Techniques & Methodology

A Functional Approach to Lesson Planning

I have discussed in several posts my approach to lesson planning. In particular, I have described my three-part structure for learning objectives and asserted the importance of application in all lessons.

In this post, I will take a practical look at how we decide what we are going to teach in our ESL lessons from a perspective of functionality.

Starting with Skills

In my article on focus skills, I described an activity I do in workshops to help teachers think about basing their learning objectives on the skills they wish to develop. In that activity, I get teachers to think about all of the different scenarios people use the four macro skills (Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing) for communication. This is something I strongly encourage all teachers to do for themselves, but here I will list some of the responses that the activity has offered up in the past:

Building and expanding on a table like this makes for an extremely valuable resource for teachers. The more you add to these lists, the more guidance you will have when it comes to lesson planning. So often teachers base their materials and lesson plans on a syllabus that tells them what to teach; rarely do they think about why they should be teaching these things and where their students might use such language.

A list like this allows the teacher to shift perspective and think instead about the scenarios their students are likely to encounter and then consider the language that might be useful in such scenarios. For example, if you are making and/or receiving telephone calls, certain greetings might be useful; it might be useful to learn how to politely ask the caller to repeat information or to speak more slowly. If you are writing essays, then structure is important to learn, as are transition words and phrases; language for expressing and supporting opinions would be valuable also.

As you can see, starting by asking when, where and why your students might need to use English can give you a much more practical idea of what language you should be teaching. Take the table from above and add to it as much as you possibly can. Then, when you can’t think of anything else to add, share the list with your colleagues and see what else they can suggest.

Starting with Functions

In my piece on Teacher Talk Acts, I wrote about how we can think about teacher talk time in terms of the value it brings to the lesson and that we can do this in particular by thinking about the reason that the teacher is speaking at any given moment. In fact, I think that speech acts (the term for this type of categorisation) are an immensely valuable way of looking at language for learners too.

The majority textbooks and curricula arrange their learning objectives by grammatical content. The reality though is that very little of our actual language use is organised this way. Very rarely does a person speak or write such a way that all of their language conforms to a particular grammatical rule.

For example, one might think that telling a story about the past would result in our using all past tense sentences; however, when sharing anecdotes, people are very likely to draw connections to what happened at the time and the impacts their actions have had on the present or lessons that they learned from those events, which will require present tense structures, both simple and perfect. In fact, in colloquial use, many people tell stories about the past using present continuous structures:

So I’m walking down the street in the middle of the night, and I hear this strange noise…

With this in mind, it’s often useful to think of language in terms of when, where and how it’s used rather than how it’s structurally formed. For example, we might start with a function like asking for help. This is an important language function for English language learners to have access to, but there is no clear grammatical structure that underlies the language used to achieve it. Here are some of the phrases we might use when asking for help:

  • I was wondering if you could help me find the storage room.
  • Would you mind holding the door open for me?
  • Can you send this up to maintenance for me, please?
  • I’m having trouble changing the format of this document.
  • Do you know how to open these files?

All of these examples are clearly requests for help, but each one uses a number of different grammatical features. There is no clear structure that they all share. They’re not even all questions. This is why it is important for teachers to think carefully about language functions and the different phrases that their students might need in a given situation as opposed to always beginning with form.

Here are some other common functions:

  • apologising
  • introducing people
  • offering to help
  • making invitations
  • expressing opinion
  • agreeing/disagreeing
  • greeting

This list could go on for pages. Take some time to think about it yourself, and even consider keeping a notebook with you to record the language functions that you encounter day-to-day. The great thing about this and the skills lists in the previous section is that they cross the borders of different languages, so any skill or function you use in one language will have its counterparts in another. That means that if you are an English teacher but your first language is something else, you can still think about the encounters that you have in your first language and then look for the English phrases that you would need in those scenarios.

Starting with Purpose

This is actually very similar to function, but it works on a broader scale / bigger picture. Purpose is why we set out to do something. For example, why might my students choose to read or write at a given moment. While the lists of activities in the first section were long and indeed could be even longer, there are actually a small set of purposes that underlie them all.

If we use reading as the example, above there is a fairly extensive but by no means comprehensive list of times when or things that people read. However, the purpose that one has when reading one of those things will fall into one of the following:

  • reading for entertainment
  • reading for understanding
  • reading for practical application
  • reading for critical evaluation

Let’s now take the items from the skills list and categorise them by purpose:

  • Reading for entertainment: novels, twitter, film subtitles
  • Reading for understanding: journals/magazines/newspapers, emails, blogs
  • Reading for practical understanding: roadsigns, memos, instruction manuals, recipes
  • Reading for critical evaluation: novels, journals

You might not necessarily categorise all of these exactly as I have, and that’s fine. Different people encounter different situations with different purposes. But it is important that you think carefully about what your students’ purposes are and from there consider what language they might need in order to successfully realise those purposes.

One might write with the following purposes:

  • to express (artistically/creatively)
  • to express (emotionally/reflectively)
  • to describe
  • to instruct
  • to inform/educate
  • to persuade

And we might consider the purposes of speaking and listening broadly to be:

  • to develop a relationship (personal or professional)
  • to express oneself (creatively or emotionally)
  • to instruct/order
  • to inform/educate
  • to persuade
  • to describe

Starting with Form

And so we return to the standard, most common approach to lesson planning and material design. The majority of teachers, textbooks, curricula and education programmes continue to organise themselves by form. And there are certainly good reasons for doing this. It definitely makes sense to have a course structured such that material is progressively more challenging/complex, and with language much of the challenge and complexity comes down to grammatical content.

However, it is also common for teachers to start with form and then do little else to select appropriate language items for a lesson beyond listing examples of the form in question. But this of course misses out on the most important element of language learning: application. It is essential that the language you teach has a clear application so that students know when, where and how to use it.

Therefore, if you are bound by a syllabus that proceeds from topic to topic, unit to unit based on form, then consider taking a few extra steps before you go into the classroom.

If your programme tells you that today you should be teaching past continuous, then look over the resources suggested in the previous three sections, and think about where, when and how the past continuous might be useful for your students. Think about the situations in life they might need to use it, which can be found on the skills list you developed in the first section of this article. Think about the functions that might be used in such a situation. Think about the purposes and goals the learner might have in mind when they encounter such a situation.

All of this will allow you to add much more value to the learning objectives you present to your students, and study after study (Gagné & Briggs, 1974; David Yeager et al, 1014; harackiewicz et al, 2010; and many more) has shown that students learn much better when they recognise relevance, value and purpose in the learning objectives.

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