Setting Objectives : Part One

Why do you need to set objectives (or aims - I am not here making any distinction) for your courses and your lessons? Well, if you don’t know where you’re going, it’s very hard to decide how to get there. In this article we’ll look at how you might decide the objectives for your classes, and what you need to keep in mind while you’re doing so. Course objectives If you’re using a coursebook, then the syllabus of the book will probably provide the core of your course objectives. But it’s unlikely that you’ll find a coursebook which will exactly match the needs of the group. Your job becomes one of evaluating, adapting and supplementing what is already provided. Obviously, when choosing the coursebook one of the things you need to take into consideration is whether it is in general right for the students – is it at the right level, does it cover the language and skills which they need using contexts and topics relevant to them? To do this you will need information : at the beginning of the course a level test and needs analysis questionnaire will help you find out about your students and to see how well a particular coursebook meets their needs and where you’ll need to omit or supplement. As the course progresses your knowledge of them will increase and you may need to refine the course objectives further. The type of questions you might be asking yourself include : At this level I’d expect them to know the present continuous is used for future arrangements. But the level test shows that a lot of them are still making mistakes. Does the coursebook provide a revision activity fairly early on ? ; Four out of the seven have frequent contact with Americans while the other three need British English. Does the coursebook include examples of both?; Most of them have to write E-mails in English. Is this covered? My learners are Finnish and have difficulty distinguishing between /k/ and /g/. Is there work on this? Lesson Objectives Given the overall course objectives, you then need to plan each individual lesson so as to ensure that they are gradually reached. This doesn’t of course mean just dividing the course objectives by the number of lessons and ticking off the items as “done” after each class. When setting objectives you need to consider :
  • What has gone before. Each lesson will need to balance the recycling of previously taught material – if this is not done items will easily be forgotten – with new items. For example, a beginner level lesson focusing on the infinitive of purpose might start by recycling place names (supermarket, garage, post office, library etc) in an activity where students match flashcard pictures and words, go on to incorporate these names with the present continuous ( each student has a flashcard – they have to ask and answer Where are you going? I’m going to the supermarket.) in order to find the other person in the class who’s going to the same place, and only finally use the same context to introduce the infinitive of purpose (Where are you going? I’m going to the supermarket to buy some milk / … to the library to change some books etc). The lesson has therefore included two recycling objectives and one new item.
  • Assumed Knowledge. Recycling will involve you thinking about your assumptions for the lesson. If you are recycling something as the basis for introducing a new item, how sure are you that your students will remember it and therefore how important is it as an objective? There will be times when recycling is the main objective for the lesson – for example, if at intermediate level you decide to bring together all the ways that learners have previously met of referring to future events. At other times, you may be pretty sure that the students will remember and be able to use the recycled items – but only if you include a focus activity before you attempt to combine them with other material. In this case, they will probably form a secondary objective of the lesson. And finally, you may be sure that the student’s will be able to use the recycled item without any specific prior focus. In this case the item is Assumed Knowledge. Keep in mind, however, that if your assumption is wrong, it could destroy the whole lesson. If in doubt, it’s always best to include an activity focusing on just that item first.
  • What will come next. In some lessons you may wish to introduce something because you know it will provide a useful basis for what is coming later. For example, if you are teaching a course where the present simple precedes the present continuous, you might decide to insert a lesson on likes and dislikes (love/like/hate etc + Ving) in the middle because having the students meet the –ing form in this context, and learn the names of a variety of activities, will make it easier to introduce the present continuous later.
  • How limited should the objectives be ? They need to be limited enough both to fit into the timescale of the lesson, and to avoid creating overload for the students, but not so limited that the students go away feeling that they’ve not achieved much in the lesson. Learning is like eating – too much at one time produces indigestion, but not enough causes dissatisfaction. If you’re introducing the present simple for instance, trying to deal with the affirmative, negative and interrogative all in one lesson would almost certainly create overload. But that doesn’t mean that the affirmative needs to be your only objective. It may well be introduced in the context of a lexical area that needs to be taught first, providing another objective for the lesson.
  • Variety. This last example focuses on another aspect of setting objectives – the need for variety. A lesson which focuses on one thing and one thing only risks becoming boring. To go back to our eating analogy, you may like chocolate gateau but you don’t necessarily want it for all three courses. This is a particular risk with specific types of lesson – lessons which focus entirely on phonology are, in my experience, rarely successful (though there are exceptions to every rule.) But in general, a mix of different types of objective usually provides for a more balanced and enjoyable lesson.
  • Anticipated problems. When you’re defining your objectives you need to think not only about what you want to teach, but also the problems which each item will create for your students and what you need to do about it. For example, if your objective focuses on place names : library, garage, railway station, pizzeria, etc the words would create different problems depending on who you were teaching. If you were teaching French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese learners, one problem you would have to face would be students presuming that library meant bookshop, because of the existence of a false cognate in their own language. If you were teaching Japanese learners, the problem would be the /l/ and /r/ sounds which the words contain.

In the next part of this article, we’ll look at the different types of objective which you might want to include in your lesson, and how they might be written out in a lesson plan.

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by CaptPiper via flickr

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