems they have with English.

6. Clear Speaking

Are you a good enunciator? Do you pronounce your words clearly? It’s surprising how many people think they do and they actually don’t. The best way to find this out is if you record your voice onto a tape and play it back, then compare it to someone reading the news. If you can’t understand it easily, if your accent is too strong for someone to understand, you’re going to have to start speaking clearly.

A quick way of doing this is to say ‘Wow’ in front of the mirror a few times. If you can’t see your tonsils, you’re not enunciating well enough!. Open up your mouth more when you speak.

7. A friendly or interested personality

Yes, if you don’t show that you’re friendly or interested you’re not going to keep your students for long. You should know about pubs, clubs, travel, adventure, sports, parties, and people. Students want to hear crazy stories that increase their knowledge of particular subjects. If they want to ask about drugs, briefly tell them about your time in Amsterdam. If they’re interested travelling, tell them about the flies attacking you in Uluru.

If you’re an English teacher at High School or University, you would be teaching from a text book to a class and the students would listen carefully to every word you say and study for a test at the end proving they’ve listened. Private tuition is completely different. Students can cancel even on the day of your lesson so make sure you’ve got the personality to keep them coming back! (This may mean you’ll need to employ your acting skills, or become great at making up stories! Maybe those flies on your trip to Uluru lifted you off the ground!)

If you’ve been working behind a desk for too long and are worried that you may not be able to show your engaging personality, you can brush up your skills by either doing a short customer service, hospitality or acting course. Make sure that the course includes role playing! You could also practice your tutoring skills in a language exchange environment. You can find many people wanting free language exchange lessons at this site: Japanese Language Exchange

I have a student that has near perfect English who wants to continue practicing with me purely because I make her laugh! I’ve been teaching her for over a year now and have told her on a number of occasions that she doesn’t need any further lessons but she says I’m the only person she can practice her English conversation skills with and be entertained at the same time!

8. Pronunciation (also known as accent reduction)

This is probably one of the hardest parts of tutoring English. You are going to have to get into the habit of correcting almost everything that your student says (not all at once, of course!). And you’ll need to be able to explain to them how to pronounce difficult words like ‘lorry’ or ‘exists’. Tongue twisters and reading practice are good ways of helping students improve their pronunciation.

I had a student once who was so distressed by her experience with a previous teacher forcing her to read a turn of the century book about a blind woman for an entire lesson that she checked with me about what I was going to teach her and would only hire me if the lessons were interesting! Of course I guaranteed that I wouldn’t force her to read something she wasn’t interested in.

Reading aloud is the best way of improving a student’s pronunciation. But a few students hate reading aloud and hope to improve their pronunciation purely by talking with you. In these cases make sure you have a long list of subjects to discuss so that you can challenge their vocabulary and pronunciation.

Also, when you are correcting, concentrate on only one or two areas per lesson. If your student has problems pronouncing ‘th’, that will be your focus. Make sure they get it right. No point in totally depressing them during the first lesson by telling them all their pronunciation mistakes.

9. Grammar

Yes, I know. Who worries about grammar when speaking these days? Well, students from any country where English is a foreign language! Students want to know about modals, prepositions, conjunctive adverbs, collocations, euphemisms, phrasal verbs, idioms, puns, and more. They believe the more they know, the better they’ll be able to speak. It’ll be up to you to try and convince them that none of us learnt grammar when we were 5 years old and we could already have long conversations at that age. You need to explain that they have to make mistakes to communicate and learn. If they worry about ending a sentence with a preposition all the time they’ll never have any sentences to speak with (!) A grammar rule is a record of how we have spoken in the past. Not how we should speak. English changes daily. With 3.5 million English words and billions of ways to put them together, is a grammar rule going to help all the time?

If that doesn’t work, and you are unable to answer their complicated question about split infinitives and future perfect continuous, for example, you can say “hmm, that’s a very interesting question. It’s not part of today’s lesson plan so I don’t have any exercises on it with me, but I’ll prepare something for you for the next lesson and we can discuss it then.

10. Have fun!

You can have a lot of fun in your lesson too. Find out what your students love and surprise them with your knowledge in the next lesson. I had a student that wanted to know about Anime in Australia so I researched that, prepared an exercise, got hold of the beginning themes of our most popular anime and played them to him on my mobile phone. He was very pleased.

One of my female Korean students really wanted to have a late night lesson at the pub. So, we went to a popular pub for Koreans on George St in Sydney around 9pm, chatted for 2 hours, drank beer, talked about relationships and Korean customs in Seoul, and I got paid for it!

There are of course many other things you need to know before teaching a lesson and you may not yet have some of these skills. Don’t let that hold you back. You can always learn as you go. But you’ll find students stick around longer if you can prove to them you’ve got the skills to make the second lesson even better!

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