Lesson planning: for dummies?

I’m teaching the enticingly named ‘7.3’ in Total English intermediate tomorrow, so like all good teachers I take a look at what that will entail today by thumbing through the various pages. My teacher’s copy has seen a bit of action and, as usual, is heavily annotated with several layers of teacher’s notes. This makes me happy for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’m glad to find that other people adopt this as their primary method of planning for class. Secondly, these notes always make for fascinating reading, as you get to see the various ways that other teachers have approached coursebook tasks in their planning. Lesson planning is vital, no matter how many years you’ve been in the job. As your career develops, you may find that the way you approach planning changes, but you won’t find many good teachers who don’t plan in advance in some way or another. In my early days as a teacher I was a big planner, making huge, detailed plans of everything that could happen in the classroom. I’ve relaxed my approach significantly since those early days, but I still go into every lesson knowing what I want to achieve and where it will take the learners. As Jerry confirms:

‘Of course you should plan. It’s not even open to discussion. Every lesson should start somewhere and you should be the first one to forward that somewhere. If the class chooses to go elsewhere you should use your experience to go with the flow.’ Jerry in Vietnam

Nevertheless, I don’t think I’m alone in admitting I don’t spend as much time lesson planning now as I did when I started out. There are good reasons why this is so, not only for me but for other crusty old professionals too, and I hope these quotes show you why.

Horses for courses…

Can lesson planning vary according to context? Consider this example:

‘It depends very much on what I’m teaching, to whom and in what context.’ Chimp Guevara in the UK

Above all else, a lesson plan should make sense to the person who is going to be using it. Far more often than not, the only person who’ll be looking at it is you. There are, of course, times when others will also want to know what you’re doing in your lesson, so lesson planning needs to take into account the context for any particular lesson, as these examples indicate:

‘For OFSTED, British Council, CPD, Developmental and peer observations, it’s a Full Metal LP with bells and whistles. Rest of the time, back of a beer mat.’ Golightly in the UK

Don’t feel that you’re doing anything wrong if your day to day planning isn’t as detailed as it is on the days when you’re being observed. Remember, as long as what you do helps you to teach effectively, it’s fine. Consider how these teachers approach the task:

‘I plan for the week and partial and semester in a formal way but not what I’m going to do that day minute-by-minute…. seems too anal retentive to me…. you never know how that day is going to go.’ Thelmadatter in Mexico

‘Of course it depends, but if it is a class that I regularly teach, I usually just scrawl a few notes on a piece of paper, a beer mat would probably be big enough. If I am teaching something like a grammar class, I usually like to write out my examples, other than that experience rules. When I first started I wrote down everything just like they teach you to. When I am presenting a workshop, I write out the stages and prompts but usually in the process of writing it, helps me remember it, and I seldom have to refer to it when I am teaching.’ Sherri in Hawaii

‘As said, how much I lesson plan depends on the class. I definitely sketch out an outline so I can keep a direction for the session. Have taught some course where there really wasn’t a need as the course material was structured (i.e. listening comprehension classes which were mostly CD based.) But I have also found that it’s best to be flexible as a class may move in a good direction that deviates from what I’d planned. If that happens and I feel it’s good overall, I go with it. I just make sure that I keep track of what was covered so the students get exposed to all the material expected.’ Elkythedogsperson in Indonesia

As you can see, experience will lead teachers to form a method that works for us, although we all take into account the kind of factors, such as formal observations or occasions when they’re trying out something new, that affect the scope of the particular lesson plan. Also, you might find yourself using a coursebook that is so structured and so supplemented that you don’t feel the need to plan independently. Consider this:

‘I use prepared programs, like Headway, supplement them with grammar, and we continue in following lessons where we left off in previous ones. I teach them to read and follow instructions, when they ask questions I consider whether the answer has been taught or not, and if it has, I play stupid. I teach them to teach themselves, and no lesson plan ever really survives its implementation. Too many things happen to knock it off track. I wasted enormous amounts of time inventing lesson plans in my state teacher cert program: Never going back. If you get good results and definite progress anyway, why bother?’ Rusmeister

I’m no great fan of this ‘follow the teacher’s book’ approach; I find it too constricting and it doesn’t allow me to respond to the human factor in the classroom, i.e. you’re dealing with human beings. However, if you find it works well for you, so be it. Let’s remember, these books are written to shift as many units as possible, so there must be something worthwhile in what they suggest, at least some of the time! One thing that is consistently true However you approach planning, one thing seems to be clear: the more experience you have, the less time you need to devote to planning. These two examples are fairly similar to how my planning has developed over the course of my teaching career:

‘Of course it depends, but generally, [I spend] around 30 minutes planning for every hour. When I started out teaching, the first two years, I spent about two hours planning for every hour teaching.’ Jeffpv

‘I planned way more when I started out because I had no idea what I was doing, and of course I wanted to do everything perfectly. For all the training I’d had in lesson planning and materials design, it seemed I had no background with how to deal with a lame textbook. I’d look at the pages I was supposed to cover in stupid Headway and think, “Oh my goodness, how can I possibly make this meager page and a half last 2 hours?” In my first week of teaching I had a good/bad experience where I’d meticulously planned a 2 hour lesson that lasted only 90 minutes, so I went ahead and moved forward a few extra pages in the book. At the end I bade the class goodbye at which point they informed me it was, in fact, a 4 hour lesson. Eek! Should have paid more attention to the schedule. Fortunately it was a forgiving group, and I don’t remember how I got through the last 2 hours, though I expect it involved some hangman and a role play. Then it got easier. After a year, I could look at one silly grammar exercise and turn it into a 2 hour lesson over tea in the 5 minutes before class.’ Justme in Turkey

For those of you who’re still coming to terms with planning, or who have slackened off a little more than they would have liked, here are a couple of ways to approach lesson preparation. A six-point format to planning Content

  • What is the concept, skill or the subject matter of the lesson? What is the main focus around which you’re building the lesson?

Prior knowledge

  • What do students need to have done before they can learn what you’re presenting in this lesson?

Instructions

  • Can you clearly describe what the learners are going to do during the lesson?

Materials and equipment

  • What do you need for the lesson, in terms of handouts, different coloured pens, projector, etc?

Evaluation

  • How do you plan to evaluate the effectiveness of the lesson?

Self assessment

  • How did you do? What might you have done better? What will you do next?

If approaching planning like this seems too abstract, and it well might, alternatively you could tackle it in a more linear way. An eight-point format to planning Introduction

  • Start with a short activity to help learners focus on the main purpose of the lesson.

Purpose

  • This is the objective of the lesson. Why on Earth are you actually doing all this?

Input

  • What vocabulary, skills or concepts do the learners need to be able to do the lesson?

Show ‘em

  • Demonstrate what the final product will be, what will the learners have by the end?

Follow me

  • Guide your learners through the stages necessary to complete activity in question.

Check understanding

  • How are you going to confirm that the learners are clear about what you and they are trying to achieve during the stages of the lesson?

Independent practice

  • Will the learners actually get a chance to practice whatever it is themselves?

Closure

  • How are you going to wrap things up? How can you reflect on what has been learned?

Mistakes I still make Even after many years of teaching I find it very healthy to consider all of the above steps when planning. There are a few things I still need to remind myself of on a regular basis. Objective

  • Is my objective clear? Come on Adam, what’s the point? What will they do… and why?

Prior knowledge

  • Have I checked that they have the skills or knowledge that they need to perform what I’ll be asking of them?

Materials and resources

  • Does that handout that I’ve photocopied really fit the lesson? Does the quick fix photocopy really suit the lesson?

Instructions

  • Am I explaining the activities clearly or am I just adding to the confusion? Are the instructions in the book way above the language level of the learners?

I have a clear way of keeping track of what I do as well as being able to retain my reflections for later referral, by creating a course lesson plan book. If you’d like a copy of my easy to use documents, you can download them by clicking here and here. I put in my lesson plan book the following: 1. Class timetable 2. Extra paper for notes 3. Calendar 4. Student list 5. Homework log 6. Weekly lesson plan (X16 or X8 for 16- or 8-wekk courses) 7. Vocabulary lists for each unit 8. Teaching program for each unit If you have any advice you’d like to share or any interesting anecdotes, I’d be delighted if you’d add a comment below.

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12 Responses to Lesson planning: for dummies?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention one year » Blog Archive » Lesson planning: for dummies? -- Topsy.com

  2. Neil Barker says:

    Great points about lesson planning. In my previous job, management instituted mandatory lesson planning that was shared using Microsoft livesync. As much as most of the teachers hated updating lessons, I know that it definitely helped me improve as a teacher. Just the fact that others were looking at my lesson plans from time to time, motivated me to keep my plans updated.

  3. Nice post. My lesson planning was always quite fast, but, when I first started teaching, that was not always for the best of reasons. Usually I was too book/worksheet dependent. Nowadays I have so many lesson plans both at home and in my head that I rarely need to plan much. I simply pull one off the mental shelf and adapt it to my students needs.

    I’m also very dogme these days and tend to just let the class take me where it wants to go. As you mentioned, you should always come with a lesson plan, but a good teacher can scrap it at the drop of a hat.

    I usually spend time thinking of what my students need, what a good pretext would be to intro that, and then what language will probably come out of it.

    • Adam says:

      Thanks for that, Nick. I think your philosophy makes a lot of sense and would hope that the majority of experienced teachers would advocate something similar. Sorry for not replying to your email yet, by the way.

      For those of you reading the comments, I highly recommend dropping by both Neil’s and Nick’s blogs.

  4. Nicky says:

    Fantastic work, sir. I especially like the last section on mistakes–ones I think we all probably still make from time to time (I know I for one still kind of chew up my instructions a bit from time to time).

    I must admit though that I’ve come to have some qualms with the whole idea of a learning “objective”, considering the sort of idiosyncratic, willy-nilly nature of SLA. I mean, I know it’s necessary in terms of planning and syllabus and what-have-you, but I often feel that it’s impossible to pin down what students are really going to walk away with at the end of a lesson. Which sometimes leads to a sort of “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach, which is pretty effective for some learners, it turns out!

  5. Adam says:

    Thanks, Nicky. I agree, the last few points are probably the most important, as they are things I still do after ten years in the job.

  6. Justified says:

    Hmm, this webpage generates perfectly on my brand new iPhone 3GS :D

  7. I always enjoy reading spot on articles by an individual who is definitely knowledgeable on their chosen subject. I’ll be following this thread with great interest. Keep up the good work, I will be back.

  8. Mike says:

    Thanks for linking to this post from mine on lesson planning, Adam. Generally, I agree with the sentiments above in your post and what other people have said commenting on it. I fear a little that I have slackened in my approach to lesson planning lately, so I’m going to come back and follow your suggested steps for some future lessons. However, one thing I’m finding this year is that it’s a lot easier to wing it (for want of a better expression) and end up with a pretty good lesson that gets planned in about 30 minutes, sometimes on a postcard!

  9. Adam says:

    Thanks, Mike. I agree that it’s definitely a symptom of having been in the job many years that you ease off on the lesson planning. I certainly feel the need from time to time to get back to basics and really sit down and reflect on whether I’m still giving effective lessons.

  10. In case anyone’s interested… Lesson planning: for dummies? « one year http://t.co/odsBXdyh #ELTchat

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