Tutoring English Students on Speaking Skills? Set Clear Expectations!

Why setting clear expectations as an English tutor is important

“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”

―Tony Robbins (1960- ), American motivational speaker

Are you tutoring English students on speaking skills? How do you effectively teach speaking skills to a English language learner as a private tutor? What will you actually do for 60-120 minutes together? How will you make the conversation lessons meaningful enough that your client feels satisfied and wants to retain you for future lessons?

Speaking English means being able to actually hold clear, comfortable conversations. Yet holding a conversation in English remains a challenging task for many ESL and EFL students. Personally, I blame an old-fashioned, grammar-obsessed curriculum for creating the common situation in which students can recite obscure grammar rules, but can’t discuss their weekend plans or talk about the movies. Yet here we are. Students want to develop their speaking skills, but crowded English classes provide little opportunity for authentic conversations. Therefore, many English students hire English tutors to help them develop their conversation and speaking skills.

Yet effectively tutoring English students in conversation can be more difficult than it sounds. What does the student want to learn? What will you really teach? How will progress be measured? While sometimes younger students just want to talk and be heard, I have also worked with older, more serious students. Time is money, and money matters.

I strongly suggest establishing clear expectations regarding both content and business matters. Some tutors even present a written contract outlining their rates, the location and times of meetings, and payment policies. One of my university colleagues makes students sign a form allowing her to videotape the entire tutoring session for her research. Another demands prepayment for packages of 10 sessions at a time. I have never needed to be that formal, but I have also never been burned the way some English tutors have been. In fact, I’ve had only very positive experiences with conversation clients and private English students.

Why? Perhaps luck, or perhaps because I carefully screen potential clients. I only work with professionals, graduate students, and/or friends and spouses of friends with a solid foundation in English. It is important to explicit about what you want and don’t want to teach a client. Be prepared to provide options for potential clients that you reject.

I also set very clear expectations. This process eliminates potential confusion and establishes clear benchmarks. We will review X number of articles and discuss Y number of topics during the next month or semester. We will cover a significant amount of ground in a comfortable, relaxed manner.

For students who want to improve their conversation, I strongly suggest that, as the English tutor, you select the topic and materials in advance. You can use newspapers and/or magazines to find appropriate articles to begin the conversation. I used to assign the articles a week ahead and give English students my conversation worksheets.

Partly as a result of these tutoring lessons over a few years, I wrote Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. The conversation book includes 45 chapters with over 1400 questions, 500 quotations, and 450 targeted vocabulary words. The combination of poignant questions, vocabulary lists, proverbs, and witty quotations makes your job much easier. Each chapter is self-contained.

If you have a weaker student looking to improve their speaking skills, then I would advise using a picture dictionary. There are several fine choices. You might use the Oxford Picture Dictionary to open conversations, and I would recommend asking the client to bring in photographs and ads each week. Confession: I almost always referred weaker students to other English tutors who enjoyed working with lower level ESL students more.

Naturally, you will need patience tutoring ESL clients on speaking skills. Be prepared to repeat words, listen very carefully, and remind students to pronounce word endings. Many students will want to work on their pronunciation. This is why recording, with audio or video, your tutoring lessons can be quite helpful for students. It also documents student progress.

You can also assign them listening activities on the web. I like Voice of America’s Special English programs for intermediate and advanced students. You will have to direct lower-level learners to websites to practice their listening and speaking skills with drills. They will love the work; on the other hand, you might go mad repeating vowel sounds and noting stress words.

Finally, the key to tutoring ESL students – or anyone else – remains respecting the students, meeting their needs, and providing a solid structure for your lessons. I have found that using a set text, developing a known routine, and combining conversation, vocabulary and some writing skills makes for a successful and satisfying experience.

As William Shakespeare noted four centuries ago, “All’s well that ends well.” Therefore, you should also have the grace to know when to end your lessons. Some clients will want to keep working with you. Therefore, set a clear goal for your package of lessons, and conclude when the students have reached that goal. As the Hollywood cliché goes, “leave them wanting more.”

What are your plans and goals for tutoring English students this year?

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Create Compelling Conversations.
Visit www.CompellingConversations.com


  1. I’d always assumed you just taught large university classes, for some reason. Just out of interest, which kinds of classes did you first develop the materials that went into your book with?

  2. Alex – First, sorry for the delayed response and very, very delayed book review.

    Thanks for visiting my little blog. As for your question, I usually teach small classes of 10-20 international (ESL) graduate students in academic writing and oral skills. Yet Compelling Conversations comes out of my intermediate and advanced conversation classes at Santa Monica College with 15-30 students. I also tutored a bit on the side since the hours were insufficient for my lifestyle.

    Now I’m fulltime at USC, but many of my colleagues continue to tutor and use Compelling Conversations.

    Finally, I’ve been meaning to put the final touches on a few projects – completion seems to be a big issue these days – and will get you that review by Monday.

  3. Thank you for the retweets!

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