Have you ever done a substitution lesson for a colleague at little or no notice and thought afterwards, “That lesson went far better than my regular lesson which I spent ages meticulously preparing“? This experience made me think about what we as teachers do before and during a lesson, and I came to the conclusion that what the students get out of a lesson is not necessarily proportional to what we, the teachers, put in. Unfortunately teachers often make a lot of extra work for themselves.
I would say that if the preparation for an activity takes more than a third of the time that the students actually spend doing it, then it simply isn’t worth it. Songs are a classic example. The teacher thinks guiltily, „I haven’t done a song for a while“ ignores the one in the coursebook, chooses a new one (at least five minutes), sits and listens to it for 20 minutes to get all the words down, and then spends another 15 minutes preparing the inevitable worksheet. After all that, the students listen once and fill in the worksheet – three or four minutes of lesson time for 40 minutes of preparation.
Any activity that involves cutting up paper also takes a disproportionate amount of time. l’ve seen teachers cutting up hundreds of pieces of paper just so each pair in the class can play a game of word dominoes.
But it’s not just before the lesson. There’s also instruction time. If it takes longer to set up an activity (and that includes giving the instructions, checking, repeating, modelling, etc) than actually to do it, then there’s something serìously wrong with the activity – or with your instructions.
Good teachers write their own worksheets, don’t they? Really? When I take my car to the mechanics, I don’t I expect them to make the spare parts themselves from bits of metal. They go and buy them on my behalf. What’s so different about teaching? Why spend every waking hour producing I worksheets when there are thousands available commercially, in course-books and supplementary materials?
Sometimes a worksheet isn’t even necessary. I once saw one with only four questions on it. Then again, the questions themselves may not be necessary. I realise that they can help students to understand by giving clues, but I don’t see why every single thing that students listen to, read or watch requires questions, as if it were a test. This is particularly true with video. I’ve seen lessons where the students are so busy filling in the worksheets that they don’t have a chance to watch the images.
Many teachers regard the coursebook with almost snobbish scorn: a “book lesson“ is what you do in an emergency, when you’re substituting for a colleague. It’s true that no coursebook is perfect, but sometimes the condemnations seem unjustified. After all, most coursebooks have been put together by experts and often after years of piloting. Some teachers don’t even take time to find out what the coursebook offers. Not using the coursebook means lots of extra work. It means making your own worksheets. It means identifying supplementary material to substitute skills work and then perhaps having to produce more worksheets for it.
Coursebooks are also full of material. You might not always like what the book does with the material, but that is not a reason to reject it out of hand. Making creative and imaginative use of coursebook material is an important teaching skill. It saves time, saves photocopying and the students like it (It may come as a surprise, but they often like the coursebook more than the teacher does. They expect to work through it, and they may resent having to buy a book that the teacher hardly uses.)
Some teachers are obsessed with authenticity, and the results are inevitably time-consuming. A typical example is the coursebook song. They don’t like it („It’s a terrible session singer’s version“), so they go off and look for the original, or choose a different one. Students would probably prefer the original, but they don’t really care. They know that it’s a course of English, not music appreciation.
Authenticity does have advantages in terms of student interest and motivation. Clips from well-known films work well, and interviews with famous people will electrify students if they haven’t heard that person’s real voice before. But „inauthentic“ materials have one big and often overwhelming advantage: they have been carefully selected and graded so that students can understand them. What students don’t like is material that they cannot understand at all, which can be discouraging and alienating.
Props and pictures psychosis
There’s no doubt that a well-chosen picture or an unusual piece of realia can have real impact during a lesson. It’s also possible to base a whole series of activities on just one or two pictures. However, there’s real potential for time-wasting if your picture is used just to elicit one item of vocabulary. I saw one teacher spend 20 minutes sifting through our (enormous) picture library looking for a picture to illustrate the word cook.
Once teachers had blackboard and chalk. Now the lucky ones among us have cassette recorders, video players, overhead projectors, computers, and perhaps video cameras and slide projectors. All of these can be extremely effective if well used. But they can also waste time.
Take the overhead projector. Some teachers like to put their whole lesson on transparencies: pictures, worksheets, even instructions. What’s wrong with the board? What’s wrong with the teacher speaking to the students?
Given that, in my opinion, most computer games are more suitable for self-access use, I prefer to spend the whole lesson training the students and demonstrating the various programs and then let them get on with it outside lesson (and my) time.
As for the internet, I know some teachers who will go to great lengths just so their students can read a web-site. That’s reading. You can do it with a photocopy. Chatrooms are very popular with students, but don’t make the mistake of one teacher who spent a whole hour of valuable free time registering the whole class one by one.
On a positive note
I’ve given a lot of negative advice about worksheets, pictures, equipment, etc. What’s left? What I haven’t mentioned yet are the two most important resources that a teacher has in the classroom. First, there is yourself, your experiences and your personality. (This, rather than the quality of your worksheets, is what students look to when judging your lessons.) Second, there are the students, and what they bring to the class. So much can be based on just these simple elements.
A word of caution: if you’ve just started in teaching, or if you are studying for a teaching qualification, then you should ignore everything I have said, apart from the previous paragraph. It’s very important for you to make your own worksheets, to construct lessons without a coursebook, to experiment with authentic materials, pictures, different types of equipment.
Perhaps I should say that everybody, even the most experienced veteran, should once a week or twice a month put aside the „book lesson“ and try something different, even if it uses more time, just to avoid fossilisation. But for the rest of the time, I urge you to think carefully about the effectiveness of what you are doing and the time being used up to achieve it.
(Peter Layton is a teacher at the British Council in Rome, Italy)