Time. It’s the one thing that we as English teachers are not given copious amounts of. And within the short amount of time we do have, we are expected to do a number of things: plan lessons, teach, correct learners’ work, provide personalised feedback, carry out formative and summative assessments, etc. All of this while also trying to have some semblance of a social life. For most of the teachers I have worked with, planning seems to be the number one time consumer, with some spending upwards of six hours a week putting together lessons. In light of this, I ran a workshop for a small number of the teachers at my academy and we spoke about a number of possible techniques for planning and reducing planning time – hopefully you find some of them useful.
Planning time and experience
Let’s talk in general terms for a moment. Most of us would agree with the statement that planning time reduces to some extent as experience grows. You could think of it is as is shown in this (amazing) chart: After my CertTESOL, I think I would have planned pretty much as this chart shows (perhaps even more). Now, however, ten minutes for an hour lesson (or less) is pretty standard. I’m not saying that I am the benchmark here; rather, I’m trying to point out that with experience, planning time should decrease. Let’s have a look at why.
Teachers become familiar with the content they are teaching. As well as working with the same coursebooks or materials multiple times, teachers will most likely work with the same learners (or at least types of learners).
Teachers can recycle old lessons and activities.
Teachers learn from experience and know what works and what doesn’t work.
I’ve simplified a lot of these. A lot of thinking goes into planning, however we often forget about the process we have gone through to get to the stage where all this becomes natural.
Why lesson plan?
“… planning is essentially a thinking skill. Planning is imagining the lesson before it happens.” – Scrivener (2011: 123)
This seems like an obvious question – to ensure the lesson goes well, right? Well, yes, among other things. Planning does help the lesson go well, but it also prepares us as teachers for what is to (or may) come. It’s a mental rehearsal of the lesson. And, within this rehearsal, we try to imagine how our lesson aims, activities, tasks and assessments all come together. As Scrivener says, planning is a thinking skill and it takes time to develop this skill, however we can only develop it by going through the process of planning.
The ingredients of a good lesson plan
So, what should a lesson plan include? I suppose it depends on the level of planning that is needed. For example, a formal observation at the academy where I work requires teachers to state primary and secondary aims, provide a class profile explaining group dynamics, carry out a target language analysis, present possible anticipated problems and solutions, and then, finally, include a procedure with appropriate staging with stage aims included. In short, it’s a fair undertaking. However, it would be unrealistic and a little bit silly of me as a teacher trainer to expect this from teachers every observation for the simple reason that we don’t plan like this in our every-day teaching!
Now, formal observations do have their place – they provide information on teacher thinking and identify possible developmental points, however, in our every-day teaching we need to plan quickly and efficiently, so the formal observation plan template is not exactly ideal. Harmer (2001: 311) states that there is a planning continuum of sorts, from a jungle path (zero planning) to the formal plan we just discussed (100% planning). Most of us probably are somewhere in the middle, or as Harmer puts it, in the vague corridor plan. Before we go any further, I’d like you to take a moment to reflect on your own planning practices. Here a few questions for you to answer:
How do you plan (i.e. what method do you use, if any)?
How long does it take you to plan a lesson (or a week’s worth of lessons)?
Do you find your current planning techniques effective?
Can you say why or why not?
What are some other possible ways in which you could approach lesson planning?
What do you think would be the advantages or disadvantages of these?
Answered those? Let’s get into it then. I recently watched the television series Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix (one of my guilty pleasures), and the gist of the show was that these ‘elements’ could be found at the base of all cooking. I think that an effective approach to everyday lesson planning follows in much the same way, i.e. there are certain elements that you (should) find in every plan. The absolute base elements that should be included in a lesson are Lesson aims/objectives and the procedure (activities, tasks, etc.). I, personally, like to think of anticipated problems and solutions as a base element in planning as well. I’d like to make clear at this point that these elements of the plan can be realised in a number of ways, ranging from one or two words to paragraphs. The way in which you plan and think about these point comes down to your own personal preference, planning style, etc. In the next section, we will cover some ideas that you might like to try.
Different recipes for different chefs
We’ve covered what I believe to be the base elements of any good lesson plan. But how do we plan? Is it all just in our head? Well, for some of us, yes, although I would be very hesitant to say that this is a good idea. I would say that even the most experienced of teachers go into class with, at a minimum, some written notes regarding the content of the lesson. The main point that I’m trying to make here is that it’s important to take the time to put pen to paper at some point prior to the lesson. The following ‘recipes’ as I’ve called them are templates/ideas that you can use for planning. This being said, not all of them may be applicable to you as a teacher, i.e. some may have sections or points that you don’t feel you need to include. If this is the case, modify it or disregard it completely. If you are unsure of what you need to plan in your lessons, try going into a lesson with having planned nothing, i.e. following the jungle path. There will no doubt be certain areas in the lesson where you follow your routines, coursebook, etc. But, there will also be an area where you struggle – it is this area where you most likely need to plan.
The post-it plan
Post-it notes. Sometimes my desk is covered with them; I love them and I use them all the time. I would say that a large majority of my lesson plans are done on post-its. Why? Well, the majority of my lessons are with coursebooks or lesson plans that I have done previously, I know my learners quite well, and I feel that I can cover all of the basic information needed on one or two post-its. Plus, there is the added benefit that these post-its can be ‘stuck’ anywhere – next to the whiteboard, on the coursebook, on the front of the stereo.
The teacher’s book plan
Most of us use a coursebook and most coursebooks come with a teacher’s book with a ready-to-go plan. I also think that most of us would agree that very rarely would we follow this pre-made plan to a tee as the teacher’s book is not written for our specific learners. That being said, there are loads of great ideas and insights in these teacher’s books – why not write your plan over the top? Highlight what you want to cover, strike through what you don’t and then write in any extra things that you need.
Lesson plan templates
Templates are handy because they are easy to keep, can be reused, can be made so that they have all the ‘sections’ that you feel that you need, and are easy to complete. The following templates are ones that I whipped up in about ten minutes using Google Docs.
The Shopping List: This plan contains all the basic elements of a plan, however simplified quite a lot.
The timeline plan (1): This timeline plan template splits the lesson into a beginning, middle and end. It could be useful for those teachers who feel that their lessons generally have clear cut sections, e.g. VYL classes generally start with floor work, move onto book work and then end with some other type fun exercise.
The timeline plan (2): This next template is one where timing is highlighted. I am not a big fan of lesson plans such as this myself, however it may be useful to those teachers who find themselves spending a lot of time off-task or running over time in some activities.
The Learning Affordances plan
In 2015, Jason Anderson wrote a brilliant article in ELT journal. In short, this article brought into focus the fact that many of today’s lesson plan pro formas are outcome-based, and this way of thinking does not really reflect how learning and teaching are conducted in the classroom. After reading Anderson’s article, my view on lesson planning changed dramatically – I highly recommend spending some time reading and digesting what he has to say. Andreson provides a lesson plan template that might be used so that affordances, i.e. learning opportunities that are likely to arise in the lesson are exploited. In my mind, this plan takes the rehearsal part of planning to the next level and really does put into focus what you as a teacher can achieve in the lesson. The plan that Anderson proposes is much like a normal lesson plan template, however you might find that you can modify it so that the elements he is talking about are present in your shortened plan.
Give it time!
One of the important things to remember is that with any new template, technique activity, etc. that you trial, you need to give yourself some time to work with it and reflect on its use and implementation. Not all of the aforementioned plans, templates or ideas will be fit for every teacher, however it’s essential that you find the one that fits you and your teaching context through trialling and reflecting. Here are a few reflection questions to get you started:
- Did the lesson plan help you? If so, how?
- Did you feel that the plan provided you with sufficient information?
- Do you think the amount of time you spent planning affected the success of the lesson?
- What could be done to the plan that you chose to improve it, i.e. would you add or subtract any elements?
Hopefully, these ideas aid you in your quest to reduce planning time. If you do use any of the ideas here, or if you have any ideas of your own, please leave a comment and some feedback below – I’d love to hear from you all!
Anderson, J. (2015). Affordance, learning opportunities, and the lesson plan pro forma. ELT Journal. 69/3. pp. 228-238.
Harmer, J. (2001). The Practice of English Language Teaching – Third Edition. Harlow: Longman.
Redstone, C., Day, J. & Cunningham, G. (2012). Face2Face – Pre-intermediate. Teacher’s Book. Cambridge: CUP.
Scrivener, J. Learning English – The Essential Guide to English Language Teaching – 3rd Edition. Oxford: Macmillan.