Podcast: Lessons about Lesson Planning (with Ray Davila)

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"Plan-teach-reflect" - everything starts from lesson planning. This episode we look at what to put in a plan, how to plan when you don't have enough time and how to make your lesson go according to plan.

We discuss how to make lesson planning as fruitful as possible and also go off on tangents about biology labs, spelling mistakes and sinking ships. 

Lessons on Lesson Planning Transcript

Ross:  Hi, everyone.

Tracy:  Hi, everyone. Today we've got our special guest.

Ross:  Ray Devila.

Tracy:  Devila.

Ray Devilla:  Hi, guys.

Ross:  Awesome to have you on. Welcome to Beijing.

Ray:  Glad to be here. The great Beijing.

Tracy:  Ray, do you want to tell us about yourself a little bit?

Ray:  I have been working in ESL for the past five years and currently working as a teacher trainer with you, Tracy.

Ross:  You used to be in...was it Costa Rica before you were in China?

Ray:  Yeah. I was working with high school students teaching them English so that they could go to other companies and work in a bilingual setting.

Ross:  Today with Ray, we're going to be talking about lesson planning. We've got three questions. The first question is...

Ray:  What to put in your plan.

Tracy:  The second one, and how to plan under pressure and the third one...

Ross:  How can you make sure your lesson goes according to plan.

What Can We Put in an ESL Lesson Plan?

Ross:  Guys, instead of maybe first of all talking about what you can put in a plan, what do you guys think is the most important thing you can put in a plan?

Tracy:  I definitely think that language analysis. It's quite interesting the lesson outcome if the language analysis is great and I think is going to directly contribute to the results.

Ross:  The language analysis, this is, you've got the grammar points and you explain the different parts of speech or if it's Lexis and you explain the register and colliquations. All that stuff.

Tracy:  The reason why analysis is important because when the teacher really sits down and look at the language itself. They can also process how the learners are going to feel when they're sitting in the classroom. They can anticipate some of the challenges and how are they going to deal with the challenges. It's similar to anticipated problems.

Ross:  I've definitely noticed that as well. If people don't analyze the language in depth, they go into the class, they have the grammar point and the students start asking questions and you just see the whole thing unravel because the teacher is not really sure exactly what it is that they're teaching.

I always find if teachers have really analyzed the language before they go into class they're so much more confident about explaining it and answering questions and all those things.

Ray:  Going with that, the teacher becomes a bit more aware of what their context is going to be, what their task is going to be and how it's all going to fit into place.

Ross:  Glad you mentioned context because that's another super important thing. You can stick with the plan, isn't it?

Tracy:  Yeah, and there were so many different areas actually you can talk about context. Number one, lesson objectives. Usually, in the objective you should have the context and you should have the task that you expect students to do at the end. Also have the sample language that you want them to be able to produce from the overall lesson objective.

From the big one or two sentences, we should be able to find all the information. Otherwise, it's just teaching the language without any situations.

Ray:  The other thing to probably put in there is the anticipated behavior of the students more so than the behavior of the teachers. Stop thinking about what you're going to do and what you expect your students to actually be doing in their lesson.

Tracy:  I'd like to include board work. A lot of teachers are using interactive whiteboards or touchscreen. It seems that randomly we can put stuff on the TV or screen, but I still think it's important to have really organized board work for teachers.

Ross:  What are some things you might plan for you board work then? Different sections or will you write different things or what would you put?

Tracy:  At least that you should have some plan. What is going to be like at the end of the class? For example, you might want to introduce, I don't know, four different utterances. You don't have to include all of them but at least the one you try to highlight to clarify the meaning of the forms, or whatever.

You know where the students can find that information. For example, you may elicit from students at the beginning of the class so you're probably going to refer back to the information later.

If you have never got a plan you might forget...

Ross:  Forget to write something on the board, and then they can refer back to the boards, yes.

Tracy:  Exactly, and to be honest another thing is even for experienced teachers, we might not be 100 percent confident about spelling. It's a really good way for us do self‑check.

Ross:  Following on from that, another useful tool I think for lesson planning is using a corpus. Putting whatever target language onto a corpus and seeing what common colliquations there are.

Ray:  Actually, incorporating IPA into your lesson plan as well. If you have Lexis or if you have target language that you are going to be using throughout the class, get all the IPA done, put it into the lesson plan.

If you need it to write on the board, then you're a little bit more certain as to what you're going to do or what you're going to write in there. You're just not going to be guessing along the way.

Ross:  Yes, it's going to give you so much more confidence if somebody asks you a question about how you say it. Or if the student has got a problem pronouncing something you can just pick up your notes and take a look, right?

Tracy:  Yeah, I think overall, we talk about one of the biggest reasons why lesson planning is important because it makes teachers feel more confident. You know what you're talking about, you know your subject knowledge.

You know you won't feel embarrassed when students ask you a question, awkward moment and even of course we can react to it but the better you're prepared, your students will appreciate it and also respect you more.

How Can You Plan an ESL Class Under Pressure?

Ross:  When you guys teach a class now and you don't have very long to do it, what do you do?

Ray:  I pray.


Ross:  I'll tell you what I do. I always try to have the aim, I try to outline my main stages with rough notes. Then I also try and add in one or two alternatives and extensions just in case I'm running short on time. In case I've got a lot of time left over at the end because those are always my two biggest nightmares.

Ray:  I think that one of the things that I'll do, try and get a little bit more information about the learners themselves, about something they're really interested in. I feel that really helps with just the overall content of the lesson itself.

I'm going to think about what is something that everyone is going to be interested in and that they're definitely going to want to learn. I think that's the thing that takes the most times and times for people to plan a lesson under pressure. What am I going to teach.

Ross:  It's just making that first decision about what is the actual class going to be about.

Ray:  Right.

Ross:  It's almost like the difference between management and leadership. Management is doing things right, and leadership is doing the right things. It's almost like when you plan, the first step is you have to plan on the right thing to teach. Then when you start flashing out your plans that's how to do things right in class.

I know for me, what I always think about when I'm planning the main task of the lesson and it's three things. It's always the context. What's the situation and the scenario that the students are in.

The task, what are the outcomes and the roles and everything the students are going to take. Finally, what's the language that the students are going to need to do that. I find that's quite a iterative process going between those.

Often, I think when teachers make a bad job of planning is when they just think of the language and then they think of the task and then they think of the context. They turn what should be a circular or an iterative process into a linear process. Then you end up with something that doesn't quite fit.

Tracy:  You are talking about what should be in the class. I really think about something related to what Ray said and something interesting with the students. I would make notes where I should have a small joke or we should laugh, we should have a little bit banter.

Ross:  Really, you plan that?

Tracy:  Yeah, I'll have a smiley face next to it, I'm going to use this story because I know under pressure...

Ross:  You're not funny?


Tracy:  I just feel there's always going to be something going wrong a little bit and it's all based on how you're going to react to it and deal with it on the spot. It's quite difficult to plan. Having some fun element throughout the class, would make the situation much easier.

When now we look at a lot of observation forms either for assessment or for teacher development, learning environment is always on the top of the list. At the end, you want the students to enjoy their experience.

How Can You Make Sure Your Lesson Goes According to Plan?

Ross:  Last question is how do we make our lessons go according to plan?

Tracy:  I've been to improv comedy a few times and I thought, "That's interesting." I read something online the other day about 10 life tips from improv class. The author, Andrew Tarvin talked about the tips and the one I really like is, "Never expect a certain answer or reaction. Just listen and act to what was actually said."

The same thing when we're teaching, how much we plan, how many hours we spend, we are not able to...

Ross:  Accurately predict maybe?

Tracy:  Exactly.

Ray:  It reminds me when I was in University. I actually studied Biology. Part of my college career was taking all these lecture courses that were always paired up with a lab. The principle behind it was everything that we were learning in these ideal theoretical settings in a text book then we would have to do these experiments in a laboratory to actually see how it works out.

The problem is they never worked out according to the text book. The reason for that is because all of these theories were based off of a lot of controlled settings. In a practical setting, in a real‑world scenario, nothing ever really goes according to plan. Something whether it the temperatures not quite right or the concentration is not quite right, you're going to end up with an explosion, a big bang.

That being said, it's the same thing with teaching. I think that what we're learning in books is great because the input that we get from people with a lot of experienced knowledge really does help us prepare for being in the lab, the classroom. Actually, being in the classroom like Tracy said, you need to be a bit more reactive and ready to take on what may come that is not in the textbook.

One of the biggest things for me in preparing for that is anticipating all the challenges that might occur before the lesson actually happens.

Ross:  It reminds me a little bit of I think Don Freeman says this somewhere that processes that involve humans rarely go according to plan. Teachings obviously are a perfect example of that. How would you go about predicting those problems, Ray?

Ray:  Having that language analysis is one of the biggest things then you're able to better understand what your learners are going to have challenges with. Whether it be for phonology, whether it be for the actual grammar or something like that, you can anticipate it and be ready to deal with that particular challenge when it arises.

Ross:  For me, talking it through with someone I find is often a great way of figuring out which bits aren't going to work. Often it's not the person I'm talking to that tells me that's not going to work. I'm talking it through and going, "Actually that doesn't make any sense. Why am I doing like that?" It's only when you explaining it to someone else, that's when it becomes obvious to you.

The famous adage, teach the students, don't teach the plan. When you guys are actually teaching a class or running a training session, how much do you refer to your plan?

Ray:  Again, it's about live interaction that you have with someone. You have this lesson plan. It might have worked in this particular setting with these particular trainees or students. It might not work with another group of students or teachers. One thing that I've always thought was really handy is to incorporate flexi-stages (flexible stages).

Flexi-stages are so great to put it inside you lesson plan because if you found that your students are having a lot of challenges with the lesson then take them out. If you found that it's easy for them and they want something even more challenging then stick them in.

Ross:  I often find that if I don't look at a plan enough, I finish the class then I go, "Oh no, I forgot to do this bit." I'd be like I forgot to get them to reflect, or I forgot to get them to use these materials. I actually find that it is quite useful to look at your plan every 5 or 10 minutes in the class and just check that you've not majorly missed anything out when you're in the flow.

At the same time, you don't feel you were too restricted by what you've got on the page.

Tracy:  What I used to do is I'd put the keyword in the corner of the whiteboard and remind myself because I don't really like reading something when I'm teaching. [inaudible 12:50] is going to be perceived the teacher is not really confident, knows what he or she is doing. I have the keywords and I know the segue or the transitions.

Top Tips on TEFL Lesson Planning

Ross:  Last question then. If you guys are in a class and find that things are not really going according to plan, what do you do?

Ray:  Funny enough, this is something that happened when Tracy observed my teaching practice for the day. In this lesson, I had this cool activity that I was going to use to use to practice the pronunciation of the target language. I literally gave the instructions for the activity.

Right after I did it, I looked at the time, I looked at my lesson plan, I realized that I wasn't going to have enough time for the practice and the free practice. I just stopped and I go, "OK, guys you know what, you can practice this after class."

The reason for that was I had to assess at that moment right there and then and go what is the most important thing I need them to know and have so that they can finish this lesson having learned something.

Ross:  Jessica Keller who's been on the podcast a couple of times told me her analogy for this was imagine you're on sinking ship and you've got all this luggage, what's the most single important piece of luggage that you don't want to throw off the sinking ship? What's going to help you survive?

It's the same for the students. You're running out of time in the class. What are all the different activities and tasks and explanations that you can throw overboard so you keep the most important thing?

Ray:  Bye, everyone.

Tracy:  Bye.

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Transcription by CastingWords