Lesson Planning at Language ETC

By Cathy Sunshine

From what I’ve heard, people who train to become ESL teachers at a university learn from real educators about how to plan lessons. They use methods! They have a system! As for the rest of us . . . hmm. I think we use a method called “seat of the pants.”

Nonetheless, while we may not plan exactly by the book at Language ETC, plan we do:


The LETC volunteer lounge gets busy before each class as teachers arrive to prepare their lessons. Devjani Saha (3B) and Brooke McEwen (Basic A) and a visitor work on a recent Thursday evening.

On January 28, LETC offered a workshop on lesson planning that drew about a dozen volunteers. Annelies Galletta of the Maryland English Institute at the University of Maryland led the session. Above all, she stressed the importance of defining an objective before you write a lesson plan. Following a lesson plan during class is like following your GPS during a trip, she said. Before you set out, you must decide your destination and program it into the GPS, otherwise the route won’t take you where you want to go.

Her talk reminded me that I should be more rigorous about always defining an objective. It also got me thinking about how our process at LETC is in some ways unique. We work in teams, so what one pair of co-teachers does on their day affects what the rest of the team does on subsequent days. And we have a syllabus that specifies what we must cover in each class, yet leaves room to add activities. We have to take both these factors into account when we plan.

Curious about how other LETC volunteers approach lesson planning, I asked Natalie Wexler, a longtime volunteer and member of our board, how she goes about it. She generously shared her thoughts and a sample lesson plan. I put her observations and my own together with some of the points that Annelies made and broke down the process into five basic steps.

Co-teachers Jenny O’Connell (left) and Isabelle Moreau discuss the plan for their 2B class over salad. For the PM weeknight classes, snacks and lesson planning often go together.

Co-teachers Jenny O’Connell (right) and Isabelle Moreau discuss the plan for their 2B class over salad. For the weeknight classes, snacks and lesson planning often go together.

Step 1: Figure out your starting point.

Natalie: The first thing I do is look over the pages of the textbook to see what the class has covered since I last taught. I look at the Student’s Book and the Teacher’s Guide. I also check the class logs for those days to see if there’s anything the other teachers feel should be reinforced. Then I read through the lesson that the syllabus says I’m going to teach.

Cathy: When I review the logs, I think about what material the class covered, but also about what kinds of activities they’ve been doing. Then I try to vary it. If the previous night’s class spent a lot of time on written exercises, I might plan conversation or a game.

Most teachers include a variety of activities, such as textbook exercises and games, so students stay engaged.

Planning for a variety of activities, such as textbook exercises and games, helps students stay engaged.

Step 2: Set an objective.

Annelies: Every lesson should have an objective in mind from the beginning. The objective should focus on a small gain in language and cultural proficiency. Ask, “What do I want my students to be able to do by the end of the class?” For example, you might say, “Students should be able to correctly and politely ask for the time and give the time when asked.” The objective should be realistic, achievable, and measurable.

Cathy: Since our classes at Language ETC are two or three hours long, a class can have more than one objective. I tend to divide the class into segments of a half hour or an hour. All the segments can reinforce the same objective, or they can address a couple of different objectives.

Devjani Saha (3B) uses an iPad to prepare her lesson.

Devjani Saha (3B) checks audio tracks on an iPad for her lesson.

Step 3: Decide what activities to include.

Natalie: Once I’ve reviewed the textbook pages to be covered, I think about what I will do. I usually plan to begin class with a review of the main thing they learned in the last class, by presenting it briefly and then checking their understanding in an interactive way. Then I pick and choose activities from the textbook that seem good to me. I make sure to vary the types of activities to keep the class interested — some individual work, some pair work, some opportunity for speaking.

Cathy: I also pick and choose from the textbook. I like the Ventures series a lot, but occasionally a particular exercise just doesn’t seem right for our class. It might be confusing or too time-consuming or just lame. We’re free to use our own judgment. The syllabus tells us what material our students should learn, but not exactly how we should teach it. I like to make up my own activities and worksheets to supplement those in the textbook.

Natalie: I also make my own worksheets, especially for review at the end of the term, when the students have already done most of what’s in the book. I often go online as well and Google something like “ESL vocabulary games” or “ESL count and noncount noun activities.” It’s amazing how much is out there! It can take time to find something that works well, but I’ve come across some great ideas that make class more fun for students. I also search the Web to find real-life materials to supplement what’s in the book — a real job application for students to fill out, or recipes for a lesson on foods.

Annelies: You should make sure that the activities you plan promote achievement of the objective you’ve set. You introduce the skill to students, and then model it, and then give them opportunities to practice it, whether through individual or pair or group work. In the last part of your class, you evaluate whether the students are getting close to reaching the objective.

The Master Planner.

The Planner in Chief.

Step 4: Create the lesson plan.

Cathy: Once I’ve figured out what activities I want to do, I type up a lesson plan on a single sheet of paper. I set down fairly detailed instructions for myself. Of course, I never follow them exactly. We inevitably change things around during class — switch the order of the activities or modify or drop certain ones. But it still gives me a feeling of security to have that cheat sheet there to fall back on.

Natalie: I type up a plan that more or less follows what’s in the Teacher’s Guide, but in my own words. If I’ve written my own plan I’m more likely to remember what I’m going to do without needing to consult my notes. I keep the notes as brief as possible. I also write my lesson plan in ALL CAPS. It’s hard to teach while squinting at the small print in the textbook.

Cathy: You’re not kidding. I don’t write in all caps, but I do bump up the type to 14 point. Fumbling around with reading glasses during class is so pitiful.


The first page of Natalie’s 1B lesson plan. She likes short prompts and all caps for easy reading. “Race to the Board” is a game for grammar review. Natalie suggests this video on how to play the game:

Cathy's lesson plan for a 3A class. I like narrative instructions. If I were doing the lesson plan today, though, I probably wouldn't try to cram so much into the two hours.

Cathy’s lesson plan for a 3A class. I like narrative instructions. If I were doing the lesson plan today, though, I probably wouldn’t try to cram quite so much into the two hours. This looks a little rushed.

Annelies: It’s sometimes hard to know whether you’ve planned too little or too much for the time you have. But even if you don’t get to the end of your plan, if you focus on your objective, students will be closer to mastering the skill than they were before.

Cathy: I agree — a challenging part of lesson planning is estimating time. How long to allow for each activity? As I gain teaching experience, I’ve gotten much better at predicting how long things will take. But I still have to think about it. I close my eyes and picture the students doing the activity and try to figure out realistically the amount of time we will need. On my lesson plan, I number the activities in the order they will go, and I write the target ending time after each activity. This helps me pace my classes.

Annelies: If you end up with time left over, there are various ways to fill it. You can have a “back to basics” list of things your students need to work on. If you have extra time, get your list out and pick a topic. You can also review material from a previous lesson. Students need lots of repetition and reinforcement. Or you can keep an envelope with interesting pictures in the back of your book, and use them as conversation prompts.

Cathy: At the more advanced levels, conversation in small groups is a great way to use extra time. It’s open-ended, so it expands to fill the time you have. I like to put the more structured activities earlier in the class, so we’re sure to have enough time to finish them. The more elastic activities like conversation fill up whatever time is left before we go home.

Brooke McEwen selects Add Ventures worksheets for her Basic AI class.

Brooke McEwen selects Add Ventures worksheets for her Basic A class.

Step 5: Get ready to teach.

Cathy: I like to draft my lesson plan at home, ahead of time. I e-mail the draft to my co-teacher and we discuss it and make changes. Then I print it and bring it to school. We go over it in the volunteer lounge before class and we might tweak it some more. Also, if I need to create a worksheet or materials for an activity, I do this at home. I bring the printouts to school and make copies.

Natalie: If there are items I’m planning to bring to class to supplement the lesson, like food or items of clothing, I write those at the top of my lesson plan so I don’t forget. And I always go over my notes shortly before class begins, so that my plan is fresh in my mind when I start teaching.

Cathy: I keep all my lesson plans and worksheets archived on my computer by class level. If an activity works well the first time, I can use it again with another class in the future.

Natalie: I’m hoping we’ll be able to find a way for teachers to share ideas and materials they’ve found online or developed, so that other teachers can use them without having to reinvent the wheel.


Co-teachers Devjani Saha and Pam Bays (3B) put the finishing touches on their lesson plan before class.

This entry was posted in Teaching Tips & Resources, Washington English Center. Bookmark the permalink.

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