Derek Price
Derek Price
Germany 2012-2013
Welcome to my Lumos Student Travel Blog! I will be spending 9 months in Enkenbach-Alsenborn, Germany to help teach English at a local high school and to improve my German. Check here for regular updates about my project. Read More About Derek →

What Makes a Good ESL Lesson? – Part 2

In Part 1, I discussed how you need to consider time constraints and group size when planning an ESL lesson. In this part, I’d like to discuss how to consider the challenge of your lessons, the motivation of your students, and the materials you can use.

Challenge – finding the golden mean of “challenging but achievable” is one of the hardest things to do when planning an ESL lesson, especially for teachers who are native speakers. The most important thing we have to offer students is a natural “feel” for the language: a lifelong familiarity of all the peculiarities of English, from verb/preposition combinations to style and word choice. But this familiarity almost works against us when planning an ESL lesson because it is so difficult for us, as native speakers, to know what is difficult and what is easy. Then factor in that besides linguistic skill, certain students are just better or worse than other in general, and that you may have to work with varying age groups with varying levels of experience, and you begin to see how difficult it can be to find the appropriate level of difficulty.

Though it doesn’t help much in practice, you can take some small comfort that in theory there are only two mistakes you can make regarding how challenging a lesson is: making lessons too easy or too hard. When you actually start teaching, it will be up to you to pay attention to your own tendencies in planning, and to try and get as much feedback from students and teachers as you can. It will be difficult to get specific answers about what was difficult and what was easy from your students, but after some time you’ll start to recognize when a lesson was too easy or too hard simply from how your students behave. I won’t say “if they look bored than it was too easy,” or “if they smile and laugh and pay attention then it was just challenging enough,” because different students will react differently to easy or difficult tasks, and it will be up to you to try and figure out if a bored expression actually means the student is completely confused or genuinely bored. If you are working with another teacher, they can be an invaluable source of information about whole classes or specific students that you can’t read, since they probably spend at least as much, and usually more, time with the students than you will.

Also be aware of your own motivations when planning lessons. I know for certain that during the first few months of teaching my lessons were far too easy, and there were specific reasons why: I was a bit nervous in my new role as I had almost no precedent to follow and no materials pre-provided, I wanted to guarantee the students’ cooperation, and I didn’t want to accidently scare my students into silence with unreasonably hard assignments. As I became more comfortable with my role and work, and more familiar with the students, I gradually made the assignments more difficult and complicated. But if I hadn’t been reflecting about my lessons, and why I was planning them the way I was, I could just as easily have continued planning fun but unchallenging lessons. In the end your goal as a teacher is to create lessons and activities that give the students a chance to improve their language skills, and there is no improvement without a challenge. Again, I don’t want to simply say “Err on the side of making your lessons harder,” because that advice is useless without considering how comfortable you are with your job, how comfortable your students are with you, and a hundred other factors that can’t really all be accounted for. Be happy with small incremental improvements, try to adjust lessons that fall on the extreme ends of the difficulty spectrum, and recognize that during the course of a school year the challenge of your assignments will fluctuate more like a sine wave than diagonal line upward.

Motivation – by motivation, I mean a student’s immediate willingness to participate in class and pay attention, as well as their long-term reasons for learning English. This may not be something that needs to factor heavily into your lesson planning, and really only requires attention when something is wrong, aka the students are not participating or engaging with the lessons. In the short-term or immediate sense, your mere presence is often enough to get them to participate in your lesson, even if they do so begrudgingly. This will sound like bragging, but I really mean it as more of a disclaimer: I don’t know how to give advice about how to increase students’ interest in participation because I never had any problems. My students were at the very least cooperative, and often interested or even excited to see me. If there’s one other asset you have as a foreigner teaching ESL abroad that is a real double-edged sword, it’s that you are a novelty. But besides your novelty, you have on your side the very real fact that English truly is a global language, and that if you want to participate in any professional career around the world, you need at least a “basic level” of English. Almost all students are brought up believing this, meaning that even if they don’t have a specific idea of what they’d like to do with their English, they’ll still consider it important. One place where considering motivation can be helpful during lesson planning is when choosing subject matter for your lessons. You can’t be sure that all of your students will work for an international corporation or have to write an analysis of a Charles Dickens book, but there’s a very good chance that they may have to read a restaurant menu, give or receive directions, or phone up a hotel while on vacation or traveling abroad. By focusing on what students might actually end up using their English for, you can get an idea of which topics might make good subjects for lessons.

Materials – by materials, I mean quite simply and broadly anything you use to facilitate teaching. That means that materials can be anything from a simple question, such as “Describe your favorite vacation,” to a written-out script with cues for speaking practice. Often, a simple handout is sufficient to explain and set up a lesson, but occasionally you may want longer text examples, or even multimedia like sound recordings or videos. The reality is that in most situations, the material you use will be chosen and provided for you, and you’ll simply work your way through a book. But if you have a bit more freedom (or complete and total “freedom,” as was my case – I was given no materials to work with!), it can be worth starting a lesson with a video or cartoon, simply to avoid the monotony that can come with working solely through a lesson book, because even good books get boring after a while.

Well, that about does it. I believe that if you keep these 5 factors in mind while planning your lessons, you’ll be able to face your lessons a little bit more at ease. As I said in my first post, I’m somewhat skeptical that this kind of analysis of lesson planning is helpful as a guide, so take what I say here with a grain of salt and trust your experiences more than my opinions. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, be willing to try different things, and don’t be afraid of a lesson falling flat on its face. If you have any different ideas or experiences about planning and teaching ESL, do share them in the comments.

Until next time,


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