Lesson planning

How much time do you spend preparing your lessons in advance? Are you a planner? Or do you like to let the lesson take its own course?

As a young student teacher I learned how to carefully plan my lessons. I would write out exactly what I planned to do during each part of the fifty-minute class: how I would warm-up the students, introduce new language, have students practice the language, and then probably a productive activity. In one column I would lay out the time, in another the portion of the text or the handouts that I would use, and additional notes in a third column. My master teacher remarked that I had occasional problems with timing. I was one of those teachers who would happily go off on an a semi-related tangent, just because the students and I thought it was interesting, and then belatedly notice that much of the class had passed without us focusing on the key parts of the lesson!

Later in my teaching career, I did less planning. I would go in  with only a rough outline, jotted down on a piece of paper, of what I hoped to accomplish in a given class. If I hadn’t taught the course before, or if the material was particularly difficult, then I might put some extra time and effort into planning, but otherwise, I felt that as long as I knew the material, my students, the course, and my teaching style, and I could put it all together without needing a detailed plan. Perhaps this is a question of experience? But I think that these classes came out pretty well.

What about you? Are you a planner? Do you usually “wing it?” What is the right balance for you between planning and being a free spirit in the classroom?

About Joe McVeigh

Joe McVeigh
Joe McVeigh works independently in the field of English language teaching as a consultant, author, and teacher trainer. For over 25 years he has taught at universities in the United States, including the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. He has lived and worked in countries including China, India, Chile, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia. He has taught students from more than 50 countries. He is co-author with Ann Wintergerst of Tips for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication (Pearson Longman) and a co-author with Jennifer Bixby of two books in the Q: Skills for Success series (Oxford University Press). In addition to writing and consulting, Joe speaks at conferences and workshops, and maintains a blog and website on issues of interest to teachers of ESL. You can also find him on Twitter: @JoeMcVeigh. Joe is a past chair of TESOL's Intensive English Programs Interest Section and served on the TESOL Board of Directors from 1995-1998. He lives with his wife and son in Middlebury, Vermont, USA.
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9 Responses to Lesson planning

  1. Jeremy Lignelli says:

    I think I started out the same way. I would plan so intently on every detail at the beginning of my teaching career. I ran class like a drill sargent. After teaching courses over and over, I felt more confident that I knew what was going to happen. So, I stopped for awhile. Recently, I started planning or outlining again. I believe it keeps everything in focus. Evolving and changing things is a necessity in our trade. Passion and involvement coming from the professor is vital to maintain the attention and convey the material effectively. However, there needs to be focus so that even the professor/teacher doesn’t lose the overall objectives of the class/course.

  2. Kamalraj says:

    Dear Joe,
    Thank you so much for posting a very nice issue ‘Lesson Planning’ on this blog. I like it a lot. As a teacher of English Language Education of Tribhuvan University , Nepal, I have to teach lesson planning to Bachelors and Masters Degree students. My lessons become slightly teacher dominated and lecture oriented though I don’t want it. I am trying to improve it and for that I have taken this blog as one of the resources.

    Wish you all the best.
    kamal

    • Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

      Kamal — I’m glad that the blog is a useful resource to you. In teacher-training it is quite easy to fall into the teacher-dominated and lecture-oriented pattern. I find that one way to get around this is to plan more group activities where the students are getting the information and then teaching each other. I often find that the “energy” in the classroom goes up dramatically when group or pairwork is implemented. Good luck!

  3. April Scheivelhud says:

    I am a first-year teacher, and I just came from a culture of a lot of pre-planning. I felt like I needed to know what I was going to do every five minutes of the lesson. This almost made me more nervous about teaching the lesson, and staying on track. Honestly, I received some comments about pacing and focusing during my student teaching when I had to have long written out lessons. My gut-feeling is that I have taught my best when I was so passionate about the content, that my students were very engaged in what they were learning. Usually, these moments of passionate teaching were when I went “off the cuff” and not strictly by the book. Conversely, one of my supervisors made a great point of writing out a list of those high-order thinking questions for students to ponder before teaching a lesson. Thinking of good, intriguing and “thinking” questions are difficult to come up with on a whim. (Apparently, research has shown this according to my previous supervisor).

    • Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

      April — I had some of the same issues about pacing as a novice teacher, but don’t worry too much about this. A lot of it will come with experience and you’ll be able to combine planning, questions, and passion to come up with great lessons!

  4. Benjamin says:

    I don’t develop detailed lesson plans, but I do try to plan carefully at the course level. If one particular class get’s off topic, I try to make sure we get back on track in subsequent lessons. Communicating to students where we’ve been and where we are going helps us orient ourselves around any particular lesson.

  5. Dear Joe,

    Thanks for addressing this important issue on this blog. In a fascinating new book entitled “Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching” edited by R. Keith Sawyer (with a foreword by David C. Berliner) and published by CUP, a interdisciplinary group of researchers shows how to balance structure and improvisation, planning and spontaneity, scripted and unscripted instuction in actual classroom practice.

    Chapter 7 focuses on the significance of structure and improvisation in teaching English as a foreign language. Title: “Breaking through the Communicative Cocoon: Improvisation in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms.” (Kurtz 2011: 133-161).

    I thought you might be interesting in getting to know this.

    Best,

    Jürgen

    • Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

      Thanks for this reference, Jürgen. It looks really interesting and I’m delighted to learn that some researchers have done work in this area. I think that improvising is an important skill — I wonder how (or if) this gets taught in teacher-training courses.

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