You’ve just picked up a brand new student for private EFL/ESL classes. Congratulations! But what on earth are you going to teach them? What do they want to learn? What kind of personality are they?

Preparing for new private students is something new and experienced EFL/ESL teachers have trouble with. Every class is different. It’s not like at school where there’s a set syllabus. You have to come up with the lesson content yourself and take responsibility for your learners’ progression.

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The first stage is to conduct a needs analysis. This is an overly technical term that means you have to figure out how good the student is at English and what they need (and want) to learn.

It’s easier than it sounds. Sure, there’s some skill involved, but if you follow the process in this article, you’ll be able to do it, no matter how little teaching experience you have.

First, we’re going to look at what exactly a needs analysis is, and why you should do one. Then we’ll go through the 12-step guide to getting it right.

What is a needs analysis and why is it important?

A needs analysis is a method of learning the strengths, weaknesses, goals, and preferences of a student. It’s typically performed in the first class. It can include questionnaires, conversation, targeted exercises and communication with any third parties (e.g. parents or employers).

Essentially, it’s figuring out what and (this is often overlooked) how you should teach your student. It’s the first step in developing a relationship.

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Teaching is a social activity. Gone are the days of standing in front of the class and lecturing while pupils write down every word you say. Modern education is rooted in personalities and connections.

This is especially true in private tutoring. Working with an individual, or a small group, allows the teacher to know students on a much deeper level, and can precisely target their learning for maximum success.

If you’re serious about improving your students’ English, you need to foster those relationships. A needs analysis is the first step. Think of it like a “getting to know you” exercise.

12 steps for a perfect needs analysis

  1. Keep it light
  2. Prepare for anything
  3. Establish goals – what are these classes for?
  4. Learn any third-party requirements
  5. Get to know each other – interests, hobbies, etc.
  6. Find their comfort zone
  7. Ask targeted but friendly questions
  8. Note down strengths and weaknesses
  9. Use activities to assess confidence and group dynamics
  10. Let them know your teaching style
  11. Consider space and resources available
  12. Consolidate and continue

1. Keep it light

The term “needs analysis” sounds technical and serious. It makes me think of inspection, data, and calculation, when in reality, it’s a lot friendlier than that.

You can find plenty of formal questionnaires and assessments online, as well as lists of targeted questions, all of which have their merit, but come across extremely formal and direct. This isn’t the best impression to make. And if you’re teaching young children, good luck getting them to fill out a self-assessment form.

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I prefer a lighter touch. Use skillful conversation and gentle probing to learn about the student without making them feel like they’re in an interrogation. Remember, your first class sets the tone for future ones.

Different ages require different approaches. And throughout the following steps, I’ll make distinctions where necessary. But the general idea is to have a seemingly “normal” class while using carefully designed conversations and activities to give you insight into your students’ needs.

2. Prepare for anything

You don’t know what to expect from your student(s) in your first private class. You may think the two nine-year-old boys will want to play and have fun, but maybe they’re extremely focused and would rather practice grammar.

Or, perhaps the adult student who seemed chatty when you were organsing the class online turns out to be extremely shy in person.

  1. Prepare a raft of activities. It may seem like a lot of work, but you can use them for all your future needs analysis classes. It’ll pay off in the long run and give you flexibility now.
  2. Get a variety of questions. Some may be for targeting specific grammar points (more on that later), while others may be about finding what their interests and hobbies are.
  3. Bring a reading exercise, a short video, and several games of varying energy levels. You won’t use all of them. But you need them available kn order to adapt to whatever happens in the class.

With games, keep them simple. You don’t want to spend half the class trying to explain the rules, so make sure they’re all easy to learn and don’t need lots of materials or a large space. Prepare a few relaxed games, some more exciting games (done at the table) and one high-energy, physical game for kids.

For game ideas, check out my various lists. I have something for every situation, so click the links to find what works best for you:
9 EFL/ESL Speaking Games & Activities Perfect for Beginners
9 EFL/ESL Games and Activities for Intermediate Learners
9 EFL/ESL Games and Activities for Advanced Learners
9 High Energy EFL/ESL Games for Boosting Vocabulary

3. Establish goals – what are these classes for?

One of the first things you need to learn about your student(s) is why they want private English classes.

Is it to improve their job prospects? Pass an exam? Improve pronunciation? Practice conversation? Or do they just want to get better at English generally?

In some cases, you’ll know this before the first class. They may have hired you for the sole purpose of helping them prepare for an exam. Often adults will say they just want conversation.

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The next thing you need to do is hone in. If they want to pass the exam, why? How confident do they feel about their chances – are you helping them get over the line or do you need to give them a massive boost? When are they planning to take the test?

And if it’s conversation, who do they hope to speak to in the future? Is it for travel? To broaden their connections with potential business partners?

In the case that they just want to improve their general English, ask them why it’s important to them. Why are they willing to make this time and financial commitment?

This step is vital because it sets the direction for the rest of the needs analysis.

4. Learn any third-party requirements

Sometimes, your students aren’t the ones setting up the class. Two common examples of this are company-provided business classes and parents wanting their kids to get extra support.

In both situations, the goals of the students may not match those of the third party who pays for the lessons.

Unfortunately, this means the student might not want to be there. I’ve taught plenty of classes with kids who would much rather be running around outside with their friends instead of learning English, no matter how engaging the classes are.

If you have students who don’t want to take part, read my article on how to get to the bottom of the problem: What to Do if Private EFL/ESL Students Won’t Participate.

You’re beholden to the person who pays you. If you don’t fulfill their requirements, then don’t expect the classes to last very long.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take into account the students’ wants. There’s a balance. Most of the time, you can compromise between what the third party requires and what the student prefers.

I can’t speak much for business classes, but in my experience, most parents just want you to improve their child’s English in whatever way you see fit. They may prefer a more dynamic or natural approach than what they get at school.

5. Get to know each other – interests, hobbies, etc.

Developing a tutor-student relationship is a rewarding experience. While you don’t want things to get too informal, you can create wonderful connections around shared interests and hobbies.

Once you’ve established the goals of the class, lighten the mood a bit by asking some questions like:

  • Do you like sport? What’s your favourite?
  • What kind of music do you listen to?
  • What’s your favourite film of all time?

Of course, for young children, ask simpler questions, like their favourite colour or what pets they have. And for adults, you can go further and inquire about their job, their children, or what they do to disconnect.

When you find something that’s unique and interesting, go a little deeper. And if you share any interests or hobbies, get stuck into that.

I teach in Spain, where football (soccer) is a huge part of the culture. As a big fan myself, it’s easy to connect with lots of my students. Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon around the world, so that may be another popular source of common ground.

Finding these links establishes rapport. It also gives you something meaningful to base the first few classes around.

6. Find their comfort zone

By now, you should have a reasonable idea about how comfortable your student is at speaking English with someone they’ve never met before.

Comfort zone is not the same as ability. Many students are not confident when approaching the limits of their ability, and will instead fall back on the basics. Others, meanwhile, will try things well beyond their means and make all sorts of errors.

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Is your student comfortable talking for extended amounts of time, or do they give short answers? Do they ask you any questions? Do they attempt complex structures, or do they give up in the middle of the sentence when things get tough?

Most students in their first class will stay well within their comfort zone. That’s fine. But if they’re extremely reluctant to take risks, you need to consider that for future classes. Make a note to work on their self-confidence.

7. Ask targeted but friendly questions

Once you’ve had a chat about what you both like and dislike, transition to questions to test the ability of your student.

Avoid treating this like an interrogation or speaking test. Ask questions naturally and in a friendly way, and where possible, adapt them to follow on from previous ones.

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Here are some standard questions you could ask:

  • Did you go on holiday last summer?
  • Have you watched any films this year?
  • What would you do if you won the lottery?

These three questions focus on different grammar points (past simple, present perfect and second conditional respectively) so pay attention to their use of grammar when responding.

Standard questions are fine, but you can make them even better. Adapt them to the hobbies and interests you learned about earlier. For a football fan:

  • Did you watch the (insert favourite football team) match last week?
  • Have you ever watched your team play in the stadium?
  • If you were the coach, which player would you try to sign first?

Or, for Harry Potter enthusiasts:

  • When did you first read the Harry Potter books?
  • Have you watched any of the films recently?
  • What house would you be in if you went to Hogwarts?

Do you see how these questions feel less like an interrogation and more like a friendly chat? Your students may not even know you’re assessing their ability.

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Preparing a wide range of questions is vital to always having something appropriate to talk about. Like above, adapt them to your students’ interests, but also modulate them to their age and ability.

For example, if my class is with six-year-olds who haven’t learnt much English yet, I’m not going to ask them a question with the second conditional. It’ll just stress them out.

In contrast, if your students show a very high level, challenge them with more complex structures and vocabulary.

8. Note down strengths and weaknesses

Taking notes during this process is a must. Yes, it makes it seem a little more like an assessment, but if you don’t bring attention to it, students won’t be put off.

You may want to prepare a checklist of grammar structures and vocabulary that you specifically target, or you might prefer to write down things as they appear.

Focus on both strengths and weaknesses. They’re equally important. Weaknesses will tell you some things you need to work on, but strengths will tell you what you don’t need to spend so much time on.

Taking notes while having a conversation is a little tricky, so write shorthand and don’t worry about keeping things neat. Just put down ideas to look at later.

Remember not just to make notes about what they say, but also how they respond to what you say. You can assess their listening skills as well as speaking.

I like to use A4 dry-erase pockets like mini-whiteboards and take a photo of my notes at the end of the class. This saves on paper and means I keep a digital copy.

A4 dry-erase pockets are a must for all private EFL/ESL tutors. Find out all the equipment I recommend by reading 9 Items Every EFL/ESL Teacher Needs for Brilliant Classes.

9. Use activities to assess confidence and group dynamics

Once you have finished the conversations about interests and asked some targeted questions, move on to some more structured activities.

The point at which you do this depends on the class. With students who don’t speak much, your initial conversations will be short (and potentially awkward) so get into the activities early.

On the flip side, you may have a very chatty student, in which case delay the activities, and maybe even spend the whole class talking.

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At this stage in the session, you should be able to make an informed choice about which activities to use, based on ability and energy level. If you prepared well, you’ll have plenty to choose from.

With children, go for a fun game. You may have to do a couple of games if one falls flat or finishes early, so make sure you’ve got something extra in your pocket. If you can, slowly increase the energy to finish on a high.

For great game ideas, check out my lists:
9 EFL/ESL Speaking Games & Activities Perfect for Beginners
9 EFL/ESL Games and Activities for Intermediate Learners
9 EFL/ESL Games and Activities for Advanced Learners
9 High Energy EFL/ESL Games for Boosting Vocabulary

For exam preparation and more serious classes, do a reading or writing exercise. A favourite of mine is to get a short story and chop it up into 8-10 parts, then have the students put it in order. Here’s a silly story I have used before.

If you have an individual student, notice their confidence during the class. It’s normal to be shy at the start. Later on in the hour, they may open up and relax.

With groups, pay attention to how they interact. Who is the dominant student, and who stays quiet? Watch out for potential conflicts – they’re unlikely to cause issues in the first lesson, but they might boil over in later sessions.

How do they respond to competition? Are they good at collaborating? This will inform your future lesson planning, so try to gather as much information as possible.

For more ideas for activities, check out 9 Fun EFL/ESL Games & Ideas With Standard Playing Cards and 9 Exciting EFL/ESL Activities for Writing & Spelling.

10. Let them know your teaching style

All students are unique, and so are all teachers. The first lesson is not only an opportunity for you to get an idea of your students, but for them to find out what you’re like.

After all, teacher-student interactions are a two-way process. While they’re not going to plan any classes for you, the expectations you establish in this first class set the bar for all subsequent lessons.

This is why I avoid formal questionnaires and direct interrogation. It gives the impression that lessons will follow that pattern, when really, I’m a relaxed and friendly teacher.

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My primary aim in the first lesson is to show students they’re in a safe place. Mistakes are embraced rather than mocked, and they have agency over their own learning.

With children, you have to set the expectations for behaviour. If you let them get away with playing up in the first class, good luck keeping them under control next week. As they get more accustomed to you, they’ll push the limits.

But that doesn’t mean you should come in with strict discipline. Just let them know the boundaries early on, and, although they’ll push them in subsequent lessons, they’ll know what to expect from you. Frequent communication with parents helps massively.

Show a bit of personality. You want to feel comfortable with your students (within the limits of being professional), so express your humour, energy and interests. Students much prefer being taught by interesting humans than people who come across as robots.

11. Consider space and resources available

The space and resources you have determine what type of activities and games you can do.

Ask students where they’d like to have the class and what kind of materials are available, for example do they bring their own writing materials, or will you supply them?

Is there space to do arts and crafts? Could you have a conversation class while walking around town?

Think about where you all feel most comfortable and what environments are most conducive to learning. It may be fun to have lessons in the garden, but is it too distracting?

To learn more about where you should hold your private EFL/ESL classes, read my advice here: Where Should In-Person Private EFL/ESL Classes Take Place?

12. Consolidate and continue

When you get to the end of the first class, you should have a strong idea about who your students are, what their English ability is, and what they respond well to.

Take some time after class to go over your notes, couple them with the general feeling you got and write (or voice record) a brief summary. Do this before you forget what happened.

Now you’re ready to plan what to do in the next session, and in the long term.

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But don’t stop there. In a sense, every class has an element of needs analysis. Build upon your initial assessment in the second and third lessons, to really hone in on the profiles and personalities of your students. Adapt and adjust as you get to know them better.

You may find in the third session, a student reacts angrily to losing games. That’s part of the needs analysis you need to incorporate. Or you may discover the mistakes with second conditional from the first class were probably just a blip because of nerves, and in subsequent lessons they use it perfectly.

You’ll never really finish needs analysis, because people are complex and ever-changing. It’s a constant journey of learning about people and designing tailored sessions which unqiuely benefit them. For me, that’s the joy of teaching.

Now you’ve done the needs analysis, the next step is to start designing and constructing amazing classes. Learn how in the next article in this series – Principles of Designing Amazing Private EFL/ESL Lessons

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