Your main event

12th September 2008 at 01:00
How would you plan a perfect lesson? Leila Walker shares her tried- and-tested methods

My best friend once told me of an old trick. As an Advanced Skills Teacher, she helps others improve their lessons by showing them first-hand the impact of lesson planning.

The first step she takes when working with a colleague is to ask them to provide her with a lesson plan, then - here's the brave but clever bit - she teaches the lesson, not always in her specialist subject of history, with her colleague observing.

Her colleagues are often stunned to see how this award-winning teacher is unable to deliver a good lesson simply because she hasn't been given the correct framework and tools to do so.

Good lesson planning isn't rocket science. However, it does require the effort to follow key principles, while at the same time never thinking you can deliver the same lesson plan over and again without tailoring it to the 30 or so young people in your class.

A good way to do this is to start thinking of lessons in five stages:

- Get pupils in and settled.

- Warm up their brains.

- Deliver the main event.

- Check what they have learnt.

- Dismiss them quietly and on time.

Getting them in and settled

Here's where you set the scene and atmosphere for your lesson. I often refer to this as bell work. As soon as the bell goes and pupils start approaching the classroom, your lesson plan should be kicking into action. A simple two-minute activity is all you need to have up your sleeve so that the young people are on task and occupied from the moment they come in. This activity can be linked to the lesson or something quite random, but it must be something they can do without your guidance. For example, ask them to unscramble the title of the lesson or key words you have written on the board.

Warm up their brains

This is essential at the start of the lesson. Just like every other part of their body, the brain works best if you provide it with stimuli to clear the cobwebs and, in this case, get it thinking properly.

In a typical one-hour lesson this should take about five to 10 minutes. Traditionally, this part of the lesson is where the teacher draws out the prior knowledge, skills and competencies individuals have already, so that the remainder of the time can build on these foundations.

If your lesson requires too little or too much challenge, pupils will be either unable or not motivated enough to get the most out of it.

Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, called this the zone of proximal development and it is worth remembering as a key principle for good lesson planning.

Good examples of starter activities include short crosswords or word searches, true or false quizzes, splat (key wordsnumbers displayed on board, with two teams battling it out to identify the correct answer to a question posed by the teacher), blockbusters (similar to the game show), concept loops (pupils put concepts in order to tell a story or make an explanation) and washing lines (pupils to put words, numbers or dates in order).

A good starter activity should give pupils a taste of what the lesson is about, and establish from the beginning what they do and do not know.

You should keep starters short and sweet - you want to keep them focused, so don't allow them to overrun at the expense of the main lesson.

Deliver the main event

This is where the majority of new learning occurs. In a typical one-hour lesson this is likely to be 30 to 40 minutes long. There are several characteristics of a successful main event. It must have pace, variety and challenge, or PVC.

Throughout your lesson you need to ensure pace. Due to the length of this stage of the lesson it is particularly important that activities here are punchy. Break up this section of the lesson into short segments instead of one 40-minute activity. Even if you have no choice but to devote this amount of time to one task, break it up by stopping the class at regular intervals to get feedback on progress.

By planning a number of activities, using a range of resources or moving individuals around the room to work at different stations or with different people, you provide pupils with variety. Try and use resources that are familiar to young people - this will help capture their enthusiasm. For example, use digital cameras or mobile phones with video and photo facilities to capture information in stills.

You must challenge your pupils. Their learning is more likely to be advanced through thought-provoking activities and they are more likely to feel a sense of achievement that will provide the momentum to learn new things in upcoming lessons. With mixed-ability classes, this can be difficult. The easiest method is to provide higher-ability pupils with more open-ended activities that they can extend to meet their needs, although even these must be well instructed to achieve the lesson objective.

It does not matter how many years you have been teaching, you should have a standard lesson template in your head to guide your lesson planning. Use headings such as: special educational needs, including gifted and talented (use your class register to remind you of individuals' specific needs), lesson context (national curriculumspecification statements), pupil prior knowledge, learning objectives, activities (bell work), differentiation (for mixed-ability classes), assessment (how will you check what they have learnt?) and homework if appropriate.

Check what they have learnt

The end of the lesson, the plenary, is crucial for informing your next lesson. It is this stage of the lesson where you and the 30 individuals you have just spent 50 minutes with find out what they learnt. The plenary is not simply a summary of the lesson's main learning points - it is a useful activity in itself. You need to spend a minimum of 10 minutes on this part of the lesson. So how do you assess what pupils have learnt? You could:

- Remind pupils of the lesson objectives.

- Carry out an activity to check their learning against each objective.

- Use traffic light cards to signal overall learning (red, amber and green cards that a pupil holds up to show what they have learnt - red is nothing, amber is some and green is all).

- Ask pupils to peer or self-assess their learning. Ask them to describe two things they or their peer have achieved this lesson and one thing they could improve on, and how, for next lesson. I call this "two wishes and a star".

- Inform pupils what they have done in this lesson links with the next.

Starter activities make effective end of lesson activities, or you could experiment with Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, odd one out (questions with a number of correct responses and one incorrect), pass the bag (key words, concepts, resources used in the lesson are taken from the bag and the young person explains what they now know about it) and the five Ws (you ask pupils to write five questions about the lesson, starting with who, when, where, what and why, then pass them on to a peer to answer).

Dismiss them quietly, on time

This is something many colleagues do not regard as lesson planning - but it is. It is as important to finish the lesson well as it is to have a good start. There are a number of activities you can use but one of my all time favourites is best of five. In this game, you ask a series of questions randomly around the classroom, and in order for the class to be dismissed they must answer five consecutive questions correctly.

Dr Leila Walker is a senior researcher at Futurelab and is the author of The Essential Guide to Lesson Planning


- Use the national curriculumspecification to check exactly what it is the pupils need to know.

- Give yourself a break. Find out what they need to know first, and if you have time, read around for additional information. Remember your knowledge will develop as you develop as a teacher.

- Don't be embarrassed to ask colleagues things you can't get your head around or resources you are having difficulty with.

- Use a standard lesson template to inform your lesson planning.

- Add more pace, variety and challenge.

- Use a range or resources.

Read all about it

Pearson Education is offering TES Magazine readers a discount on The Essential Guide to Lesson Planning. To claim your copy for pound;9.99, with free postage and packaging (normal price pound;12.99) go to www.pearson- books.comtesmag and enter the code KB001A.


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today