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.

Strategies for large classes – Barbara Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins SakamotoThree questions for large classes

When I first started teaching large classes, one of my biggest challenges was to keep students speaking English during activities. I liked to have students work in pairs or groups so they’d have more chances to speak. I’d move around the classroom while they were working, so I could hear which language students had mastered and which language still needed practice. No matter how much I tried to enforce an “English Only” policy in class, I still heard students using a lot of Japanese. I wondered why my students didn’t want to use English in English class.

As my Japanese improved, I finally realized that sometimes, my students were simply trying to figure out what I wanted them to do: Do you understand what she wants? How do you say this in English? What did she say? I realized that in some cases my instructions were unclear, and in other cases activities actually required students to use language that they hadn’t yet learned.

I became more careful when preparing activities. I tried to do them myself to see what language would actually be needed. I kept instructions simple, and tried to repeat activity types so that they would be familiar. I began to model activities with the class before asking students do them.

Most importantly, I asked students three questions before every activity:

Do you understand the language?

Do you know what to do?

Is there any reason you need to speak Japanese?

It worked as a kind of contract between us. I promised to take time before an activity to explain and demonstrate so that students were not responsible for being my translators. They promised to do the activity in English. After that, whenever I did hear Japanese, I simply asked the questions again. Students generally laughed and switched back to English. I even heard students “being me” and asking each other the questions as a way to monitor Japanese use in class.

These were simple changes, but they made a huge difference. I made myself responsible for being clear and fair in my expectations. Students made themselves responsible for speaking English in class.

Error correction – Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins SakamotoYoung learners are geniuses at discovering patterns. They construct an implicit understanding of grammar from the language chunks they hear in class. They refine their understanding through trial and error…and correction. Knowing that students are actively building, applying, and testing patterns helps teachers see errors, and error correction, in a different light.

Stage 1: Building
Students aren’t expected to know the language at this stage—that’s why they need clear models, lots and lots of practice, and correction. Students are inferring the rules underlying English, so they need something to infer from. This is where students have a chance to get language right.

Stage 2: Applying
Once students have a good understanding of a pattern, you can expect them to use it accurately. At this stage, students can easily correct themselves when you point out a mistake. However, if you get blank looks when you draw attention to mistakes, then you probably need to spend more time in Stage 1.

Stage 3: Testing
After learning to talk about singular and plural objects, you might start hearing things like They’re chalks or It’s a scissor. These are wonderful errors because they demonstrate that students understand some important language rules. Congratulate them on what they got right (pronoun and verb changes for singular and plural), let them know the correct way to say it (if you can’t let it go), and know that your students will eventually learn about mass nouns and counters. The fact that your students are willing to try language that they haven’t yet been explicitly taught is a very, very good thing. It takes time to build a language.

How do you deal with correction in your classes? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Barb Hoskins Sakamoto