Lesson planning is, in my opinion, one of the trickiest, most intricate processes a teacher must go through if they wish to be effective in the classroom. As Ur (2012) puts it “The lesson is a very complex construct, which fulfils a variety of functions and can be seen from a variety of perspectives by different people.” However, I get the feeling that lesson planning is not a popular topic in teachers’ rooms and in-service training initiatives. It is almost as if teachers were supposed to know it as an innate talent or previous experience, should the former even exist. I for one had my first contact with lesson planning instruction after five years of intuitive, gut feeling work with more than 500 students over this period. My goal with this article is to share three different lesson planning frameworks aimed at catering for the needs of three different profiles of teachers at different stages of professional development. The frameworks range from novice to proficient teacher in terms of complexity of planning and implementation. We are going to go over the advantages and disadvantages of each of the planning processes so that you, teacher, can adopt (and adapt!) these processes to better suit your needs.
2. The by-the-book teacher
The first lesson framework I would like to talk about is the traditional PPP strategy. PPP stands for Presentation → Practice → Production. It consists of the teacher drawing a linguistic aim for the lesson, designing the Presentation stage, the Practice stage and, then, the Production stage. In the Presentation moment, the teacher will present the language to be worked on in the lesson and clarify its meaning, form and use with the learners. The students then engage in a practice moment aimed at developing students’ accuracy with the target language and get them used to the new feature, according to Harmer (2017), “this is often called controlled practice and may involve drilling” which is the repetition of words, phrases or even full sentences. At the production phase, students are supposed to use the language in a more creative way, taking part in an information gap activity, for example.
A clear advantage of this framework is its predictability and teacher control over all the steps of the lesson. It is, in a way, a teacher centered planning scheme in the sense that the teacher will decide on the aim of the lesson, the presentation format, the practice moment, and the production phase. The lesson is completely thought of before the students even get into the classroom. I believe this framework is very teacher friendly and one that novice teachers would feel the most comfortable with at the beginning of their teaching careers. As Harmer (2017) puts it, this is a widely used procedure especially useful for teaching simple language for students at lower levels and might even be found in coursebooks.
If being in control of everything that happens in the classroom is an advantage, one might argue that it is also a disadvantage of this planning framework. This strategy of planning is entirely proactive and all stages of the lesson will be planned and prepared before the lesson. What if students are not interested in the topic? What if students need more practice before going to the production phase? What if students already have control over the target language the teacher decided to teach? Students might feel demotivated to participate in a lesson which feels unresponsive to their needs and wants.
3. The Rebel
Whereas the PPP lesson framework has students producing at the end of the lesson after going through a well scaffolded period of controlled practice, Test-Teach-Test (or TTT) throws students in the deep end of the pool and expects them to fend for themselves, under the watchful gaze of the teacher, of course. This lesson framework starts with a production moment or even a fully contextualized task to which students have not been previously prepared. The aim of this communicative task at the beginning of the lesson is to allow the teacher to assess students’ needs halfway through the lesson, or in Thornbury’s (2006) words “It [the communicative task] serves as a means of identifying the learners’ language needs, and, specifically, the language that the would need in order to perform the task more effectively.” This task is better employed if the teacher is able to anticipate the grammar structures, lexical sets, and subskills students would probably need to successfully achieve the task. In this sense, this lesson begins with a much looser aim than the PPP framework. The teacher will set students on a task and observe how well students perform. This observation will inform the teacher of the linguistic gaps students have and how to tackle them in the Teach phase. After that, students are tested again to evaluate their progress from the beginning of the lesson to this final moment.
One of the pros of this strategy for lesson planning is that it is highly efficient. According to Thornbury (2006) “teaching is directed at the learners’ immediate needs and current developmental stage, rather than at some theoretical notion of their competence.” The teacher will assess students’ needs in the first moment of the lesson and teach exactly what students need to carry out that task better in the future. No time is wasted in teaching students what they already know and the lesson feels responsive and tailor made for the learners. Also, students have a clear sense of progress and achievement after they are tested for the second time and notice their development. It can be highly motivating for students to see this growth from the beginning to the end of the lesson.
Not knowing what the second stage of the lesson will be like can be quite nerve wrecking for a novice teacher. This lesson framework works best with a teacher who is confident enough to adapt their teaching to the needs of their students on the go, within a pre-planned set of assumptions thought of before the lesson. However, things might go south if students make mistakes in areas not previously anticipated by the teacher or, if students use structures and lexical sets the teacher did not prepare to teach. What if students make mistakes and need help on a structure you don’t feel confident enough to teach right there without any previous preparation? In addition, if not accurately leveled, the task might prove too challenging for students at first and they might lose motivation to take part in a lesson that is ‘too difficult’ for them.
4. The trailblazer
This lesson planning framework is not for the faint of heart. This strategy towards planning a lesson consists of the teacher planning a lead-in and an activity that will spark conversation. And that’s it. Everything that comes afterwards is reactive teaching. As Igor Miura (2020) puts it in his article, “Students perform the activity, whilst the teacher takes notes on emergent language which is to be worked on later. In this model, the teacher post-plan the lesson, as nobody knows which language will emerge.” This is an approach to lesson planning that closely resembles Deep Dogme (Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury, 2003) when they say that the lesson plan or syllabus “becomes the map of a journey of discovery recollected in tranquillity, rather than a blueprint for a forced march through English grammar.’’
One clear advantage of this lesson planning strategy is that it saves time and is entirely responsive to students' needs and wants as the lesson progresses. It is bound to be motivating to learners who feel that the lesson adapts in real time to their needs and who feel protagonists not only of the learning process but also of the design of the lesson steps and objectives. This is, in my opinion, the quintessence of learner-centeredness. This strategy towards preparing a lesson will also push teachers' skills of real-time adapting of tasks and goals to the extreme, contributing to a reflective teaching approach and, thus, professional development based on classroom research.
The main disadvantage, or challenge, of this approach to teaching is that it requires a highly experienced and aware teacher. Teaching an effective dogme lesson will demand control of a wide array of techniques and procedures in addition to proficient knowledge of the language’s systems and skills. Also, it might be the case that students simply prefer a more traditional approach: a coursebook, worksheets, and activities that more closely resemble their previous educational experiences. Thornbury (2017) writes that dogme “seems to favour small groups of motivated learners who are prepared to ‘suspend disbelief’ in a programme that has no clear syllabus nor coursebook.” If teaching at an institution, for example, some level of standardization will be necessary to ensure students’ smooth transition from one level and, at times, one teacher, to another.
The aim of this article was to show three effective lesson planning frameworks and strategies to cater for three different profiles of teachers ranging from novice to proficient. However, I don’t mean to share an air-tight manual of how lessons should be planned for such an attempt would be marred with unprecedented arrogance. The goal of sharing these frameworks with you, teacher, is that you find one that rings truth to you or, even better, use these ideas to devise your own lesson planning scheme. You should also take into account that whilst some of these frameworks work better, in my point of view, with beginner students (PPP), some work better with intermediate or advanced students (TTT and Deep Dogme). I believe we land at the same bottom line as we usually do: you are the expert in your class. You know your students profiles, backgrounds, and preferences. Use this knowledge to adopt and adapt the frameworks discussed in this article to the benefit of your learners. See you in class!
Harmer, J. (2017) How to teach English
Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2003) Dogme still able to divide ELT accessed on 07/10/2020 at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2003/apr/17/tefl.lukemeddings
Miura, I. (2020) Can Dogme Coexist with 21st Century Educational Resources?
Thornbury, S (2017) 30 Language teaching methods
Thornbury, S. (2006) An A-Z of ELT
Ur, P. (2012) A course in English language teaching