How can we create efficient lesson plans for the EFL classroom?
Here are some key factors to take into account when designing the various stages of our English language lessons
- In how much detail should we plan?
Harmer (2001) has described the stages of lesson planning in the following ‘planning continuum’:
- What should be included in the lesson plans? Should we plan broadly or in detail?
Lesson plans should generally be time conscious, content based and student -centered.
Of course lesson plans will vary depending on the number of students in our classroom, their age, their level, their specific needs and the lesson aims we want to achieve.
Lesson plans should also be detailed enough for a substitute teacher to do the lesson.
It is important to also keep a ‘notes to self’ section, with reminders or any specific comments teachers would like to make or remind themselves of regarding the pace of the lesson, any problems they might encounter, any changes they might wish to make or anything related to a specific student/group of students that could be useful during teaching. Teachers should also pre-plan some added material they might wish to use during the lesson or some adapted activities for a particular group of students. Lesson plans should always be designed with caution and should be offering tutors some ‘plan b’ options in case an activity or a lesson stage needs to change for example if students find it demotivating or if there are certain discipline problems, especially with group work tasks).
- Pre-planning background: The design model
Tessa Woodward’s design model for lesson and course planning can offer some useful help and inspiration to teachers who are focusing on creating detailed and structured lesson plans for their classrooms.
A lesson plan format: There are probably as many lesson plans as there are teachers. This one, adapted from Harmer (2001:315) is one of the most typical ones and should help teachers, especially the ones who are new to the profession to plan their lessons in sufficient detail.
- Lesson aims
One of the key points to consider when planning a language lesson is the overall aims of the lesson itself as well as any other subsidiary goals that we wish to accomplish during the lesson hours. It is about what the learners will have achieved by the end of the lesson. For example a lesson aim may be to enable students to practise speaking fluently on the topic of travel. Another aim could be to enable students to practise the function of giving advice using the modal verb should. Aims could be more general, for example to raise awareness on the main features of the written genre of problem page replies and to provide practice in producing examples of this genre.
When designing our lesson plans, we should never forget the role that motivation plays in successful language learning. If our students do not feel the need or the enthusiasm to pick up new knowledge then language acquisition will be too hard to be achieved. Teachers need to find ways to transfer their love for languages in the classroom and to be raw models for their students. Diversity and authenticity in the tasks, using topics that are relevant, meaningful and interesting to our learners and giving them the opportunity to freely express themselves and participate in the lesson play a key role in boosting our learners’ motivation levels.
- Focus on task variety/authenticity
In many EFL teaching environments, students have limited exposure to L2 input outside the language classroom. For effective learning to take place, it is therefore important to ‘feed’ our learners with useful, meaningful, authentic input and not just stick to coursebook material. When we enrich our lesson with authentic materials we do not only expose our learners to real life language use, but we also expand their knowledge on the target culture, the people, their lifestyles, beliefs and values. When carefully selected to match our students’ level and needs, such materials can add variety to the lesson and trigger learner interest.
As Nuttall (1996:179) points out, when selecting authentic materials for our EFL classroom we should mainly focus on whether or not they support our “overall teaching purpose and learning objectives”. We should be able not only to achieve our lesson’s goals but also to transfer knowledge to our students, to introduce them to new ideas, to widen their knowledge of the target culture and at the same time foster critical thinking.
Our main aim should not be for our students to merely notice new lexis or grammar through the linguistic input of the authentic materials. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking. The tasks that we will decide to accompany the materials need to be carefully selected in order to satisfy our learners’ needs and different learning styles. It is also important to always remember the effectiveness of accompanying real life TL materials with authentic, communicative tasks that promote learner involvement and boost their creativity. The more opportunities our learners have for language production, the more they will begin to notice and try to produce certain structures in order to negotiate meaning in the TL. Students become more conscious with regard to particular language features and this promotes language awareness and acquisition.
- Focus on the different learning styles
In order to grasp our learners’ attention and increase their willingness to participate in the lesson we need to focus on their different learning styles, on their personalities, their feelings, their likes and dislikes. A whole class discussion or students filling out questionnaires on what they like and what they don’t in terms of topics and task types could enlighten us on the activities we can select for our specific language classrooms. We need to focus on topics our students will feel eager to write/talk about. This way we will be satisfying our learners’ different learning styles and we will be more successfully directing our teaching towards their needs.
It is important to remember though that participation during the lesson is beneficial as long as it is not stressful. Some students may not be willing to interact with others. We must therefore carefully examine our students’ different learning styles and focus on what our learners could benefit from. We need to be able to direct our teaching towards our learners’ strengths and offer personal focus and guidance to our ss. We must carefully examine and monitor our learners and adjust our teaching in order to satisfy their learning styles and needs.
- Focus on the time frame of each task/ lesson stage – Allowing thinking time
When preparing our lessons we should always be realistic about our expectations regarding the time frame of each activity and to always be prepared by finding creative ways to fill in the ‘gaps’ between tasks, to allow thinking time for our students in group work activities or in reading or listening tasks and to always have something special and interesting prepared for the students who finish their activities before the rest of the class in order to keep them alert and to allow more thinking time to the learners who finish at a slower pace.
- Promoting learner creativity as the basis for our lesson plans
A lesson that is relevant and meaningful to our learners will most definitely help increase their willingness to participate. Promoting learner creativity will also kill boredom and boost their motivation. We must give them the opportunity to share their interests, their ideas, whatever excites them with the rest of the class. We should let them use their imagination to come up with stories, role plays, games, quizzes. This way they get the chance to learn the foreign language and construct knowledge in a context that is meaningful to them.
Comprehensibility in the tasks is equally important to meaningfulness. We must make sure that we encourage their creativity through authentic and interesting activities but also that our learners have received clear and explicit instructions. We must also regularly check for understanding and encourage clarifying questions from the part of the ss.
Harmer (2001) talks about the importance of ‘imaginative tasks’ in promoting effective learning and boosting learner motivation. In order for our learners to become more actively involved in the learning process, we must therefore focus on stimulating their creativity through authentic, meaningful tasks. The options are endless: real-life simulations, storytelling, article writing, writing a story based on a song they have just listened to, students pretending to be a famous writer/actor/singer/politician, writing stories based on pictures/songs, students collaborating on a role-play etc.
- Encouraging s-s interaction
In many cases our learners will rarely find the opportunity to practise the TL outside the language classroom. It is therefore essential to encourage them to speak and write in the foreign language as much as possible. We must give them the freedom to interact in the TL, to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately), to get their message across without the fear of errors. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active.
By working in pairs or groups in order to write a role play or a story for example, our students will combine their imagination and their knowledge of L2 lexis and grammar and will learn from one another. Role play, real-life simulations, games and quizzes will not only increase student talking time (STT), but will also enhance our learners’ communication skills.
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Harlow: Pearson Education. Chapter 22.
Jensen, L. (2001). Planning Lessons. In Celce-Murcia (Ed.). Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd Edition). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Nuttall, C. (1996) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language Heinemann
Richards, C.J. & Schmidt, R. (2002). “Dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics: New York: Pearson Education”.
Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann
Woodward, T. (2001). Planning Lessons and Courses. Designing sequences of work for the language classroom. Cambridge University Press. Chapter 7.