“Here’s the book you’ll use for class. I need your lesson plans by tomorrow.”
This was my introduction to teaching ESL. My supervisor gave me a book and little else and expected me to create a syllabus and a semester’s worth of lesson plans that would challenge and engage my students and see their language skills soar, all in just a day. Needless to say, I felt like I was in over my head.
I’ve come a long way since then, but it wasn’t always easy. Here’s what I’ve learned about taking a text book and creating an effective learning environment since then.
4 Important Steps to Take While Planning Your Semester
Look at the semester
The way I approach my syllabus design now is a lot different than it was for my first teaching job. Then, I took another teacher’s syllabus and copied it substituting my name for hers. Today, the first thing I do is look at the semester as a whole. I’ve taught in ESL programs that ran on four week semesters and others that required nine months of planning. Most of the time, though, my semesters last around 16 weeks. But whether my planning is for months or just days, I start the same. I look at the material I need to cover and divide it amongst semester. This way I have a very general lesson plan for the entire course.
For example, if I need to cover ten chapters in my text book (and it doesn’t matter if the school chooses that book or if I do) I make a full semester plan. If my semester is 16 weeks, I have 1.5 weeks to cover each of those 10 chapters, planning ahead for one week of review and catch up before finals.
Look at each chapter
Once I have my chapters penciled in on the calendar, I look at each one. I usually start with one or two. The other chapters I plan later. I make a rough plan by looking at the chapter and the topics it covers. Subheadings are my best friends during this process, and I schedule each of those topics on my weekly planer.
For example, if I have ten topics to cover for chapter one and seven days to do it, I look to see which topics I can teach together. Then I write each topic in its day on my calendar. I may teach two topics the first day, one the second through fourth, and then two the fifth and sixth days. I’ll leave the seventh day for the last topic and also plan some time for review and questions.
Plan each day
The last step in my lesson planning is deciding what we will actually do in class each day, and I typically plan about two weeks at a time. Often, my text book has exercises I can use in class with my students. I particularly like using partner work and oral activities when the text supplies them. Most written exercises I plan to assign for homework since I’d rather spend class time on communicative activities. Then I look for ways to supplement the activities in the book. This is when I think about learning styles and doing different types of activities throughout the chapter. I try to get my students moving, include physical props when possible, think about how they can communicate with each other, and plan projects, presentations, etc. If I have taught the material before, I look back on what I did and read my own post class notes. If I find activities that were successful, I include them in my plans. If I find activities that were a bomb or were particularly confusing, I make sure I don’t include them this time through. Once I plan each day, I know what activities my students will do in class, what they will do for homework, and that they will have a variety of learning experiences throughout the chapter. I also note any supplies or handouts I will need for class and make a list to keep with my lesson plans.
Daily planning is also when I make my instructional plan. I try to keep lecture to a minimum, but as a teacher I still need to present information to my students. When I plan my instruction, I look at what I have done in the past, make sure I understand the topic myself, and look for creative ways to present the information to my students.
Refresh your memory
The advantage to planning so far in advance is I don’t get the night-before-class-panic of not being prepared. The disadvantage is that I am more likely to forget what I planned to do, so every day before the next class I review my notes. I note any copies or supplies I will need and gather these. I may also tweak my plans if we are falling behind or are ahead of schedule. I have learned that flexibility is key for this type of planning, and I am always ready to add activities, cut them or shift them to another day on the calendar.
I don’t know if most teachers plan as far in advance as I do, but after fifteen years teaching ESL, this is what works for me. I like being prepared each day and being able to get the big picture of the school year up front. I find that with advance planning I don’t get that frantic feeling trying to cover half of the text book in the last week of class. I also find that my students learn better when I feel prepared and confident.
If you have a system that works for you it’s a good feeling, isn’t it? But if you have a text book and aren’t sure what to do next, maybe you’ll be able to learn from my experience. If you give it a try, good luck, and don’t be afraid to share what works for you with the other teachers around you.