ATTN: Newbie ESL teachers.
I have a story for you that should sound familiar.
My first six months teaching English in Korea were a disaster.
I had no training, and no idea what I was doing.
A blank sheet of paper had to become 45 minutes of constructive ESL teaching.
After a lot of trial and error, I finally figured out a simple recipe to create ESL lesson plans that work. Now, I’m passing along all those lessons learned to you.
How to Create an (Almost) Perfect ESL Lesson Plan from Scratch
The challenges of ESL lesson planning
While beginning to teach English in Korea, I only kept my job because of my incredibly patient co-teachers.
What made it so hard?
With no educational training, I was expected to teach English to Korean middle school students without a book. That is not easy to do, and I have repressed my horrible memories of the initial results. However, during my three years in Korea I (thankfully) got better. I fell into a formula for creating ESL lesson plans that actually worked well for my students.
If any of this sounds familiar, then this blog is for you. Lesson planning can be stressful. From the start, remember this golden rule: perfection is not possible. You will never get it completely right, and that’s okay. With that truth in mind, let’s dive into how to make ESL lesson plans.
Questions to ask before making a lesson plan
Give these questions some thought before you outline your ESL lesson plans. Knowing the answers will save you time and aggravation down the road.
1. Will you review what the school is teaching the students? Or will you create new learning goals? If the target language will be new, be sure it is appropriate for the students’ level.
2. Will you focus on speaking, reading, writing or reading? Or a combination? Your school may have a preference.
3. Will you teach alone or will you have help? The simplest games, for example, can be difficult to teach without translation unless you are very prepared.
The 6 crucial stages of ESL lesson planning
Step 1: Decide on your lesson plan objectives
This is the daunting part, but it is crucial that you know this from the start. Step 1 is the foundation of everything that follows. Your focus could be:
- a song or a movie (be sure that your school permits this and that it will not disturb neighboring classrooms). Remember that audio must be played loudly for students to understand it since it is in a different language.
- a specific grammar point, such as forming questions or practicing the present progressive. Young or beginning learners might need to focus on the conjugation of only one specific verb such as “to be.” More advanced students could practice multiple irregular verb conjugations.
- a general exercise such as understanding a short passage from a Harry Potter book.
- a vocabulary group. For example, you might teach cooking, colors, medical terminology or animals.
Step 2: How to outline a lesson plan
Remember that every lesson plan should include individual work. To keep things organized, my outlines included the estimated time spent on each section. For example, a movie outline could be this:
1. Waiting for students to arrive and for the class to calm down (teenagers never arrive on time) – 1 minute
2. Welcome/quick review of previous week/ask students questions – 3 minutes
3. Pass out movie worksheets – 1 minute
4. Play preview of movie – 2 minutes
5. Introduce vocabulary needed to understand movie scene – 5 minutes
6. Individual practice of the vocabulary on student worksheets – 3 minutes
7. Giving answers to worksheets – 2 minutes
8. Listening exercises with the movie (includes playing the movie scenes several times, then going over the answers and letting the students watch the scenes a third time) – 20 minutes
9. Free watching of the movie (always a class favorite, but get permission from your head teacher first) – 6 minutes
10. Wrap up the class by asking vocabulary review questions – 2 minutes
It’s important to balance classroom organization vs. time for the unexpected. Be ready for the unanticipated questions that can throw off your timing.
Step 3: Choose ESL activities to accomplish your lesson plan objectives
Variety is the spice of the ESL classroom. Everyone learns differently. You need activities for visual and audio learners as well as doers.
- Use games in the classroom. I believe in games in ESL classrooms. Used correctly, games let students test what they’ve learned in a relaxed, exciting way. The key is to make sure everyone participates. Without proper management, weaker or lazier students will quietly sit back and do nothing. In a 45 minute class, a game shouldn’t be longer than 12 minutes. Watch your motivations. There’s a big difference between playing Charades to review animal names vs. playing Hangman to let the teacher relax.
- Consider the pros and cons of individual vs. group ESL work. No lesson is complete without individual work. Everyone needs time to practice material on their own. These activities also help shyer students, who can work quietly without the pressure of a spotlight. Group work, on the other hand, is useful too. Students can practice a dialogue with each other and learn from stronger partners. Team activities are often fun and give everyone a chance to relax a little. The drawback of group work, though, is that more advanced students tend to dominate the action. The right mix is essential.
- Repeat recent ESL activities. You can repeat activities. How often depends on how popular the activity is. One of my classes insisted on reviewing vocabulary by playing Pictionary every week. For classes that meet once a week, it’s best to recycle activities once a month if you can. Otherwise, your students might start to lose interest – and perhaps you will as well.
- Ignore bad advice from ESL teacher websites and chat rooms. There are some great ESL websites out there. Just as many offer very bad advice. Be careful who you listen to. Some teachers are only concerned with winning popularity contests and so play games at every opportunity. Be sure that you are listening to teachers who take their jobs seriously. Ignore those who only want a party atmosphere in their classes. Focus on advice that helps you structure your classes more while leaving time for fun.
Step 4: Create ESL materials and worksheets
It is true that the internet has a lot of free worksheets. By all means, use them. Time, however, is your greatest enemy. You first must know where to find quality ESL material. Until you have a few favorite sites, searching for worksheets on the internet will take a lot of your time. You are not done there. You still have to tailor it to your class’s level.
Here are some tips that could make things go faster:
- Reuse workbook materials. Photocopy exercises from a textbook, white-out the answers and let students complete the questions as a review.
- If you do make your own materials, remember to include 2 sample questions with answers at the very beginning. Kids and low-level students always need a clear model to look at before doing individual work.
- For each grammar point, include 5-7 questions.
- Include pictures on the worksheet. No one likes to look at straight, boring text.
- Puzzles of any type are fun and can help to quiet down an energetic class. Boggle, word searches or riddles (make sure they aren’t too hard) are always a welcome challenge.
Hang onto your ESL materials for future classes. Do it. Especially if you stay at the same school for more than one year, you will be able to reuse your materials. Buy a good binder and stick nice copies of your materials in it. It pays to keep your hard work on your computer as well as a USB disk.
Step 5: Visual aids for ESL lessons
You will need visual aids which add depth and interest to your class. It could be a PowerPoint presentation, a restaurant menu from home or things from your kitchen. Whatever you choose, make sure it enhances your lesson.
- Decide: Is a PowerPoint presentation necessary for this lesson? In class, PowerPoint presentations are good time savers. They can show answers to questions, saving you the trouble of using the blackboard. You can also use them to show interesting pictures. Try to minimize using them, however. They take a lot of time to create, and it is possible that your projector will not work that day. What would you do then?
- Weigh the pros and cons of using videos in ESL classes. With today’s technological world, videos are a must. They quickly gain the attention of the class and are a sure hit. On the flip side, you must be very careful in selecting your videos. Even Disney movies have language that is sometimes too difficult for low-level students. Background music, multiple people talking and jokes that don’t transcend cultures are all traps to avoid. You must always have a back-up plan for class in case technology fails and suddenly there is no movie.
- Find creative ways to add visual aids to your ESL class. Newspapers are an interesting prop. Even if the articles are too difficult, students can find the date, place of publication, price and the weather forecast. Jazz up a food vocabulary class by bringing a banana and an apple. For more advanced students, bring a colander, grater, bottle opener and other cooking items. Pass around currency from other countries.
Look at your lesson’s target language and see if anything already in your home applies. Try not to buy too much. It is not necessary to spend a lot of money on this.
Step 6: The final stages of lesson planning
You’ve made it. Believe me, I sincerely congratulate you. Before you head into class, do a few things first:
- Get advice from other English teachers. Show your coworkers your ESL materials. Especially if you teach in a foreign country, their advice is invaluable. They understand your students better than you do and they will see gaps in logic, things that are too hard and cultural pitfalls. Take their advice and change your materials.
- Don’t stress about the outcome of the first class. Nobody’s perfect, and you won’t be either. On the first day, make copies for only that day. You will probably come back to your desk with a few things to change for tomorrow. Save trees by not making copies that will only go in the recycle bin.
During class: troubleshooting your ESL lesson plans
My lesson is finished, but there’s still time on the clock.
Extra time on the clock can mean that your class was too advanced for the lesson, or maybe that you overestimated the time you needed. Either way, go back to your desk and decide what to do differently in the next class.
- Have review games ready. Depending on the class, five minutes of vocabulary Hangman or Pictionary is legitimate. Let the students draw.
- Prepare three or four easy questions for a short conversation with the class. Make the topic similar to your lesson so nothing comes out of left field.
- Write a sentence from the lesson on the board. Give the class 15 seconds to memorize it. Erase the sentence and ask students to tell you what it was.
My lesson is too long.
Know what is a priority. What must you accomplish for the lesson to be a success? Try to focus on that while watching the time. No matter what happens, remember to leave 2 minutes for a quick review. Back at your desk, figure out what went wrong and decide what to change.
The students aren’t interested.
There could be a lot of reasons for this. Are your English lessons too hard or too easy? Did they just get yelled at by their previous teacher for poor test results? Did three students just have a fight before you arrived and everyone got in trouble? Are you speaking too fast? Did your materials make sense?
The solution requires some reflection on what happened in order to fix it.
Final encouragement to ESL teachers
As an ESL teacher, you have a hard job that most people can’t do. Making an exciting lesson out of a blank piece of paper is a real challenge. Even seasoned teachers who only use a book have trouble. To save your sanity, remember these points:
- Perfection will never be possible. That’s fine.
- Whatever comes out of your imagination will be awesome.
- Bells and whistles aren’t necessary. It is the content and the thought behind English lessons that matter.
- When a lesson tanks, shrug it off. Fix what can be fixed. Forget about the rest.
- Teaching is a 50/50 relationship between the student and the teacher. You can do everything right, but if the student doesn’t do his part you will still have trouble. Do what you can and leave it at that.
The ESL classroom is an incredibly fun and exciting place. It can also be aggravating at times. But, hey, you’ll never be bored!
Teaching non-English speakers your language is an exciting privilege that you will never forget. Best of luck.
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you liked these lesson tips, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.
You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.