The Fine Art of Course Planning: 8 Expert Tips to Plan an Advanced ESL Course That Works

The Fine Art of Course Planning
8 Expert Tips to Plan an Advanced ESL Course That Works

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 11,545 views

Course planning is something of an art, and one which most teaching professionals regard as essential.

It provides, in the clearest format, all of the aims, content and timings of a course, so that when the teacher comes to plan an individual class, the bare bones of the plan are already available. I swear by my course plans, but they tend to be written in pencil; I know that things will change, there might be delays I can’t control, and that my students are human beings, who have a well-known penchant for the unpredictable.

I swear by my course plans, but they tend to be written in pencil; I know that things will change.

These factors frequently come to the surface when working with advanced students. Planning advanced ESL courses takes imagination and patience, but above all flexibility, as you’re catering for a potentially diverse and changing group who might have particular needs and preferences. I’d like to pass on some tips for building a successful course plan, one which will take pressure off the daily planning of your classes and provide a really useful overall architecture for your work.

8 Tips to Plan an Advanced ESL Course

  1. 1

    Carry out a Detailed Needs Assessment

    If you’re new to the group, this is an essential first step. No two groups – no two students, in fact – are alike, and especially when working with advanced students, we must be ready to accommodate considerable variety and individuality. The needs assessment will probably absorb much of your initial class time with the group, though I’d recommend mixing assessments with other exercises which have a less formal feel; no one likes to feel as though they’re being perpetually examined.

  2. 2

    Be Responsive To Those Needs

    So, you’ve spent several hours discovering where your students are at. You’ve assessed their grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, listening, reading and other skills. The trick is, naturally enough, to use that information to build the course. It needn’t dictate your choice of topics, but it will certainly influence the relative priority of skills work, how you organize in-class activities (e.g. whether you prioritize collaborative exercises with lots of speaking, or whether individualized preparation and research would be better) and perhaps also the nature of your assessment system (see below).

  3. 3

    And Always Try To Stay Flexible

    Despite the initial work which goes in to creating the syllabus, please don’t regard every detail as fixed and unyielding. You’re teaching students, not designing an industrial process; events will transpire and new preferences will emerge. Your students might sail through a week’s content in three days, or end up needing ten. Be ready to adjust the schedule, and your content, perhaps even discarding much-cherished elements or building in extra time on topics you’d rather move past.

  4. 4

    Review Your Assessment System

    Your attitude to assessment – if your school requires it – will probably rest somewhere on the spectrum between a piecemeal, continuous assessment system with many elements, and a single, all-important exam at the end of the course. I personally like a mix, but ensure that the final exams carry only enough weight to be taken seriously, and not so much that my students fixate on them and become unnecessarily stressed. Return to your needs assessment; would your students benefit more from essay-writing practice, or from spoken debates in the classroom? Is it more valuable to assign high-level readings or to test listening skills?

    Assess their progress toward filling the gaps in their skills portfolio. Just as a hint, it will very rarely be important to test their ability to answer dozens of multiple-choice questions; consider a more natural and realistic question format which maximizes the students’ language production.

  5. 5

    Go into More Depth

    Advanced students are ready for greater challenges. Consider spending an extra day or two on certain topics, particularly those with meaty ethical aspects or interesting historical elements. Ask your students to carry out research and prepare presentations, rather than simply read the text, answer the questions, and move on. Provoke discussion and perhaps even risk divisions in the class; it’s important to practice the language of persuasion and disagreement, as well as the more routine content.

  6. 6

    Expand the Range of Activities

    It’s generally true that advanced students are more mature, and so you might consider trusting them to practice in contexts outside of the classroom, and with native speakers who aren’t teachers or staff. You could build some of these more ambitious tasks into your course plan, though it’s important always to keep in mind the students’ learning needs and the course’s aims. One great way to shake things up is to have your students arrange an International Day, a concert, a debate or a student party.

  7. 7

    Connect with Their Other Subjects and/or Classes

    If you’re able to link your own course design with that of other teachers, consider including complementary content which builds on areas being covered elsewhere. For example, if your students are taking a film class, cover some useful language (slang, cultural references); alternatively, if they’re trainee teachers, think how your teaching of vocabulary and structure might act as an example of the theories they’re learning in their methodology seminars. Don’t be afraid to tread (sensitively) into areas taught by others; often, the overlap will serve to remind the students that all language practice feeds into the main aim of gaining fluency, no matter that the classes have different titles and teachers.

  8. 8

    Assign More Complex Homework Assignments

    As students become more mature, their capacity for working independently should expand, making it possible to assign more challenging homework. Rather than simply answering questions, consider assigning error correction exercises, and work which requires production and invention, such as creating new sentences using the target vocabulary and structures. Then, move on to assigning paragraph writing, and eventually frequent essay-writing tasks. Promote high-level reading by asking your students to bring in interesting news items for discussion with the class. Have them listen to the BBC or watch cable news, and report on what they learned.

    Ultimately, assign collaborative exercises during which your students will research and prepare a presentation on a complex topic. This brings together all of the four language-learning skills (reading, speaking, listening and writing) as well as engaging the students in a new and potentially very complex topic (a news event, a new and controversial scientific breakthrough, or a scandal, for example). Build this work into your overall plan for the course; the research phase could take place partly or entirely in class, to ensure that the work is truly collaborative and that the topics are being constantly discussed by the group. Also, allow plenty of time for the presentations; they almost always run over, and it’s good to encourage class discussion of a controversial topic. You’ll always learn a lot about your students, and they’ll gain valuable language practice while expressing their personal views.


The plan with which you begin the semester might end up differing significantly from the eventual content of your class, but this isn’t a reason to avoid writing an plan in the first place.

It’s a healthy and steadying practice to articulate the course aims from the outset, even if they change or if you don’t find time for all of them. Base your course aims on an initial needs assessment, and then keep your eyes and ears open to see if the content is truly suitable and interesting for your class. If not, don’t be afraid to abandon parts of the plan and tailor something more appropriate. Ultimately, it’s your students who will tell you what they need, and it’s your responsibility to meet those needs with high-quality and varied content which sparks your students’ enthusiasm and encourages them to push onward to greater success.

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