08 Jun Why Lesson Planning is Useful
By James Jenkin
Teachers are often told they need to write lesson plans. This might be on a teacher training course, or at the school where they teach.
From my experience, it’s often for the wrong reasons. Directors of Studies see producing a lesson plan as a kind of discipline (Of course, professional teachers write lesson plans). They even use it as a punishment for under-performing teachers. Government-funded institutions sometimes have to show lesson plans as a compliance requirement.
As a result, teachers regard writing a lesson plan as a burden. It’s just jumping through hoops. And they may end up teaching a lesson that’s nothing like the one on paper.
I want to suggest lesson planning has a much more important purpose: to teach a successful class.
You need an aim
Students need to achieve something in a lesson.
If you don’t establish what students will achieve, it’s impossible to judge if they’ve achieved it, and therefore to call a lesson a ‘success’.
A lesson aim might be that students will be able to use new language (such as going to for future plans), or that they’ll develop a macroskill (such as reading a magazine article for main idea and detail).
You can tell if you’ve achieved the lesson aim by observing students. You can see if they’re using the new language you taught by the end of the lesson, or if their responses to a reading task show they understood the text in detail.
However, in many cases we just ‘cover’ material. We begin a lesson by saying, ‘Let’s start where we left off last time at page 55’. We can only say students looked at pages in a book, not that they can now do something.
It also often happens that, to give a lesson focus, we pull together materials related to a topic. This might end up achieving something – students might practice speaking for fluency – but it happens by accident. We’ll help students develop speaking skills much more effectively if we articulate this as an aim, and think how we’ll achieve it.
You need stages in a lesson
Anyone who’s done a course like CELTA knows about the dreaded ‘lesson staging’. (I didn’t quite get controlled/less-controlled/free practice when I did my CELTA.) And there are lots of approaches to staging that may seem arcane when unfamiliar: presentation-practice-production, engage-study-activate, pre-task – task – feedback and so on.
But staging just means putting activities in a logical order. It’s not complicated. Imagine your aim is for students to be able to tell a story using past tense. What ordering of activities makes sense to you? You might want to warm students up and get them interested at the start. You probably need to teach past tense form before they practice using it. So you could call your stages ‘warmer-teach-practice’ – which is actually a very conventional and established framework for a lesson plan.
A basic sequence such as this makes planning easy. You slot activities you find into the right part of the lesson.
It sounds obvious, but we sometimes choose lots of activities linked to a topic or grammar point without thinking what sequence makes sense. Students aren’t sure whether they’re learning something, or practicing something, or if they’re just meant to be having fun.
You can signpost these stages when you teach – ‘First let’s learn something’, ‘Now let’s practice’. Students like this. They understand why they’re doing an activity, and they feel confident about the teacher because the lesson feels organized.
Is it boring to follow a routine? Not at all. Think of your favorite radio or TV show. As long as the content is interesting, we actually enjoy a routine: we look forward to the regular segments we know are coming up.
You need to teach new language well
We remember great teachers from school – ‘She really helped me understand geometry’. Very few of us can become this sort of teacher by improvising. To teach correctly, clearly, and efficiently, we need to think about any language we’re teaching before we go into class.
If we’re teaching new language – for example, grammar or vocabulary – we need to know how it’s formed, what it means, and how to pronounce it naturally. And, as importantly, we need to think how we’ll convey this information so students understand it.
What does a good lesson plan look like?
There’s no single answer. Some teachers find it useful to plan in detail, for example in a table, with each lesson stage in one row. Others just use a short running sheet.
The danger with over-detailed plans is we focus on the plan, and lose sight of the big picture – the lesson aim and the students. And if we worry lesson plans need to be long and complicated, we’ll probably end up using no plan at all.
You might say a lesson plan must contain everything you need, but no more than you need!
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.
Image source: shutterstock.com/Cressida studio