Ambitious ELT

Basics of Lesson Planning

The ADOS at our school conducted observations over December and noticed that our new teachers needed help with lesson planning, so she asked me to conduct a session on the topic to help them out. This is my first month as our company’s in-service teacher trainer, and I should be doing two unique sessions a month. This is based on my first one with our teachers.

These sessions are designed for teachers in Kazakhstan who do not have CELTA. Teachers from Kazakhstan receive a more traditional type of training, and many of the newly qualified teachers I have talked to have expressed sentiments about not feeling prepared for the realities of teaching. This is not to say, however, that these teachers are under-qualified, but that they may not have had access to the same level of training that CELTA or CerTESOL qualified teachers have had. These teachers come to us with solid basics, but without the ability to knit those basics together.

Please feel free to leave any constructive criticism, feedback or questions in the comments section 🙂

Please note that while all of this is my own work, I have obviously been influenced by previous trainers and teachers I have worked with, as well as two years of trawling through the web to help improve my own practice. Any similarities to other works is completely coincidental, please contact me if you believe that anything is referenced incorrectly.

Why do we plan lessons?

Lesson plans don’t exist just to make our bosses happy (though, in reality, that is a part of it). Lesson plans are for the students and for the teacher. Teachers who walk into class with a solid plan usually feel more confident and have better lessons.

Lesson plans are also a very useful tool when measuring how effective we are as teachers. We can look at plans for lessons which we had taught in the past and see how our teaching (or ideas about teaching) have changed over time.

How much time should we realistically dedicate to planning our daily lessons?

In an ideal world, we would have infinite time to plan our lessons. We could spend days doing research and finding materials and designing our own materials. We do NOT live in an ideal world. Realistically, the maximum amount of time you should use to plan your lesson is half the time it takes to teach. For example, if you are going to teach an 80-minute lesson, do not spend more than 40 minutes preparing for it.

Realistically, with the amount of lessons that most of us teach, I think 20-30 minutes is what you should be aiming for. There are occasions when you will use less time (for example, if you taught the same lesson to a different group the week before) or more time (if your students are having a problem and you need to find a way to help them that is new to you).

The 20-30 minute aim is not something that new teachers will achieve quickly. I sometimes manage to get my planning time down to that, but I often spend up to 45 minutes planning each lesson, and sometimes up to an hour and a half. Lesson planning isn’t a science. The fact that we have limited time to plan lessons isn’t something that helps us, or our students, but it’s something we have to keep in mind. Many of us have back-to-back lessons, which severely limits the time we can spend planning lessons.

I would also not recommend staying up late in the night to plan lessons. I used to think that things like this were a sign of dedication and hard work, but I came to realise that showing up to class exhausted ends up negating all of that hard work. What you do in the  actual lesson is more important that writing the perfect plan.

What should I think about when planning my lesson?

  • What the students have already done
  • What the students already know (which is sometimes very different to the first point)
  • What effect the lesson will have on your students
  • If students will leave your lesson with the ability to do something they couldn’t do before.
  • If the materials in the coursebook are actually helpful to your students
  • What supplementary materials you could use
  • Why you want to use those supplementary materials
  • The rationale behind the activities you do
  • What difficulties you think the studies will have with the materials
  • If students will be bored by your lesson
  • Interaction patterns
  • How long each activity should take

What’s the difference between what students have done and what they know? If it was done in class, then shouldn’t they be okay with it?

People learn in different ways. There are times when we’ll choose exactly the right approaches to tackling a topic in class; or students will come in with a bit of basic knowledge; or students will find it easy to grasp because of personal experience or similarities to their L1. Sometimes, though, one lesson isn’t enough. We need to look at our students very carefully. We need to be very aware of what they have and haven’t grasped.

For example, in my school we co-teach. Students have three lessons a week, two with a local teacher and one with a native. The local teacher I was sharing a class with (an A2 teenager class) left notes saying that she had covered the present perfect, but said they needed more practice.

I walked into class and started my lesson as I usually do: by asking them what they remember (books closed!) from the previous lesson. They told me they had covered the present perfect. I asked a basic question: “When do we use it?” and was met with a full 90 seconds of silence. The teacher I share the class with was not to blame. Sometimes our students just need extra practice.

Thinking about what your students are going to leave the lesson with.

Back in September (2013) I had the amazing opportunity to spend some time with Grant Kempton, a Professor, ELT Writer for publishers such as Pearson, and teacher trainer. I was still the methodologist for my company at the time, and we were working together on a conference for CUP and Pearson books being used in Public Schools in Kazakhstan. He also agreed to do a Q&A session with our school’s teachers.

One thing that he said that day has stuck in my head: “Language in the hand.”

What he referred to was the need for students to leave each lesson with something they didn’t have when they originally walked in. This is good for business reasons (reality check time!), but also great for students’ self esteem, and keeping teachers focused.

We should walk into each lesson with defined aims for the students. Many of us choose to use “Can-Do-Statements,” and keeping such things in mind helps us focus our lessons, in both planning and execution stages. Aims such as “students will be able to describe their own appearance accurately” help teachers to choose activity types, interaction patterns and other aspects of the lesson.

Sometimes, especially with lower level students, your aims for the students could be as simple as using the lesson’s target vocabulary, or useful phrases such as “Where is the bus stop?” and other times you’ll have more complicated aims, such as “students will be able to use reported speech in order to relay important points from a staff meeting to their colleagues.” As the teacher, you need to focus on realistic and attainable aims for the students, and work hard to help them achieve those aims.

What’s rationale?

Rationale is the “why” of the equation. We need to think about exactly why we do each activity or exercise in class. Doing something “because it’s in the book” isn’t good enough. Sometimes the book isn’t enough, because the books aren’t designed with your specific students in mind. If the books were enough, we wouldn’t have jobs.

We can’t plan good lessons unless we understand how the activities we bring to class help the students. We need to be aware of what skills and sub-skills they activate and develop. Also, when a student asks us why they have to do something, we should answer. Just saying “Because I’m your teacher and I said so” is unacceptable. We’re not children, we’re all old enough to give logical and reasonable responses to explain our decisions, especially when people are paying us to make those decisions.

How can I know what difficulties students will have in a lesson I haven’t taught yet?

You’re a teacher. We know when things are going to be difficult because we know our students and we know our subject. Certain things, such as articles, for example, are always difficult for Russian speakers. The third conditional is often difficult for teenagers, as they usually forget the other three conditionals!

Once we have a class at least three or four times it becomes easier to anticipate what they’re going to find difficult, as we get to know them. This becomes easier with experience.

Micheal Swan’s “Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems” (Cambridge University Press; 2 edition; May 2001) is a great tool for new teachers. It explains the difficulties that learners coming from different linguistic backgrounds may have and possible ways of overcoming these issues, among other things.

What are “interaction patterns?”

Interaction patterns are different types of communication in the class. We usually split interaction patterns into the following ways:

  • S -> S (Student to student; pairwork)
  • S -> Ss (A student presenting information to the class or their group)
  • Ss -> Ss (Groupwork)
  • S -> T (Student talking to the teacher)
  • Ss -> T (Students talking to the teacher; class discussion)
  • T -> Ss (Teacher talking to the class or a group)
  • T -> S (Teacher to an individual student)

You need to have a variety of different interaction patterns throughout the lesson. If your lesson consists of only (T -> Ss) then you aren’t teaching, you’re just talking. More variety means that students are always engaged. If they do the same thing for the whole lesson they will get bored, and so will you.

Do I need a long, detailed lesson plan for EVERY lesson?

Of course not! If we had to do a CELTA-style lesson plan for every single lesson, we wouldn’t have time to teach! Doing one long lesson plan a week can be really beneficial, but you don’t need to do twenty a week!

Even writing basic notes on what you’re going to do in the lesson, the aims you have the students and the personal development objectives you have for yourself is extremely beneficial, as long as serious thought went into the lesson. This provides us with proof that we actually prepared for the lesson, which helps us with administration and with parents. It also stops lessons from “running away” with us, as we have a general plan about what’s supposed to happen in class. This is actually an issue that I sometimes have with higher level classes, and I find that having some basic structure for the lesson written down before I walk into the room helps me to guide the class in the direction that I want them to go in, instead of the lesson degenerating into just class discussions for two hours.

What do I do with my lesson plan when the lesson is finished?

Old lesson plans shouldn’t be lining your bird cages; one of the most important aspects of planning lessons is reflection. We need to sit down and think about if we’ve achieved our goals for the lesson or not; and more importantly: WHY.

Did our choice of activities go down well? Did they have the desired effect? Were our instructions clear enough? Did we anticipate the right difficulties? Were there any surprises? We always tell our students to learn from their mistakes, and we have to do the same. Reflection on your lessons is one of the most vital parts of a teacher’s professional development.

This reflection also helps us plan future lessons. If we know that Activity A fell flat, but that Activity B was a raging success, then we know how to proceed with our students. Sharing old lesson plans with other teachers and discussing them is also great for getting feedback and improving on your technique.

Here’s a sample lesson plan that I use as an example for my trainees. Please note that this is NOT a good lesson, I had written this in December 2012 as a sample while sick with the flu. There are very many flaws with the lesson itself, and this is used for the sole purpose of demonstrating the level of thought and preparation that goes into lesson planning. Please do not use this lesson in class as is, but feel free to restructure it or steal pieces of it for your own class, should you wish to do so.

Created by Theo Navarro - December 2012

Created by Theo Navarro – December 2012

Created by Theo Navarro - December 2012

Created by Theo Navarro – December 2012

 

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4 comments on “Basics of Lesson Planning

  1. michelleos69
    January 30, 2014

    I found this very informative. Your lesson plan format is different than my Celta but detailed and clear aims.

    Like

  2. Gulmira
    January 31, 2014

    I disagree with your example of the present perfect situation when you came to class after the other teacher introduced it and asked when we use it. Meaning comes way after form and pronunciation. Moreover, present perfect is one if the most challenging grammar items to comprehend. I would probably either continue practicing the form or use contextualized grammar presentation.

    Like

    • TheoNavarroELT
      January 31, 2014

      Hi Gulmira,

      I don’t think I was clear enough, I apologise. That was an example of a situation where I needed to anticipate the students’ difficulties. I didn’t mean to imply that either the other teacher or the students did anything wrong. The reason that it was used as an example is because it’s such a difficult grammar point, for exactly the reasons you mentioned 🙂

      Like

  3. brieweuitdievreemde
    February 12, 2014

    In addition to being informative, this blog post is also VERY well-written. While teaching in Korea, I spent hours researching TEFL and TEFL-related topics. In the process I read countless articles/blogposts by TEFL authors. Your writing is clear, coherent, to the point and interesting which is a a combination that even experienced TEFL authors don’t always achieve. Keep it up! -Dalene

    Like

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