My Lesson Plan Sketches

I saw this challenge at Cecilia Lemos’ blog.

While I often do produce pretty detailed lesson plans, often that level of detail only comes after I’ve done the same lesson over and over and finally have a really strong idea of what’s going on.

On the other hand, if it’s a lesson plan with pre-made materials (either made by me or a coursebook) and I’ve done it a million times, my lesson plans are pretty sketchy.

And if it’s a pure discussion lesson, where I’m basically just preparing questions to feed them on a theme, with a little warm-up, they’re practically illegible. Like this lesson plan for a Black History Month discussion at ACCELS the other day.

I dare you to try to read it.

Fossilized Errors

I really enjoyed yesterday’s #ELTchat on fossilized errors. The transcript is already up, and I was going through it to try to remember all the awesome ideas and interesting questions that came up. This is definitely an area of teaching I need more work in as I tend to focus more on fluency than accuracy, and in general recycling material is not my strong suit. And recycling/repeating is probably the best way to address any kind of persistent errors.

I thought it was very interesting that there was a difference of opinion about what a fossilized error is, how we recognize one, and whether it is possible to fix them or not. Some of this strays into semantics, I suppose. Students do make errors and they do make persistent errors, but is there such a thing as a fossilized error? If any error can be corrected is it fossilized? I was thinking today that it would be very interesting to read some research about errors, especially persistent errors. Is there a study out there that points to how students come to make the same error over and over in L2? Or at least how frequently an error could be considered fossilized, hardened into stone, and practically undislodgeable?

Leaving that aside, I think many teachers are concerned when students make the same error consistently, and particularly when they don’t seem to know they are making an error (so it’s a proper error, not a slip or a mistake). I thought there were some awesome ideas shared last night, and I wanted to write them down so I don’t forget themĀ  and also to hear what others think about them:

My personal favorite way to help students notice mistakes, one I like to use, is to make some kind of unique sign or funny reaction when students make an error. Personally I like to pretend to weep, and if necessary wail the mistake. I did this with my vocational school students recently, who were having a lot of trouble with “to be”. I used to wail, “He are? He are?” and break down into tears. Of course it has to be done tongue-in-cheek so students understand you are joking. But it does help them notice the error, and remember the correction well. After a few performances, I could just sniffle and students knew they had made a mistake with “to be”. I have also been known to pretend my students stabbed me, or ask them why they want to hurt me. Teacher as actor?

I rather liked ‘s suggestions such as raising an eyebrow or feigning ignorance. Say, “I don’t understand.” Michelle Worgan had a similar device of giving them a funny look reserved specially for those persistent mistakes. I definitely think it’s important to help students notice the mistake. It’s important that the correction is not overly harsh, so it should be quick and light, or humorous. And the students should correct the mistake themselves (or with peer help).

Having students record and listen to their speech is a brilliant idea and I have to admit that in my technology-less classrooms, with students that don’t necessarily have computers or Internet at home, I never thought this was something I could do, but in an earlier ELTChat many teachers mentioned using cellphones. Never would have thought of that, but it’s genius since most cellphones do have a voice memo function.

I also really like the idea of putting common mistakes up on a poster or the board–particularly if it’s done anonymously and after the fact. That way students aren’t humiliated publicly. And the idea of an error dictionary or journal, even a picture dictionary. I did post once on how I have my students keep a journal of frequent errors with writing, and it seems like that could be adaptable to speaking errors as well.

Anyway, those were the highlights for me, in terms of practical teaching suggestions for correcting errors in students. Any other techniques, thoughts, ideas?

UPDATE: Michelle Worgan has the official, much more comprehensive and better organized summary of the ELTChat up on her blog now.

Don't Give Up

A lesson plan that I adapted from somewhere, but I can’t remember where exactly. This is an idea that can be adapted to any lesson on a song that has a music video. Students watch the music video first, without sound, and try to figure out what the song is about. Then they listen to the song together with the music. Finally, they get a chance to look at the lyrics. Great fun as their opinion on the song changes each time.


  • Analyze a music video as a piece of art separate from the song
  • Discuss the meaning of lyrics to a song


The Video

First of all, do not tell your students the name of the song or the artist, in case they know the song. Tell students that they will be watching a music video, but without the sound. As they watch, they should think about what the song is about.

Play the video of Don’t Give Up, with the volume off. I have embedded the video on a separate page on my site to make it easier to watch (make sure to watch it in full-screen mode). You’ll want to start at about 0:03 seconds to skip the title screen.

Once you have watched the video, ask students what they saw. What images or scenes do they remember? Eliciting small pieces of information first helps students to remember better and is also easier for lower-level students. So I always like to begin discussions with simple questions.

Once students have finished talking about what they remember, ask what they think the song is about. You can lead them by asking them how what others students said might relate to what they said. For example, in the first part of the discussion students will probably remember a car driving in the rain at the end. In the second part, if a student says they think the song is about two lovers, you might ask, “So how does the car driving in the rain fit in?” At this point, I wouldn’t confirm or reject any theories, just let them share their theories, and correct and critique each other.

Once they have exhausted their theories, ask them what kind of song they think it is. What genre is the song? Is it fast or slow? Loud or quiet? How many singers are there? (They should pick up that there are two, a man and a woman).

The Video and the Song

When the discussion dies down again, tell them that this time they will hear the song while they watch the video and play the video again, with the sound turned on.

Now ask if their opinion has changed about the meaning of the song. Prompt students by asking them again what words they remember from the song, and how the song and the film worked together.

Interestingly I find that when students watch the film, they think the song is about lovers who have broken up. But when they hear the song, they think it is about not committing suicide.

When discussion dies down again, hand out the lyric sheet. Give students some time to read them, and ask any questions about vocabulary. Now ask them again if their opinion about what the song is about has changed. Again make sure they cite specific lines from the song or give concrete reasons.

Of course, eventually they will ask you what the song is really about. You have a choice here. Personally, I like to tell them that songs are works of art and everyone has a right to interpret it as they see fit. Overall it is about how when life gets difficult, you shouldn’t give up because someone loves you and will help you. Of course, it could also be about how it feels when someone you love is depressed or in pain.

If you want to extend the discussion a bit, you can also tell them that the song is actually a reaction to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies in the UK in the 1980s. Specifically her economic policies led to a huge jump in unemployment and a lack of social care on the part of the government. So the hero has lost his job and can’t find another one. You might point out that the video showed the welfare office and men lined up to get their unemployment pay. This can lead to a discussion of economic policies and their effect on people.

A less serious follow-up would be to ask students what kind of music they like and why.

You could also get into an analysis of the song itself, especially the gospel-influenced bridge. I’ve also built a small vocab exercise into the lyrics sheet. You can ask students to identify the verse, stanza, chorus, and bridge.

Teachers Should Know Not to Pound Grammar

This great essay, which has been making the rounds of the ELT blogging world, about why training is important reminded me of my poor first students.

I had done some SAT tutoring with Kaplan in university and grad school, so I did have teaching experience before I entered my first proper ESL classroom. But it was pretty well organized. The Kaplan textbooks/teacher books were comprehensive, the methods of teaching and strategies were clearly spelled out, and of course teaching to a standardized test means a much more limited scope.

After grad school I joined the Peace Corps and ended up in an elite Francophone secondary school in Vanuatu. I was teaching the top French-speaking students in the country, seniors and juniors. We had no textbooks, except a collection of essays taken from The Watchtower proving that evolution was wrong and science was wrong that had been put together by the previous teacher. So it was all up to me to make a curriculum and lessons.

And my poor patient dear students. Just like Mr. Willis, I ended up doing grammar, grammar and more grammar. And yes, verb tenses mainly. I still have somewhere my early lesson plans. They consisted of me giving a lecture on the form and then meaning of a verb tense:

Past Progressive:
to be + verb-ing

Meaning: To talk about something that took time in the past:
I was thinking about the problem all day.
To talk about something in the past that was happening when something else in the past happened
I was washing the cat when the phone rang.

Then the worksheet. Put the verb in the past progressive.
Then, maybe a less controlled speaking practice, if they were lucky.

And that was my format for every single lesson. Lecture on form and meaning, questions, worksheet, maybe some real practice.

The only thing I can say in my defense was that I let them ask questions, lots of questions. And for some reason, I did decide in the second semester to do a creative writing unit, which allowed for a lot more freedom and creativity from them.

What’s interesting to me is that I understand why new teachers pick grammar as something to teach. It’s relatively objective so you feel confident that you can teach it and test it. It’s full of lots of rules so you feel like you can fill the classroom air with lots of words, thus “doing your job as a teacher.” But why on earth do we choose verb tenses? I know I started with verb tenses because I had had such a huge problem with them in French so I thought the inverse might be true. That and their native language really didn’t have verb tenses, just a time marker. But it seems like many new teachers settle on verb tenses when they don’t know what else to do.

Anyway, that’s my first class ever horror story and I do apologize deeply to all those lovely students who are probably now ministers and government officials and important people in their country. I hope I didn’t scar them too much!

Glossy Dinosaurs

Has to be the best name for dictoglosses. I stole the title from Jason Renshaw and I highly recommend his comprehensive article on how to do dictoglosses.

Dictoglossia? Anyway, there’s a nice looking template hand out there as well.

And this is the best example of a dictogloss I’ve ever seen, apparently taken from The Practice of English Language Teaching by Jeremy Harmer:

Valentine's Day Discussion

Had another awesome English Club. Of course, the theme was Valentine’s Day and there was a nice mix of boys and girls and new and old. Could have been a sensitive subject but no one was particularly shy. Like the best English Clubs, I kicked it off with a few questions and soon it took on a life of its own.

Issues that came up were what do young people call people they are dating: lover, girl or boy friend or sweetheart. I clarified like this: boyfriend and girlfriend is the most normal thing to call a couple, lovers is a bit too poetic, and sweetheart is something your parents might say about your relationship.

Big discussion about why in Kazakhstan boyfriends and girlfriends are less visible in public and why in general boys and girls hang out separately in public. I raised the question of why I only see girls going out to restaurants, and a big reason seemed to be that the boys might be forced to pay if it was a mixed group (and as university students, they don’t have any money) and that boys would prefer to drink beer or play billiards.

Also one hopelessly outnumbered kid tried to defend his position that even on a date the boy shouldn’t have to pay for the girl. He would have been doing okay except he seemed to be saying that he would never ever pay for the girl.

It’s always a pleasure to do discussion club when I get to talk a bit for the first 30 minutes, and then get to listen for an hour.

Then I asked if they celebrate Valentine’s Day and how or what they do. That got a few stories going and we talked a bit about the kinds of gifts boys get for girls they like. They started to ask me about the traditions in the US so I threw it back to them, then after the conversation died down, I explained that Valentine’s Day is for couples, not really friends because there had been some confusion on that point and normal things to do like give flowers, give chocolates, and go out for dinner. They started discussing differences between young people in the US and young people in Kazakhstan. For the first time, I felt like a participant in the discussion instead of a moderator. And that is the best discussion club of all!

Where is It? Prepositions of Place

Since my lesson plan on giving directions is so popular I thought I would write up another activity I do for teaching how to talk about where things are located. My giving directions lesson plan is focused more on practice. This lesson is more about teaching and controlled practice, so you might do this one first. It focuses on basic prepositions of location such as “next to”, “in front of”, “behind”, “near”, as well as “on”, “in”, and “at”

One of the great things about lessons on directions and how to go somewhere is that it provides a great chance for authentic conversation. You can always ask students about where they go shopping, where they got those fabulous shoes, what cafes they recommend. If you are teaching in an EFL setting, this is great for building student confidence because the students get to teach the teacher.


  • Teach prepositions of location: on+street, at+corner, opposite, near, next to, behind, in front of
  • Give students controlled practice in describing where places are in their city


Warm Up: Test Before You Teach

Because of the great potential for real conversation, I like to start this lesson by asking students where something is. This is a great way to test before you teach and see the level of the students and also it shows students how this lesson will be applied.

I like to start off by picking a stronger student and asking, “Hey, I need to get a new print cartridge for my printer (or new shoes or fresh veggies or whatever). Where do I go to get one cheap?” Let him or her answer, usually with the name of a store. Ask, “Where is that?” Whatever answer they give, play dumb (if necessary). If they give a street address, ask “Where’s that?” If they tell you it’s near the movie theater, ask where the movie theater is. Get as much language out of them as you can and open the conversation to the whole class. At the same time, note any common mistakes they make. Since the focus of this is prepositions, focus on those. Personally I advise you not to correct them at this stage because this is a warm-up exercise and it’s more interesting to see what they can do, than start teaching them now.

Teaching Prepositions

Once you get a strong idea of where the printer cartridge store is, write the name of the store on the board and under it on separate lines the prepositions: on, near, next to, at, opposite, in front of, behind.
Note: Based on the warm-up you may or may not need to demonstrate what these prepositions mean. On + street name you can probably slip by them and because it’s idiomatic, the best way to have them understand it is give them input and repetition. Also note that for British English you may want to use in+street instead of on+street.

To demonstrate the meanings of these words, start with real life objects in the classroom. And then bring it to the context of places in town.

For example, to teach “next to”, I would put a book next to a pen and say, “The book is next to the pen.” Move them together and apart a short distance and repeat, “next to”. Then you might pick two students and say, “Anna is next to Inna.”

Now ask short-answer questions like, “Who is Ivan next to?”, “Sarah, who are you sitting next to?” Once they’ve got it, ask, “What is the school next to?”,”What is your house next to?”.

You can do the same with “in front of”, “behind”, and “near”.

Whether you demonstrate or not, your board should look like this:

next to
in front of

Ask students, “So what street was Logicom on?” Write the name of the street after on.
Ask what it was near and again write the answer(s) on the board. Then ask what it was next to, what corner it’s at (if appropriate), what is opposite the store, and what it was in front of or behind and write all the answers on the board.

If you feel the students are struggling, ask students to make sentences out of the notes on the board one by one. So student one will say, “Logicom is on Oak Street.” The next might say, “It is at the corner of Main Street”, the next might say, “It is in front of the Italian restaurant.” And so on.

Now erase everything but your prepositions and pick a well-known place in town. Write it on the board and ask students one by one, “What street is it on?”, “What is it next to?” “What is it opposite?” and so on. Do this with different places as long as students need it (and as long as they don’t get bored). Then swap it around.

Pick a well-known place, erase the prepositions and put up descriptions. Let students fill in the prepositions. So for the White House, I would write:

White House
___ the Mall
___ Pennsylvania Avenue
___ the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street
___ the Department of the Treasury
___ the Ellipse

Let students fill in the right prepositions (near, on, at, next to, in front of in this example). Obviously you need to choose a place the students know well or they will struggle.

The Where is It Puzzle

Now hand out the Blank Map Puzzle. In this worksheet, students are given a blank map and using clues they must fill in the rest of the map. Give them some time to work it out and then go over it as a group, or have students correct each other (Answers are here).


For homework or next class, you can have students do a number of activities.

Describe their home. Have students write a short paragraph using these prepositions to describe where they live.