Preparation is key
Most ESL teachers know what it’s like to spend hours writing extensive lesson plans that map out every minute of the class. The reality is that things never go exactly according to schedule, and who has that kind of time, anyways? It’s not so difficult to come up with a more basic lesson plan that you can adapt to many different classes. I’m talking about a useful lesson plan that doesn’t take more than a few minutes to come up with. It’s true that some teachers are quite comfortable winging it—not using a lesson plan and thinking up ideas on the spot that go along with the textbook—but this surely leads to some days where no ideas readily come to mind and you’re stuck doing dry textbook material for the entire class. On the other hand, some teachers like to be prepared, and the idea of walking into class without a lesson plan is akin to that dream where you’re in high school with no clothes on! Lesson planning also helps when you have lower level students, or students who aren’t very talkative. Having a good lesson plan to fall back on helps your class run smoothly with fewer awkward pauses or bored faces.
To write or not to write?
Should you write out your lesson plan? I usually did, but you don’t have to. I kept a notebook with a few notes about which activities or textbook pages I’d be doing, and in what order. It usually only took me about five minutes to plan out (unless I had to search for a certain activity). I know plenty of teachers who didn’t actually write out their lesson plans, but instead kept their photocopies in the order they would be used, and a post-it to mark where they left off in the textbook.
Lesson Plan Structure
I always try to have something that’s related to the main lesson of the day to get the students talking and/or having fun. It’s nice to ease students into the class instead of abruptly launching into the day’s lesson. After about a year of teaching, I had a drawer full of file folders organized by topic or grammar point with short activities to use as warm-ups, such as discussion questions, pictures to describe, vocabulary to match up, etc. I strongly advise you to save the warm-ups you like and reuse them with different classes—it saves time in the long run. If you’re just starting out as a teacher, or you have a topic you’ve never come across before, you can simply come up with five discussion questions to write on the board for students to discuss in pairs, small groups, or as a class. Or, better yet, have students write their own discussion questions about the topic, mix them up, hand them out, and discuss (see My Favourite Fun, Student-Generated Speaking Activity for more information). You could also check out Flashcard Ideas and Warm-Ups and Fillers for more warm-up activities.
2. Main lesson:
This is where you teach the meat of your lesson, whether it’s through a textbook or something you’ve created yourself. Introduce the grammar point or teach the vocabulary, then get into the practice exercises, reading, etc. Depending on how long your class is, don’t let this part go on for too long. If you have a three-hour class, for example, I always try to have something “fun” planned in between long exercises that’s still related to the lesson, such as a grammar game, speaking activity, vocabulary activity, etc. (see 4 Activities for Reviewing Vocabulary for more suggestions). The goal is to prevent students from getting bored, tired, or burned out. Anything that gets the students talking, or even up and moving around, is great in between challenging textbook exercises. Check out Tips and Ideas for more suggestions.
I try to do a short wrap-up at the end of each exercise, or especially at the end of the class. Often, it’s just a matter of having a few students share their thoughts or opinions with the class, especially if it was a pair or group activity that you’ve just completed. Correcting the exercise as a class, or asking the students if they have any questions, could also serve as a wrap-up. You could also do a quick review or summary on the points you just taught. The goal here is to avoid dismissing students after a long period of working silently, which gives a “Class is over, now get out!” impression (even if that is what you’re thinking at times!).
4. Extra activity:
Students never work at the same pace. There are always students who are faster or slower than the rest, or sometimes you have a multi-level class. This can be a big problem, as the faster students get bored and feel like they’re wasting their time waiting around, and the slower students get frustrated if they don’t have enough time to finish an activity. I found that having an extra activity or two prepared helped to eliminate this problem. If the class exercise is individual, have something that fast students can work on silently, such as a writing task. If the class exercise involves pairs or groups who are speaking, have an extra speaking task ready for those faster pairs/groups, such as a few extra related speaking questions. You could also allow free conversation practice (just make sure they’re not sitting there silently—some students love the chance to practice natural conversation, but some shyer students may find it awkward).
This may seem like a lot of extra planning, but actually, I found I didn’t often need the extra activity and could carry it over to the next class or two. Another way to avoid planning an extra activity is to allow fast students to start their homework during class. Finally, don’t worry if some of your extra activities aren’t related to the main lesson. I often had a stack of unrelated activities ready to use, such as word searches, grammar quizzes, or discussion topics ready in case some students were finished early (or, heaven forbid, all the students finished more quickly than I’d expected!). Check out Tips and Ideas and Warm-Ups and Fillers for activity ideas.
Most students appreciate having the chance to practice and reinforce what they’ve learned in class (especially with adult learners). Also, many schools insist on having daily or weekly homework practice. Textbooks often have workbooks that are perfect to use as homework. Also, our Lesson Plan Library has many lessons that could be used as reading, writing, or grammar homework. For example, check out Grammar Practice Worksheets, which has many pages that can be used as grammar homework.
Ready-made lesson plans
I remember when I started editing lessons at ESL-Library almost a year ago, I told Tara, the head writer, how well laid out the lessons were and how much I wished I had heard about ESL-Library when I was a full-time teacher. If you’ve checked out our website, you’ll notice that ESL-Library’s lessons are already in a “lesson plan” type of format. Most of our lessons include discussion questions as a warm-up (that you can do as a class or in pairs), a reading, comprehension questions, a vocabulary review, and more discussion questions or other types of activities (see this lesson on Martin Luther King, Jr., for example). You don’t really have to plan anything else…you have complete lessons at your fingertips. I can see, after working here for a while, that one of ESL-Library’s main goals is to reduce the teacher’s workload. Sounds good to me!