Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

How important is lesson planning? – Barbara Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins SakamotoI used to think of lesson plans as road maps. They gave me the general idea of where I was headed, but there were still plenty of opportunities for interesting detours along the way. I’ve noticed that very few people actually use paper maps anymore, so perhaps a car navigator is now a better analogy for lesson planning. I can’t imagine traveling without my navigator, nor can I imagine teaching without a lesson plan.

Know where you’re going before you start your trip

The very first thing you need to do before beginning to drive is tell the navigator where you’re going. In the same way, you should know your final destination before you begin a class. Where do you want students to be at the end of class? What goals do you have for them? How do the objectives for this class fit into your big picture? Where do you want them to be at the end of the school year? Lesson plans are a bit like traveling backwards. You start at the final destination, and then work backwards to see what steps will get you there. You certainly don’t want to fill in the details for lessons further in the future—that would eliminate all the fun side trips and make you feel trapped by your plan—but you do need to know where you’re headed.

Detailed steps vs. a general route

When I first started teaching, my lesson plans were very detailed. For a one hour class, I would spend at least two hours planning. Lesson plans looked a bit like this:

When I was a new teacher, it really helped to have a detailed plan because it made me visualize each class before I taught it. I imagined the flow from one activity to the next, made sure there was a balance of skills and types of activities, and anticipated places where we might detour from the lesson. Knowing what came next helped me avoid “dead” zones in class.

These days, a lesson plan for the same partial lesson looks more like this:

1. Review family vocabulary—matching game

2. Introduce he/she

I’m not ignoring all of the steps from my early lesson plans. I’ve simply internalized them. I’ve become so familiar with the various routes for this particular destination that I don’t actually need a navigator any longer.

The journey or the destination

When you travel, sometimes getting to your destination is the most important consideration. Sometimes the interests of the other people in your car are most important, and you stop to see sights that they’re interested in. There are even times when the ultimate destination is almost incidental to the trip itself.

With teaching, it often depends on the reason your students are in class. If you are teaching a class preparing for the TOEIC, I guarantee that the destination matters. If you are teaching senior citizens who are more interested in keeping their brains active, quite likely they’ll be game for wherever your lesson takes them. If you are teaching children, parents will trust you with the side trips as long as they feel their children are making progress. However, in all cases, students (or parents) are probably paying for your time so they will want to know that you are headed somewhere.

From plan to record

For me, the ultimate value of lesson planning is the record it provides of where my class has been, what we did along the way, and what they enjoyed (and didn’t enjoy). That’s the main reason I won’t be giving up my lesson plan notebooks anytime soon. They give me a place to reflect on lessons—what worked and what didn’t—and to note what we actually did in class (as opposed to what I had planned to do). I also take notes about what’s happening in my students’ lives so that I can include content in future lessons that will resonate with them, record observations about language that is a challenge and progress they’ve made.

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Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara has taught both English and ESL in the United States, and EFL in Japan for more than 25 years. She earned her BA from Western Oregon University and her Masters in TESOL from Northern Arizona University. Barbara has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the U.S. and Latin America, and is co-author of the best-selling young learners Let's Go series (Oxford University Press). She is also a founding member of the JALT Teaching Children special interest group. Her motto is "Always try new things," so these days, when she's not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, you'll often find Barbara online exploring the potential of social media for professional development. If you'd like to explore with her, you can usually find Barbara on her award winning blog, Teaching Village.

20 thoughts on “How important is lesson planning? – Barbara Sakamoto”

  1. Great post, Barb!
    Do you think that as a teacher gets more experienced, the balance of the importance switches from the planning to the reflecting stage?

    1. Good question, Chiew! I don’t really know. Experience has made me more flexible, I think. And less time spent planning does mean more time available for reflection, although that has also become a bit more automatic (so I don’t think of it as a separate step called “reflection” anymore). I can’t imagine teaching without analyzing and evaluating how things went in class, but I don’t know if that means that reflection is more important than it was before, or if it’s just more natural.

      How about you? What has your experience been in your own teaching?

      1. From the very beginning, the reflection has gone hand-in-hand with the planning – it could come before or after, in greater or less doses. However, I also found that I almost never followed whatever plans I might have prepared; like you said, there are many paths one can take. The ideal plan would be in the form of a flowchart, but it would just be too time-consuming and too rigidly scientific.
        I guess a lot depends on the class. I’ve always said that it’s important to know your class. What works for one might not work for another. I still plan, of course. But planning begins right after a lesson and that’s closely tied in with reflection, isn’t it? It’s like planting a seed in the mind. Between the end of a class and the beginning of (and during) the next, the seed germinates and takes shape.
        Of course, it may sprout and grow into a tree or it may be diseased and be too weak to carry on…

        1. What a beautiful explanation, Chiew! And you’re right–many of my future plans start during class, when I notice students getting excited about a topic that has popped up, or notice a problem that some bit of language. And you’re also right that not all of the seeds sprout into big strong trees. However, they all have value. I guess experience has also removed a bit of my ego about being a great teacher. If I try something in class and it doesn’t work, it’s easy to cut my losses and move on, without feeling that I’ve failed as a teacher.

          I totally agree that it’s very important to know your students. If the class feels like they’re a valued and respected part of the lesson process, they’re flexibility in working with you might replace the flow chart :-)

  2. Barbara, thank you very much for your post!

    It can be used as a very good and concise manual on lesson planning. It reminded me of my CELTA course and a look at the picture of your lesson plan made me shudder a bit! :) However, unlike any teacher training course, you give the perspective and show how lesson planning skill develops over time. Now I see I’m moving in the right direction!

    1. Sorry to make you cringe, Alexandra! I even cringed a bit when I tried to recreate that early lesson plan.

      But I do think those types of plans are good training. Whether we get our objectives from Bloom’s Taxonomy or and making sure to include 4 skills, or trying to include as many Intelligences or learning channels, a structure for planning lessons can actually make the process faster. And then, after awhile, they become second nature.

  3. I think that reflection is an aspect of lesson planning that is quite neglected in teacher training. So much time is invested in teaching how to build it, discussing objectives but haven’t encountered discusssions of how looking back at your plans helps the teacher track self development.
    Thought provoking post!

  4. Hi Barb,
    As a teachers , we definitely need to plan cos today s students are well informed and we cant just spend time beating around the bush or just parroting the textual material from given sources. Lesson plans are real navigators that always show us how far, speed and other milestones to be covered.

    As i had some workshop on lesson plans and this particular information on planning has equipped me better to handle the session positively.

    Lalitha Shinde, India
    Secondary School Teacher

  5. Dear Barbara,

    As I had written in my last post about the workshop on lesson planning, i would like to share a co incidence with you. The resource person introduced us to a wonderful book and guess which one????HSP series and you are one of the authors of this book, I couldn’t stop myself and shared my experience of reading your blog and also about the wonderful ideas on lesson planning.

    At end of the three day workshop we were assigned to develop unit plans and i am happy to share that the unit plan that i wrote on COLLOIDS, scored 56 on 60, i also got a memento and a certificate. Looking forward for great learning experience.

    I thank you for providing tips and enriching my experience.

    Lalitha, INDIA
    Secondary School Teacher

  6. Summary:
    Road maps or car navigator is necessary for a road trip as do a lesson plan for a class.
    It necessary to set your goals and work your way towards them so at the end of the class you finally achieve your goal. Lesson plans were good at the first to start with but as you became a more seasoned teacher it has changed to a list of practically two lines. This does not mean that you are not following the steps, of course you are as it become second nature. In all, it depends on the class that you are teaching, the age group, and the students reason for being there and so it is necessary a lesson plan moreso for the records.

    Parents and learners should know the goals of every lesson, for me that is vital. You must have a goal and so you drive towards it with detour or not, all depends on class, the day, the group, the environment and the mood of the participants at that moment. People are changeable and changes influences a lot in the learning process, especially with adults in TOEIC or IELTS classes, and so we need to have a plan B which is to be able to adapt and change at the speed of light our original paln thought of or written.

  7. Very clear way of explaining a lesson plan. It took me back to my own reflections each time I plan.
    Even though I have taught for many years I can’t think in delivering a class without planning it before.

  8. Nice way to put it…lesson planning is a journey. I think teaching is a journey so yes lesson planning is a journey. I agree as a newbie teacher we need that detailed lesson plan but as we journey down the road in years and experience the details become looser. After thirty years I tend to not have very detailed plans but I do occasionally go back to the details when it is a new or less familiar subject or I am being observed.

  9. Hi Barbara,

    I agree that lesson planning evolves from plan to record.

    Planning is a long-term activity while recording is a short term activity.

    I’ve evolved from thinking long-term to thinking short-term.



  10. Dear Barbara,

    Thank you for this awareness-raising article about the essence of lesson planning. I’m glad that my way of looking at lesson planning is like yours. As you very well put it a good lesson plan guides you through the work scheme so that you can reach your macro- and micro-goals. If you plan a lesson based on a blow-by-blow approach, in my opinion, it will not be learning friendly and will make an automaton of the teacher. I believe “reflected-upon spontaneity” is more conducive to learning than rigid planning. :)

    Thank you again.

    All the best,

  11. Hi Barbara,
    thank you for sharing this post. I strongly agree with you that recording is very crucial for post -lesson reflection. For me, teaching needs to be a research- based profession.I perceive every classroom as a unique context, so language teachers needs to engage in a systematic enquiry as an ongoing feature of their classroom life in order to analyse their teaching practice, and their students’ progress as part of planning classroom activities. The more aware they become of the consequences of their teaching, the more control they get over how to teach.

  12. I personally do not write out my lesson plans anymore. I only did it for about a month, but I found myself having more difficulty with that , rather than teaching. I do like that you keep it for your records to keep track of your students. That’s very smart and it’s one reason I should try it again.

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