Lesson Planning

Why do you need to plan lessons ? In an article on the site Teaching English, Callum Robertson suggests that a lesson is like a journey and the lesson plan is the map. It shows you your starting point, where you are trying to get to, and the route which you need to take in order to get there. Like journeys, lessons are usually (though not always) more successful when these three things are clearly planned in advance.

Inexperienced teachers often find that lesson planning takes up a considerable amount of time. It’s inevitable – you need to think through everything for the first time, look for activities without knowing exactly what’s available and where, and so on. When you do an initial training course you’re usually asked to make your thinking explicit by writing out your plans fully –essential if your tutor is to understand what you’re trying to do, and also an extremely useful way of helping you really clarify your ideas. Back in your own classroom and as you become more experienced, the amount of time you need to spend on planning will decrease. Apart from the fact that you’ll know how to find materials more easily, you also won’t need to write everything out quite so explicitly – often your plan will be no more than a list of notes with an activity sequence. But this isn’t the same as not planning. Once you’ve used a particular type of activity several times, you’ll know how to set it up and use it most effectively – the knowledge is in your head and you no longer need to write it down.

One way of cutting down your lesson planning time considerably while you’re still gaining experience is by following a good coursebook with an explicit Teacher’s Book, and/or by using the ready-made lessons plans which are available from various sites on the net. But no class is exactly the same as any other, and you will still have to consider if the teaching sequence which the Teacher’s Book suggests, or the steps on the plan you’ve found are exactly right for your particular learners. For example, the plan may assume the knowledge of a language area (a structure, a function or a lexical area) that your learners may have seen before but have not yet fully assimilated. In that case, you’ll have to insert a stage into the lesson where you revise the area before continuing with the activities suggested.

So what is an effective, well planned lesson? There’s no way of laying down a template which will work for every single lesson – one of the things which makes teaching so challenging and stimulating is that there are exceptions to every rule. For every occasion where, in the rest of the article, I may say that something “should” happen, there will be times when it would be better to do something different. I’m also, for the moment, ignoring a number of alternative methodologies which would argue for a different approach to the lesson. But there are general principles which apply to most situations, and these can be summarised in the words clarity, balance, coherence, variety, and flexibility.

First of all, the lesson needs to have clear, precise objectives. These may be functional/structural, lexical, phonological, skills or other types of objective, but will generally need to include a balance of old and new material. There are two reasons for this : firstly, previously taught items need to be constantly recycled or they may easily be forgotten, and secondly the course will also seem more coherent to the students if each lesson builds on what has been taught before. For example, a lesson in an Italian course aiming to teach the expression (Non) mi piace / mi piacciono (I (don’t) like ...) might start by revising food and drink items which had been taught previously, and then present and practise the new language by finding out the students likes and dislikes.

After you have decided on your objectives, you then need to provide a logical, coherent sequence of activities in order to achieve them. The students need to be moved gradually from zero knowledge of an item or skill to the point where they can use it spontaneously. This won’t happen in a single lesson of course – hence the need for constant recycling - and the teacher needs to recognise where the students are on the learning continuum and then help them move to the next stage – without trying to push them on too fast. For example, in the phase immediately after the students have first met the new language trying to move immediately into productive practice might well be moving too fast for the students. The insertion of one or two receptive practice activities would, on the other hand, give them the chance to hear more examples of the target item, and the time to assimilate more fully before being asked to produce it. This article discusses receptive practice in an ESL context, but the activities described can easily be adapted for other languages.

It’s not only the teacher but also the students who should understand the objectives of each lesson, recognise the logic and coherence of the activities and see how they contribute to achieving those objectives. There should be a recognisable beginning, middle and end to the lesson with activities flowing naturally from one into the other. The lesson shouldn’t resemble a “Monty Python” sketch – And now for something completely different … This coherence can be achieved by, for instance, centring the lesson around a single topic area, so that even though various language points are practised the lesson has a unifying theme. Conversely, the contexts and topics may change but the lesson focuses on a specific language point from start to finish. Furthermore, the lesson should end at a coherent point, where the students can see that “this is the end” and feel that they have completed and achieved something.

To achieve this, your objectives will need to be limited. Complex areas will need to be broken down into chunks or steps which you can deal with in single lessons, and you’ll need to predict the time each activity will take in order to make sure that everything “fits”. If it doesn’t, your objectives are still too broad and need to be broken down further.One of the most common problems of inexperienced teachers (and a lot of experienced ones!) is thinking that an activity will take less time than it actually needs. In addition, unforeseen problems may arise during the lesson which mean that the activity takles longer than you had planned. So keep your plan flexible. Decide on two or three activities which you must complete during the lesson and time them generously – especially if you know you tend to underestimate the time needed. For example, if you think an activity will take ten minutes, then allot it fifteen.Then, fit into the lesson various “if time” activities. These are optional activities which will give useful extra practice if you do have time to fit them in, but will not affect the flow of the lesson if you don’t. If you have to skip them, you can set them for homework if they’re written, or use them as a revision activity in a subsequent lesson so that they’re not “wasted”.

You also need to keep in mind that you need to teach the students, not the plan. There is no point ploughing on with planned activities which get progressively more difficult, if you see that the students are having excessive difficulty with the earlier ones. Again here your “if time” activities will come in useful. If you find you haven’t planned enough simple “obligatory” activities, then abandon the idea of going on to the more complex stages and of reaching the end of the plan. Use your easier “if time” activities to make sure that the students fully understand what they’re doing and leave the later more difficult activities for a future lesson.

The lesson also needs to be varied and engaging, or students will get bored and pace and concentration will drop. Variety can be achieved by :
  • Changing the activity type : written or oral exercises, listening etc.
  • Using different materials : pictures, the textbook, the board, video. However good the textbook may be, if nothing else is used for the whole lesson a drop in pace is almost certain.
  • Changing approach from lesson to lesson : for example, new language could sometimes be presented using a text, sometimes a dialogue, sometimes through pictures, and in various other ways. Too many different approaches might be confusing, but if the lesson has exactly the same format time after time, it’s likely to become predictable and boring. You need to achieve a balance between methods that the students are familiar with and which are therefore “unobtrusive” and reassuring, so that the students are free to concentrate on the content, and methods which are new, and therefore possibly more stimulating.
  • Varying teacher/student interaction patterns : different stages of the lesson should involve different T/S interaction patterns -teacher to class, students working individually, students working in pairs or groups. Similarly, students can change partners so that they’re not always working with the same people, or can do activities on their feet circulating amongst all the other members of the class. In particular, make sure that teacher/class work takes up no more than about one third of the total lesson time, and never goes on for longer than about ten minutes at a time.