How Do I Make A Great Lesson Plan? (Part I: Target Language)

Posted on August 7, 2012 by

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In Lesson Planning 101, we talked about the basic, necessary elements of a good lesson plan. In this post, we’re going to focus on one of those elements – the target language – which I will argue is the single most important element of the lesson plan.

The target language for your lesson plan is the set of sounds, words, phrases, and/or grammatical structures that you want your students to learn from your lesson. It is tempting to treat the target language as a formality, because the target language box on your lesson planning forms is so small and because often the target language is just listed in the book along with the chapter headings. It feels like this is just something to be copied, to be filled in as part of bookkeeping.

However, the target language is the point of the lesson. It’s the star by which you navigate when you set off in search of activities and exercises to fill your lesson time. It’s the primary rubric by which you will measure the success or failure of your lesson. Identifying and understanding the target language is what puts you, rather than the book or the students, in command of where the class is going.

And when teaching in Georgia, with a coteacher, devoting the proper attention and preparation to the target language has even greater importance since it is the best way, by far, to address some of the specific challenges of our situation.

Lesson Planning Tips: Preparing your Target Language

1. Make a specific, complete, and thorough list. “Beach vocabulary” isn’t target language (it’s more of an Objective). “Beach, sea, sand, waves, shells, sand castle, towel, sunscreen, bathing suit” is target language. Basically, all of the words that you want to teach should appear somewhere on your lesson plan. If you’re teaching grammar, don’t just list the name of the structure – list the specific form and/or function you will teach. In other words, “present perfect” is not enough – list “present perfect for things you have or haven’t done” or “present perfect: have you ever + verb?”.

If you are following a book, the target language should be easy to find – it’s often listed for you in the chapter headings or table of contents. You should still make the list because you will need it for all of the rest of the things you need to do to prepare your target language.

2. Research and understand the target language and how to present it. Yes, we’re native speakers. Yes, some of us are professional teachers, writers, linguists, or editors. That doesn’t mean we automatically understand every aspect of our language well enough to teach it.

If the target language is a grammatical structure, do some research on the construction. Find out the name of the construction (is it past perfect continuous? an existential clause?) and look for or create simple, understandable ways to explain it/them.

If it’s vocabulary, make sure you can articulate a definition in simple language or that your coteacher has the correct translation. Find out how to write out the pronunciation of each word using IPA (what Georgians call “transcription language” – every Georgian who learns English learns IPA, so you should too). IPA transcriptions can be found at the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary and in any new Oxford dictionary available in bookstores throughout Tbilisi.

Either way, find out if there are any notable differences between American and British English – if there are and you don’t know them, you will be on very shaky ground when your students/coteachers inevitably ambush you with them. Find out if there are controversies, misconceptions, or common mistakes among English speakers regarding the target language. Try not to teach discredited linguistic theories, like the idea that you cannot split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition.

Despite being a professional writer myself, despite two years English teaching experience, and despite minoring in linguistics, I still find myself referring to grammar and linguistics texts – and to dictionaries – on a regular basis while planning lessons. I still find myself regularly learning new things.

3. Find out how the target language is taught locally. This is where having a coteacher comes in handy. You should know before you walk into class that in Georgia they call the past participle the “third form”, and that they (erroneously) believe that “the” is a required part of the superlative adjective. If your students are going to come into class with mistakes or erroneous preconceptions, it’s good to know what those are. TLGVs who have been around for a while will know about local language quirks, as will English teacher PCVs and various other expat teachers – so don’t hesitate to talk and ask around on EFL and Georgia forums. Be ready to adapt to local conventions where appropriate, and pick your battles. Fifth graders don’t need to know the term “past participle” but they do need to stop putting “the” in front of all superlative adjectives.

4. Agree with your coteacher about what you will teach. This relates to the previous tip. You may end up arguing with your coteacher about a particular language point – it is absolutely appropriate and necessary for you to have these arguments, but have them before the lesson and come armed with example texts and grammar books to support your position. This is why planning is key. You absolutely do not want to end up having these arguments in class in front of students. This is why planning is key.

Make sure you and your coteacher are on the same page about the target language – what it is, what it’s called, how it’s used, differences between British and American usages, differences between non-Georgian and Georgian usages, and a common set of examples you can use for your students.

5. Come up with examples! Prepare examples of your target language – time permitting, prepare more than you think you will need. Brainstorm examples, research examples, steal examples from books, songs, movies, and websites. Where appropriate, find counterexamples and exceptions to rules and learn about them and why they happen. Coming up with examples on the fly is messy and difficult and leads to mistakes and misunderstandings, so make examples part of your lesson plan.

6. Make sure your resources actually and adequately teach the target language. If you have exercises, songs, examples, texts, etc., make sure they present and highlight the target language in an understandable, appropriate, and thorough way and that they are sufficiently focused on the target language that they do not distract students away from it. Check the examples thoroughly. There are often many ways to say something in English and you need to make sure your examples instruct the students to use the one you want to teach them.

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These tips don’t really address how to choose your target language – how to brainstorm ideas, make sure the language is culturally appropriate, and scale the difficulty based on your students’ levels – because most of that work has been done for you by the national curriculum and the English World books. I also don’t have much experience with curriculum design. However, feel free to leave comments addressing selection as well as preparation of target language.

Previous: Do I Really Have To Plan My Lessons?
Next: How Do I Make A Great Lesson Plan? (Part II: Step By Step)

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