From objectives to lesson structure
I’ve borrowed the title for this post from McGrath, who describes materials as a support for teaching and learning, rather than what is to be taught and learned’ (McGrath 2002:60), and cites Hunt, Neher and Banton who propose ‘starting with what we ultimately wish to achieve’.
Is this how I normally operate?
There are four primary areas to consider here:
One might think that the above are also presented in a logical order, but I’d posit that this isn’t always the case.
Reflecting on my observed lessons, in which I’m required to present a detailed and justified plan to an observer (as opposed to my usual scribbled notes on the back of the crossword), I create the materials before writing the plan – although I know the aims and learner objectives before creating the materials. My approach – how I plan to teach the language point or skill – is either subconsciously already in play in the designing or sourcing of the materials, or develops interactively alongside the materials: each informing the other. Perhaps our approach is something intuitive: in knowing our learners and having a toolbox of techniques we can draw on, we needn’t, in the planning stages, explicitly or consciously state how we’re going to deliver a language point. Or perhaps we know that how we go about it will depend on the mood of the classroom at any given time, and we know we have options.
The process, then, looks something like this:
But there’s another way in which I often approach planning, that begins with the materials themselves (see Where Lessons come from). I might happen upon an interesting text (written or spoken) which I feel will engage and motivate my learners, or I might deliberately seek something out on a given topic. This text itself serves as the material for the lesson. In the planning stages then, the language point or skill will be incidental – after being inspired by a text I’ll then look closer to see what language it contains that will be relevant to my learners. My process in this case might look something like this:
I think one of the reasons I sometimes take this approach to planning is that I like to use authentic materials where possible – especially with higher level learners. As an example, I’ve just this week started teaching an advanced class and (after pointing them to some potentially interesting sources) have requested that at the end of the week they each bring to the class a text that interests them. As a group we’ll decide collaboratively which to begin with, and in the following week will work with the text in class (after I’ve had a chance to process it for any interesting / useful language).
Returning to McGrath’s point above then, in this process, materials could be viewed as what is to be taught, as the language and/or skill is indivisible from the text itself. I believe that the process of lesson planning (and similarly course programming) is not as simple as a step by step operation, but that in fact the various components develop alongside each other, each perhaps influencing the others until such a point as a plan is ‘made’. (But it doesn’t stop there, as this interplay continues into the lesson and throughout a course). The most constant of these is the aim or objective, but we don’t, and can’t, know everything there is to know about our learners at the outset of a course. For this reason, even the aims or objectives should be permitted to change according to the learners’ needs and wants – especially so in course programming.
- McGrath, I. (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University p60.
 The New Scientist; The Big Issue; Ted Talks; novels/short stories in the school library; etc.