Creating a Powerful Lesson Plan part 2. Get the ingredients ready before baking the cake

In the first post on this topic, we saw the importance of making sure that students get to learn, practise and use any new vocabulary or grammar that’s included in the lesson.

Today’s confection is essentially the corollary to yesterday’s post. For any ambitious activity or task involving multiple bits of language, it’s common sense to make sure the students have all these language bits before they begin. This holds true whether the final ‘product’ is a debate, a group-work task, a role-play, free speaking discussion or a presentation. Any phrases which are sure to be needed in this task should be pre-taught and practised.

Let’s talk for a moment about methodologies, and in particular the Lannister and Stark dynasties of the EFL world: namely, proponents of TBL (Task Based Learning) and PPP (Presentation, Practice, Production). My own tendency when writing lessons is to hope for a peaceful marriage between the two, and I also wouldn’t dispute that both methods can be effective on their own.

Some Wildlings say we’re now in a post-method era. (Image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay)

But what I am sure about, speaking from experience, is that a lazy or badly-conceived task-based lesson plan can be particularly horrible. One issue can be that not enough time is allotted to the final task, so it ends up getting rushed. Often, though, it’s the lack of detailed language input going into the task that’s the major problem: the teacher is left unsupported, scrambling before the lesson to fill in all the blanks by selecting vocabulary to pre-teach and try to structure it.

For example, in an A2 coursebook I used to teach quite often, there was a lesson that really bothered me. After a bit of brainstorming of adjectives and comparatives, we had a practice activity also on comparatives, then a task in which students had to get into groups and create an advert for a product. If I remember, the work on adverts, including presenting them to the class, was given 20 minutes in the lesson plan. I never did this lesson as per the plan, but even with my tweaks and tailoring it never really got results.

And I can see why. Writing and performing a half-decent advert takes a lot of preparation. The students would have to be able to discuss types of products, agree on a choice, agree on the features of the product, possibly draw out some designs and work together to choose the best one, then think of a snappy slogan or at least a coherent description of what they’re selling, figure out who’s saying what during the presentation, and finally capture their audience’s attention. All of these stages involve a range of functional language, sentence structures, discursive devices and skills, and that’s before even considering how to work the comparatives back in.

This type of task, if carefully structured with language input at each stage, could be a great 4-5 hour project for a B2 class. Maybe at A2 it could be a fun challenge too, if the students are ambitious and enthusiastic enough, but again, it depends on carefully selecting language and finding powerful practice activities.

But when the task is this ambitious, the work of choosing input and structuring lesson stages needs to be done by someone, and I reckon it’s the lesson writer’s job. Leaving it all to teachers is a poor cop-out!

Of course, the amount of input needed for various types of task does vary depending on the level of the students. An advanced class should normally be able to have a discussion without practising a load of phrases in advance, whereas with pre-intermediate students it’s safer to assume that they need to be pre-taught formulaic discussion language such as ‘How about…?’ and ‘I don’t agree, because…’.

Teachers always have the option to leave out these bits, if they have a super-confident or higher ability group. But providing the option to at least review appropriate functional vocabulary and sentence structures can make the difference between a strained few minutes of floor-fixated silences and a fruitful, fluid sharing of opinions.

Looking spruce, but did the discussion turn to ash? (Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay)

I’ll mention one exception here. Particularly with more advanced students, I’ve sometimes used a strategy of letting them struggle a bit without any input, to let them see the gaps in their knowledge. This could be a task, a gap-fill text, a challenge of some kind for which they aren’t prepared. Key here is to keep it short, snappy, low-stakes (no big presentations) and to make clear that no, you haven’t done this before, no, your memory isn’t failing, and yes, the next part of the lesson will be aimed at filling these gaps.

So, in summary: butter, eggs, and a generous helping of functional language. Mix well and let flavours sink in before pouring into baking dish.

This is the second post in a series of five. Next time: Use Direct Speech.

Cover Image by RitaE from Pixabay.

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