After nearly 8 months of lesson planning for all sorts of classes, students, and groups, I decided I’d try to break down and analyze what one need to consider in order to make a good ESL lesson. These guidelines are the result of a lot trial-and-error, and even if I really did account for every factor in excellent but not excessive detail, I’m skeptical about these analyses being useful for training new teachers. That said, it can’t hurt to start with something, and if you already have some experience you might find these helpful for analyzing specific elements of your lesson planning that you can improve. After all, almost all the work of teaching is done outside the classroom, so thinking about how to plan a lesson will more or less set you up for success or failure. In this first part I’ll talk about time constraints and group size, and in the second part I’ll discuss challenge, student motivation, and teaching materials.
Time Constraints – Never ignore time constraints. An okay lesson that fits in your scheduled time is far better than a better lesson that takes too long. If you’re working with multiple groups over the course of an hour and only have 10 – 15 minutes time with each, you almost need to under-plan; by the time you’ve explained the activity and given the students some time to work, you’ve already used up 5-6 minutes. On the other hand, if you’re in charge for 45 min. – 1 hour, you’re somewhat freer to try longer, more complicated exercises. If you can, try to have optional parts to an activity that you can cut/add, depending on the situation. For example, you can take the very basic activity of “describe and explain what is happening in this picture,” and make it last anywhere from 10 to 30 or 35 minutes. To extend the activity, you can have the students write instead of speak, and then share their writing, or create a story based on the picture, and then have the students write or speak about it.
Size of the Group – Never underestimate the effect the size of a group can have. Activities that work really well with 2-3 students can fail miserably in a classroom with 20 or more students. In smaller groups, you have several advantages: students are less nervous, you can pick up on individual strengths and weaknesses more accurately, adjust the activity to suit the group with greater precision, and correct more mistakes without holding up the lesson. However, if you do get to work with small groups, then it’s likely you’ll have less time with them, so the activity cannot be very complicated; you have to focus on one skill (speaking, writing, listening, etc.), and your activity must be fairly straightforward. Larger groups are by far more common, considering that most modern schools don’t have classes of 2 to 3 students, so you have to think about ways to avoid the pitfalls of larger groups: “stage-fright” in front of peers, the domination of the conversation by a few skilled speakers, students not paying attention or being disruptive, and “spreading yourself too thin,” or not being able to give enough helpful individual attention. In my experience, it’s good to introduce a topic to large groups with the whole group participating, then give the students individual or small-group work, and finally to have them share what they’ve done with the larger group. This allows (or sometimes forces) everyone to do some sort of work, to ask you questions while other students are busy, and then be prepared and more confident when they finally have to share their work with the larger group. I really think that the anxiety of speaking in front of all their peers is often the biggest challenge with big groups, so finding a way to both ease that anxiety, but also make the students confront it with confidence, is one of the most difficult and important challenges in teaching ESL.