What’s at the heart of your lesson?

If you’re anything like me, you’re in a constant battle with time. There are often a few details that never make it from plan to lesson because of emergent language, tricky questions, painful admin, or classroom management. I’ve found that it’s often the most valuable stuff that gets left by the wayside: corrections, feedback, or that sustainability twist. There’s a surprisingly simple solution to this which we explored in a recent module on my DipTESOL. If you plan around the heart of the lesson, that sustainability twist can become a central and embedded aspect rather than a ‘skippable extra’.

Think of a lesson plan. What does it look like? Curiously, every person who’s read this is probably thinking of the same kind of thing as you are: a series of numbered stages that often move from warmer through to feedback at the end. If there’s a big productive or communicative stage, it’s probably just before that final feedback. Planning is such a core aspect of ELT that it hasn’t garnered much attention beyond pre-service training courses. When was the last time you saw a session on planning at a conference? An unfortunate side-effect of this is that when us lowly teachers teach a class we’ve planned, we often find ourselves skipping things to get neatly to the end.

I see two main problems with this. I often hear teachers (and even more so in these days of Zooms and Hybrids) that everything takes too long. They don’t have time for the communicative task at the end. Feedback happens quickly, it at all. The sustainability bit? Where’s the time for it? These are crucial parts of the lesson: they provide learning opportunities and engage students with topics that matter to them. Secondly, if we planned the activity, then it was probably worth doing. However, if a teacher finds they didn’t have enough time, they’re less likely to try to do it again. The communicative tasks might get shorter, feedback briefer, sustainability…

Fortunately, there’s a better solution than just telling you to plan less. Instead, plan from the heart.

Take this double-page spread from a typical coursebook for teens (which incidentally is part of that throwaway unit on the environment). Following a linear plan, students move from reading to grammar rules to grammar practice to pair work questions. It’s not a bad text, either – talking about things you can do at home to help the environment – and this book does the grammar quite well. But where’s the engaging communicative centre? A pair work discussion of what will it do if it rains all weekend is neither engaging nor taking advantage of a golden opportunity for a sustainability twist.

The first stage in planning from the heart is to decide on the communicative/productive aim. This lesson focuses on ‘1st Conditional & unless’, so the students will use it to propose solutions for environmental problems. This might be the thing that takes the most courage – taking the language off the page and using it in communicative ways, especially if you are encouraged to use the books thoroughly.

Because I want to find a way to make this relevant to the students, I have decided to use these pictures of their town. They will make a fun warmer to ground the lesson in the students’ context, and as a lead-in to the heart of the lesson.

Looking at the reading task, I feel torn. It’s a great way of activating schemata for the topic, but I’m not sure how well some of the class will engage with this. I’ve decided to make the second reading stage and an optional one. Although the more we delve into the text, the more chance we have for getting language they can use in the heart of the lesson, I don’t want to flog a dead parrot.

For the grammar stages, there’s little I can do to really ‘jazz’ it up. That’s okay because this isn’t a grammar lesson anymore. The grammar is here to support the communicative heart of the lesson. When I share the lesson aims with my learners at the start of class, I no longer need to say today we’re doing a grammar lesson (sorry guys!). Because we’ll be using the language in a more communicative way than the coursebook dictates there is an additional phonological focus.

At this stage, you get to the heart of the lesson. Students are going into pairs to look again at the pictures from the warmer and brainstorm environmental concerns they have about the places. Then they’ll go into new pairs to do the communicative task. I want this stage to continue for about 15 minutes, so I’ll stop them halfway through for corrective feedback and upgrading. Remember how error correction is often something that gets left out? Breaking up the communicative task with a feedback stage serves two purposes.  Firstly we are giving learners more immediate corrective feedback. Secondly, we’re allowing them to use it when they go back into the task. More learning can happen than would be possible were the corrective feedback squeezed in just before the end of class, and we feel much more confident about making errors if we have a chance to fix them. I’ve designed a follow-up task where learners discuss and rank the solutions they heard. This can morph into the communicative stage if they are running out of ideas by the time we pause for corrections.

Following all this, we discuss as a class what came out of their conversations, and have a chance to work with any emergent language. A final stage lets students reflect on what they’ve learnt and what questions they still have.

That’s a plan from the heart. Instead of viewing the communicative task as the crescendo in a symphony, we come to view it as the mountain peak: you still need to cycle down again afterwards. In taking this approach, it becomes a lot easier to embed sustainability issues into our teaching as they can form crucial scaffolding for the aims of the lesson instead of optional extras to use along the way.

References

Anderson, J. (2015), Affordance, learning opportunities, and the lesson plan pro forma, in ELT Journal Volume 69/3

Foord, D. (2014), ‘Lesson planning right from the heart’, in English Teaching Professional, issue 93

1 Comment

  1. This is great Ben, so much meaningful communication. Activities which cut into communication time can also be flipped so that the students still get exposure to the language but your time together focuses on using it. Thanks for this, I’ll share it with my teachers.

    Like

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