Many of the posts that I have written on this blog so far deal with specific parts of the lesson planning process or specific scenarios encountered while teaching. All of these different elements, however, are components of an overarching structure, which is what I’ll be writing about here.
This post will introduce and describe the lesson structure that I use when I teach and that I train other teachers in through the Teaching Certificate programmes that I deliver through my training institution, Jakarta Language Academy. On these courses, you can get a practical introduction to the approach as well as hands on experience with the techniques and methodologies used within.
In this post though, I shall try to outline the different stages of a lesson according to the JLA Lesson Structure in the hope that it will provide some broader context for some of the other posts I have written in the past as well as posts that I will write in the future.
Building Blocks of an Idea
The first thing I want to make clear is that, while there are some innovations and new perspectives—which I hope, of course, you’ll find both interesting and valuable—much of the foundation to the structure this post will describe is taken from other, already existing models.
Indeed, one thing that I have noticed a lot in my experience in education is that any time somebody comes along with an even remotely new idea, they immediately pit it against all other theories or approaches, claiming that everything up until now has been wrong. It strikes me that this competitive, even combative approach to innovation and development costs the field greatly and that we could develop and improve much quicker and more effectively if we’d focus more on collaboration.
Some of the better known models of lesson structure include the ubiquitous PPP and Jeremy Harmer’s ESA, both of which are referenced by my own structure. I also incorporate M. Lewis’s OHE, which is less recognised but has some very valuable concepts within, and Test Teach Test (TTT). The graph below shows briefly how these previously existing models correspond to my own, which I see as a holistic model combining the best parts of other options and filling in some gaps where necessary.
This is to say that, ultimately, I feel that each of these models addresses some important concepts and problems of teaching, but none of them covers everything that an effective lesson needs. What I have tried to do here is construct a model of lesson structure that takes the teacher from the very beginning of the lesson to the very end and describes every stage of the teaching–learning process.
It is important that I point out here that the layout of this table is based on my interpretation of these models, and not everyone might agree with precisely how I have corresponded certain elements. Most notably, it might be said that I have not given Harmer’s ESA a full account, and that would be fair; my inclusion here is the model in its primary, most basic form. Indeed, there is much more to be said about the complete model than the scope of this post gives room for.
Also, the sentiment that I have described above, with everything I have said about improving upon existing models through collaboration and synthesis, of course leaves room for the same to be done again. Evidently, I believe at the time of writing this post, that my lesson structure is complete, covering all elements of a lesson, but I am entirely open to suggestions from readers regarding flaws or areas for improvement and might well continue to make alterations and additions myself over time.
This post will focus on the main stages of a lesson plan as developed by my institution, Jakarta Language Academy. However, there are a number of sub- and macro-processes going on throughout the lesson as well, which will be touched upon here but I will elaborate more on in a future post. With that in mind, in this post, I will be describing a structure of seven stages that will take you from the moment your lesson begins to the moment it ends.
The first macro process that I will point out actually divides the stages into three main segments, so as we look at the seven stages, they will takes us through pre-instruction, instruction, and post-instruction. We begin by making sure our students are fully prepared for the learning process before we try teaching them anything, and we also make sure that the students have the opportunity to review their learning process afterwards. These are essential parts of an effective lesson and should not be left out of any lesson structure model.
One other thing that I want you to notice is the language I use for labelling the stages. I have tried to pick terms, particularly verbs, that describe the whole process from the student’s perspective rather than the teacher’s. Jeremy Harmer did this and so did M. Lewis, and I think it is valuable in setting the mindset right from the time you’re planning your lesson. Whatever approaches you take to planning and delivering your lessons, you should always be focused on the students: what they will be doing, what the will achieve, what they need, and so on.
So, with that, let us look at the first stage of the lesson.
At this stage, the learners should relate to the teacher and each other and engage with the learning environment.
Before any learning can be done, learning conditions have to be right. This means setting up the learning environment to be conducive and priming the learners’ mindset for learning. In particular, we want to make sure that our learners are in the right mindset for active learning, which means high participation, ownership of the process and direct application of new learning.
Start the lesson on a high, this means that your opening activities should be active, interactive, interesting and encouraging. Get your students moving around, talking to or interacting with each other and having fun. Make sure that what you ask them to do here is something that you know they are capable of—do not start the lesson with failure!
Also, try to interact with your students in a genuine manner. Greet them as they enter the room and engage with them casually and naturally. Give them time to speak freely and don’t worry about language accuracy. This is more about building relationships and creating a positive learning environment than it is about drilling grammar.
Many teachers feel that too much time spent on this type of thing is a waste, especially when they only have short lesson durations in the first place. But I assure you that taking 5 minutes at the start of the lesson, even if you only have 40 to play with, is never a waste; on the contrary, skipping this valuable stage can result in the whole 40 minutes being a waste if your students are not engaged and participating as active learners.
This is an opportunity for the learners to demonstrate what they already know; what they can already do; what they have already learned.
Even the best plan in the world can fall short if it is not the right fit for your students. This stage of the lesson is to make sure that you don’t make that mistake; it is the last opportunity to check the learners’ existing ability before the new material is introduced.
Of course, this should be on your mind when selecting your learning objective and planning your activities. Throughout this process, you can refer to previous lessons and your knowledge of your students to carefully choose learning objectives and materials that are suited to them, but there is still room for error. Maybe your students have learned something before but have since forgotten it, or maybe they have learned something with another teacher that you did not realise.
Here, we set the learners a task that requires some basic use of the language you are planning to introduce to see what their existing ability is. If they can already use it perfectly, then your lesson will probably be too easy for them; on the other hand, if they are struggling too much with even the pre-requisite elements of the language, they might not be ready to take on your plan.
The task that you set should be contextual and include no technical instructions, e.g. “write a short description of the furniture in your bedroom” instead of “use prepositions of place to describe the furniture in your bedroom”. There are two reasons for this: first, asking students to do something that they cannot do can be very off-putting, and if your lesson is pitched at the right level, then they likely won’t be able to do this well, so they will find the exercise daunting if you give technical instructions that they don’t recognise; and secondly, it is possible that your students are able to use the target language when instructed to do so but forget when and how to apply it in context, and it is the latter that we are most interested in.
This is where the learners encounter the target language for the first time—they will learn something new that they did not know before.
This is where the instructional part of the lesson begins; it is here that the learners have their first experience with the target language. The key principle that I want to underscore here is that the language be introduced in as natural a context as possible. The learners should encounter the language in just the same way that they might if they were alone outside of the classroom.
We want to give learners the chance to encounter and interpret the new language as independently as possible. As users of language, we encounter new things in all kinds of places and without warning; words we’ve never heard before, sentences that seem strange. There is no warning for these encounters and certainly nobody accompanying us, explaining the language before we see or hear it. Instead, we have to use what skills and knowledge we have to observe the language around us and make hypotheses about its usage.
It is these skills that we want to strengthen. These skills might even be more important than the vocabulary and grammar that is learned in the classroom, because it is these skills that the learners will rely on when they leave the classroom if they are to continue learning. The more we get our students to work things out for themselves, the stronger language learners they will become.
To do this, we avoid introducing target language by name, we avoid explaining things our students are about to see or hear, and we avoid putting lists of words and structures on the whiteboard for our students to copy and study before reading or listening to texts. Instead, we give our students material to read or listen to that contain the target language, and then we encourage them to identify the new language and work out what it means and how it works. Only when the learner has pointed something out and attempted to interpret it does it go up on the whiteboard.
Learners need to process the new information they have learned to make sure that they have the internalised the form correctly and accurately.
Once the new language has been identified and understood, we want the learners to internalise it as much as possible. This means that the learners will create strong associations with the accurate forms of the target language so that it is easy to recall when needed in future. Done well and repeated over time, this process of internalising will lead to the automatic recollection of language items that we display as native speakers of our own languages. One never has to think about how to form a sentence or pronounce a word in the middle of a conversation—we just do it.
In order to achieve this, the learner needs extensive and repetitive exposure to accurate forms of the target language. This means words spelled, pronounced and used correctly and structures made with the correct tense, punctuation, clausal structures and so on. As for the learners, she should be encouraged to reproduce these accurate forms as much as time permits, filling in gaps, completing sentences, matching words with meanings and stress patterns and other activities that emphasise correct and incorrect answers.
At this stage of the lesson, we correct our students when they make mistakes, and we confirm when they use the language accurately. The majority of the lesson, as you will see in the coming stages, does not share this focus on black and white, right and wrong, but here it is essential. Any errors made and ignored at this point in the learning process threaten to become fossilised, meaning that they will be nigh on impossible to relearn and rectify at a later date.
Now that learners have the accurate form, they can try to develop their own ideas and personalise the target language.
Once your students have demonstrated that they know and can use the correct forms of the language, they can be allowed to experiment with integrating the new language into their existing language. Here, the learners’ are not restricted to right and wrong answers as the exercises are focused more on communicative ability than accuracy, especially given that accuracy should be fairly high anyway if the previous stage was successful.
Ideally, the learners will use the target language to communicate ideas of their own, personalising the target language in a way that makes it truly valuable to them. The language that you teach your students should be useful for them, and this part of the lesson is an opportunity for them to see the different ways that they can use the language in their own lives to talk about and do things that they care about and find interesting or important.
You might ask them to write sentences about their family or a paragraph about their weekend. You might ask them to practise imperative sentences by writing instructions for looking after their pets. You might ask them to use adjectives to describe their best friend or use modals to tell their partner about hopes and dreams for the future. The more creative they get with their language use the better, so give them plenty of room to play with what they have learned so that they can find out what can and can’t be done with it.
The learners must apply the new language to a real life situation and socialise the language with the other students to ensure that they can truly use it outside the classroom.
The last stage of the instructional segment is where we give the learners the opportunity to apply what they have learned to a real life problem or communicative scenario. This serves both to prove to us that the lesson has been successful so that we know whether or not the learners are ready to move on and to further contextualise the language for the learners. Not only does it demonstrate to them when and where the language can be used, but it also gives them hands on experience doing so, which means that if they find themselves in such a scenario outside of the classroom, it won’t be their first time dealing with it.
This is the rehearsal before the dance, the friendly game before the big match. Applying the target language in this way helps the students build mental models of how the language is used and strengthens the neural pathways that will trigger recall in the future. This way, when they are confronted with a real life scenario, they will automatically know the language to use and will be able to access their knowledge and skills smoothly. Without this application, all that they learn is little more than theory, and in real life situations, they might find themselves stuck trying to determine what language is appropriate for a situation because they’ve never actually used it before.
The things we get our students to do here will require high active participation, a lot of interaction and little teacher input and guidance. Learners should be engaging in role plays and working on projects; they should be producing language creatively in response to the scenarios or challenges that face them. You might put them into pairs and have them phone each other to make and receive complaints; perhaps you’ll ask them to write emails to each other and then ask them to send them and write replies; maybe they’ll write articles to post on blogs or make updates to their Facebook profiles or even send tweets.
Everything that the learners do in this stage of the lesson should directly represent things they could find themselves doing outside of the classroom. And the more social or interactive you make these tasks the better, because the reality is that when your students leave your classroom and use language in the real world, it won’t be to write sentences in exercise books that they keep in their desks, it will be to communicate with other people, it will be to socialise and to collaborate and to compete and to confront. This is what they will do in their lives, so this is what they should be practising in your lessons.
At the end of the lesson, learners should take the time to review the learning process— what worked for them, what they enjoyed, what they found challenging—so that they can maximise their learning in the future.
The last few minutes of the lesson, after the instructional phase has been completed, should be devoted to reviewing and evaluating the learning process. This can refer to both the lesson as planned by the teacher—i.e. the activities you used, the relevance or value of the language or learning objective, etc.—and the learner’s performance and personal learning experience.
It is important that you encourage this as regular practice amongst your students. It doesn’t come naturally to all learners, but I would suggest that all learners benefit from it. Certainly studies have repeatedly shown that learners who engage in regular evaluation of their own learner progress both quicker and further. Not only that, but it also provides you with guidance on how to make your lessons more effective in the future.
Take this time to find out what your students found interesting or boring about your lesson, whether they think you explained things clearly enough and offered enough support when they were struggling, if the lesson was too easy or too challenging, whether the learning objectives felt relevant to your students’ own interests and goals.
The learners can use this stage of the lesson to think about how they learn best, what areas they feel they might need more practice in, what things they might want to study next to keep on developing in a direction that they care about, if there is any extra support they could request from the teacher and just how generally happy they are with their progress so far.
I assure you that these stages work if implemented with care and careful planning. I plan easily 90% of my lessons following this structure and all of the teachers that work for me or that train with me use this structure as well, and we all get great results.
It might well take some tweaking to adapt certain things to your lessons or your institution, particularly with consideration to time constraints and curriculum requirements, but I have had success with this structure in 35-minute and 120-minutes lessons in public and private schools as well as language centres and corporate classes.
Ultimately, while not every single point in this post might feel relevant to you, I would urge you at the very least to consider the opening sentences of each stage, the bits in italics. These are the stage aims, and following these closely will ensure that your lesson aims—i.e. your learning objective—are met successfully. Whatever you change, as long as you are achieving these goals along the way, you are sure to see results and satisfied students.
I will be elaborating on all of these stages in far more detail and with many more practical examples and suggestions in the book I am currently working on. If you want to see more of this and follow my progress with the book along the way—including sneak previews of chapters and chunks as I go—please sign up to my mailing list. If you do, you’ll also get my handy Lesson Plan Prompter for free as a thankyou.