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Lesson planning

DSC_0839Here are some ideas for you which I have learned from my own experience, from observing colleagues and student teachers over 30 years of teaching French in secondary schools (high schools).

 

STARTS AND ENDS

Visualise how you would like your ideal lesson to start…..

Maybe the children are lining up outside your classroom. They are quiet or talking calmly. You stand by the doorway as they enter in single file. You say bonjour to each student. If there is a uniform code, perhaps you have the odd word with them about their appearance, maybe a little how are you?, in the target language, a bit of personal chit chat in English here and there: what lesson have you had? how was it? what was the best bit? Maybe they have to use a bit of TL they have recently learned as their entry code.

The class are now in the room having taken out their materials. They are calmly standing behind their table. You wait for total silence and greet them with a Bonjour tout le monde! or equivalent. They reply in unison Bonjour, monsieur/madame. You say Asseyez-vous. The class sit down and listen attentively to what you are going to say next.

It’s possible for you to have that start to nearly all lessons if you work at it and especially if your school's culture supports that ethos. These routines don’t just happen, however. You need to work at them each day until you have the start to the lesson you would like. Children have to learn routines and you have to practise them until they get them right. Be insistent, persevere, try not to accept second best. When they are standing in front of you use eye contact, make sure the class know you are looking at them, preferably with a smile. (I don't agree with the old phrase "never smile until Christmas"!)

In the real world, of course, it doesn’t always work that way, so you could help the process along with a trick or two. With younger classes why not tell the class that you are going to count down in TL from 20 to zero and that they must have all their books out by the time you get to zero? Or why not have the class recite or sing the alphabet as they come in and they have to have all their books ready by the time they get to Z? When it comes to the class sitting down, why not occasionally break the routine by saying that they can sit down when they hear the first letter of their name? Patterns such as these exploit the behaviourist dimension of learning. Children like habits, they know what to do, they feel safe with them, as do you.

The mood of a class when it arrives will be partly dependent on the previous lesson. If they have been very quiet for an hour they may need to be noisier now. If they have been allowed to be too noisy in the previous lesson this could carry on to your lesson.

What if you get late-comers? In most cases make little fuss. Perhaps you have taught them to say Excusez-moi, je suis en retard or similar. In certain cases you may need to make a big fuss, show great disapproval. In this way the rest of the class know that you will not accept lateness and that they may be embarrassed in public if they are late. If a whole class is very late for no good reason you may need to have the individual or the class back at break or lunchtime to make your point.

Ends of lessons need a tidy routine as well. You could end with a Rangez vos affaires or equivalent. Then you can ask classes to stand with a Levez-vous. To ensure an orderly departure you could let the class out in rows or boys first, then girls (or vice versa). Even that last trick makes the class listen to whether you are going to say les garçons or les filles first. They will let you know if you are favouring one group over the other! Make sure you leave enough time for your end routine. It’s very easy to be rushed at the end of a lesson. If you need to fill time, individual pupils could use an exit code, for example, a phrase they have learned recently, a verb form, a time, a weather phrase etc. Give yourself and your class plenty of time to write down any homework - you don't want pupils telling you next time that they weren't sure what to do.

 

PLANNING A SEQUENCE OF LESSONS

You will hopefully have a well-organised scheme of work or curriculum plan in your department. It's difficult and unwise to plan every lesson too far in advance because you have to adapt to the pace and the needs of the class in front of you and they are all different. Some teachers plan weeks ahead, but you may prefer to plan each week at a time. Last minute preparation is not advised, but it can produce fresh, successful lessons. This gets easier with experience. Over a sequence of lessons try to mix up the skills you are going to practise. Allow for some reading, listening, speaking and writing. Remember that students become good at what you practise. If you do lots of oral work they will get better at oral work. If you do lots of grammar, they get good at grammar, and so on. Meaningful input and interaction are the key, so research suggests.

Think about when you have your lessons with the class. You may be wise to plan for a greater amount of “passive” work like listening, gap-filling, dictation, computer work, reading work in the afternoons. They are tired, you are tired, and may find it hard to get a class going for oral work. Conversely, morning lessons may be better for a larger diet of oral work (pair work, group work, question and answer, games, repetition). Be flexible, though. You can sometimes change what you had planned to do if you sense the mood of the class is not what you expected. There is no doubt that feeling the mood of a class and a degree of flexibility and important attributes of a classroom teacher.

Plan to recycle language from one lesson to the next. Your start to the lesson might be a quick recap of a grammar point or some vocabulary from the previous lesson. “Who can remember five shops in Spanish?” “Who can go through the verb fahren for me?” “I’ll give you the name of a food item, put your hand up and tell me if you put du, de la or des in front of it”. Don’t just revise from the previous lesson, go back over various things you have done in the last few lessons. You'll find no shortage of ideas for starters in course books, online or from colleagues. Remember that many children’s memories are nowhere as good as yours. The idea of “little and often” is a key one for language teachers.

 

PLANNING INDIVIDUAL LESSONS

Plan for variety within a lesson. In a one hour session you might include four, five or more different tasks. Try to put the oral work nearer the start of the lesson. Put the quieter activities nearer the end. Work in bursts of, say, 10 minutes. The attention span of youngsters is often quite short. Why not set short time targets to create a slight sense of urgency: Vous avez cinq minutes. Break up the pattern of oral work by moving between whole class question and answer and bursts of pair work.

In general make sure that students know what you intend to get done in the lesson, what the outcomes will be for them. This may not mean writing up the objectives on the board. Why not invite the class to work out what the aim of the lesson is? Observers talk about having a "flying start" to a lessons and there is no doubt the start sets the tone for the whole lesson.

Make sure each task follows on logically from the previous one and that you are constantly reinforcing the main learning points. You may only be working on one or two key points in a whole lesson. Be prepared to repeat tasks in different ways. You might do a task from a worksheet or the board orally and then get the class to do the same task in writing. This leads to a quick transition, reinforces previous learning and practises more than one skill.

Be crystal clear with your instructions. Use English where you need to. Don’t use a questioning intonation when you give an instruction. Children are quite happy to be told what to do firmly and politely.

Try to ensure tidy transitions from one task to the next. This is a tough one. When you stop one task there is a natural release of tension and children tend to start talking off the subject at that point. You may actually want a bit of that, because it acts as a pause for breath before the next task. On the whole, however, it wastes valuable time and you have to work at transitions just like you have to work at starts and ends. Bring the class to silence with a familiar noise, a countdown or just be raising your arm, telling students they have to raise their arm too when silence is needed.

Why not tell the class why it’s important to have a quick transition? Let them into your thinking a bit; make them part of the process. If you have a reward system, why not tell them that the first three to finish will get a merit/stamp/house points etc?

Try to mix up your interaction styles with the class. Don’t talk too much to them, they will probably get bored and learn less. Elicit responses, ask for hands up, sometimes say that you are going to just choose students to answer. (That’s a controversial one since we don’t want to make students uncomfortable with language learning, we don’t want them scared, yet we do need to ensure they are concentrating. If you use this technique sparingly it can work well. The class come to attention and you just need to ensure that you don’t throw an impossibly hard question to a student.)

Use pair work, a lot, when you are confident the class will do it usefully. Use games when you are confident the class will not abuse the situation. Your lesson does not need to be "fun". It’s great and it’s motivational when you are having fun, but the main aim is to work!

Use technology if you are confident with it. Many children who are not very comfortable doing language learning will be more at ease and learn more with a screen in front of them. Technology is great for us language teachers, use it a good deal, but remember that language learning is primarily about communicating with people so do not over rely on computers or tablets.

When you start teaching you will need to write out your lesson plan in some detail, preparing exactly which questions you are going to ask, how you are going to drill an item, how you are going to mix, say, group repetition with individual oral work. This takes time and care. With more experience these skills will become second nature and your preparation will be less time-consuming, allowing you to focus on other areas of your professional life.

Last of all, "assessment for learning" techniques are important: checking all the class is following, using mini whiteboards, skilled questioning techniques and the rest, but your personality counts for a lot. Children want you to be firm, friendly and fair. They want to be supported, so when someone is stuck, engender a supportive atmosphere by saying “Can anyone help her?”

 

SEATING PLANS

Many teachers find it useful to have a seating plan which can later be adjusted depending on the behaviour of individual students. Consider a boy-girl plan to encourage best behaviour. Why not change totally your seating plan every now and again? If children always work with the same partner they will always hear the same accent, the same errors, always be in the comfort zone, maybe not do enough work. I find that occasionally saying “Now go and work with someone you do not know very well” gives a freshness to lessons and gets students to put in a bit more effort. Some students just need to sit apart.

To learn names you could either draw your seating plan out, or get the children to make name plates which they put on their desk for the first few lessons. Some teachers take a photo of the class for their planner. As you walk around the class in the early days try to learn names by looking at exercise books. Hand out exercise books yourself getting students to put up their hand. It all helps to learn names quickly.

 

CORRECTING

Should I correct? How much should I correct?

In class oral work you need to find a balance. You may like to allow your quickest student to answer first to give a good model, but be prepared to use the "no hand-sup" approach or random selection of some kind to make sure all students are alert and ready to respond. If someone makes an error, usually correct them with a positive tone. Go to other students, then return to the student who made the error so that they have a chance to do it well without your help. Make the whole idea of pronouncing accurately fun. Try to get children to enjoy making the funny sounds. Use backward repetition. E.g. in French a student says “natashion” instead of “natation”. Get the whole class to say “on”, then “ion”, then “sion”, then “ation”, then “tation”, then “atation”, then the whole word. Then get the individual to say the word. Speak English with an amusing French accent. Why not get students to do the same, along with shrugging shoulders and flailing arms?

When correcting written errors in an exercise book, it is wise to make sure students write on alternate lines so that your correction are clear to them. If there is a common pattern to their errors, for example, always missing adjective agreements, then highlight this with numbers or asterisks. Comment on it at the end of their work and ask them to focus on this next time. If you have time, give targets for improvement.

 

MARKING

How much marking should you do? Much depends on the nature of the work you have set. If it is easy to mark with ticks, then you ought to some in class time. It is a well-structured task, children learn from it (probably more than when you hand them back their book with some red or green ink on it) and it saves you time. On the other hand, your students need to know that you are going to spend time looking carefully at their work, making sure it is neat and careful, giving them personal feedback and advice. The exercise book is your quiet and confidential way of communicating with your students and they usually value highly what you write to them. Words of praise in the exercise book go a long way. Equally, if you know that the work is not up to scratch then be prepared to cross it out or give a very low mark. You will probably find that the next piece is much better and that the student is back on track.

Instead of marking in corrections, why not just circle errors which the students can correct themselves? They may learn more this way.

They may also learm more by marking each other's work. You can ask students to read their work to each other and assess it.

Why not give an effort mark as well as an achievement mark?

With weaker students do not correct every error as this is dispiriting and confusing. Focus on the key teaching point you want to get home. With clever students be particularly fussy, they need to be stretched and need to know that you expect perfection.

 

HOW MUCH TARGET LANGUAGE SHOULD I USE?

Language teachers talk a lot about this and it is fair to say that opinions vary! I’ll put this as simply as I can: children need to hear lots of the target language (what is sometimes called in the jargon "comprehensible input") to allow their brains to exploit their natural language learning capability. But children also need to develop a relationship with you, the teacher, and they need to understand what they have to do in a lesson. So, my rule would be use the target language most of the time, maybe in chunks of ten minutes or so, then “release tension” with some English. Try not to constantly “echo”, by which I mean use a bit of French then instantly translate it into English. Why should a child bother to listen to the French if they know you are going to translate it? Remember that we tend to over-estimate how much a child understands in the target language.

Why not occasionally check meaning with a Comment dit-on en anglais? Whatever you do, don’t lose the class by speaking too much of the target language for them. Students often report that that they lose interest when the teacher doesn’t use English enough. Match your use of target language to the needs of the class, but try to use as much target language as you can. Don’t get lazy about it.

Ultimately the amount of the target language used will depend on the quality of the lesson planning. A well-planned lesson with good visual support will allow you to use lots of the target language with nearly every class. Use mime, gesture, flashcards, pictures, powerpoint, written words on the board – whatever it takes.

 

LEARNING STYLES

Without getting into the whole controversial area of multiple intelligence and learning styles, let’s just say that different students may prefer learning in different ways. Language learning is demanding on the ears and eyes, but you can mix up your planning to include body movement (Simon Says works with all ages!). Why not get classes to chant verb paradigms while pointing in different directions for different persons of the verb - Mission Impossible theme for aller? Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush for avoir.)Why not get students to spell out words in the air with their fingers? Get them to move around the class looking for words you have stuck up? Get then to come up and use the board. Let them be the teacher sometimes. Let them jump up and down while singing the alphabet to an American marines marching song. Even using a computer, tablet or mini whiteboard allows a fidgety child to be busy with their hands.

Mathematical children may enjoy number games and code breaking vocabulary games. Musical children may enjoy singing. Artistic children may like making posters or drawing on the board.

 

HOW DO I TEACH GRAMMAR?

Giving grammar rules is important. Most children like to know how the language works and many are good at applying the rules they have learned. Do this with notes, presentations and examples. Give them oral and written drills to practise. Do not expect children to pick up grammar by osmosis. This may happen in an immersion environment over a long period, it does not happen very much in the classroom.

However, the kind of internalisation of grammar rules (which allows learners to use the language creatively and without having to stop and think about the rule) can only be developed if you give students lots of input in the target language and lots of structured practice. You can say to your classes that if they keep their eyes and ears open during lessons nature will take its course and they will make progress. Tell students why you are doing things in a certain way so that understand how they are learning. They are often interested in ideas to do with child language acquisition and second language learning.

So make sure you incorporate all sorts of opportunities to practise grammatical structures: drills (repetition, question-answer, answer-question, structured written questions, gap fill, multi-choice etc). Don’t just do three or four examples, make sure students hear lots of examples and hopefully some of the practice will stick.

Get students to work out rules for themselves following an oral introduction. This is, ideally, better than just giving the rule before practising it. Don’t dismiss the idea, though, of just giving a rule – this has the merit of clarity.

Short oral grammar drills make good starts to lessons: Je vous donne une phrase au présent, transformez la phrases au passé composé. Give a couple of examples, then do some with the whole class. Maybe they could then try some with a partner.

 

RANDOM TIPS

Don’t spend ages making your own resources when there is so much good published material and free material on the internet. Do be careful, however, that the published material suits the learners in front of you. If you think your course book is poorly suited to your students’ abilities, then tell someone.

Expect high standards. If you want your students to present work neatly insist on it and tale marks off if they do not reach the standard you have set. Set the level of challenge correctly. The smartest children must not get bored and the ones who find it hard need to feel supported.

If you want your class to be silent when writing or listening, insist on it. You are the boss! If students start to call out questions rather than putting up a hand, try to cut this out early in the year and it will pay dividends later.

If pairs or groups of students are too noisy you can threaten them with being separated. In the end, you may need to separate them. If a parent says “Well, why didn’t you separate them?” you need a good answer!

If a student is persistently disruptive or disrespectful use the support networks in your school sooner rather than later. In the end, though, you do need to win the class’s respect. Don’t let your classroom become a battleground between you and them. Work on individual students rather than criticising the whole group. If your lesson is poorly planned or at the wrong level you will suffer the consequences.

Use lots of praise, but not necessarily in public. A quiet word in the ear will be more effective and will go a long way to winning a child’s confidence.

If you have a bad lesson try not to brood too long over it. Your class won’t worry about it nearly as much as you. Your lesson is one small part of their day. You can start afresh the next day.

Not all kids enjoy learning languages. Accept this, put yourself in their shoes and then try to work out what will help them overcome their difficulties.

Try to show enthusiasm; it may be infectious.

There’s no one way to deliver a lesson successfully. Don’t believe everything the experts tell you! If it works, do it!