By Joanna Dossetor – Planning
Being able to plan well is one of the key skills that a teacher needs to have. It involves being able to imagine what is going to happen in the classroom, and to make choices based on this imagined experience. Planning also involves the ability to zoom out, to see the bigger picture and know how a 2 hour lesson fits into a 100 hour course, but it also involves the ability to zoom in, and work out the mechanics of how a 15 minute activity will work best.
Pre-service teacher training courses typically focus on the detailed planning of a 40 minute or 60 minute lesson and don’t focus attention on how to go about planning a much longer scheme of work. This is also an important area to consider though, because most teachers are involved in teaching courses, which may typically last anywhere between 30 and 120 hours.
The aim of this article is to share some of the conclusions of a recent project I was part of, with the hope that it might enable other teachers to plan a little faster too!
Why do we plan our lessons?
I think that most teachers plan lessons in order to feel more confident in the class itself. If we know what we’re trying to achieve in the lesson, we are freed up to spend more time with the learners rather than worrying about our next step.
The aim of planning is also to map out learning activities in a coherent, logical way, in order to help students understand, learn and practice concepts and skills which will develop their abilities in English.
When it comes to planning a whole scheme of work, it is important to ensure there is a balance of different skills work over the course. We might also want to map out the areas of grammar and vocabulary that we intend to teach over the year, and plan a rough timetable for when we will introduce these concepts.
Why, What and How?
At the start of a course, we need to sit down and think about ‘What’ we intend to cover in the course, and ‘Why’. These two concepts go hand in hand; we will be able to decide ‘what’ to teach, when we know ‘why’ we want to teach it, and this will depend on the group of learners that we have in front of us in the classroom.
Even if we are teaching from a coursebook (as many of us will be), decisions still need to be made about ‘what’ is really important to cover. Once this is mapped out over a series of lessons, the learning journey starts to acquire the look of a road about it… or at least some kind of a reassuring track.
Some schools and institutions will provide their teachers with a syllabus from the start of an academic year, which maps out exactly what they expect their teachers to cover. In those cases, this process of working out the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, has largely been done for the teacher (for good or for ill!).
However there are many schools and institutions that will provide their teachers with a course text, and expect the teacher to make these kinds of decisions. In these situations, forward planning by the teacher at the start of the year, or start of each term, will be extremely helpful in ensuring that there is coherence and balance in the course, as well as direction (and good signposting).
What about the ‘How’?
Callum Robertson, in his articles Planning 1 and Planning 2 for Teaching English, identifies 3 important ingredients in lesson planning: Engage (the students); Study (the new content for the lesson); Activate (getting students to do something with the content).
I think that the question of ‘how’ we plan the activities in our lessons is closely related to the first ingredient that he mentions: student engagement. Students need to be fully engaged in the lesson because without this engagement, interest and concentration, it will be very hard for them to learn effectively in the class.
One important criteria to have in mind is that we want to provide variety for our students because, as soon as they become bored, we have lost the crucial attention that students need to learn. However if we were to constantly spring new ideas & activities on them, students might feel disorientated and confused. Therefore, we should also aim to use familiar routines and activities that students already know, in order to provide a familiar structure to the lesson.
I’d like to talk then, about some ideas to help us with the ‘how’ of lesson planning: first of all, how we can build variety into our lessons, and secondly, how we can also use familiar routines and activities to ensure continuity.
Keeping it fresh
Varying the way that we teach is beneficial to both teachers and students. It adds interest to the class and allows the teacher to reflect on how a different way of teaching might bring better results.
Variety can come into the lesson in many different ways. It might mean that the teacher decides to take a test-teach-test approach to grammar, rather than a presentation-practice-production approach. It might mean that students generate their own questions to the reading text, rather than using the true/false ones in the book.
Variety can also come into the lesson with the deceptively simple change of varying the way that the tables and chairs are set up, if your classroom allows for this. The position that individual students sit in can also be changed regularly, by mixing up pairs and groups, so that students aren’t working with the same people.
One way that the teacher can plan for variety, is to have a recipe book of these ideas to refer to. By ‘recipe book’, I don’t mean the kind of TEFL recipe book that can be pulled off the shelf in a bookshop, but rather a personalised recipe book that the teacher builds up over time. The recipes are tried and tested lesson activities, that can be noted down to refer back to in the future. It’s easy to find that you incorporate new ideas that you have heard from colleagues, or seen being done in a conference, only to find that a few months later, you’ve stopped using that activity and in fact you’ve forgotten it. Keeping a note of these kinds of activities will help you to have them to hand when you need them.
Another way to vary lessons is to incorporate content from a range of sources. The textbook might be used as the main content for the course, but it can be supplemented by material from other sources. This could include cultural content, designed to teach students about the culture of the language that they are learning. It could be literature, including poems and short stories. Students can do CLIL lessons, where they learn about another subject through the medium of English.
Another possibility is to plan a lesson with no materials at all: a ‘dogme’ lesson.
Lesson planning with ‘threads’
Planning for variety means that we can keep ourselves and our learners interested and engaged in our classes. At the same time, the opposite concept, routine, can also be an important element in the class to add harmony and balance to the learning experience. One way that we can structure this experience is to use what Tessa Woodward, in her excellent book Planning lessons and courses (CUP) would call ‘threads’.
Threads can be interpreted in different ways, but essentially they are activities & routines that students are familiar with, and which they will have no trouble picking up again. For example, if students start most lessons with a review of vocabulary using a word bag which the class regularly updates, they will know what to expect at the start of the class, and this will help to provide a structure to the learning experience. In this way, threads are ‘horizontal’ links that are created across the individual lessons of a course, threading together the experience in such a way that there is continuity.
How can ‘threads’ help the teacher to plan lessons?
Threads can be enormously helpful to the teacher by providing a ready-made assortment of activities for each lesson. Full-time teachers will probably be teaching anywhere between 20 – 30 hours of classes per week. It can be very challenging to plan effectively for such a lot of time. If we use ‘threads’, however, we already have a good idea of what will constitute about a third of the time in our classes. The remaining two thirds becomes far more manageable to plan, and we can concentrate more clearly on the specifics, the ‘how’, of this remaining content.
The fabric of threads
The following ideas are just a number of different ‘threads’ that I regularly incorporate in my classes.
I use student presentations with nearly all my groups who are B1 or above. Sometimes I structure the presentations quite loosely, and don’t require a minimum number of slides or minutes. At other times, I ask students to try to use a ‘Pecha Kucha’ 20 slides by 20 seconds format, which is more rigid (but often more enjoyable). I start by doing a presentation myself, about something that relates to myself. I encourage the students to choose a topic which has personal significance to them, so that the whole class can find out more about each other through the presentations.
Student chosen songs
At the beginning of a course, I pass round a list and ask students to choose a song each. We then listen to these songs, with a song worksheet, over the course of the term / year. Where possible I ask students to create the song worksheets themselves.
Vocabulary review activities
I regularly note down new words from my lessons on ‘word bag cards’, and students write definitions and example sentences for these word bag cards. Once the word bag is sufficiently large, there are a number of different activities that can be done with them. Students can choose 8 – 10 words, and make up a story. They can also make questions out of the words, and ask each other the questions. We can also use the words to play board games such as pictionary, noughts and crosses, and blockbusters.
Journal writing activities
Students can have a writing journal, where they write down their thoughts about a range of different topics. Writing in the journal can provide a regular slot in each lesson, and can help to get students more used to writing fluently in English.
Pronunciation activities are a great way to change the focus of a class. The pronunciation of individual sounds, word stress, or sentence stress requires different skills from the learners than reflecting on grammar or the meaning of words. There are lots of fun ways to practise pronunciation in a gamelike way, and in my experience students have always enjoyed this. The pronunciation ‘thread’ can be a regular routine, but within this routine, there can be (and needs to be) a good deal of variety about what features of pronunciation are practised.
Plan, Do, Review
The ‘plan, do, review’ cycle is another very useful concept to bear in mind when planning both lessons and courses. It can refer to what the teacher does, or what the student does. Learning a language is a skill, and requires the practice stage where learners ‘do’ what they can with the language that they have. The review stage is extremely important too, as this is when we often assimilate what we have learnt. Without the review stage, it’s too easy for us to forget new information and knowledge, and most courses will build in some kind of review stage at some point (and possibly at regular intervals throughout the course). This leads on to assessment, of course, which is also likely to form part of many courses.
Essentially, planning is an art, not a science, but applying systems and strategies to the process can be very helpful. This allows us to map out in our heads (and on paper) a learning path for ourselves and the students on our courses that will make the journey both purposeful and entertaining.
Hopefully, we will also be able to achieve the results that we want in far less time!