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Why plan lessons?

Every TEFL lesson needs a plan. The level of detail it contains, and whether it is mainly in your head or mainly on paper, will vary depending on your training and experience, the type of class (one-to-one classes often have a much more fluid plan, for example) and the time that you have available to plan.
The main reason to have a plan for a TEFL lesson is to know, firstly, the aim of your lesson and, secondly, what you’re going to do during the lesson in order to achieve that aim. If you don’t know what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the lesson, you risk them going away feeling that they haven’t achieved anything.

What should a TEFL lesson plan include?

Everything that you might want to include in your plan derives from the main aim and how you’re going to achieve it. What materials do you need for the activities that you’ve planned in order to achieve your aim? How long will each of these activities take? What problems might your students have in dealing with a particular activity or language point? And so on.
As we said, for most teachers it is impractical to plan every lesson with this amount of detail. But these kinds of detail should at the very least be in your head, even if the paper version is just a few scribbled lines – and writing a few plans in this way is the best way to get yourself into the habit of thinking about these kinds of detail when you’re planning, even if you don’t have the time to actually write them.
Although there are other possibilities, here’s a list of the main things to include in a detailed lesson plan:
Main aim
Subsidiary aims
Personal aims
Materials
Anticipated problems and solutions
And for each stage of the lesson itself:
Timing
Stage aims
Activities
Focus
We’ll have a look at each one more closely. At the end is an example plan for this Used to lesson.

Main aim

What should the main aim be? Ideally it should come from a course plan which outlines a logical progression of aims for every lesson in a course. How does this lesson that you’re teaching today fit into the bigger picture of what your students want or need to achieve on the course? The aim might be based on a language point (grammatical, lexical or phonological), or it might be based on a skill (reading, writing, listening or speaking).
The key is to think not in terms of what you want to teach, but in terms of what you want your students to be able to do. By thinking from your students’ perspective you are more likely to choose activities which will help them achieve this aim, rather than activities which are easy for you to teach. if your aim is grammar or vocabulary based, you also avoid the risk of “teaching” the form and then thinking “okay, they’ve got it, job done”.
So, instead of “to teach will and going to” or “to practice listing for gist” try “to enable students to discuss future plans using will and going to” or “to develop students’ ability to identify the main ideas in a reading text”. Think along the lines of “to help / to enable / to develop/ to improve…” rather than “to teach / to practice”.
It’s also a good idea to make a note of how you will recognise when your students have achieved the main aim. This can help you afterwards to critically analyse your lesson, think about ways to improve it if they didn’t achieve the aim, and decide what further work is needed on a particular language point or skill.

Subsidiary aims

You may also have some secondary aims that you would like to work on. In the “Used to” lesson below the main aim is based on a language point, but we do some listening work to provide the context for presenting this language, so we take the opportunity to develop the students’ listening skills. We also introduce some vocabulary, not just because we need it to understand the text, but because we would like our students to be able to use this vocabulary outside the lesson.

Personal aims

You might also have something that you want to achieve on a more personal level. Maybe in your last lesson you weren’t happy with your board work and you want to improve on this. If there are several aspects of your teaching that you want to improve or develop, try focusing on one at a time here – work on it for a few lessons until you’re happy with it, then move on to the next one.

Materials

What materials will you need for each of your activities? Make sure you won’t need to run back to the photocopier during the class by going through all the stages of your lesson one by one – have you forgotten anything?

Anticipated problems and solutions

Take a little time to go through the stages of your lesson and anticipate the problems your students may have and what you will do if these problems crop up. Anticipating the unexpected allows you to, as far as is possible, avoid the danger of being left stranded without an answer. This can help you feel more confident and deliver a more effective lesson.
Think in terms of vocabulary in a text that you may have to pre-teach in some way, potential issues with pronunciation and how you’re going to deal with them, possible lack of student imagination in creative tasks, possible confusion of tenses and how you’re going to resolve this, and so on. It’s important to be precise here. If you say “students may be unfamiliar with some words in the text” it doesn’t really help you to prepare a solution. If you say “students may be unfamiliar with the words “to give up, to quit…”, you can think about the best way to present or elicit the meaning of each.

Stages of the lesson

Now we come to the lesson itself. There are four things to consider here:

Timing

Your lesson has a fixed length and so you’ll need to think about the timing of each activity. This helps you to know that you have planned a long enough lesson, and during the lesson itself will serve as a self-check to make sure you achieve what you want to achieve. If you find that you haven’t planned enough material, make sure any new activities you add contribute to your lesson aim – avoid the temptation to crow-bar in activities that don’t really fit. You could also go back and think about the activities you already have – could you exapnd on them or change them in any way?

Stage aims

These are the aims of the individual stages of your lesson, as opposed to the main aim of the lesson as a whole. There should be a logical progressions here towards achieving the main aim. Stage aims should answer the question “Why am I doing this?” rather than “What am I doing?” – the answer to this second question comes in the next column.
The stages that you include in your lesson will depend, of course, on the type of lesson. The “Used to” lesson follows a traditional PPP (presentation, practice, production) model. We therefore expect to see a stage where the language is presented in some way. This could be a situational presentation, a presentation from a text, or one of a number of different techniques to present new language. We also expect to see some practice stages, probably some restricted followed by some freer practice. These stages could be either oral or written. Finally, we expect to see a production stage or, as we have called it in this lesson, authentic practice.

Activity

This is what you actually do at each stage of the lesson. Be specific here. Instead of “Look at and discuss pictures”, break it down and say exactly how you’re going to do this: “Students look at photos of children doing things; Students discuss in pairs whether or not they did these things in the past and whether or not they do them now”. Being this specific will help keep you on track and ensure that you don’t forget a crucial part of an activity.

Focus

This tells you whether the activity is pair-work (S-S), group work (S-S-S), a teacher-led activity (during the presentation stage, for example – T-Ss) and so on. This can show you whether or not you have a range of different activity types – is your lesson too teacher-centred? Is every activity pairwork? Have you mixed up the groups for different activities?

Here’s the used to lesson plan:


This lesson follows a typical PPP (Presentation, Practice, Production) model. With this model we first present or elicit the language in some way. The students then practise it in more or less controlled situations and finally produce it in a more authentic situation. Have a look below for more about these practice and production stages.
PPP is just one of several possible lesson models – as such we have not covered all of the possible lesson stage types and have only touched on some of the terminology that you might include in these stages. But we’ll expand on some of the terminology and stages that we have mentioned in more detail here:

Lead in

A lead in activity is designed to “warm the students up” – to generate interest and get them thinking about the topic. When you introduce a topic, for example with pictures, a video or some questions, you activate in your students minds a mental image or expectation based on their existing knowledge of the topic. This mental image is often called a schema, and so we can say that the aim of a lead-in stage is to “activate your students’ schemata”. Your students’ existing knowledge and experience can then be used to personalise the lesson.

Target language

The aim of the presentation stage is to present or elicit the target language – the language that we want the students to be able to use correctly in order to achieve the aim of our lesson. There are different ways to do this – in this case the teacher elicits the meaning of the target language with a series of concept questions before giving the target sentence itself.

Manipulating form

By this we mean that the teacher presents (or elicits) the question and negative forms of the target language, as well as, perhaps, other examples in the first, second or third person.

Restricted/controlled practice

The first practice stage, where the teacher drills the pronunciation of the target language, is very restricted, in the sense that students focus entirely on the sentence containing the target language. There is no opportunity at this stage to incorporate other language. The practice stage of PPP lessons tends to start with restricted practice in this way, and then gradually move on to less restricted and eventually much more authentic practice.
In the less restricted practice stage of this lesson, students are given the chance to circulate and ask each other questions (using the material that was gathered during the lead in). The focus is still very much on the target language, but much less restricted or controlled than the previous exercise.

Authentic/Free/Fluency practice

Finally, the students are given the opportunity to produce the target language in a much freer context. The activity in this lesson encourages them to talk about the past, and they may naturally use the target language during their conversations, but they are also free to use other language. There shouldn’t be any pressure on the students at this stage to use the target language, and you may find that they don’t use it very much at all. This is why we can call this stage authentic practice – in an authentic situation we wouldn’t use “used to” in every sentence when communicating with someone – we would maybe use it once or twice in addition to other forms.
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