You’ve been asked to give a private TEFL lesson to a new student. You know virtually nothing about them but you know you’ll be sitting in a room with them, one on one, for an hour and half.

This article is all about how to prepare for a First Private Lesson.

What Interests Them?

First lessons with private students are often difficult since before going into the lesson you may well know very little about them. What are you going to do for an hour and half?

Essentially though you need to use this first lesson to find out as much as you can about your student so that you can prepare a syllabus for the rest of the time you’re together – or if not a syllabus at least then you’ll be able to prepare the next lesson so both of you will get something useful out of it!


Look up the student on Facebook. If you get lucky you might find them and discover their interests which is a good shortcut. Otherwise you have to make some simple assumptions. They may well be wrong but you have to start somewhere.

In general adults who are going to learn or want to improve a foreign language may well enjoy travel, politics, cinema, current events and so on.

Breaking it down if you have a male adult then chances are they’re interested in competitive sports, gadgets & technology, fishing, and cars amongst other things. A female adult could well enjoy cooking, dancing, fitness, crafts, and fashion as well.

(And before anyone complains of sexist generalizations here, these lists were based on straw polls amongst friends, various websites and are hugely general in approach!)

Young Learners

To those lists above teenagers will often show interest in popular music, gossip and celebrity. Meanwhile you can often remove politics and current events from the lists, especially amongst younger teenagers.

Even very young learners will be interested in things like animals and simple stories. Almost everything above can be removed from the very youngest and you will have to stick with very basic material.


After interests come learner level and ability in English‏‎. This is very hard to determine before meeting the student so really you need to plan and prepare for almost any kind of level.

And don’t rely here on other people’s opinion. When a mother tells you her teenage child has done six years of English and speaks it to almost native standard then don’t believe her!

Preparing Material for a First Lesson

Here’s where it gets real.

Beforehand spend some time collecting together a wide range of short newspaper/magazine articles on subjects which are likely to interest your student. (Keep them filed away; you can use them again and again.) These articles should range from just a couple of paragraphs to about 200 words in length. The idea here is that you are using this material to get to know your student so collect as diverse a range as possible with newspaper/magazine cuttings about:

  • a pop princess in rehab
  • wine making in Tuscany
  • the new James Bond film
  • ideas on interior design
  • a new zoo
  • labor laws in China
  • high-school bullying
  • the Olympic games

If you can, make them from different sources and of different levels so while an article on wine photocopied from an academic text book might work for one student, another will only be able to read a simple description and price list from your local wine shop.

Another incredibly useful and important resource here are photographs. These should be as provocative and interesting as possible so as to generate conversation and comment. Again they should be for all levels and ages so on the one hand you might have a picture of different animals which you can use with very young learners to ask:

What animal is this? What is it doing?

And with adults you might have a photo of a Japanese whaler slaughtering a whale and ask:

What is this animal? What’s happening to it? Do you think this is acceptable? Do animals feel pain?

In other words, you need to be able to use the material here to head off in completely different directions.

The First Lesson

With this material you should be able to spend a lot of time in the first lesson getting to know your student. Once the preliminaries are over, show them a photo and ask them to talk about it. Then another. Then maybe bring out an article to go through together. Then try a completely different subject and talk about that.

All the while remember to keep asking open-ended questions‏‎ and to give your student plenty of time to talk (don’t step in if the conversation flags but stay silent and give them time to begin speaking again).

And in this way you’ll be able to build up a good picture of how well the student knows English and what interests them.


The final step, and arguably the most important, is to really find out why your student is taking these private lessons.

  • for an exam
  • for pleasure
  • to deal with overseas customers
  • to go to university abroad
  • to help with their schoolwork

This is the crux of the matter here. You need to give them what they need and only by asking them the right questions and really letting them tell you will you find this.

And After?

After an hour and a half lesson you should really have a good idea about your students interests and abilities. This means that for the next lesson you will be able to prepare a much more solid lesson and know that it will hit the nail on the head when it comes to practicality.

See Also

Needs Analysis‏‎ – find out about your students

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  1. talkingbella

    Thank you so much!! I’m about to start giving lessons to the son of a family friend – and I have just finished my tefl course, he will be my first student ever. I’m so nervous but this is an amazing starting point for my planning!

    • Pete West

      Glad you found it useful. Good luck with your teaching and let us know how it goes. 🙂

  2. aroundtheworldinbooks1

    Thank you for this, first tutoring job this week and this has really helped me out with lots of ideas

    • Pete West

      That’s great. Keep up the good work!

  3. Dyala

    Very useful for Intermediate and Advanced students. But what do you recommend for real beginners?

  4. stytyety

    Thank you! Just the inspiration I needed!

    • Pete West

      Thank you for your feedback!