If we can identify how experienced teachers plan lessons, maybe newer teachers can short cut the thousands of hours it usually takes to become an efficient, effective lesson planner.

Our Reflective Practice Group met recently to reflect together on Lesson Planning Time:  How can we make it shorter, more efficient, and productive? 

Here are some of the things teachers wrote to me before we met:

“Boy oh boy do I need this.  Teaching advanced ESL and feel like I’m spending as much time prepping as teaching.”

“This is one of my BIGgest issues right now – I’m spending so much time on lesson planning and not enough time restingJ

“Planning has been agony lately (this is NOT an exaggeration)!” 

I am finding these days as I am new to ESL I am spending more time planning (especially making things look pretty) than ever before.”

When we scheduled this topic, I searched the blogosphere and asked many experienced teachers what advice they could give for reducing the time and “agony” of lesson planning. There was pretty much unanimous agreement that easier lesson planning just evolves with thousands of hours of experience.  But (I thought) experienced teachers are doing something different when they plan lessons, different from what newer teachers do. So let’s see if we can identify some of those differences and try them out.


We began with an exercise I called “Are we having fun yet?” to get in touch with our emotions regarding planning lessons.  We took 60 seconds to write down a single word to describe how we feel when…(see below)…and then we shared our responses (in italics):

How do you feel ….

… when you hear the words “Lesson Planning”?

“Fear, Anticipation, Paid? Fear, Stress, Overwhelm, Work, Sinking feeling, Duty”

…right before you start planning a lesson?

“Ready/unready, How long is this going to take? Settle in, Fearful & hopeful, Excited, Motivated, Time for a cup of tea, Blank, Dread”

…while you’re planning?

“Fun, Frustration, Hopeful, Creative”

…once you’ve finished planning?

“Relieved, Glad I have a plan, Relieved, Hopeful, Happy, Relieved, Excellent, Relieved”

…right before class starts?

“Excited, Is this going to work? Calm, Ready, Hopeful, Nervous, Excited, Thoughtful, Lonely”

…half-way through the class?

“Not enough/ too much material, Doubtful, Thrilled, Flexible, Concentrated, Fine, Floating”

…immediately after students leave the room?

“Satisfied if it worked, or what a mess!  Should have/could have, Relaxed, Encouraged or discouraged, Celebrating”


Next, we mingled and discussed posted quotations on the topic, including:

The most pro-active teachers don’t restrict their planning to an hour with their head in the teachers’ book, but seek inspiration everywhere around them. After all, some of the best ideas for lessons can come to us at the strangest times and places.  (Rose Aylett)

 First of all get rid of the idea that every lesson has to be cool.  If you try to make every lesson really exciting for them you are going to kill yourself.  (Harry) 

Planning should set teachers free in the classroom, although few teachers in training would describe themselves as liberated by the traditional format of the formal lesson plan.  In reality, this kind of plan can become a strait-jacket…to the extent that the lesson plan is viewed as a final product, rather than a process.  (Rose Aylett)

The map is not the territory. (Scott Thornbury)

I sometimes use lesson planning to work on my challenges. For example, an observer told me my instructions were too long and confusing.  For a while after that, when planning, I would think of the words/examples I would use to give instructions. (Cecilia Lemos)

It is predominantly during unplanned sequences that we can see learners employ initiative and use language creatively, and for that reason it might be suggested that less or no prior planning should be done.  (Leo van Lier)

Great lessons don’t just happen; they are made to happen – usually as a result of thousands and thousands of hours of practice. (Scott Thornbury)

I don’t think ‘preflection’ is a word, but if it isn’t, it should be….”serious and careful thought about an event before it occurs.”  It takes the focus away from writing things down in a structured way, and places more importance on the actual thought processes involved.  (Steve Brown)

(Links to the full articles are here, here, here, here and here.)

We also discussed a reflective process I developed to analyze one’s lesson planning practice in terms of how it relates to the actual lesson that is based on it.   (You can read about it here.)


Having “activated schema,” we then delved into our own personal lesson planning experiences.  In groups of three, we discussed the following topics.  There was time after each topic for participants to make notes about challenges in their current practice, and ideas they might like to try.

  1. ELAPSED TIME How much time do you usually spend on planning a lesson?  Include thinking time, and materials preparation time.  What do you do first, second, third…..?
  2. STRUCTURE & SEQUENCING Do you follow a textbook? If you choose, omit, adapt or add to what’s in the textbook, how do you make those decisions, and why? Do you use a teaching framework* while planning? Why or why not?  How do you decide what comes first in the lesson, what comes next, what you end with? (sequencing)
  3. LEARNING OBJECTIVES Do you set a learning objective? At what point in the planning process do you set it?  Do you use coverage objectives** or performance*** objectives? How does the learning objective affect your planning process?  Do you/students usually achieve the objective?
  4. INTUITION & REFLECTION Is there a “little voice in your head” commenting while you are planning? What does it say?  Do you reflect on the lesson plan’s relevance and utility after you’ve taught the lesson?  Do you experience “ah-hah!” insights about the lesson plan?
  5. FORM & FUNCTION What does your final lesson plan look like? (typed, hand-written, cryptic notes/full sentences, cocktail napkin, all in your head, number of pages, categories of information included). How do you “use” the lesson plan during class? Do you refer to it? What would make your lesson plan more useful while teaching?
  6. MATERIALS Do you create/search for/use materials above and beyond what comes with the textbook? Why or why not?  Do the additional materials help students learn?  Do they move students towards achieving learning objectives?

*Teaching Frameworks: Examples: PPU (Presentation/Practice/Use), PPP (Present/Practice/Produce), ECRIF (Encounter/Clarify/Remember/Internalize/Fluently Use),  PDP (Pre/During/Post),  PWP (Prepare/Write/Publish)

**Coverage Objectives: Example: By the end of the lesson, students will have been exposed to 12 daily activity vocabulary expressions, and the present simple in first and second person.

***Performance Objectives: Example: By the end of the lesson, students will be able to ask and answer the question “What do you do every day?” using the present simple tense.


Having explored our own and others’ lesson planning practices, we moved on to making personal action plans.  Each participant considered the following questions:

  •       What do you want to STOP doing?
  •       What do you want to START doing?
  •       What are YOU doing that your STUDENTS could be doing?
  •       How can you shift your focus from QUANTITY to QUALITY?

Then, we each drafted an Action Plan, addressing these prompts:

  1.     1.  Set a specific, achievable goal
  2.     2.  Describe your current practice on this point
  3.     3.  Describe what you’d like your practice to be
  4.     4.  What obstacles do you face?
  5.     5.  What resources do you need, and how can you get them?
  6.     6.  What evidence will show how you’re progressing?

Afterwards, we shared our action plans, and resolved to work on them and report our progress at the next meeting.  Meanwhile (a week and a half later) some of the teachers have sent me updates on:

I put into practice two key takeaways as I prepared last week’s lesson:  breaking the 2-hour block into time chunks, and writing shorter, less dense plans.  Both worked well. My time spent was reduced, and I was able to recall what and how I planned to teach without the highly detailed notes, improving eye contact and rapid assessment.… this gave me immediate help — not only in time planning but, equally important, in giving me the confidence to be less scripted. 

My action plan was focused on reducing lesson planning time by reducing the time I waste procrastinating. My next strategy is to do the 10 minute timing and recording activity task. (You can read about that technique here.)

My change is how I am building goals into my lesson plan now. I am listing the goal(s) that we want to achieve in the lesson right on the plan and also what, if any, way that I can assess on the spot if they are reaching it. I think this will help keep me more focused on the skill we are trying to impart on the S’s and the ways to test it. I am finding it also focuses me on preparing the modeling and exercise with the goal clearly in mind too.

Lesson planning, while not completely shortened, is more directed and less painful!  Huzzah!  My action plan was to plan backwards and identify the goal and the behavioral outcomes for each lesson.  Then, I borrowed your idea of segments, and allotted myself seven.  Understanding that I wanted to structure the lessons using Presentation, Practice and Production while varying the modalities (ie, reading, writing, hearing, speaking), I’m sketching out the lesson and integrating the parts.  Recognizing that much of my time has been spent fiddling or reviewing resources, I’m able now to catch myself and redirect myself to the task at hand.  I’ve applied the Action Plan to subsequent lessons, and, as I mentioned, things are improving, slowly but surely.  It has been helpful to review the lesson afterwards and see what material was either not used or used in a different way and why that happened.

Our next meeting will be Sunday, January 10, 2016, in San Rafael, California. The topic will be:  Multilevel Classes & Grouping Strategies.

If you are in the Bay Area, you are welcome to join us!

For more information, contact Linda-Marie Koza.



Lesson Planning Time:  How can we make it shorter, more efficient, and productive? will be the topic for our November 8th Reflective Practice Group meeting.  In preparation, I thought I’d write about a reflective experiment I did a few years ago to  figure out why I was spending so many hours planning lessons.  Fortunately, I kept a reflective journal, so it’s easy for me to recreate it here. (I also searched the reflective practice blogosphere for others’ wisdom on the subject; scroll down for links at the end of this post.)

My first paid teaching gig was a half-time job, but I basically spent all my waking hours preparing for the next day’s classes.  When I mentioned this to my boss, she laughed it off, saying that when she started teaching ESOL, she calculated that, taking lesson planning time into consideration, she was only earning $5/hour.  It seems to be a given that conscientious new teachers, especially if they’ve been through a teacher training course, devote an unsustainable amount of time to lesson planning.


A reflective approach to understanding my Lesson Planning time


A few years ago, I decided to keep a log of exactly what I was doing during my planning time, and then after teaching the lesson, compare things that worked in class with the planning process associated with them.  I hoped that I could identify planning time that didn’t pay off:  either it led to problematic implementation, didn’t help students learn, or the “fruits” of that block of planning time weren’t even used in class.  Ideally, the post-teaching reflection on my pre-teaching “process” would allow me to identify what to eliminate, what to keep, and how to make it all more efficient and shorter.

When I sat down to plan a lesson for 25 +/- adult beginners, I set an alarm to go off every ten minutes, and each time I made a note about what I had been doing.  It was difficult to admit, even to my private journal, what I was actually doing with most of that time.

Winnie-the-Pooh looking at his stomach

The bulk of it went to:

  • –   Dreaming up activities, sequencing and allocating minutes to each of them
  • –   Trying to squeeze in more activities, re-sequencing and re-allocating time
  • –   Searching the web for images
  • –   Designing new materials: formatting them, inserting pictures, etc.
  • –   Fussing with the layout and wording of my lesson plan
  • –   Fussing with the printer
  • –   Cutting, collating, and paper-clipping worksheets, flash cards, etc.

Then I hauled all my materials to class, and taught the lesson.  Of course, I was teaching in the swampy lowland,” where the reality of students’ readiness, responses and ingenuity cast a new light (or shadow) over the lesson I’d planned. During class, I did a lot of reflecting-in-action, regretting some of my earlier decisions, using some materials differently than I’d planned, and in general, not adhering to the letter of the lesson plan.  Notwithstanding the disappointments and frustrations, some parts of the lesson worked well, and I could see evidence of learning happening!


When I got home, I reflected on the whole lesson, doing a quick handwritten Experiential Learning Cycle reflection for each step (Description, Analysis, Generalization and Action Plan) This reflection was focused on equating what happened in the classroom with what happened during planning.  Here are some excerpts from my journal:

Description:  Generated Qs & As (Yes-No) on board, referring to chart, using new pics as prompts.  Took a long time for Ss to get the hang of it.

Analysis:  1) All the pieces of paper, too many & too slow to move. Could have just referred to the chart handout.  2) The picture prompts weren’t flexible, were unwieldy, made it hard to make my “prompt” intentions clear.

Generalization: It never helps to have a zillion pieces of paper and pics to move around on board. Put a clear model up, then find simpler ways to prompt.

Action Plan:  Decide in advance to only use existing materials – at most generate a poster model, but no moving parts on board.  Prompts:  dice or toss a coin.

When I looked back at the log of how I spent my planning time, a hefty portion of it was on producing the materials which, like in the activity described above, turned out to be unhelpful, inflexible and confusing during the lesson!

Here’s part of another journal entry, about an activity using Cuisenaire rods to teach the syntax of questions and answers:

I worried beforehand that the rods would be too abstract, but afterwards I don’t see it as abstract at all. Quite the contrary:  students did a great job; the rods are very concrete & reliable, far more so than the words & phrases they represent.  During the activity, when it occurred to me to add in sentences using vocab & concepts from previous units, I wasn’t sure how they’d respond. When I wrote “Is he hot?” there was a momentary stunned silence, and then very quickly, most students figured out what to do with the rods to form an answer.  I could feel their collective “Ah hah! I get it!”

In my post-teaching reflection, I realized that because I didn’t create fixed materials for this Cuisenaire rods activity, I had the flexibility during class to add something I hadn’t planned, generating a magical learning moment for students!

Planning in blocks of time

Other things I changed about my lesson planning, as a result of this experiment:  I was driving myself crazy trying to squeeze favorite activities into little segments of 6½ minutes, 4 mins, and so on. When I wanted to add one, I’d try to steal time from other activities. Craziness! When I reflected on the lessons post-teaching, I saw that typically, in an hour and forty-five minutes of lesson time, I usually could only facilitate seven distinct segments or activities, averaging 15 minutes each.  This includes the inevitable down time while I get organized, modeling use of the new target language, telling students which page to turn to, distributing worksheets, giving instructions, modeling the pairs activity, and checking comprehension. Plus, of course, time for students to interact with one another, practicing using the new language.  Sometimes it’s less and sometimes more than 15 minutes, but it pretty much always averages out to 7 blocks of time.  Of these, the first is always devoted to recycling and reviewing vocabulary from previously studied units, and the last is always devoted to vocabulary BINGO from the current unit.  So that leaves 5 blocks of time.  When I’m planning, it’s so much simpler (and liberating) to know that’s all I can aspire to, so there’s no point trying to squeeze more in.  This rule of thumb allows me to short-circuit the endless mind loop of trying to sequence and squeeze too much into a lesson. And the five blocks align with the ECRIF lesson framework I use most frequently in my speaking- and vocabulary-focused class: time for students to 1) Encounter the new target language or structure, 2) Clarify its form, function and meaning, 3) Remember or recognize it, 4) Internalize it through practice using it in a controlled, scaffolded activity, and finally 5) Fluently Use it in a freer, personalized, real-world context.

Once I moved to planning by blocks, I shaved tons of time off of planning and worrying about sequencing.  This made it really clear what I had to do, and also clear when I had finished outlining the lesson!  If I couldn’t get students to the objective in five blocks of time, I needed to reconsider whether the objective was achievable in a single class.

Another benefit of limiting the number of things I asked students to do: I don’t over plan and rush through the lesson.  This means students get more practice using the target language, I have more opportunities for ongoing assessment. And we usually do have time for everything I planned, including the final ‘fluent use’ activity where the learning objective is (hopefully J) achieved.

“Pencils and whatnot. Overrated if you ask me.” Winnie the Pooh

Another discovery from this “research” into my planning process was that I was spending a great deal of time on the computer.  Too many of my “planning” minutes were spent at the keyboard, formatting the lesson plan and materials. I felt my trainer was looking over my shoulder, checking that I was still adhering to the discipline of how a lesson plan “should” look, the columns and categories it should have, fonts, spacing, trying to get pictures to line up properly on a worksheet, etc. These concerns sucked me down into a black hole, where I wasn’t even thinking about the lesson, I was just working on the computer!

So I started doing all my planning with a lined pad and a pencil. For some reason, the ghost of my trainer doesn’t manifest when I use a notepad.  I begin with bullets for the seven blocks of time, and draft a barebones outline of what I’ll do, what the students will do, note the essential page references and materials needed, and let it percolate.

I now do this with a pencil. That was new for me too.  I’ve always disliked pencils, having to sharpen them, empty the sharpener, and so on. But I discovered inexpensive disposable mechanical pencils, which are the best of all possible tools!  I usually do type up the lesson plan, so I can share with co-teachers and make notes for the next time, but I wait to type it until right before I leave for class. With one foot already out the door, I don’t get sucked into that black hole of “ideal” lesson plans.

More is not better; less is best

I realized that I was overthinking the lesson plan. Should we do this, or that? This before or after that?  I had too many creative ideas; I wasn’t very good at making up my mind and then keeping it made up. My indecisive flip-flopping was filling up all of the available time, and there was no evidence that my lesson plan was getting better as I tinkered.  So I set a time limit:  I’ll spend 45 minutes to plan tomorrow’s lesson, and then I’ll go to yoga class. It really helps to have an actual deadline.  Curiously, my post-teaching reflection on the pre-teaching process revealed evidence that lessons worked best when I spent less time planning.

Take the challenge: 

If you’re overwhelmed by lesson planning, you might want to try it:  While you’re planning your lesson, record exactly how you use your planning minutes and hours. Then, after you teach the lesson, identify what was useful and what was wasn’t. And if you’re comfortable with it, share your discoveries here.

Master teachers’ lesson planning stories:

Every teacher is different, and every class is different.  These things that helped me shorten planning time and become more effective won’t work for everyone.  So here are links to thoughts about lesson planning from some master ESOL teachers.  And if you have ideas on how to tackle this issue, please share them!

More practical than philosophical:  These posts are about the authors’ actual lesson plans, and the evolution of their planning process:





More philosophical than practical:  These authors write about whether to plan, when to plan, the pros and cons of planning



Sophie reflecting on my reflective journal
Sophie reflecting on my reflective journal