Your first lesson with new students

classroom managment elt first lesson lesson planning Oct 22, 2021

By James Jenkin

There are teachers who, even after many years in the classroom, still experience nerves before a new class. It’s the fate of a great teacher, because they care if a lesson works or not.

So how can we make our first class a success?

What do learners want?

It’s worth reminding ourselves of what (adult) students want:
•   to feel confident using English
•   to enjoy the class
•   to sense some immediate improvement
•   to feel they will make significant progress in the long-term

If we satisfy these four needs in a first lesson, students will feel very positive about the entire course.

How can we make students feel confident?

Lack of confidence manifests itself as anxiety. Many learners are anxious about using English.

We need to make students feel relaxed as soon as they walk in. Before the class begins, it’s worth spending two minutes setting up a friendlier physical environment: for example, by moving chairs out of test-like rows, or playing music. As students enter we should greet them individually in a friendly manner, and introduce them to other students they can sit with and talk to.

If students are sitting in silence, waiting for class to start, take the initiative: say ‘Thanks so much for coming early. Would you like to say hello to your neighbors!’. Then move away from the front so students don’t feel watched.

The class should start with an easy – but interesting – speaking activity. For example, students could introduce themselves to their partner, then introduce their partner to another pair. This establishes a communicative atmosphere for the entire lesson, and it is achievable.

We should also avoid making students speak to the whole group before they’re ready. (Even in a first language, speaking to a large group can be nerve-wracking.) As a rule of thumb, in every speaking activity, students should first speak in pairs or threes or while mingling; then larger groups; then the whole class.

How can we ensure students enjoy the class?

Students like doing things with each other. As much as we hate to admit it, they have much more fun speaking to each other than listening to a teacher.

This means most of our lesson preparation should be designing engaging and varied interactive activities. Of course, practice benefits students’ language development too: but how they feel is arguably the most important factor in their success.

How can we help students sense immediate improvement?

As in any skill, language learners feel that they have improved when they can do something new, or better, and not just know about it.

The lesson plan needs to make sure students learn to do something. We should teach new language or skills in a practical manner (e.g. students learn how to produce a grammar structure orally, with natural pronunciation), and then provide ample opportunity for practice.

Students also need individualized feedback and guidance on their performance, and we therefore need to monitor throughout practice activities. Helpful error correction and feedback will have an enormous impact on students’ feelings about the class.

How can we help students feel they will make progress?

Students should feel their first lesson has a purpose, and is organized. This gives them confidence that, in the longer term, the teacher is leading them in a clear direction. If students are unused to a communicative environment, they may feel the class is fun, but pointless.

The easiest way to convey purpose is by writing up lesson objectives in the corner of the board (and making sure we achieve them). And the most effective way to convey organization is by signposting stages, using simple language: ‘Let’s warm up’, ‘Let’s learn’, ‘Let’s practice’.

It’s also crucial in the first lesson to refer to the course syllabus or plan. No lengthy explanation is required: we can just, for example, hold up the syllabus and say, ‘Every class you’re going to learn and practice a new topic. What’s the topic this week?’.

James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.

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