Short Activities to Assess a Private EFL Student’s English Skills Before Teaching Begins

Thailand students

During my many years teaching English (EFL) in Thailand, I taught many private students. EFL students like having private lessons as, while shy in a big group, many will speak English more if it’s just one-on-one.

Some teachers, who want to move into the private student world of EFL though, are not always sure what activities to do during the first couple of sessions, in order to accurately assess their private EFL student’s English language skills.

Over the years, I’ve discovered these three activities are a perfect way to assess my student’s English skills and give me a good jumping off point to develop future EFL lessons. You will need a two-hour session to finish all three activities.

Have a Real Conversation – As obvious as this might sound, you’d be surprised how many beginning EFL teachers want to jump right into teaching in their first lesson with a new private EFL student. Not only does that tend to freak out your new private student, it’s boring and dull, so don’t be surprised if they don’t come back.

During my first lesson with a new private EFL student, I always begin the lesson with a real conversation. No matter what level your student, as long as they’re above basic beginner, they should be able to hold a simple conversation, and answer basic questions.

Of course, don’t expect them to ask questions of you. That’s a skill often reserved for high-advanced students and, even then, not always possible.

When you arrive for your first lesson (I always meet my students at coffee shops, so we’re in a relaxed environment where being there seems a bit fun), start by explaining to your student you’ll do two to three activities today and the first one will be a general conversation.

Then begin to ask simple questions, “Where do you live?” “How many people in your family?”, “What’s your favorite food?” “Do you like music?” etc. Once the conversation begins, you’ll often find it naturally moves from topic to topic if your student is responding.

If however you’re only getting one or two word answers, your student is either shy or their English skills are low. Press on until you can assess which.

With the conversation, you’ll be able to assess three things quite easily.

A) How good are your new EFL student’s listening skills? If they’re giving you appropriate responses at least 75% of the time, their listening skills are good. If they’re misunderstanding more often than not, their listening skills are poor.

B) You’ll be able to assess how large of an English language vocabulary they have, and

C) After only a few minutes, you’ll begin to hear mistakes that are typical to that student, ie: they’re making the same or similar grammatical mistakes over and over again.

Now move onto activity number two.

Dictate a Short Written Passage – Few EFL teachers nowadays seem to think about giving a dictation. Not only is it the perfect way to assess your EFL student’s English skills, many students enjoy it.

I always choose a short passage from a children’s or teen book, depending on skill level. Choose a short paragraph and dictate the paragraph to your student, asking them to write down what they hear. Spell out words or names they are unfamiliar with, otherwise let them just write it down and then review it.

Upon review, you’ll see three things.

A) How good is their spelling?

B) How good are their listening skills? (If the passage doesn’t make sense when they have written it down, they are not hearing the words correctly, and

C) How good is their grammar? (They should be able to write something down and figure out if the grammar in the sentences they’re writing is correct).

I’ve even done this with advanced-beginner eight-year-olds, so don’t go in there thinking an advanced-beginner can’t do this. They can.

Two Important Work Sheets – For the last assessment activity, I have my new EFL student complete two work sheets I create myself. I don’t, however, sit there and let the student do the work. I do the worksheets with them, making it more fun and causing them to feel less nervous.

The first worksheet I create is of 15 questions of typical English grammar errors. Things like ‘have versus has’, sentences with grammatical errors where the student has to decide what is incorrect (you may be surprised how difficult EFL students find this) and questions with three versions of the same word, where the student has to decide the correct spelling.

The second worksheet is a short comprehension exercise, with five easy questions based on the information in the package. In Thailand, this is the failing of most EFL students as, even a short, easy passage can throw them for a loop when it comes to being able to answer what the story is about.

At the end of the third assessment activity, you should have a good idea of

A) The level your student is at,

B) Common mistakes she/he is making,

C) Listening, speaking, spelling and grammar skills and

D) The confidence level of your new student.

With all this in mind, it is easy to leave the first private lesson with a good grasp of things your EFL student should begin working on, in order to begin to see an improvement.