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Lesson Planning 101: How to Develop Meaningful ESL Lessons

So many new teachers spend hours at a time preparing for a lesson they believe their adult students will appreciate. And why would they not appreciate it—you think it is a great lesson! 

Then you bring your lesson to class eager to present it and to finish it. Why?

Because you know it is what the class needs!

But do they need this lesson you have labored over, or do they need something more? 

More, you say—I have just spent hours working on this lesson, and I will finish it! Yes, more.

Have we ever stopped to ask the question, should I be teaching the lesson, or should I be using the lesson to teach?

The Teacher’s Perspective

Over the past fifteen years of teaching English to adults from a variety of cultures, I have had an opportunity to meet people from various backgrounds.

From stay-at-home moms, the unemployed searching for work, company employees striving for promotions, business professionals wanting to converse with clients, scientific researchers, scholars, authors, adventurers, singers, actors, soldiers, politicians, attorneys, and even a few supreme court judges.

In terms of English conversation lessons, they have largely had one point in common: the desire to use English in meaningful interactions.

On the other hand, are the English teachers I have met in my journey.

Many of the teachers I have met have a traditional mindset that says they must finish their lessons or the students will be unhappy.

But I have not found that to be the case with most adult students I have taught.

So, what are the merits and demerits of finishing the lesson?

Does finishing the lesson take priority over taking the time to converse with your students?

In other words, should an English teacher feel compelled to finish the lesson or should he/she be more sensitive to the wishes of the class and make adjustments? 

Find out how to use the communicative approach!

Finishing the Lesson

Traditional thinking in teachers is a leftover from their days in primary and secondary schools where the teacher-student relationship was just that.

The teacher ran the class and the students observed. the teacher led the class and the students followed, the teacher was active while students were passive.   

As a result, some English teachers mistakenly believe that a good teacher finishes the lesson.

However, they forget that they are teaching within a new paradigm, ESL is meant for communication, not for just learning. 

These teachers believe that if they finish the lesson, their adult students will be happy.

Sadly, even some learners are under this false impression due to their own programming—that the more and faster they complete lessons, the faster they will acquire the language. 

However, in ESL classrooms, it must be different.

Why? Because English teachers do not teach subject classes like math, science, history, or even English. These are subjects that are typically concerned with the retention of facts.

English teachers help people acquire a language.

That language is to be used to accomplish a variety of goals. Just ask adult ESL learners why they are taking English classes.

I suspect few will indicate that they want to learn more facts about the English language.

If they do say that, it is the traditional mentality coming out in them.

Nevertheless, it is likely that many if not most will indicate that they want to be able to function in the English language. 

What many teachers may not realize, however, is that language improvement is not the result of finishing lessons or even how fast you complete the course.

Language acquisition is about the ability to use the language in meaningful interactions.

Learn more about lesson planning in OnTESOL’s 120-hour Advanced TESOL certificate

Develop meaningful interaction with your ESL studentsMeaningful interaction

Meaningful interaction in the ESL classroom can be defined as the interaction between students and teachers that have meaning.

That is, they are purposeful interactions leading to the acquisition of the language—the true but often missed goals of language students. 

Completing a lesson may have a purpose, but it may not be purposeful.

A learner may be able to regurgitate information from the lesson, but does it mean they have become proficient in using the target language?

Simply going from one objective to the next will take you from A to B, but does it provide an opportunity for the teacher and students to engage in dialogue that has meaning for the students?

In the end, the learner is still not able to interact with someone using English. 

They have the certificate but lack the skills, they memorized rules and mastered some drills but are still unable able to function outside the classroom where it counts.

This is how we may be failing as teachers.

We ought to provide opportunities to develop real-world interaction for language learners. 

For example, does the lesson permit the student the time to use the material from the lesson in real life? Or does it fill the learner with knowledge about English communication?

Unless a learner has opportunities to use the language to communicate about things that are of value, the lesson is simply a formality to simply getting a certificate. 

Lesson Planning Tips for New ESL Teachers

How do we make it work?

As you progress through the lesson, stop on points that seem to pique the interest of your students.

This means, go down the rabbit trails, go sightseeing so to speak.

Develop the parts of the lessons that seem to stir them to use the language more. 

From here, you can incorporate the language goal into the interaction.

Provide either real-time feedback or discreetly note feedback to be given toward the end of the class without singling out particular class members.

This means keep your feedback general and anonymous.

Your students will appreciate it. 

Do not be trapped by your paradigm of finishing the lesson to the detriment of their enjoyment and the development of their interest. 

As Dr. Stephen Krashen (1981) pointed out many years ago: 

“Language acquisition … requires meaningful interaction in the target language–natural communication–in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.

It was true then and true now. I have seen it with my own eyes. 


In the end, your adult ESL students will benefit immensely from a class where they were able to interact with their teacher and classmates in meaningful ways.

They will be more appreciative of a class where they feel growth has taken place.

They will appreciate the opportunity to have chances to interact coherently while receiving practical feedback.

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