Phil Wade’s Course Skeleton

Course skeletons I love using Dale’s skeleton idea for classes because it lets you create or adapt a basic lesson format which can be used, reused, adapted for different levels, topics, learners etc. This ‘bare bones’ approach also lets you ad on anything in your ‘teacher toolkit’ as it is referred to a lot nowadays.

While, this approach seems great for one-off or general classes, the question of (as with much Dogme-related work) how well will it work in formal/academic situations is another matter. Well, being an ‘all or nothing’ kind of guy I have jumped feet first into this predicament with Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings under one arm, well a copy of their Teaching Unplugged, an assortment of board pens and paper in the other. Trial and error, hit and miss, pass and fail. I’ve probably experienced all of them but now that I’m planning another lengthy uni-level course I am confident that a ‘course skeleton’ works, so here are my ideas on what this involves. It feeds off Luke Meddings’ idea of a ‘back pocket syllabus and aims to reduce course planning to 1/2 pages and with it very minimal lesson planning is needed as you keep an ongoing ‘living syllabus’ from reflections after each lesson which feeds into the next.

The course Plan

1)Clarify what the course is, it’s aims

2)What must be taught/learned

3)How long is it?

4)What would the students like to do?

5)What do you think would be useful?

6)How will it be evaluated?

1 page 3 bubble syllabus in progress

1)Draw a bubble and write possible topics

2)In another language/grammar you think needs covering

3)In the last write a few activities you think would work well Make sure to leave space in the bubbles for later additions+amendments

Lesson skeletons

Write down what sections you would like in each lesson.Such as discussion, writing, language, debate, role-play etc. Try to have about 5 things, So, for me and my new English conversation class I have:


2)Pair discussion

3)Group discussion

4)Class discussion

5)Language work


Now, before each class I just arrange/rearrange these as a tentative framework but depending on how the lesson goes I can move them. then I add on my toolkit ideas/activities.

After each lesson add/change your syllabus notes depending on: What works/students like What needs covering more, less What topics/areas would work well in the next class Here’s a sample class:

1)Students watch a video clip (in class or at home)

2)Pairs discuss what it was about and reactions

3)I elicit opinions and then help establish a discussion

4)Groups continue discussion

5)I focus on some areas of weakness on the WB and provide some practice activities

6)I refocus the discussion/topic

7)New groups discuss

8)Pairs write up

As you can see, I used the main elements but extended some of them. In the next class I could choose a topic and actually show a video or give a reading at the end which would help students compare their ideas. In another I could just do a whole class discussion activity or even start with some writing. After this class I would look at my bubbles and add and even change them and then tick of what I’ve done and choose what would be good for the next class. In this way, the syllabus is constantly changing and improving after each class and at the end you have a very concise summary of what has been done, ideal for testing.


Having a basic skeleton helps me keep each lesson similar but different Changing stages helps keep lessons fun and surprising The flexibility lets you choose the next best activity depending how the lesson evolves There is lots of room for personalisation You always feel that you have a plan


You do need to be flexible and let things happen You need to think on your feet A good relationship with your class is important

8 thoughts on “Phil Wade’s Course Skeleton

  1. languagelego says:

    I love the idea of a ‘living syllabus’.

    It is rather intelligent to have a solid ‘backbone’ to all those notes that get scribbled at the beginning of a new course and the hastily prepped ‘lesson plans’ which tend to look more like shopping lists in my case!

    Will give this some thought…

  2. Emi Slater says:

    Hi Phil, Happy New Year! I also love the phrase “an ongoing living syllabus”. I think on my Delta I called my module 3 syllabus a “seedling designed to grow and bend in response to the learners”. What you have said about lesson plans/ skeletons etc is fabulous. The implications of this way of working are huge!!. Love it.

  3. phil3wade says:

    Hi all,

    Thanks for nice comments. I love your “seedling designed to grow and bend in response to the learners” Emi. I should stick that up in my class.

    Chiew-Your choice but personally, I’ve gotten fed up of spending hours in front of countless books trying top create a 10/20 week course only for it to get ‘changed’ and in the end be completely different. I normally teach full courses so I need a syllabus but things change so it has to be adaptive. This is what I’m doing now but who knows about the future.

    I also love Luke M’s backpocket lesson plan and now I restrict myself to very small points. I’ve planned about 6 2 hr 121’s on one page which works well as things carry over or review so that’s another option I guess. Perhaps on an A3 sheet you could stick up.

    Lots of options I guess. I also like the ‘syllabus bingo’ idea on Chia’s blog which came up at the recent IHDOS conference.

    Thanks again.


    • dalecoulter says:

      Phil I like the idea of the courseplan you proposed here. One thing I’ve been considering, and this was mentioned on the TeachingEnglish facebook page, is how a syllabus of this kind would match the standards set by education authorities or institutional requirements- any ideas?

  4. phil3wade says:


    Instit reqs:

    I often have to submit term plans or week or even daily plans. The termly ones when done before the course starts are always ‘theoretical’ but are required. But I write down what I hope the course will cover by the end from topics to grammar/lexis etc. It is generally the case though that the courses end up covering a heck of a lot more by the end.

    Ed authorities:

    I’ve been inspected 3 times. The 1st was by OFSTED, 2ndly by the BC and the 3rd was by the Chinese higher ed board.

    In each of these we had to have all our previous plans available and future ones and were observed teaching. I was also grilled in a police-style interrogation by one of them about my course. What I understood was that there was a lot of ticking of boxes ie if you did not have a plan that showed you were teaching in accordance with the set curriculum (however you define it) you were in trouble.

    In all those teaching situations I always diverged and adapted lessons and then changed the next and…Where I knew the course and the main principals I wanted to cover then the key seemed to be in planning and adaptive syllabus that could be adapted and was flexible, so much so that if I was inspected on week 13 and my official plan was Public Speaking analysis and I had stated that stdts would analyse and discuss some speeches and discuss them, then this is quite flexible. It allows stdts to choose which speeches, what type of analysis, what format (MP3/4/text), how they will discuss them and what output will be.

    I think after teaching a course for a while you know what really needs to be covered so can create a flexible plan/syllabus so in that sense you use the last course to help plan the next courses framework.

  5. PSCB says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    I always have trouble with lesson planning to the grand scheme of things. I’m still not sure why no-one goes into depth about planning to a syllabus, with reference to the core curriculum. Answers on a postcard!

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