Creating a Powerful Lesson Plan part 5: Humanise Everything

This is the last part of a series of posts about how to create powerful lesson plans. The previous posts were:

Remember Chekhov’s Gun 

Get the Ingredients Ready before Baking the Cake

Use Direct Speech

Be Generous with Options

I’ve kept this topic until last because it’s harder to pin down to specifics than the other posts in my series.

It’s also easy to say; almost glib. Of course lesson plans should be ‘human’; nobody wants them to be artificial, nor robotic. Of course, no sensible lesson writer will disregard the fact that students are people.

You must be here for the B2 class? (Picture by sergeitokmakov on Pixabay)

So what’s the problem?

I think sometimes it’s possible to get so caught up in what constitutes ‘excellent’ lesson planning that we don’t quite give optimal space to the kinds of things that motivate students.

For example, consider the often-used sequence for a reading based lesson:

gist question → read for gist → discuss gist question → detailed comprehension questions → language focus → respond to text / task of some kind.

This makes logical sense: the main response to the text should be left for after the students have read it in detail several times and gained ‘value’ in terms of language input.

The gist questions therefore have to be general like “what are the three main points the scientist mentions?” Discussion of whether students agree or not, and their attitude towards the text, personal stories, etc., tend to be held back until later.

But my experience is that if a text or video is particularly interesting, surprising, moving, cute or funny, then students inevitably want to comment on that first of all. Instead of “yes, teacher, here are the three main points”, we often get “Wow, is that really true?” or “Yes, I think I read about it somewhere before”. A whole discussion can begin that wasn’t in the lesson plan: therefore, the plan doesn’t provide any tips on how to structure it.

So this is my plea to consider the typical non-linguistic motivations that students have, and be prepared to change the lesson plan to accommodate these even at the expense of a logical progression of types of activity.

While I absolutely agree that lesson planning should be informed by theories of language acquisition, there’s also the psychology of motivation to consider.

(Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay)

Learning about motivation can be done through reading: several dissertations covering the topic are available online, and Stephen Krashen’s seminal (and controversial) work on the ‘Affective Filter’ is certainly an interesting background text.

However, our own day-to-day observations as teachers certainly shouldn’t be discounted.

For instance, I haven’t seen much in the literature about the power of argument and debate within the classroom, but what I’ve observed that a good controversy or two can really help to get students involved! These don’t have to be based on students’ real-life opinions: role-plays can work effectively too, to cover topics as diverse as complaining in a shop and high-level political negotiations over Brexit.

Indeed, role-playing could be preferable to ‘playing oneself’ for shyer students: the opportunity to interact with classmates without the pressure of being ‘real’ can be an attractive prospect. Getting to know a class well, on the other hand, can lead to moments of powerful, unforced authenticity (and for more on this topic I really recommend a book from way back in 1996, ‘Voices from the Language Classroom’).

Looking more widely at motivation, I’d say the students I’ve taught over my twelve years in this business have been variously motivated by the following:

  • competition (individual, and especially in teams)
  • getting noticed by the other students (‘performing’ in some capacity)
  • getting to know each other (and sometimes flirting, it has to be said)
  • general interaction and self-expression
  • finding out more about the teacher (especially in an English-as-a-very-foreign-language context where the teacher is the ‘token foreigner’ in the school, town or region)
  • talking about faraway places including where I’m from
  • escaping from the reality of life in their own situation and culture
  • feeling that they’ve got a definitive ‘list’ or ‘rule’ to crack a grammar or vocabulary point and solve it forever more (as much as I try to clarify that crackable codes aren’t how English operates)
  • learning phrases and words that will help them to get a (better) job
  • being able to impress visitors from overseas with a few flashy idioms.

No doubt you can add to this list. But I’d be surprised if you were to add ‘learning English in the most logical, optimal way, as implied by research into language acquisition’. Even though students may express this kind of thing as a sentiment when pushed to do so, their observable behaviour in class can often appear to conflict with any idealised aims they may state at the start of the course.

Just as there are motivators at play, there are also factors which can demotivate students, and coursebook writers don’t always manage to avoid these. Let’s finish by looking at two examples.

Examples of demotivating lesson writing #1: Unstructured Abstractions (and Hipster Menus)

For instance, take the following instruction, which I’ve made up but based on things I’ve seen in published lesson plans:

Tell students to imagine they have made a huge mistake in work or at home, and are trying to apologise to their boss or partner. Ask them to form pairs and brainstorm words and phrases that they might use.

Longshanks, E and Dumpty, H (2003): ‘Bog Standard’ B2, Teacher Book, page 225.

This kind of vague, abstract instruction is pretty common, right? And in my experience, it tends to lead to a bit of a deflating start to the topic. If I follow the instructions here as written, students tend to take a while to figure out what exactly they’re supposed to do, meaning that I have to intervene several times to make sure they are on the right track.

Often, when it’s time to get answers from the class, they’ll say something like “Well, I would say I’m sorry and then explain what happened, because maybe the boss won’t be so angry if s/he understands why I did it”. Everyone concurs with this and it’s hard to coax out any more, even though it doesn’t really address the question of words and phrases, which was the main point of the activity.

I’d say there are three reasons why this activity will fail: the vagueness is one, and this is compounded by the abstract nature of what we’re asking them to do. Before thinking about how to apologise, the students are likely to be thinking first of all about what they might be apologising for. In other words, there’s a stage of concrete thinking (examples of mistakes) before moving on to abstract thinking (what do you need to say?), and the way the activity is set up takes no account of that. The third problem I can see here is that there’s potentially a lot of framing language needed in order to make this a paired discussion “I would say…”, “Would you use…?”, “What do you think?”, which could distract from consideration of the target language: again, this is a needlessly abstract way to elicit apologetic phrases.

“Ah!” you might be thinking, “a good teacher will make sure to give the instructions in a clear and structured way”, and this is fair enough – so long as the good teacher has enough time to think and plan how to structure the activity. But, here’s a radical thought: why can’t the person writing the instructions do the work, and save multiple teachers from having to rethink the activity?

I know it’s now a trend in certain restaurants to serve food in ‘deconstructed’ form for diners to assemble in their own way, but an unassembled TEFL activity might be taking hipster trends too far.

Carrot cake, anyone? (Photo by Studio Sarah Lou on Flickr)

So let’s have a go at rewriting the instruction above:

Ask students:
– What are the biggest mistakes a politician / footballer / YouTuber / accountant can make?
– What are the biggest mistakes you could make in your job?
– What are the worst mistakes you can make towards your husband or wife?
– What can you do or say to correct a huge mistake? (prompt students if necessary by asking ‘Would you apologise / bring chocolates or flowers / promise it won’t happen again’)
– I forgot to go and teach a lesson yesterday morning. Which words or phrases can I use to apologise to my boss?
– Is it a good idea to give a detailed explanation when you’re apologising? Why/ why not?
– If a company makes a mistake, is it more important for them to apologise or to pay compensation?

Longshanks, E and Dumpty, H (2020): ‘Onwards and Upwards’ B2, Teacher Book, page 330.

You’ll notice here that the questions gradually move from eliciting real-life examples towards more abstract, evaluative questions: this is good practice in that it gives students the chance to warm up, to get into the topic a bit before considering more complex aspects of it. I’ve hidden the language point in the middle and made it teacher-led.

I’d suggest that straight after this chain of questions, the next stage in the lesson might be a listening activity modelling some phrases for apologising, together with phrases for accepting apologies.

Examples of demotivating lesson writing #2: Lexical Overload (and the Man who eats Lightbulbs)

Here’s the language focus section of a lesson from a published coursebook, used by one of my classes:

There are many of these ‘Active Grammar’ boxes scattered throughout the lessons, followed in each case by a practice exercise with one or two more example sentences for each of the forms.

I’m still trying to find a way to adapt the ‘Active Grammar’ boxes that doesn’t completely discourage my students and make them feel like they’re struggling.

And the curious thing is, these are advanced students, hardworking, and experienced language learners. They’re also familiar with a lot of the grammar here: they can form sentences using relative clauses, they can use auxiliary verbs to emphasise a statement, and little if any of this content should be completely unfamiliar.

But there’s clearly something about the language is presented that is causing a problem.

I think I know what this is. There’s simply too much ‘stuff’ in the box.

I mean, how many different forms are represented in this one example? There are adjectives, adverbs, auxiliary verbs, then sentence-level structures including both subject- and object- relative clauses. There’s lexis and grammar thrown together, in a very haphazard and abbreviated way. I guess this is deliberate, because grammar-based syllabi are out of fashion and lexical teaching is in; there’s also a strong hint of a functional approach in the way these forms are all linked to the idea of emphasis.

But the overall effect is to dazzle with choice and complexity. The terminology of ‘cleft sentences’ doesn’t help either, de-familiarising what is essentially a selection of types of relative clauses.

The end result is to make the students feel that this is all difficult and confusing, tough and indigestible.

For my part, I’m not sure I can really disagree. To separate out all the structures here and find activities to practise each one is going to take quite a lot of thought and effort.

And if you’re wondering what this has to do with lightbulbs, here’s the great gourmet Michel Lotito. Note that even he tends to prefer everything in bite-size quantities:


Although I said earlier that the topic of this post is relatively hard to pin down to specifics, I think there are two themes running throughout:

  • Be realistic. There are limits to what learners can do, and teachers too.
  • Be detailed. Think through each stage of the lesson and how it will appear and appeal to learners. Give the teachers enough tools to iron out any potential risks or problems.

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Cover Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay.

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