Busy teachers know all too well how hectic things can get. The moment a class finishes, preparation for the next one looms large, and many of us, especially newer teachers, find themselves experiencing a lot of stress.
Uncertainty over the content of the next class, the presentation methods to be used, the resources we’ll need, the way we’ll manage time or structure or assignments... all can bring a sense of unease, that things might be getting on top of us. With this comes stress, and all the damaging results it brings.
A lot of these problems come from a single source: the lack of an overarching plan to guide the flow of our classes. We might have a syllabus which describes the course aims and expectations, but it doesn’t always feature a week-by-week breakdown of the course content, and almost never includes a day-by-day guide. This is where a little advanced planning comes in very useful. Teachers who adopt the routine of planning the semester, and each week, in advance tend to find their stress levels easing off; the Big Decisions surrounding the course have already been made, leaving them to perfect the details. It is a real weight off the mind, and particularly when preparing your first run at a new course, it can really help.
My aim is to help put your teaching on firmer ground and to remove mystery from your upcoming classes. You might have your own methods; these are simply ideas to alleviate stress and help your language teaching become more effective and enjoyable.
Here are 5 straightforward ways to apply planning techniques to your teaching.
Try These 5 Great Ways to Plan Your Teaching
Organize by Textbook Unit
Most every course has a textbook, and it’s the natural place to start. Will you proceed through the units in order? If you can see logic in jumping around, then consider that too; I don’t think I’ve ever taught a grammar text, for example, from beginning to end, preferring to hop from topic to topic, depending on student learning needs and other material being covered.
Each unit or chapter might have stated aims, and these could become your own. It might also have built-in practice and review exercises but, again, you might not find it best to proceed through the unit in the printed order; using the review questions from the final page might work well in the middle of the week, for example, or a lengthy reading exercise might usefully be moved to a day when you know you’ll have more time.
Each day could have:
- A language point, collection of vocabulary or skill to be learned and developed
- Practice exercises, preferably of a variety of styles – some controlled practice, such as gap-fills and multiple choice, but also some free practice, those exercises which require spontaneous, natural use of the language. Try to mix these each day so that the aim is production, not simply the completion of tasks.
- Review exercises, perhaps for homework. Error corrections are a good task to include.
- An activity which changes the pace, gets the students up and out of their seats, requires them to work with a variety of people, or uses a different skill (e.g. art, theater, composition or role-play)
Organize by Learning Needs"I passionately believe that the best judge of a students’ needs is NOT, in fact, a textbook writer who has never met them."
We can go further than varying the order of textbook units, or exercises. I passionately believe that the best judge of a students’ needs is not, in fact, a textbook writer who has never met them. It is their teacher, who sees them regularly, hears their production, gets to know them as individuals, and can build up an understanding of their learning needs much more precisely than the (albeit excellent) writers of a generalized textbook. This belief is at the center of Needs Analysis, a vital skill for any teacher. Once made a habit, evaluating your students’ needs in an individual, specific way will bring enormous dividends. Here’s how I’ve been doing it in my ESL classroom:
LISTEN: All four skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) are important, but it is through speaking that our students will carry out most of their foreign-language interaction. I’ve found dramatic and surprising differences between the written and spoken grammar of my students, for example, leading me to question just how much of the material they truly understand. For me, language ability is not truly measured by tests, but by spontaneous, everyday interaction. A student could be a grammar test wizard but nevertheless make numerous spoken grammar errors because the skills transfer from written to spoken has not successfully taken place. Listening to your students, and taking lots of notes on their spoken problems, teaches us about their progress in a way written work cannot.
SYNTHESIZE: Are there problems which most or all of your students have? Do they all forget to add the third-person ‘s’ to verbs, or mix up ‘he’ and ‘she’? Pull together your research data and form a short list of mistakes which are common to the majority of the class. These can then be addressed very specifically, encouraging the students to self-correct; raising the awareness of the rolled ‘r’ sound among Indonesian students, for example, produced huge dividends when the students began – gleefully, and without judgment – to correct each other.
Once teased out, these issues become the learning aims for the week, or the semester. Your class content then becomes truly responsive, integrating some progress through the textbook with regular, focused ‘asides’ which address specific problems.
SET GOALS: What will the students be able to do at the end of the class that they can’t do at the beginning? It’s the perennial question, but many of us lose sight of its importance when swamped by a dozen competing demands. Take 30 seconds before class to clarify these aims for yourself, and another 30 after class to analyze whether they’ve been met. If they haven’t, try again tomorrow.
Organize by Target Concept
Imagine this: a business English teacher is planning his week. He really wants to help the students understand the 2008 credit crisis, but they have only a basic understanding of finance. Here’s his inner monologue:
“On Monday we’ll review the different ways of borrowing money. That way, the vocab will be ready. On Tuesday, we’ll talk about the benefits of securing a low-interest loan, and the funding relationships between state-owned banks and enterprises. Once that notion is clear, we’ll move on to riskier forms of funding and talk about predatory lending. This leads into the 2008 crisis and mortgage mis-selling, which we’ll read about and discuss on Thursday. Finally, we’ll have a debate about regulation of the financial services sector.”
He has taken his students from, “This is a bank loan,” all the way through to, “This is how we might regulate Wall Street,” simply by following a logical sequence. Once the concept is decided, plot a pathway from the simple to the complex, deciding which steps are necessary along the way.
Organize by Skills Area
Integrated classes – those addressing language points by using all four skills – have been found to be successful around the world. If you teach General English, your weekly plan could be designed to ensure that each class contains a little of each skill; planning this way makes it possible to seamlessly fit in every aspect. Without the plan, it’s unlikely that all four skills will be covered, running the risk of leaving the students with a lopsided skills base. This also helps chart how much time you’ve spent on each skill, a useful resource for future planning.
Organize by Grammar Point
One of the best syllabi my colleagues and I designed originated in a simple list of grammar points. We brainstormed the situations in which that grammar is normally used, and assigned interesting and relevant topic areas to each point. For instance, the third conditional – “if I had gone to market this morning, we would have had enough eggs for breakfast” – can be practiced through discussing wishes and regrets, and designing alternative histories for each other. Modal verbs (should, could, may, etc) are usefully practiced through situations which involve giving advice to a friend, deciding on appropriate regulations for a school, or judging relative levels of probability. Count and non-count nouns get a thorough workout with dialogue-building based on shopping, designing recipes, and discussing the fair distribution of natural resources.
10 minutes spent on planning is worth a hundred, in reality, because it brings a logical flow to your teaching week and lowers stress levels by removing uncertainty.
I hope that you’ll benefit from drawing up this ‘big picture’ for your teaching.