How important is lesson planning? – Scott Thornbury

Scott ThornburyHow important is detailed lesson planning?

Because you’re probably expecting me to answer the question in the negative, and because I love surprising people, I’ll answer it like this:

VERY important – if you’re a new teacher, faced with all the unpredictability, spontaneity and simultaneity of the classroom zoo. It’s HELL in there, and your lesson plan is like a magic charm that will protect you from being eaten alive. Your very detailed lesson plan allows you to navigate a safe path through the jungle. BUT, however detailed, however carefully thought out, it’s not foolproof. There will come a point – very early on in your career, probably – when, as the Scots poet, Robbie Burns put it: “the best laid plans of mice and men/ gang aft agley”. That is to say: stuff happens! So you need to learn to adapt your plan, maybe even abandon it.  It’s not even a case of having a plan B. Or C. Or D. There comes a point when you just have to think on your feet.

VERY important – if you’re participating in some kind of training program, and especially if you’re going to be observed. A detailed lesson plan is a must – and it’s also very revealing evidence as to the quality of your pre-lesson decision-making. You can tell a lot about a teacher by looking at their lesson plan. How realistic are the objectives? How logical is the staging? How varied are the activities? How plausible is the timing? And so on. But, again, just because you have planned it like that, doesn’t mean it will go like that. Just as chess-players can’t predict their opponent’s first move, you can never be sure how your class will respond to your plan on the day. A skilled observer will be looking at how you monitor the effectiveness of your plan ‘in flight’ – and how you modify it, where appropriate.

NOT so important – if you have a coursebook and accompanying teacher’s guide that does it all for you. But even the best coursebooks were never written specifically for your particular class on that particular day, so you will need to select, adapt and supplement – maybe a little, maybe quite a lot. besides, an over-reliance on the coursebook will result in lessons of a certain sameness and even blandness.

NOT so important – when you’ve been teaching for a while and have developed a fluent set of classroom management skills and activity routines. I’ve always maintained that when you start teaching it’s 90% planning and 10% management. But for an experienced teacher, it’s 10% planning and 90% management. Like cooking, you start off following the cookbooks faithfully, until you start acquiring some reliable cooking skills and intuitions, and you can start to improvise successfully.

NOT so important – in fact impossible, when you’re asked to substitute for another teacher, or to take over a class at short notice. I had to do this a lot as a fairly new teacher in a school in Egypt, and I learned very quickly how to manufacture a lesson out of very little – a single visual aid, or a short dictated text. These skills were invaluable, not only because I learned how to be resourceful and to get maximum benefits out of minimal materials,  but also because I discovered how much the learners can contribute to the content and flow of the lesson – if you trust them.

COMPLETELY unimportant – if, having developed a set of effective management skills and teaching routines, having experienced what it’s like to think on your feet, having learned how to be resourceful with very little, and above all, having learned to trust your learners, you are ready to fly on your own – and without a detailed flight plan. It’s then that you’ll experience the (almost) unbearable lightness of teaching.

Using English outside of class – Scott Thornbury

Scott ThornburyThere were two young Catalans at my gym who would while away their time on the exercise bicycles and rowing machines speaking English to each other. It was dreadful, highly accented and very unidiomatic English – but English, hours of it.

What prompted them? And what sustained them in what was obviously harder work than the cycling or the rowing?

I have no way of knowing, but I couldn’t but admire both their initiative and their stamina.

How can we get our students to do the same or similar?  How can we encourage them – not just to read, write, and listen to English outside the class – but to speak it?

One possible route is offered by technology.

I have a friend who studied Turkish at university and keeps it ‘alive’ by doing online chats, using Skype, with Turkish speakers. There are a number of agencies that provide this service, putting people in touch with one another for a modest fee. Some of these services work on a reciprocal basis: you speak to me for half an hour in Spanish and I’ll speak to you for half an hour in English. (Just google something like ‘language exchange’).

But your students might be too young – or too shy – to engage in conversation with total strangers. An alternative might be to ‘buddy them up’ – like my friends at the gym – and encourage them to review and repeat, at home, and by means of their phones, some of the speaking activities they’ve done in class. In fact, you can design speaking activities for class work that prepare students for their cell phone chat later that evening. Good activities are role-playing interviews with sports stars or pop singers about, for example, their daily routine; role-playing a shopping encounter (e.g. where nothing is the right size or colour) or a job interview; playing guessing games (‘I’m an animal: you have to guess what sort of animal I am by asking yes/no questions), and so on.

Even five minutes of this is better than nothing and it costs them the price of a local phone call.

How important is homework? – Scott Thornbury

Scott ThornburyTwo or three hours of English is just not enough. Even studying in a classroom for several hours a day, you’re unlikely to achieve a high level if you do nothing in between.

As Leo van Lier put it, ‘The students’ minds must occupy themselves with the language between lessons as well as in lessons, if improvements are to happen’.

Maybe what happens between lessons is as important – or more important – than what happens in them. Think of the classroom as a kind of ‘pit stop’ where learners come in to be re-fuelled and change their tyres. The real action is happening outside.

But I don’t like to call it ‘homework’. To me it’s more like ‘out-of-class work’. Or ‘between-class’ work.  Confining it to the home is to limit it unnecessarily (not to mention all the negative connotations that are associated with the term ‘homework’).  We need to take homework out into the street.

Literally. There is English everywhere and every learner have some means of collecting it, whether camera, cell phone or just pen and paper. Even if each student captures just one piece of English – that’s 20 potential topics for discussion (in a class of 20).

Here is some of the English I collected today in my ‘barrio’ in Barcelona, in just 20 minutes on the way to the gym.

OK, Barcelona is a fairly touristy town, but there’s English in the most unlikely places.

Some of it is just words, some phrases, and some whole sentences. Some is translated. Some is not. But it all sends a message. It’s part of the linguistic landscape, and it’s a great source of discussion and research, when your learners bring it back to the classroom.  Here are some questions you could have them discuss:

  1. Where was this photo taken?
  2. How many languages can you see?
  3. Who wrote it? For whom?
  4. Why is (some of it) in English?
  5. Is there a translation? Why/why not?
  6. Is it correct?
  7. Is there anything you don’t understand?
  8. Is there anything you would like to remember?