Once you embark upon the glorious journey that is ESL teacher training (and by this I mean CELTA, DELTA or any TEFL certification), you soon discover that one of the biggest no-nos for an ESL teacher is to teach without a lesson plan.
Walk into a classroom and just improvise? Unheard of! Unthinkable! And totally unprofessional. But contrary to what most of you may believe, improvisation is not just for amateurs and hacks. By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll see that there are times in which you really should throw the ol’ lesson plan out the window and improvise. But first let’s address the benefits of lesson planning.
Advantages of Lesson Planning
Contrary to popular belief, the main advantage of lesson planning is not to produce a blueprint of what you’ll do during a lesson, down to the last detail. You could be that meticulous, but quite frankly, having your lesson planned as a detailed list of activities with the time allotted for each is a waste of time. First of all, activities rarely take the number of minutes you think they’ll take, unless you abruptly cut the activity short. Secondly, planning each and every lesson, in detail, is terribly time-consuming. Thirdly, the teacher’s book already gives us a pretty good outline to follow.
The main advantage of lesson planning is that it forces you to think about goals. It puts you in this state of mind where you see where your students are now and where you want them to be by the end of the lesson, in other words, it helps you see a Point A and a Point B, and forces you to think of ways of getting your students from A to B. What activities will you use to get them there? For this particular lesson, will you focus on reading, writing, listening or speaking? What grammar and vocabulary will you teach?
Lesson planning requires you to consider what you hope to accomplish and forces you to choose tools from your toolbox. The end result could be no more than an index card with an outline. Or quite simply, a plan you have in your head. Are there mistakes you’ll need to avoid? Of course!
Most of us manage to find a middle-ground. We have a sturdy lesson plan, but are also flexible enough to tweak it or make adjustments as we go along. But can we ditch the plan altogether? The answer is yes (though not all the time) and here’s why:
5 Valid Reasons to to Throw Your Lesson Plan out the Window
Major News or Catastrophic Event
I had to teach a lesson a mere hours after the September 11th attacks. Needless to say, my students were still in shock and in no mood to talk about the fictional characters in their book. So, we talked about what happened and how they felt about it. Events like this one are, thankfully, few and far between, but there might be other types of events, from natural disasters to a cause the town is rallying to support, that may require you to set aside the lesson plan, at least for one day.
Unusual Teaching Conditions
Your trusty toolkit for ESL teaching surely includes a coursebook, illustrations, flashcards… and a flashlight, right? At least in this country it does. Power outages are more common than you think, and what is the first thing I do when the lights go out? I tuck the lesson plan right back where it came from, because it won’t do any good in the dark. You may be faced with a similar situation if you and your class are suddenly sent to another room, the gym or the cafeteria because there’s a problem in your classroom. If for some reason you don’t have access to your usual resources or classroom conditions, get ready to improvise. Forcing your students to continue with the class “as planned” may prove to be too stressful for everyone involved. So acknowledge the unusual circumstances – and make the best of it!
Not a Good Fit
You plan a lesson that you think will be simply awesome. But then you start teaching and get the feeling that it won’t do at all. That’s okay. We’re all human and sometimes it’s hard to foresee what will be a hit or a miss with your class. Yet another reason to dump that lesson plan like yesterday’s news.
A Stroke of Genius
Ever get a brilliant idea, suddenly, and in the middle of a class? Something that you know your class will love and that will be highly effective in helping them reach a communication goal? Do you stick to the original plan and play it safe? Or chuck it and ride the brainwave? I think you know what my answer will be!
Mood Calls for Spontaneity
There are moments in which your class is simply not in the right mood. This usually happens towards the end of the school year when they’re all too tired or already with their minds on something else, like their upcoming vacation. So you had a super fast-paced lesson planned… maybe it would be better to give them something a little more relaxed. No need to change your overall goal, just the activities you’ll use to reach it.
I am in no way advocating full improvisation all or most of the time. It’s important to plan your lesson. But oftentimes, it’s important to see the goal as a destination. You can take a car, a bus or a plane to get there – some vehicles are faster than others and require more or fewer resources. But you can totally improvise the means, or take a more scenic route, as long as you get them to the right destination.
What is your take on improvisation in the ESL classroom?
Share your thoughts below!
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