Did you ever have a teacher who was a bit scatty or hare-brained, who never seemed to know what was coming next? Someone who was well-meaning, and probably very smart, but whose classes seemed to jump haphazardly from one topic to another?
They may have been a thoroughly nice person, but I suspect learning with them was frustrating. If a teacher isn’t organized and truly ready to teach, their students pick up on it straight away; long pauses and head-scratching slow down the pace of the class and undermine the students’ confidence in the learning process. The good news is that some simple techniques will ensure you seldom, if ever, find yourself at a loss in front of your class. Done thoroughly and in advance, good lesson planning will have your classes running like clockwork.
Lesson Planning for Beginners
Think about Time.
“I’ve got forty minutes of material for my class, but how am I going to fill the last ten?”
You’ve heard this before, and so have I, and frankly, I find it to be a troubling sign.
Time is a gift. It is an opportunity to positively affect the lives and learning of our students. Our role is not to ‘fill’ this time, but to make excellent use of it – the best possible use, in fact – in the service of the day’s learning aims. Consider how much time you’ll have, and use this as your starting point for the next set of decisions.
Decide your Learning Aims
“By the end of the class, what are my students going to be able to do?”
Consider this literally. You’ll begin at 8:00, and by 8:50, the students will have gained at least one new skill. What will this be? Here are some examples:
- Learning to more clearly and accurately pronounce a tricky sound (‘th’, s/z, f/p, p/b, etc)
- Learning to use a new grammatical structure (a tense, a conditional form, a modal verb, etc)
- Learning to use a new lexical group (rooms of the house, the continents of the world, animals)
- Improving reading or listening skills (greater comprehension, quicker reading for gist or detail)
- Working on self-correction for writing and speaking (solving problems before they emerge)
- Learning to avoid an L1 problem (those brought up by Chinglish, Konglish, Japlish, etc)
How will you know when this skill has been mastered? Consider a simple assessment system, so that success becomes obvious and measurable. Here are some good indicators:
- The student no longer needs correction, or if they do, this role has passed from the teacher to their classmates, who provide reminders as needed.
- The student spontaneously uses the new word in their own sentences
- The tricky sound may now be clearer or, at least, awareness has been raised, which is equally valuable
- The student can express more of what they want to say, relies less on trying to translate or reaching for a dictionary, and is more confident
Consider Structure, Teacher Talking Time and Direction
Most new teachers – and quite a lot of old hands, too – talk too much in the classroom. It’s natural and understandable, but we could all do better with this. Removing the teacher from the center of the learning process is a cornerstone of Communicative Methodology, and it has many positive results. The less you speak, the more your students will gain confidence and fill that vacuum. I would describe learning how to shut up as the most valuable lesson of my first years as a teacher. One way to focus on this is assign to each step of the class a ‘direction’; is the flow generally from teacher to student (T-S), or in a dialogue (T-S-T), or in pair work (S-S)?
A classic ESL lesson structure would be:
- Review (5 mins; T-S-T)
- Presentation (3-5 mins; T-S plus check questions)
- Controlled Practice (10 mins; S-S plus feedback)
- Free Practice (10+ mins; S-S plus feedback)
- Consolidation / Homework setting / Practice through games (5-10 mins; mixed)
Who, in each section, should be doing most of the speaking? I suggest that in all but ‘Presentation’ the students should take the lion’s share of the talking time by answering review questions, working in pairs, offering opinions, etc.
Assign activities to each step. Review work could be a quick quiz, a puzzle or competition, a worksheet done in teams, or simply firing questions at your students to check the understanding of past material. Presentation is a critical step, and I recommend that you pare down your talking time to the absolute minimum while still articulating the essential material. Consider your audience; would you more enjoy a ten-minute lecture on modal verbs, or five funny modal verb examples followed by being invited to contribute your own? Practice this step in front of a mirror or camera; time how long it took to effectively explain a grammar point, for example, and the next time, try to reduce the time by 20%, and then 50%. Two good examples are far more valuable than five minutes of laborious explanation.
Controlled practice is generally based in textbook questions, but I urge you to complete this stage quickly, as it checks only the basic understanding of the material and doesn’t require the production of it. This happens in the free practice stage, where the students make individual use of the material without many hints from the teacher or textbook. This, in turn, leads to true fluency as the student now has the skills to spontaneously use the language.
Gather your resources
As your gain experience, you’ll amass a box full of useful bits and pieces. I found that using something as simple as colored chalk helped grab my students’ attention, but real objects, puppets, flash cards and card games, dice, colored paper, stop watches and sticks of glue will all find a home in your box of tricks at some stage. I try, in each class, to teach a word in a way my students may never have seen before; this engages the students and makes the experience, and therefore the word, more memorable.
What facts might you need at hand? If you’re teaching the continents of the world, for instance, invite your students to guess the highest and lowest recorded temperatures, or the longest rivers, or highest mountains on each continent. Facts are impressive, as well as useful, and they evince solid preparation which engenders respect.
Set Useful Homework
Thankfully, the days of uselessly writing ‘lines’ or completing gap-fill exercises are largely gone. Homework is another form of practice, mostly done quietly and alone. Make it as useful as possible, so that each question is a genuine check of the students’ understanding and ability to individually use the material. Ask for vocabulary practice in a variety of full sentences, all of the students’ own making. Set grammar homework in paragraph style, obliging multiple uses of the same structure for different circumstances. Multiple choice, as educators are slowly coming to find, is almost entirely a waste of time. Ask for production and comprehension, not simply make-work tasks which require little use of brainpower. Invite the students to ask themselves this: “Do I really get it? Can I do this independently now?” If they genuinely reach this stage, invite them to stop and do something else. I tell my students to practice what they need to, until they can decide that they’re comfortable with the material.
A solid lesson plan solves the majority of likely classroom problems. I keep all of mine in folders, organized by levels and subjects, to avoid unnecessary repetition of preparatory work. Even after 15 years in the classroom, I still find a plan indispensable, and I’d encourage you to make a habit of writing comprehensive plans which meet your teaching needs, for your students benefit and your own, too.