Welcome back to Adam Simpson’s series of posts aimed at teachers finding their way after completing their initial teacher training…
This is the third in a new series of posts for the start of 2015 in which I’ll offer simple solutions to the most common problems for newly qualified language teachers. In my first post, I looked at how time will place a lot of constraints on you as a teacher and offered some advice on making the most of what time you do have. In my second post, I looked at what’s in store for you as a newly qualified teacher in terms of professional development and what you can do to make the most of what will be available to you. Today I’m moving on to lesson planning!
I’m teaching what is best (!) described as ‘Level 3 Book 1 Unit 1 Input 1’ from my school’s coursebook of choice next time I’m in class, so like all good teachers I’m taking a look at what that will entail beforehand by thumbing through the various pages that make up this parcel of learning. My teacher’s copy has seen a bit of action and, I’m happy to say, is heavily annotated with several layers of teacher’s notes (some mine, some belonging to a previous owner). 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.
In today’s post, I’ll begin with a couple of fairly standard ways of planning your lesson. If you’re just starting out as a teacher, I recommend following these styles for a bit. In the second part of the post, I’ll offer some alternatives for when you start to feel a bit more comfortable and confident. I’ll round off with a kind of checklist that will help keep you on the right track.
PART ONE: Two standard formats for planning a lesson
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) A six-point format to planning
- What is the concept, skill or the subject matter of the lesson? What is the main focus around which you’re building the lesson?
- What do students need to have done before they can learn what you’re presenting in this lesson?
- 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?
- How do you plan to evaluate the effectiveness of the lesson?
- 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.
- B) An eight-point format to planning
- Start with a short activity to help learners focus on the main purpose of the lesson.
- This is the objective of the lesson. Why on Earth are you actually doing all this?
- What vocabulary, skills or concepts do the learners need to be able to do the lesson?
- Demonstrate what the final product will be, what will the learners have by the end?
- Guide your learners through the stages necessary to complete activity in question.
- 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?
- Will the learners actually get a chance to practice whatever it is themselves?
- How are you going to wrap things up? How can you reflect on what has been learned?
PART TWO: Alternatives
There may be many good reasons for not writing a standard ‘aims plus procedure’ plan. Planning is essentially a thinking skill, i.e. imagining the lesson before it happens – and anything that helps you think more clearly and effectively can be useful. Remember, a plan is not a route-map of what must happen in class, it should serve merely as your informed setting-up of certain possibilities within a lesson. Here are a few ideas for alternative plans:
OK, the two strategies I suggested above are what I would call the traditional styles to lesson planning… and they’re probably the kind of plans you made during your initial training course. However, as you progress through your teaching career, you’ll probably find that there are many good reasons to move away from such formal patterns of planning. We should always remember, even in the early days of our teaching career, that lesson planning is essentially a thinking skill; in other words, it’s the physical embodiment of your ‘map’ from the beginning to the end of what will happen in your class. It isn’t something that you have to stick to, its just something that frames possibilities of what can occur. A lesson plan should always be viewed as something that lets you think more clearly and effectively, not as something that you absolutely have to stick two at all costs. With this in mind I’m now going to suggest a few alternative methods all of sketching out what you can do with the class.
Number 1: the flow chart approach
Some people find that writing out parts of a lesson in the ways I suggest earler it simply doesn’t work for them and that they need a more visual representation of the way a lesson can develop. If you are one of these people, perhaps drawing a flow chart will serve you better. Why not try writing out your procedure in sketch boxes rather than in a traditional linear ‘from the top to bottom’ fashion? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using this system if it works for you! This approach enables you to show a variety of different possible activities and routes through a lesson by drawing arrows between different boxes that represent different options at each stage. I highly recommend trying this out; it might not work for you, but for some people this will really prove to be an efficient and effective way of adding flexibility to the way they design lessons.
Number 2: close your eyes and visualize the lesson
Another approach I’d like you to try when you have more experience and are feeling more confident is to not write down your lesson plan at all. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t review the material you’re going to teach, or that you shouldn’t actually plan a lesson, but rather than writing it down in the ways I suggested above, close your eyes and imagine your way through the lesson. For each stage of your lesson, think about the different possibilities and the different ways that the lesson could then go. What different activities could you do at this point, or what kind of action might your learners initiate that would make you deviate from the plan that you had?
Number 3: look at the critical learning moments
What are the main things you hope your learners are going to get from this class? Are they going to learn new vocabulary, for example? Decide what you think the critical learning moment is in this activity, i.e. what is the one thing that will have the biggest impact on their success while doing this activity? For instance, will it be using a dictionary, or using the words in a sentence? Keep these questions in mind and focus most of your planning around the kind of challenges your learners will see that these points. Ask yourself which instructions, explanations, and feedback you’re going to give during these critical learning moments.
Number 4: plan for spontaneity
This approach can be summarized as ‘planning for skills work’ and ‘not planning for grammar and vocabulary’! I’d recommend trying this style once you feel confident that you understand grammar and have experience of presenting new vocabulary in a variety of ways. Often learners will appreciate a structured approach to reading and listening lessons, but will also enjoy a slightly more ‘off the cuff’ approach to grammar and lexis. Naturally, you can still present grammar and vocab in a structured way, but learners may like it when you display an ability to deal with language as and when it comes up.
Number 5: involve your learners in planning
This is an approach that works well when you have a good relationship with a class, especially with adult learners or other groups that seem to particularly want to have some control of their learning. Allow a certain amount of time during the course of a week (or a course, or any suitable period of time) to negotiate and plan with learners. Try to go beyond asking simple questions such as ‘What will we do this week?’ and take the time to look through the course materials and make some genuine decisions together. You’ll probably find that a lot of learners will love the fact that you’re including them in decision-making.
Number 6: the unplugged approach
This is definitely not a style of planning that I would recommend to a new teacher when they’re just starting out, but at some point you may feel brave enough to adopt the ‘unplugged approach’ and use fewer materials in your classes, perhaps even not use a course book at all and go with the flow! This doesn’t mean going into a lesson completely unprepared, rather think of this as going into class and responding directly to the needs of your learners on that particular day. A lot of teachers are surprised when they first try this out as they come out of the lesson feeling that they have taught particularly well. This is probably because they have had to listen and respond to the learners far more than they usually what. Learn more about unplugged teaching in this post.
PART THREE: Mistakes I still make (and the questions I ask to stop them happening)
Even after many years of teaching I find it very healthy to consider all of the steps in part one when planning. There are a few things I still need to remind myself of on a regular basis.
- Is my objective clear? Come on Adam, what’s the point? What will they do… and why? You can read more about writing clear objectives in this post.
- 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? You can read my thoughts on preparing worksheets in this post.
- 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. I put in my lesson plan book the following:
- Class timetable
2. Extra paper for notes
4. Student list
5. Homework log
6. Weekly lesson plan (X16 or X8 for 16- or 8-week 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, we’d be delighted if you’d add a comment below.