My career as an English teacher started when I was fifteen, which is roughly a quarter of a century ago. At the end of 1980s, when the communist regime was collapsing, I was one of the few people in my little town who knew English, so I gave lessons to anybody and everybody. I taught children, teenagers and adults. I offered private tuition only, which we now call "1-2-1" teaching. Of course, I experimented with teaching two or three students at a time, and I even had this crazy idea of setting up my own language school. But instinctively I believed that only private tuition offered best value for money. After twenty-five years I am still certain of that.
Over three and a half years ago I started teaching Nicholas. At that time he went to junior secondary school, which we call 'gimnazjum' in Poland. Since his foreign language at school was German, his mother was a bit worried and wanted him to learn English, as this would help him greatly in senior secondary school (which we call 'liceum' here). Nicholas's mother and I have been friends for over twenty years, so we struck a deal quickly and her son started visiting me every week for his private lessons.
It turned out immediately that Nicholas was one of those rare cases; he had never been taught English in a formal way before. In 1988 it was strange to be 15 and know English. In 2008 it was strange to be 15 and NOT to know English. Of course, he had picked up a lot of vocabulary from computer games and songs but he didn't know any grammar, he couldn't build sentences, and in matters of studying habits he was truly a savage. I was a bit worried (I always worry when I start with a new person), but we set to work and after some time it turned out that there are two little blessings... First, Nicholas has a real talent for English: he wants to learn it, and his 'sticky' memory helps greatly. He remembers chunks of language after hearing them once or twice and his recall is amazing. The other thing is that whatever homework I set, Nicholas will do it.
After some months I decided that it would be good to have some goal we could work towards. Nicholas was like a sponge, so we decided that he would take PET exam in a year's time. So we worked hard, we did a lot of grammar and vocabulary work, we had a PET textbook, we solved plenty of past papers and, finally, the big day came. Nicholas took the written and oral parts. Then we had to wait a couple of weeks for the results. Those of you who expect a story of blazing success ('from zero to hero') will be disappointed. Yes, Nicholas passed. No, he didn't achieve Pass with Merit (it is any result above 85%). I think he was a bit unhappy with the result but I knew that we needed half a year more. I had decided to set the date of the exam so early for two reasons: to push Nicholas and to be done with PET before 'liceum'.
When Nicholas entered 'liceum', his formal instruction in English started. However, we continued our lessons and we set another goal: FCE in two years. I knew that school would be no help, so we needed a system. When it came to studying skills, Nicholas was still on the savage side and he needed a strong support. Besides it was not possible to do everything in two hours. So I had to devise a system. Every week Nicholas got an envelope with his homework and he was supposed to work on it every day. I didn't care what he did as long as he had all exercises done and all tasks solved. We managed to cover a vocabulary book, we did the necessary grammar AND grammar revision. We did a separate book on writing. Oh, and we managed to do four collections of past papers. I used a strategy of gradually adding straws instead of dumping a whole pile on the horses back and Nicholas didn't even know how he made into doing stuff which would normally seem undoable.
We also had a system of tracking Nicholas's progress. I recorded every score in FCE tasks on a special sheet and we observed a slow, gradual progress. We started with a lousy average of 40% but after two years Nicholas managed to achieve an average of 72%. When Nicholas took his FC exam, he was confident but at the same time a bit anxious because I didn't want him merely to pass the exam, but to obtain grade A, which is at least 80%. Life plays cruel jokes on us and this exam was no exception: Nicholas scored 74% (grade C). One per cent more and he would have scored grade B. We are not obsessed with grades, so we just accepted this score. It is more important for us that one year before the end of 'liceum' Nicholas knows that his predicted score in the final school-leaving exam (Matura) in English is around 80%. And we still have a couple of months.
After about 300 hours of private tuition Nicholas became a fairly competent speaker of English. His vocabulary range is pretty impressive, his pronunciation is good and clear, his grammatical mistakes are sporadic. We have to remember that summer camps in England also contributed to his success, but they were a mere bonus. However, it is even more important for us to know what Nicholas DOESN'T do. Nicholas doesn't commit certain mistakes systematically. Nicholas isn't afraid to communicate in English. Nicholas isn't unintelligible when he speaks. Nicholas doesn't panic before exams. Nicholas doesn't have to hurry.
Now we should have a look at Cathy. She is exactly the same age as Nicholas, and they even go to the same school. Similarly to Nicholas, Cathy wants to take an Extended Exam in English in May next year. Later, she wants to study finance or accounting at one of the Polish prestigious universities. She needs top scores in her exams because half a mark may decide whether she is accepted or not. That is why she decided to have private tuition with me.
Cathy's education in English took place mainly at state schools. Although Cathy is intelligent, well-organised and hard-working, the system cheated her and it shows. When she speaks English, one can hear a strong Polish accent. She has problems with uttering even basic words correctly and frequently there is a communication failure due to her being unintelligible. Cathy makes many grammatical mistakes and – this is a real problem – they are systematic: she had learned to do things in a wrong way and nobody had pointed it out to her. Cathy doesn't know much about the exam which she is to take in a couple of months and it becomes clearly visible when she has to do writing tasks. Cathy has serious gaps in her knowledge of English grammar and the syllabus for the exam is quite ruthless in this respect. Cathy has little time and she panics.
What will happen in May? I am pretty sure that both Nicholas and Cathy will pass their Extended Exam in English. They will even have good results, well above the national average. Nicholas will succeed because of four years of hard, systematic work. Cathy will succeed because of her resolve and internal drive. But let's look beyond this exam. What is their future going to be like? When it comes to English, Nicholas is in a better situation. Why? Because he doesn't carry a burden of school education and he has the advantage of not having to 'unlearn' things. His foundations are good and he will be able to progress at his own pace.
With Cathy it will be different – it will take years for to her to come to grips with her English. Maybe she will rely on what she already knows and to hell with communication and good grammar. Maybe she will pour hundreds of hours into restructuring and polishing her English. It will all depend on the amount of time she will have, and believe me, when you study banking or finance time becomes a scarce commodity. In five or ten years she will still be afraid to speak English, she will be making the same mistakes as today and she will be asking the same question: Why can't I speak English as fluently and effortlessly as Nicholas?
Cathy will always struggle with English because her teachers didn't care. They didn't care about her pronunciation and now she speaks with terrible accent. They didn't care about her grammar and now she commits many mistakes. They didn't care to explain the intricacies of vocabulary or rules of writing and now she has problems with constructing even a paragraph of decent writing. Cathy's English is twisted and sick; to correct it would take time and conscious (!) effort. And Cathy's teachers didn't care because both the system and tradition of teaching English in Polish schools didn't let them care. When you have to teach a mixed-ability group of twenty teenagers, and produce all the bureaucratic nonsense which your are expected you, suddenly you discover that there is no place for excellence and perfection in this factory of mass products.
After twenty-five years Nicholas and Cathy are a clear proof for me that private tuition is a far more superior way of teaching English than group teaching. Private tuition lets the teacher and student do more work in less time. Private tuition lets the teacher identify student's mistakes and bad habits, and correct them immediately. It also lets the teacher be flexible and focused on the student. And most important, it lets the teacher care. The results speak, quite literary, for themselves.