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Planning a Series of Learner-focused ESL Lessons

When you’re starting out as an English language teacher, your ESL lesson plan is going to be as important to you as any of the course materials. If we view the ESL textbook as the boat that takes you and your learners along the river of language learning, your lesson plan acts as the map that guides you along the way. Just as any journey may include wrong turns, so can your language lessons.

Having a reliable map will be a great help in navigating this journey. This OnTESOL Graduate blog reviews common mistakes that new ESL teachers make with their first lesson plans and offers advice on planning for the long term with your learners’ needs in mind.

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Common Lesson Planning Mistakes

These are four common things to avoid that will ensure your lesson plan takes you on the correct route. 

1. Teaching the book and not the learner

You’ll probably find that you are under a lot of pressure to get through the textbook by a particular point in time. Therefore, a lot of your lesson planning will involve looking at how you can work through the material with your learners in an engaging way. Nevertheless, planning the material is only one aspect of lesson planning. To ensure that you are teaching your class, rather than just covering material, you do need to incorporate students into your plans.

A language class is made up of a group of individuals with different goals, expectations, and interests. Find out what these are, and then think of ways to accommodate these into your lessons while you are following the syllabus. If you don’t, your learners will quickly realize you’re just following the book page by page.  Context is king in TESOL! With a little information about your learners’ interests and goals, it will become much easier to supplement the ESL textbooks with engaging Authentic Material.

2. Using technology without a good reason

It’s commonplace these days to use technology in classes. Indeed, there are many amazing things that you can do in your lessons when you choose to incorporate the Internet and mobile phones. Nevertheless, you should only use technology that is helping you to meet your lesson objectives. If not, you may find that you are only using technological gadgets to try and be cool. Your learners will see through this very quickly and not appreciate it. Always consider if the technological tool is helping you do the activity in a better way than you could without technology

3. Failing to have a backup plan

So far I’ve suggested that you vary your tasks and include technological input as and when it’s justified. However, using things such as video clips and music from an online source brings about its own problems: what happens when things go wrong? Ask any experienced teacher and they will tell you about the time that something didn’t work properly in their class. It has happened to the best of us! When this happens to you, make sure you have a plan B that takes you on another route to the same learning goal.

For example, if your lesson is based on an online listening task, make sure you have a similar task ready that is on a CD, or that you have a transcript that you can read out to the class. Always look at what you have planned and ask yourself how you can meet your objective in a different way that will have the same results. Avoiding these mistakes will increase your confidence as an English teacher, as well as give your learners the impression that you are in control of the classroom.

Creating a Learner-focused ESL Lesson Plan

Language teachers are constantly under pressure to get through materials in the ESL textbook and get ready for exams. With all the things we have to think about, it can sometimes be easy to forget the real reason why we are doing this: our learners. Here are three things to keep in mind that will help you create lesson plans that keep the focus on your learners:

1. Know the people you are teaching

One of the easiest things to do is to look at a unit in your textbook and start making your lesson plan according to what you see. However, before you do this remember the people who are going to be experiencing this lesson with you. Some of the factors that will affect how you plan specifically for your learners are as follows.

  • What’s their reason for studying English? Do they need to pass an exam, or is it merely for personal satisfaction?
  • What age is the class? Are they young learners, teenagers, or adults?
  • What’s their current level of English? These people might all be in the same class, but that doesn’t mean they all have the same degree of proficiency. How would you plan for this?

Remember that there is no ‘one size fits all’ lesson; even if you use the same material with different groups of people, make sure that you always plan according to the class and not to the book.

2. Know your reasons for doing the lesson

Your ESL lesson plan should always be focused on a learning objective. In other words, the plan should be centered on what you hope learners can accomplish by the end of the lesson. So, what exactly is it that you’re doing?

  • Are you teaching specific vocabulary items or a new grammatical structure?
  • Is the main aim to present this, or will your learners spend time practicing it?
  • Do they have any prior knowledge of this, or is this the first time they will come into contact with this particular language?
  • If you’re doing a skills lesson that focuses on reading, for example, what type of reading skills do you hope to develop?

In addition to knowing your objective, always to imagine how this fits into the bigger picture of their language learning.

3. Know what is most important about this lesson

Even the best ESL lesson plans can only ever act as a guide to what might happen in the course of that lesson. One of the first things I learned on my TESOL certificate course was that it is better to teach 50% of your plan well than to rush through 100% of your plan and do it poorly. Remember that you’re dealing with human beings and hundreds of things can come up which cause you to have to change your plan. So, what are your priorities?

  • What can you cut out if necessary? Is there an activity that you would like to do, but can skip over if you’re running short of time?
  • How will you fast track through certain parts of the lesson if it becomes obvious that learners have prior knowledge of this language? If the class knows, for example, the grammar structure you plan to teach, think of ways to cut out your presentation and stretch the amount of time they spend practicing or producing the language.
  • Do they have prior knowledge of the language that is necessary for them to be able to understand today’s lesson? If, say, you plan to contrast present perfect with simple past, what will you do if they need more input on the simple past tense?

These three points may not appear on your ESL lesson plan, but they are important things to keep in mind to make sure that learners remain the focal point of the lesson. Remember to always teach the person and not the material!

Planning a Series of ESL Lessons

When you start out teaching English, one of the hardest things to do is to see the wood (the whole curriculum that your learners will work through) for the trees (the individual lessons you’ll teach that comprise this curriculum). Nevertheless, thinking about things from this wider perspective is a must if you are to achieve a balance of skills and activities that take place. While you might not be the person responsible for designing a whole course of study, it’s useful to consider how your lessons fit into a course. Some of the things you need to keep in mind are as follows:

  • the age of the learners, their level, and their needs
  • the length of the course, and whether it started before you became a teacher
  • the ESL textbook or syllabus that the class is following
  •  the language, subjects, and type of activities that have been covered so far,

Learners’ Long Term needs

It’s worth repeating that learners are the most important part of your class, and long-term planning must involve their specific needs. Are they aiming to survive in an English-speaking country, for instance? Do they need a certain specific type of English for their employment?

If you have a class of learners with similar needs and requirements, you might wish to build these into your planning on a regular basis, at the expense of the textbook. If you have a group with a wide variety of needs, you might want to focus on each particular learner, in turn, making sure you try to do something specific for each person over the course of several classes. Each of these approaches will require long-term planning.

Use a variety of activities

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of using the same kinds of activity again and again. You might find that you start each lesson with a vocabulary matching exercise or a grammar gap-fill that revises what you did in the previous lesson. Alternatively, each lesson might feature a speaking activity in which learners share past experiences in groups. These aren’t bad activities, but they will become boring very quickly if you do them every lesson.

Make sure that you vary activities from class to class. For instance, plan to use music, video, and games every so often. Also, vary the way that you get learners to interact in terms of working in pairs or in groups. One way to ensure you change up the activities is to use different lesson planning frameworks! Don’t be afraid to steer away from PPP into ESA and TBL!  If you don’t know the methods to plan different lessons, then skip this blog altogether and start with an accredited TEFL / TESOL course.

Strike a balance between individual and whole-class needs

At lower levels, you’ll probably find that learners are happy to have a lesson that is pitched to all of them, quite simply because they are all new to the language and their pre-existing knowledge of English will be fairly similar. However, when you teach learners at intermediate level and higher, you’ll start to notice a greater divergence in terms of what they already know.

Some will have a firm grasp of the passive voice, for instance, while others will be totally unfamiliar with this grammar. You’ll probably find even greater disparity in terms of knowledge of the vocabulary you teach. Think about how you can give extra activities to those with strong pre-existing knowledge of the grammar, or how you can use those learners who already know the words to help teach the vocabulary to the other members of the class.

One way to ensure everyone gets the attention they need is to plan individual or group tasks that are geared toward a particular learner, then do something similar with a different learner in the next class. This way you can deal with individual needs while still having everyone in class working on course-related activities.

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