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.




Beating the Humdrum

Flicking through your courseboook, have you ever thought the reading texts all seem a little bit….



It’s hard to get teenagers to interact with a text about Prince Charles.

Exam course books with page-long texts sap energy from the classroom and tire students out.

Can students bring their cultural knowledge interact with an anglo-centrically themed text?

Read, underline, read, underline, answer questions… seems a bit repetitive, doesn’t it?

So here are some ways of adding a little zest to a reading text. They are not failsafe and obviously aren’t applicable to every text you come across but I have found them very useful lately to increase student participation in reading and make it a bit more than just the humdrum comprehension.

1. Rewrite

Take a more informative text – exam books are full of them, like on the founders of some juice company or how children spend their free time in the UK. Put students into groups and give them each a part of the text. They then underline five sentences they think express the opinion of the author. Discuss them as a group and check with the teacher. Ask each group to rewrite the part of the text using the 5 sentences (like a writing guide) but stress that it must be rewritten in their opinion! Swap and guess which part of the text the rewritten version comes from.

2. Interviews

Again making use of the numerous ‘informative’ texts or even a true story human interest text, ask your class to make three of four interview questions to interview the class with. To add some support for this activity you might use the same key sentences for opinions activity or perhaps by putting a question box on the board.

what would you say is______/let’s say you were_________, would you?

3. Pictures

This one works well with short-story or human experience texts or just a part of the text. If the text describes one scene, give students a piece of paper, if it’s a sequence of scenes, give them paper with boxes on. One reads the text and the other draws it unfolding. Compare pictures and explain their stories to different groups. Some groups will have understood different vocabulary and at this time they can explain these to each other, the teacher can also intervene to add to this and supply more information.

4. Game shows

Give the text to your class for homework to read: half the class reads the texts and creates 3 questions and the other half only has to read. In class, have the other half of the class write their questions on the board. Those who didn’t make questions now have to read the text one final time and will work in groups of two to answer the questions, like a game show with one point for sufficient detail, two for lots and three for detail plus opinion.

5. Jigsaw summaries with longer texts

Mark a number one each paragraph. Distribute parts of a text like a in jigsaw activity. Students summarise the paragraphs they are given. Having done this, they pass their summaries to the other groups, who read the rest of the text and match them to the correct paragraphs.

6. Character

Take a character from a short story or text from a course book. Make two questions about the character, ambiguous questions which students would have to infer information in the text in order to answer like “would X prefer a night in with friends and pizza or a wild night out on the town?”. Once students have answered these, ask them to make two of their to share with the class.

Lesson Skeleton: IELTS news-based writing class

This skeleton has been kindly donated by the debate-master Phil Wade. No materials needed, just blank paper, students, pens and a teacher.

Exams don’t exist in a bubble, or rather they shouldn’t. It’s easy to just ‘teach the test’ but with the speaking and writing it’s also fun and educational to show and use the real world. This is useful on several levels. Firstly, it gives students a wealth of realistic ideas to use (often only the realm of CAE+), it creates a positive and practical purpose for speaking/writing classes and it also avoids students only learning IELTS writing English or memorising examples.

1) Elicit a controversial decision/opinion in the news which is causing debate.

2) Write FOR and AGAINST on the board and elicit one example for each

3) Ask pairs to brainstorm more arguments

4)Set up and run a debate scenario with For/Ag sides



1 to 1 (for new debaters and higher levels or with more structure for lowers)

2 to 2 (bigger classes and weaker students)

3 to 3 (very big classes and very weak or very organised students

The class is divided into 2 teams


30 second arguments in turn (for lower levels or new debaters)

1 min arguments in turn (for medium levels)

2 min arguments+support (for experienced debaters)

2 min arguments including criticism (for seasoned debaters)

Open debating (for discussion or informal debate classes)

5)Give FB on languag, pron, grammar, delivery style

You might cover

Presenting a clear opinion statement e.g. I believe that..

Presenting an opposing view e.g. I do not agree that

Using linkers to give reason e.g. because, on account of, due to

Adding support (cover the logical links and the language)

Adding polite criticism e.g. You failed to consider that

Pausing for dramatic effect

Intonation (rising before pauses/drops on important words/large drops on final sounds)

stress (moving the main stress for effect)

6) Move students/groups according to your observations:

a)Who didn’t speak much

b)Who was not challenged

c)Who was domineering

d)Who felt too comfortable with their friends

7)Make new pairs and ask them to note down and match 2 main arguments.

8)Write an essay style For/Against question on the board, then draw 4 boxes labelled Intro, Main1, Main2 and Conc.

9)Choose 1 student to explain if he is For or Against and why

10)Ask him how he would structure the essay to reflect his opinion.

You might cover

Intro-summarise topic and give your opinion

Main 1 For+support (examples, explatanations, quotes)

Main 2 Against+support (examples, explatanations, quotes)

Conc-summarise the arguments and give a last statement


Intro-summarise topic and give your opinion

Main 1 For+Against+support (compare and contrast)

Main 2 Against+For+support (compare and contrast)

Conc-summarise the arguments and give a last statement

11)Ask new pairs to plan their own essay and present it

Possible areas to cover

1)Logical counter-arguments

2)Strong vs weak support

3)Reprasing the question in the introduction

4)Comparative language

5)Essay writing phrases

6)Including ‘lexical items’, ‘grammar stuctures’ and ‘cohesive devices’ at the planning stage.


Write the full essay and post it to the website/VLE