Creating a Powerful Lesson Plan part 3: Use Direct Speech

This is part of a series of posts about how to create lesson plans that get results with minimal extra effort from teachers.

We’ve already had Remember Chekhov’s Gun and Get the Ingredients Ready before Baking the Cake.

Today’s post is about teacher instructions. I’m looking especially at you, coursebook authors. And anyone else who is responsible for instructions like this:

  • Elicit or teach the verb to regret.
  • Tell the students to listen out for phrases expressing regret.
  • Tell the students not to let their partner see what’s on their card.

Let’s get this straight. It’s your lesson idea, so I suppose that means you’ve figured out a really great example or set of questions to get students to understand the meaning of regret. But instead of sharing these with the teachers who use the coursebook, you’re going to write a vague, wishy-washy instruction and leave us all to figure it out for ourselves.

Tell me why. Is it the sense of power that secrecy brings? Is it the giddying heat generated out of all those staffrooms where the wheel is being reinvented every time this lesson is taught? Are you just really bad at thinking of concept checking questions?

Those damn CCQs won’t refine themselves, you know (Image by Graham Hobster from Pixabay)

Even if you’re writing for the most brilliant teachers, can’t you see it still takes time to figure this stuff out? Multiply that by the number of teachers using the book, and that could be a lot of time. If I’m one of those teachers, add on another big chunk of time and be aware that once I’m done I am going to really, really dislike you.

Let’s see what can be done with the instructions above.

I’d tackle the meaning of ‘regret’ like this:

  • Say I drank three coffees ten minutes ago, and now I’m shaking… how do I feel about drinking those three coffees?
  • Ask Do you think I regret drinking three coffees?
  • Say I watched a film until 3 in the morning, and now I’m sleepy… how do I feel about watching the film? Elicit You regret watching it.

The second one is easy:

  • Say I want you to listen for phrases that mean the same as ‘I regret’.

Using a colour code or different font for direct speech would be useful: this way you could eliminate the (awkward sounding) “Say”.

The third instruction is clearly part of a game, and might be better communicated through modelling rather than through explaining, especially with a lower-level course. But modelling is tricky: even for children’s games (especially for children’s games?) the rules can be intricate and it pays to think very carefully about what to do and say, how to utilise any volunteers, and if there are any visual aids or diagrams needed.

For instance, here’s a challenge: how would you show a beginner class how to play the game Simon Says? Assume they know how to give instructions like ‘Sit down’ and ‘Turn around’ but don’t understand game vocabulary like ‘It’s your turn’ or ‘You’re out’.

And in the example above, how would you demonstrate that your card is secret? How can this be written down as an instruction to teachers?

The other way to communicate instructions is to give them directly to students via the coursebook pages or worksheets. There are some disadvantages to this, of course: it makes it harder for the teacher to tailor those pages and use them a different way. It could be perceived as more impersonal than teacher-led instructions, and cuts out some of the spoken input in the lesson.

I really like some of the advantages, though, and I’ll try to explain why (This post gets more introspective from here on, but I hope it makes sense…)

  • A really interesting thing I’ve noticed is that students seem to follow instructions more closely when they’re written down. Even if it’s ‘Please be quiet and listen’, on the board, with rowdy teenagers. Try it! I suppose there’s something about the permanence of a written instruction that makes it feel more official, more of a law and less of a request. I’ve found this works for games too, and saves a lot of policing on my part.
  • There’s a reduction in overall teacher talking time, and specifically a reduction in procedural TTT. This rebalances things in favour of other, more interesting types of teacher talk, such as linguistic input, or participation in discussions. Anything which raises the percentage of interesting stuff I say in class time has to be a good thing!
  • The third one is a biggie: I no longer have to search around to find the relevant instruction in the teacher notes. This is important, because I lose my place all the time in class, and whether class is online or face-to-face it’s quite disruptive to the flow of the lesson if the teacher has to keep looking away from the students in order to scan a page of small print.

It’s for this last reason that I decided to try a no-teacher-notes policy on this site as an experiment: every lesson you find here is written as though intended for self-study. This means that teachers and students who use my site together will be able to work in full transparency: no more losing the place (unless you lose it together), and no more wading through long or vague teacher notes. Essentially, this has forced me to aim for the clearest, most direct instructions possible, and I like the minimalism of this.

What excites me even more: working with a website format provides new possibilities for non-linear lessons, where students and teachers can explore the various lesson pages together, clicking on links to check grammar or vocab pages, connect to external websites to do various tasks, or backtrack to the main lesson page. For me this is the ideal format: there’s the flexibility to go with the flow of the lesson, balanced with reassurance that there’s plenty of structured language content there. It’s also very different from a lot of the lesson sites I’ve seen on the web, which offer the same linear sequencing typical of paper-based coursebooks.

Non-linearity in action. Is language learning more like tree-growth or more like a mountain climb? And how should lesson plans reflect this?

But this is to steal thunder from tomorrow’s post, so I’d better stop here.

Next time: Be Generous with Options.

Cover Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay.

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