Lesson Planning: Are we having fun yet?

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.



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