Lesson planning | Why you’ve been doing it wrong

Lesson plans are a waste of time. Lesson plans take too long to write. Inexperienced teachers find lesson planning too hard and too time consuming. Even experienced teachers can find lesson planning a time-consuming process or feel like it’s a waste of time. Heard or thought this before?

Why then do teachers find it so hard to plan lessons? Surely you don’t want to spend the whole night awake staring at a coursebook, a document a student gave you, an authentic article or a perfect podacst that you’re dying to use with your groups. The answer may not be in the process itself, but the way you approach the process.

Lots has been said about the merits of planning lessons and the advantages of not planning classes. This is not the a point I want to address in this post- I’ll leave that to the pros here

Anthony Gaughan and Chia Suan Chong’s discussion 

Materials are designed for learners

While the teachers book might give you a ‘final product’ style lesson plan, the students book is most often designed to give the user (aka the student) the smoothest journey through the course. I’ve only seen a few attempts to integrate lesson plan ideas for the teacher in students books, most successfully I think in the latest edition of In-company Upper Intermediate.

At the same time, some materials can be harder to unpack. What I mean by this is that the framework or methodological foundation for the coursebook is sometimes not clear to the untrained eye. If you’re trying to plan your lesson according to either your own framework or second-guess the coursebook’s framework, you might find yourself spending too much time on the plan before you’ve even come up with an idea.

Advice: don’t try and second-guess materials while lesson planning. If you have a new coursebook, get to know it and spot the patterns by looking through the whole book.

Teachers are full of ideas


Teachers have so many creative ideas

Teachers have so many creative ideas

If you’re like me, you have too many ideas when you plan lessons. Your brain becomes overloaded with new ideas and interesting warmers, adaptations or extra activities you know that could fit in. The result is a lots of content and no structure, or losing one idea because another great one has come along

That’s because your mind is brainstorming but the “I must plan my lesson” structure is inhibiting your creativity. At the risk of sounding cheesy, teachers are massively creative and take pride in their creativity. The process is hindering you. Break free and channel your creativity.

Lesson planning is brainstorming

It is. While you look at the materials you want to use, pick up a packet of sticky notes and write down ideas, one per note and stick them to the table. At this stage it’s not important whether it’s a warmer, pre-task, post-task, freer practice, controlled practice, language presentation, lesson review, learning checking, content checking, meaning checking or conversation focused idea, it’s an idea. Please do not evaluate any of your ideas in this section.

You should follow this process for about 5-10 minutes. The table could have anywhere between 5 and 20 ideas on it. Close the coursebook, put the materials down or put the podcast away. 


Brainstorming ideas for lesson plans can be a great way of fuelling the creative process

Brainstorming ideas for lesson plans can be a great way of fuelling the creative process

by jakecaptive under creative commons

Go divergent, evaluate, go convergent

Now you’ve just done something very divergent for your mind. Your brain is probably feeling tested and happy. It’s important to sort these ideas now.

Idea 1:

Put the ideas in columns. Give each column a title. This could be something like “warmer” or something like “1-1 ideas” or “group ideas”.

Idea 2:

Use a traditional lesson structure “warmer” –> “language presentation” –> “controlled practice” –> “freer practice” or whichever lesson framework you are most comfortable using.

Idea 3

If you have many similar ideas, use a descending list for suitability for the class.

Evaluating your ideas, you will be in a better position to discard some ideas. Don’t worry. You can keep them for future lessons if you really like them. What’s important is that you’ve caught all your creative goodness and put it into a structure.

Now you’re ready to converge. Get a page of white A4 paper and add your sticky notes to the paper in one column and the usual comments for your lesson plan in the other column.

What to do with the rest of the ideas? They don’t need to be lost – take a picture of them or collect them in an ideas book for future use.

When I started planning my lessons in this way, I immediately found the process more proactive and more gratifying . My students also noticed the difference the jump in creativity!

Advantages are:

  • By not introducing a framework too early, you don’t inhibit your creative ideas
  • Brainstorming allows you to explore many possibilities without constraints. You let your creativity flow.
  • Sorting and distilling helps your ideas fit into a framework
  • Closing the book and then going back to it treats our materials as stimuli for the creative process of lesson planning; not the cause of the creative drought.

If you try it out, take a picture of the divergent stage and final lesson plan and share your experience with me in the comments section.




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

Practical Ideas for Retrospective Planning in a Reflective Journal

I want to offer my thanks again to the audience in my talk on Reflective Teacher Practice at TESOL France, who came up with a number of very practical ideas to create a retrospective plan to use in a reflective journal. Their wealth of experience they had to offer helped me come up with a number of ideas. I owe you all a big thankyou, and maybe a drink next time we see each other, you can hold me to that! I have synthesised the ideas into a few frameworks that could be of use to someone thinking of starting a reflective journal:

Circular snapshots

Hard-data stored in your brain is more easily accessed through emotions and visuals, in my humble opinion. This model encourages the teacher to first go back into the lesson and take a visual snapshot of it, then, give it an adjective. Having entered the lesson in this way, you’re ready to look at the focus, needs, opinions and feedback.

Questions about the teacher/questions about the learner

Reflecting and writing a journal has a number of benefits which I would espouse. However, at times, alone with your thoughts, it’s possible that reflection becomes inflection. By this I mean the teacher is the centre of everything. We are professionals and we take our practice seriously. Basically, we flagellate ourselves. This framework rebalances the situation by addressing the learners first and then the teacher. The questions in the first box focus the reflection on the learner, then expanded and refocused on the teacher; it’s beneficial not only to learners but also to the teacher to bear them in mind when retrospectively planning/evaluating.

Reflection into research

An area I touched upon in my talk was action research. This is the area in which I feel I short-changed my audience slightly. There was a missing link between how to synthesize the journal content into a well-focused and fruitful action research project. The idea below goes some way to bridging the gap; it takes you step-by-step through the lesson running order. The first part elicits your thoughts on the lesson. Unpacked, the most salient points are then questioned and re-packaged in the form of a focus or action research (by this point the number of point should reduce). By the time you arrive at the action research box, you’ll have a few ideas in mind. At this point it’s a good idea to get the opinion of other teachers. This could be done by asking them to read your journal or through an informal staff-room chat. Finally, you’re ready to start picking out literature to help research.

The two classroom pillars

I used this framework to analyse a Dogme lesson I did last week. I found it useful to start with the learner pillar. They focus on interactions: firstly communicative interaction, then the interaction between learners and the content of the class, difficult and easy.

Answering the three questions on the teacher-pillar accesses the teacher’s decisions through the lesson in relation to learner interactions. What I find helpful about this framework is that you can draw conclusions on your decisions in the classroom and link them directly to the learner.

It could be beneficial to revisit the lesson or start an action research project in the case of an imbalance between these questions e.g. Learners found it difficult to produce X language/I found it difficult to help them with X language, learners found it difficult to understand what was required of them in the lesson/I found it hard to give instructions.

Surprises and moments

It doesn’t always go according to plan, does it? Emerging interactions can come as some surprise. It’s how we deal with them that makes them learning opportunities. In reflecting on them, consider the cause: internal or external. E.g. students had a bad day, it’s 5.30 p.m. on a Friday and my teenager group wasn’t exactly thrilled to check into grammar 101, the material was pitched too high, etc etc. If these were surprises the next step is to reconsider your plan or classroom behaviour.

At the end of the process, give yourself a mark out of ten. It’s better at the end than at the start – again, reflection is better than inflection.

Moving from one lesson to the next

This idea focuses on how to move from lesson to lesson. As I mentioned in my talk, I often find the focus for the next lesson in the leftovers of the previous. Reactivating could be to address any one of the questions presented. This doesn’t necessarily have to something identified as a negative; one might want to reactivate to revise, add continuity or to introduce a new focus in the context created in the previous lesson.


Here’s my challenge. To anyone out there: teachers: newly qualified or expert, trainers: teaching or training. Directors/ADOSs: running development sessions or teaching, try it out with a class. Maybe two if you have the time.

1. Which of these structures best fits your teaching style/beliefs about teaching/context? 

2. Do you find it helpful to reflect in this way?

3. Have you noticed and areas for improvement in your teaching? Would you like to improve these?

4. Have you identified any strengths? If so, how could you ensure your planning/preparation/teaching exploits your strengths?