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Deciding when to deviate from a lesson plan

Updated: Jan 18

When to deviate from a lesson plan
The teacher makes the decisions, not the plan!

New teachers can sometimes cling to a plan, and there are good reasons for this. A lesson plan is your roadmap. The final stage of a lesson plan is your destination and each stage of your plan is necessary to help you get there, so a good plan is like the GPS in your car. Usually, I follow GPS, but sometimes I don't. Sometimes, there might be a traffic jam or roadworks and there's a very good reason to take a different route, but sometimes, it's just because I fancy an ice cream and there's no shop where I can buy ice cream on the route that the GPS dictates.

Deviating from a lesson plan is similar, sometimes there's a reason not to follow the plan because there's something wrong with the route you're taking, but sometimes, you might have a good reason to take another route. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of reasons to abandon your lesson plan:

  • It's too hard: if the students are struggling and they don't understand what's happening in early stages of the lesson, you probably don't have the option to proceed to the next stage. You may need to simplify what you're doing, or come up with new ways of clarifying your target language before the lesson is over.

  • It's too easy: You might have planned that students will need 10 minutes to complete an exercise and you can see that they've all completed it in 3 minutes and found it easy. In a case like this, you'll need to have additional activities ready, because if you stick to your plan and force them to spend another seven minutes on an exercise they've all finished, you'll soon have some very bored students.

  • It's not interesting: You might find that your students just don't find the topic you (or the book) has chosen to be engaging. I know some teachers and trainers who will argue that any topic can be made interesting if a teacher is good at generating interest, but sometimes, the students just aren't engaged and we need to think on our feet, either about how to engage them differently with the topic at hand, or maybe even change the topic altogether.

  • It's not relevant to the world: Sometimes events overtake a lesson. This can be serious news or it can be bad weather, that the students really want to talk about, but it can also be a student having good news - maybe they've just got engaged and want to show off their ring. Sometimes the news is just to distracting from what we had planned and we need to incorporate the happy or sad events into our lesson in order to keep our students engaged.

  • An opportunity for learning has presented itself: One sign of a good teacher is that they are aware of the students and are aware of 'emergent language'. Are some students really struggling to express themselves on a particular topic and would they find the appropriate words or structure useful and motivating? Has a student used a useful but difficult phrase that really suits the context and would everyone in the class benefit from looking at the phrase rather than at the easier (and possibly less relevant) language that the teacher had chosen to focus on? In my earlier analogy, we mentioned the idea that sometimes you deviate from a map because of a traffic jam, and sometimes you deviate from a route because you really want an ice cream. An opportunity for learning presenting itself to you is an ice cream - a treat for the students and teachers alike!

There are many good reasons to deviate from a lesson plan. However, if you're reading this as a CELTA trainee, I would sound a note of warning. Sometimes, in order to meet the criteria your lesson is being assessed against, you need to meet a stated aim. Sometimes, you need to show you can deliver an effective listening lesson, so even though there may be a useful tangent that could be profitably mined, you still need to ensure that the students complete some listening activities in their lesson.

Dr Connor O'Donoghue hails from Ireland and he started teaching English as a foreign language in Poland in 2003 and he became a CELTA trainer in 2008. He has taught and trained in Ireland, the UK, France, Italy, Slovenia, Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. Connor also holds a Masters and a PhD in Education from Trinity College in Dublin. He has previously managed large teacher training centres in Vietnam and in London before founding DC Teacher Training.

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