The Balanced Lesson

This is the first in a series of articles on lesson planning. In this introductory article we’ll look at the type of factors which you need to take into consideration when planning a lesson.

Why do you need to plan lessons? Callum Robertson, in an article on the site Teaching English, suggests that a lesson is like a journey and the lesson plan is the map. It shows you where you’re starting from, where you want to get to, and the route to take in order to get there. If you are a fairly inexperienced teacher, you may find that lesson planning takes up a lot of your time. It’s inevitable – you’re having to think through everything for the first time, search for activities without knowing exactly what’s available and so on. If you’re doing an initial training course such as the CELTA you’ll be asked to make your thinking explicit by writing out your plans fully – necessary so that your tutor can understand what you’re trying to do, but also extremely useful in helping you really clarify your ideas. When you are back in your own classroom and as you gain more experience you won’t of course write everything out quite so explicitly – often the plan will just be a list of notes with an activity sequence. But this doesn’t mean that you haven’t planned. Once you’ve used an activity type a number of times, you know how to set it up and use it most effectively – the knowledge is in your head and, unless you’ve decided to try something different that day, you don’t need to write it down.

At the beginning you can cut down your lesson planning time considerably by following a good coursebook with an explicit Teacher’s Book, and/or by using ready-made lessons plans available from many sites on the net (1). But every class is different, and you will still need to consider if the teaching sequence suggested in the Teacher’s Book or the steps on the plan you’ve chosen are exactly right for your learners – for example, the plan may assume the knowledge of a language area (a structure, a function or a lexical area) that your learners have seen before but have not yet fully assimilated. In that case, you’ll need to insert a phase into the lesson where you revise that area before going on with the activities suggested.

So what makes for an effective, well planned lesson? It’s impossible to lay down a template which will work for every single lesson – one of the things which makes teaching challenging and stimulating is that there are exceptions to every rule, and I can think of several for every occasion where, in the rest of the article, I have said that something “should” happen. I’m also, for the moment, ignoring various alternative methodologies which would argue for a different approach to the lesson. But there are various guidelines which apply to most situations, and these can be summed up in the words balance, coherence, variety, and flexibility.

First of all, the lesson needs to have clear, precise objectives. These may be functional/structural, lexical, phonological, skills or other types of objective. We’ll look at setting objectives in another article, but for now keep in mind that they will generally need to include a balance of old and new material. Previously taught material needs to be recycled constantly or it may easily be forgotten, and the course will also seem more coherent to the students if each lesson builds on what has been taught before. For example, a lesson aiming to teach the expression would like to make offers might start by revising food and drink items, and then present and practice the new language in the context of a dinner party : Would you like a glass of wine /some more potatoes etc.

Once you have set your objectives, you then need to provide a logical, coherent sequence of activities to achieve them. The students need to move gradually from zero knowledge of an item or skill to the point where they can use it spontaneously. This will not of course happen in just one lesson, but the teacher needs to recognise where the students are on the learning continuum and then help them move to the next stage – without trying to push them on too fast. In a previous article I talked about using receptive practice activities in the phase immediately after the students have first met the new language – to try to move from the initial stage immediately into productive practice might well be a case of pushing the students on too fast.

Not only the teacher but also the students should understand the objectives of each lesson, and be able to perceive the logic and coherence of the activities and their contribution to achieving those objectives. The beginning, middle and end of the lesson should be recognisable, with activities flowing naturally into each other. Avoid the “Monty Python” approach – And now for something completely different … This may be done by, for instance, centring the lesson around one topic area, even though various language points are practised or, conversely, focusing on a specific language point for the whole lesson even though the contexts and topics change. In addition, the lesson should end at a coherent point, where the students feel that they have completed and achieved something, and not just because the time runs out. This means that your objectives will need to be limited. Complex areas will need to be broken down into chunks or steps which you can deal with in individual lessons, and you’ll need to predict the time each activity will take in order to ensure that everything “fits”. If it doesn’t, your objectives are still too broad and need to be broken down further.

Timing is not always fully predictable however, and one of the most common problems of inexperienced teachers is thinking that an activity will take less time than it actually needs. Keep your plan flexible. Look at what you consider to be the activities you must complete during the lesson and time them generously – if you know you tend to underestimate the time needed, then make it a general rule to allow double your estimation. Then, fit into the lesson various “if time” activities. These are optional activities which will give useful extra practice if you do have time to fit them in, but will not affect the flow of the lesson if you don’t. If you have to skip them, set them for homework if they’re written, or use them as a revision activity in a later class.

You should also keep in mind that you need to teach the students, not the plan. There is no point ploughing on with the planned activities, which will get progressively more difficult, if you see that the students are having excessive difficulty with the earlier ones. Again here your “if time” activities will come in useful. If you find you haven’t planned enough simple “obligatory” activities, then abandon the idea of going on to more complex stages and of reaching the end of the plan. Spend the time instead making sure that the students fully understand what they’re doing and can complete the easier activities successfully.

The lesson also needs to be varied and engaging in order to avoid becoming boring and to ensure that students’ concentration does not drop. Variety can be achieved through :
  • changes of activity type : written or oral exercises, listening etc.
  • the use of different aids or materials : pictures, video, the textbook, the board. However, good the textbook is, using nothing else as the focus of the lesson will guarantee a drop in pace.
  • changing method from lesson to lesson : for example, new language can sometimes be presented through a text, sometimes through a dialogue, sometimes through pictures, and in various other ways. As before, it’s a matter of achieving a balance between methods that the students are familiar with and which are therefore “unobtrusive” and reassuring, leaving the students free to concentrate on the content, and methods which are new, and therefore possibly more interesting.
  • teacher/student interaction patterns : different stages of the lesson can be done teacher to class, by students working individually, in pairs or in groups. Similarly, students can change partners so that they’re not always working with the same people, or can do activities on their feet circulating amongst all the other members of the class. In particular, make sure that teacher/class work is no more than about one third of the total lesson time, and never goes on for longer than about ten minutes at a time.
In future articles we’ll look at each of these areas in turn and in more detail. Topics covered will include :
  • Setting Objectives
  • Presenting and Practising New Language
  • Focusing on Phonology
  • Incorporating Skills into the Language Lesson
  • Planning a Listening Lesson
As always, if there is a topic which you would particularly like us to cover, please let us know!

1. See some of the sites in the sidebar, or just type EFL ESL lesson plans into Google

Photo provided under Creative Commons License by kokeshi via flickr

Further Reading ...

Woodward, T. Planning Lessons and Courses CUP

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