Many teachers are beginning to take distance students using Skype or other technologies, and increasingly there are questions about what needs to be done to have a successful 1-on-1 class using TPRS. It’s true that there are a few things that should, or can, be altered to make a distance learning experience more successful. In this post, I’m thinking about adult distance learning situations, not remote teaching to a classroom of K-12 age students.

What are the goals of the student? Adults have many different reasons for taking a language, Some may just want a bit of experience with another language (a great idea for a teacher using CI in the classroom). Others may want to prepare for a specific event, like a vacation or a business trip. And still others may be full-on wanting to become really proficient in the language. Some will want to read, some will not care about reading. Some may want to read but not write, or write only by computer (this is a big issue in Chinese, whether to write at all, and to write by hand or by computer if there is writing going on). In school settings, many of these decisions have already been made, and often by someone who is not in the classroom in the first place. With an adult 1-on-1, the student will have his or her own ideas about these things, which may or may not jive with what the teacher believes is the best path toward the student’s ultimate goal(s). So communication up front is key in ensuring that the student feels that his or her desires are being met in the class. (If you can’t get the student back for another lesson, you can’t do any good, and in this case, the student is totally free to take his attention, and his money, elsewhere.)

I normally do encourage students to at least read in the language, since that doubles the input. But here, too, there’s a potential issue. Are you going to write up all the readings (original texts) for each student? If you’re not, you will need to target so that you can “drive the bus” toward the reading (backwards design). If you can write up individual readings for each student, then non-targeted input may be fine for the student (depending on the language typology and goals involved; I never recommend non-targeted input for beginners in languages with a non-Western alphabet or characters, for a number of reasons). If you are planning to use purchased materials, there is the issue of copyright: you don’t have the right to give away a copy of the reading to anyone just because you yourself bought it, but if the student is recording his lesson (which seems perfectly reasonable in this day and age) that will happen if you do any kind of reading instruction. A compromise is to record the lesson yourself using a Skype-compatible recorder like Call Recorder (about $39, but worth it) and then extract the audio only, cutting off the portion that is the reading lesson. (Yes, giving away the audio of a book is also a violation of copyright.) Of course, from the perspective of authors, the best solution is to have the student purchase real copies of the books you want to read with them. It also gives them a “real” book and the freedom to read it anywhere, any time.

How much language learning experience does the student have? Many students are now specifically seeking out TPRS or CI-based teachers, but others may come upon you by accident, and not know quite what to make of this strange, “don’t repeat after me, no there’s no homework” way toward a new language. So again, communicating what CI is and why it works for everyone is key. You may have adult learners who absolutely, positively want additional vocabulary lists on top of the content you input densely during class. That’s fine — no one ever died of it. It’s probably more politic not to mention that those words are not likely to be acquired the way the ones that are done in class are. You may find yourself fighting the “I want to repeat everything” syndrome, especially with a very motivated learner. If you have one that just absolutely cannot stop repeating, you may wish to pick your battles. Again, if the customer isn’t happy, he’ll go elsewhere (or worse yet, buy Ro$etta $tone or something…LOL)

How will you get repetition? Much of the natural repetition that occurs in a good TPRS classroom comes from interaction among multiple people, typically led by the teacher. “Susie, do you have a dog?” “Yes, I do.” “Class, Susie has a dog! What kind of a dog do you think Susie has? Do you think Susie has a Chihuahua?” etc. etc. Getting answers — even “wrong” answers — from members of the class helps to boost the amount of similar but different language the students hear, and repetition of comprehended language is the mother of acquisition.

The saving grace here is that in most 1-on-1 situations, the students are very motivated to begin with. You aren’t going to have to rely on really high-interest content to get them to listen — they have come to you because they truly want to get this new language. So there is less pressure to make every class fascinating and completely tailored to student interests. It’s still a good idea to include the student’s interests or facts about his or her life, but it’s not strictly necessary to keep them listening in most cases. One way to get high repetition is for the teacher to suggest “wrong” answers and train the student that no, they don’t have to agree with the first answer just because the teacher suggests it! (This is a very common phenomenon with 1-on-1 students. They’re cooperative and agreeable, which isn’t always the best thing for conversation!) So if the question is “What is the man’s name?” the teacher might suggest some options that she is pretty sure the student would reject, just to be able to reject them (“Oh, really? His name isn’t John Jacob Jingleheimer Smit? Goodness, then what is his name? Is his name Ringo Starr? No?…”) And for those with a bit more language, rejecting a wrong answer can be done using an “excuse” (“Oh, no, you’re thinking of his cousin. His cousin’s name is John…”) which gets even more language into the mix.

How good is your video setup? It can be difficult for students to see the whiteboard clearly. You will need to pay special attention to the thickness and color of your marker lines to make sure they are clearly visible. You can even teach TPRS without a whiteboard by just using the chat function of Skype, if you’re a pretty fast typist in a language that isn’t too hard to type: just use the chat function. But this means you’ll be retyping the same words or phrases multiple times because the chat window is only so big, and the words scroll out of the visible window after a time. Plus, there’s no way to point to things, which isn’t optimal. But it can work if you are taking great care to go slowly enough and doing enough comprehension checks.

If you set up your board in advance with all the items you plan to use, it ┬ácan be helpful to send the student an image of the whiteboard before class, so that they can download it and print it out or display it on some device. That way, even if the image on the Skype screen is a bit blurry, they can refer to the whiteboard image they have to see what the correct spelling is. Of course this doesn’t address new words that are added on the fly during class, but it’s better than having everything blurry.

People tend to feel more comfortable looking at the mouth of the person who’s speaking to them, but you can get away with a close shot on your whiteboard if that’s more technically feasible. Or, I teach using Doceri, which is an electronic whiteboard and does not show my face or hands at all. This kind of tech requires a bit of manipulation to work with Skype, so be sure to test it out with a cooperative, willing remote partner before you get to the “real thing” with a paying customer who feels you’re wasting their time if your technology doesn’t cooperate 100%!

How will you handle you-and-I talk? It’s pretty easy to teach third-person language, but when two people aren’t in the same room, the whole I and you thing can get complicated. You can point straight at the lens of your camera to emphasize that you’re saying a “you” form, like when you’re asking a question about the student, but if the student uses a wrong form to answer, it can be difficult to correct that simply by repeating the right form as we would normally do in the classroom, because for some reason that seems much more confusing in a distance setup. In a classroom, we routinely maintain space with our bodies and make a lot of meaning clear by leaning in, moving to a slightly different spot to “be” someone else, and so on, none of which is really very practical by Skype (in most cases). So you may need to use a bit of additional English to make clear what form you’re using (and that it’s a correction, not you saying something in the wrong form for your perspective), or up the comprehension checks. You can always guide the student to get the form right by starting fresh: “What does ‘You have a dog’ mean?” “Okay, and what does ‘I have a dog’ mean?” Then ask the question “Do you have a dog?” again. Write up the forms if needed, and point.

How long a lesson? Many online tutoring sites offer 1 hour timeslots. I have never — even as a pretty skilled language student — been happy with a 1-hour session. I always request a 30 minute timeslot when I’m a novice in a new language. It’s just too much to handle at once. If the teacher (or you) only charges by the hour, the charge for that other half-hour could go toward writing up an original reading and recording it, for example, so that the student feels they are getting good value. It’s also good to remember that all that outside prep work is unpaid — you are being paid only for the actual time on camera, if you’re being paid at all — and those costs have to be factored in if you’re planning on even making coffee money from online teaching. Nothing wrong with doing it for love, but it’s also good to remember that there are folks who rely on online teaching to make a living, and pass students to them whenever possible if you’re not really invested in a particular person’s language learning.

These are just some of the basic differences between face-to-face teaching of a class and one-on-one teaching by distance that I’ve noticed over a number of years of doing distance teaching. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the brain still needs to comprehend, and it still needs to comprehend numerous times (especially for beginners, whom I’m always thinking of when I talk about how to teach). So the most important thing is to not skimp on the repetition, the recaps, and the comprehension checks just because there’s one person who “looks like they get it” in front of you.