Teaching: a Masterclass in Lesson Structure

Covering the bases

Traditional language teaching tells us that lessons can be divided into three parts: Present, Practice, Produce. Some people might call that “Engage, Study, Activate,” and still others might call it “I do, We do, You do.”

Whatever works for you. Personally, I like the brevity of “PPP.”

Phase 1: Present

There are numerous ways to handle the present phase of your lesson. If your lesson has specific target language, for example a grammar- or lexis-focused lesson, you might introduce the target language through a video, a reading, or a listening activity. Then you can use the transcript/text of the activity to draw your students’ attention to the target language.

If your lesson’s focus is listening skills or reading skills, your present might be very different. Instead you might open with a question that introduces the theme of the lesson, which will allow you to activate students’ knowledge about the topic at hand.

Notice the difference: in the first example, we used content to present language. In the second example, we used language to present content.

Nearly anything could create the present phase of your lesson.

The important thing is that students receive input in the form of examples which they can later reference in the practice phase and adapt in the production phase.

But if you’re a teacher trainee of mine, let me explicitly state: I never want to see you give students a meta-language grammar analysis. You are never to say “so the third conditional is formed by an if-clause with subject — had + past participle and the modal perfect of the verb” blablabla.

To a language learner, that sounds like absolute nonsense. It’s a waste of time, and I find it physically repulsive.

Instead, give examples. Give multiple examples. Draw their attention to the different grammar elements without naming them.

Using a video, recording, or text, give students the necessary context to understand the meaning of a phrase/stucture. Then use that same material to help them understand the indivdual elements of the structure.

Present: random words of wisdom

The CELTA program trains teachers that there are three stages to presenting a language item: meaning, form, and pronunciation. I would change this slightly to meaning, form, and use.

Meaning: What does the phrase/stucture mean? How could it be reworded using previously learned language?

Form: In what order do we put the words? How are they spelled?

Use: How are the words pronounced? In which contexts can we use them? Can the structure be shortened or lengthened?

Phase 2: Practice

Practice is where many teachers focus their efforts, and for good reason. As teachers, we expect a certain level of precision from our students, and without practice, precision can rarely be reached.

Practice should follow directly from the material we presented.

If we asked an open question about a certain theme, we should follow it up with a reading or recording about that theme. If we used a recording as our present phase, we should follow it up with practice on the structure in that text.

Practice can take many forms, but in general there are two steps: controlled practice and freer practice.

Controlled practice limits the choices the student can make. The purest form of controlled practice is multiple choice. The only element the student has control over is the element we’re targeting in the lesson.

Freer practice allows the student more control while at the same time producing an answer that can be feedbacked. We’re still getting right and wrong answers, but maybe the student will misspell the word and then need to fix it, or maybe additional elements will be added and tested for.

Controlled practice: Last year, I ( went to / have gone to ) Spain.

Freer practice: What did you do last year? Last year, I ________________.

Penny Ur’s “A Course in Language Teaching” has a section on the different types of testing questions. We can repurpose it to name the different kinds of practice questions used in the language classroom.

From more-controlled to more-free, these practice activities are:

1. multiple choice
2. gap-fill and completion
3. matching
4. cloze
5. transformation
6. re-writing
7. open response (essay)

For any given grammar point, I’d recommend choosing two or three of these activites, one from the “controlled” end and one from the “freer” end.

Freer practice is in no way “better” than constructed practice, nor vice versa. They are two parts of a necessary process. Without constructed practice, too many errors will come out in your freer practice. Without freer practice, you won’t have adequately prepared your students to produce the target language.

Practice: random words of wisdom

Textbook exercises, games, vocal drills, worksheets, and online activities (Quizizz) are the forms that most practice activities take. Varying the form of your practice activities is important for your sanity as a teacher and the atmosphere (re: management) of your classroom.

For any pen-and-paper practice activity from a book or worksheet, the delivery process is almost always the same.

The teacher and students do numbers 1 and 2 together as a model. Then students do 3+ individually. When they’ve finished, they check their answers in pairs. When they’ve finished pair checking, check answers together as a class. Alternatively, save time by distributing/displaying an answer sheet and students check their answers against it.

Phase 3: Produce

Although “practice” is where many teachers focus their efforts, “produce” is where our attention really needs to be.

If you give a lesson that was only “present,” why did your students come to class? Couldn’t they have just watched a YouTube video? If you included a “practice” in your lesson but no “produce,” why did you have a class and not just have them do homework?

“Produce” is the real purpose behind the language learning classroom. If you don’t have a “produce,” you don’t have a lesson. Rather than planning your lessons in the order of present, practice, produce, try planning backwards. Think of what you want your students to produce at the end of the session together. Then work backwards. Break your target language down into its working parts, decide how you’ll practice and test for accuracy of each of those working parts. Then decide how you’ll present it.

“Produce” is the real purpose behind the language learning classroom. If you don’t have a “produce,” you don’t have a lesson.

Production takes many forms, but the simplest way is turning your practice activity into something productive. For example:

Exercise: I don’t go to the gym. (rarely)
Answer: I rarely go to the gym.
Produce: How often do you go to the gym? (Students answer the question)

If students learned new phrases, they need to produce those new phrases in writing or in conversation. If they used new grammar, they need to use it independently. If they learned a new skill, they need to apply that new skill to a situation in a relevant context.

Produce: random words of wisdom

A quick way to get in good production in your classes is the EAQ Method, which I wrote about here.

Produce will always take the form of productive skills: speaking or writing.

Level Up — Everything is PPP

One of my formative moments as an educator was extending the PPP process beyond a Straight Arrow Lesson (one cycle of PPP from start to finish).

Instead, think of PPP as repeating throughout your lessons in each phase.

When you give directions, you’re really presenting the directions. When you ask Concept Checking Questions (CCQs) to make certain your students have understood, you’re making them practice. And when your students execute the task while following those directions, they’re really producing them.

The same thing goes for the exercise itself. When the text/exercise gives an example answer, it’s presenting. When you get a couple more model answers from the group, it’s practice. And when students do the task, that’s your produce.

For every lesson plan in the PPP stucture, there are PPPs for each individual element. The quicker you realize this and the more you apply it to your lessons, the smoother those lessons will become.

Correcting Common Mistakes: Don’t Fall for the Materials Trap

Most teachers do not struggle with presenting or practicing. Presenting can be done up-front with guns blazing by showing grammar rules or word definitions. It can also be done with subtlety through guided discovery and deductive learning. There are uses for both methods.

“Practice” is also easy enough. You have a book, and that book probably has some kind of grammar exercise. Assign students the grammar exercises associated with the material you’ve presented, maybe supplement it with material from the workbook, and you’re good to go.

The problem is that many teachers end their classes with practice.

When I was a student at l’Alliance Française, I was nearly driven insane by the amount of time the teacher spent talking about the target language. Then she’d finish the lesson by dropping an exercise on us which we spent the last twenty minutes of class doing!

That’s not teaching!

Anyone can hand out exercises. Real teachers make you produce the material.

Where does the problem come from?

We can attribute the “Present-Practice” model of language teaching to our ancestors.

These days it seems like everyone is discovering some amazing thing that people knew how to do in the past that we don’t know how to do these days.

Fortunately, language teaching is most certainly not one of the things that our ancestors did better.

Three hundred years ago, people relied on the Grammar-Translation Method of language learning. Essentially, you got a text in your target language, and bit by painstaking bit, you started translating it.

Arduous though it may seem, I can understand the appeal: students got exposed to native-speaker language from the beginning, and with a few months of concentrated effort, they could probably understand up to 80% of what they were reading in their target language.

The other appeal, and the one that makes this method endure even into the modern day, is that the Grammar-Translation Method requires absolutely no skill on the teacher’s part.

With the Grammar-Translation Method of teaching, societies don’t need to invest at all in the development of their teachers. Once someone has seen the method implemented, it’s pretty easy to reproduce. Find a text, get a bilingual dictionary, and put the two in front of your student. Done.

The Textbook Teacher and the Worksheet Wonder

Luckily, in the modern age grammar-translation teachers are a dying breed. But in their place are two other teachers that are committing the same errors and are a product of the same central issue: societies aren’t investing in developing their teachers, so would-be teachers just reproduce what they’ve seen done in the past.

The Textbook Teacher does exactly what the textbook says. They follow the chapters in order, they read directly from the book, their directions and questions come from the teachers’ manual, and where one lesson begins and another lessons ends is, to the Textbook Teacher, always an open question.

The Worksheet Wonder is the natural progression of the Textbook Teacher. Realizing that the book just doesn’t always have the material they need, they begin supplementing it with extra material. The Worksheet Wonder has a supplementary piece of paper for every activity. Their binder groans when it opens, and they hoard spare copies of activities that other teachers have left lying around the staff room.

I will probably always have one foot firmly in that category.

Why do Textbook Teachers and Worksheet Wonders develop? Because it’s easy. Putting your faith in a textbook is easy. Relying on worksheets to supplement your learning objectives is easy.

And what’s more, it’s reproducible. Once the materials are in place, one teacher can do pretty much what the previous one did with little change. You can recycle the same lesson numerous times without much thought. And the prep time is very low. The textbook is a hand away, and worksheets usually require nothing more than a Google search.

What’s the problem here?

We’re not at war with easy lessons. We’re not at war with photocopying or textbooks or supplementary materials. We’re most certainly not at war with using the same lesson again and again.

We’re at war with lazy lessons. We’re at war with lazy lessons that don’t respect the teaching process.

Everything in your lesson should lead toward its productive element.

If I’m teaching “I wish I were / I wish I had / I wish I could,” I’m teaching it because I want students to be able to express their wishes.

And at the end of the session, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

Pedagogical Perfection

What follows is what I would consider a pedagocially pure lesson.

Many teachers might teach the same thing differently or just as or even more effectively, but this one accomplishes our goal as teachers of planning a lesson that accounts for each phase of the PPP structure.

Present

Do you agree or disagree with these statements?

1. If I had a million dollars, I would buy a house in the countryside.
2. If I were a famous actor, I would enjoy the attention.
3. If I had superpowers, I’d become a superhero.
4. If I lived in a different country, life would be better.
5. If I didn’t know any English, my life wouldn’t be very different.

Students read the statements and then decide to what extent the statements apply to their lives. They discuss in pairs.

In this stage, we’re presenting the second conditional to students, but we’re doing so through examples. Students are getting a feeling for the meaning of the phrase.

Then we ask clarifying questions to create a consensus on the meaning and to identify the forms used.

“If I had a million dollars, I would buy a house in the countryside.”
- Is the situation real or imaginary?
- Do I have a million dollars?
- I don’t have a million dollars. But if I did… (elicit endings from students)
— I would…
— I could…
— I might…

“If I were a famous actor, I would enjoy the attention.”
- Is the situation real or imaginary?
- Am I a famous actor?
- I am not a famous actor, but if I were…
— I would…
— I could…
— I might…

- There’s something strange about “If I were,” isn’t there?
— Usually we say “I was”
— But with “if,” we say “If I were” and “If she/he/it were”

We’ve gone through all of the second conditional meaning and form without ever using meta-language. We never identifed subjects or verbs, we never talked about the simple past (partly because it’s not the simple past we use, it’s the past subjunctive) we never covered the rules for modal verbs, and we never wasted time distinguishing between infinitives and base forms of verbs. We just used examples and fully exploited them.

Practice

1. If I (have) a million dollars, I (be) able to travel the world.
2. If I (be) able to travel the world, I (start) by going to Colombia.
3. If I (start) my world travels in Colombia, I (learn) to dance salsa very well.
4. If I (learn) to dance salsa very well, I (become) extremely famous on Instagram.
5. If I (become) famous on Instagram, people (pay) me to come to travel to their hotels and resorts.
6. If people (pay) me to travel, I (not need) a million dollars!
7. If I (not need) a million dollars, life (be) a lot simpler.

The teacher and students do numbers 1 and 2 together as a model. Then students do 3–7 individually. When they’ve finished, they check their answers in pairs. When they’ve finished pair checking, we put the answers on a projector and they compare.

Our previous controlled practice serves as a model for the second activity. We’ll use conditional sentences to create a chain story.

Teacher: If I had a million dollars, I would…
— Student #1: …I would buy a house for my family to live in.
— Student #2: If I bought a house for my family to live in, I wouldn’t live there.
— Student #3: If I didn’t live there, I would get my own apartment.
— Student #4: If I had my own apartment, I would be independent
— Student #5: If I were independent, …

The game continues until the desired level of accuracy is reached and the story comes to a nice (usually funny) conclusion.

Produce

Finally we produce the target language. We’ll use the EAQ method to get conditional phrases from our students.

Pairs of students get questions. Then every couple of minutes, they switch questions with another group. The questions rotate around the room.

1. If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
2. If you could have any superpower, what superpower would you choose?
3. If you lived in a different country, which would you choose?
4. If you had to give up one of your hobbies, which would you give up?
5. If the world ended today, what would you regret?
6. If aliens came to the Earth, would they be hostile or peaceful?
7. If zombies attacked, how would you try to survive?

Optional: Every few minutes, choose someone from a group to stand-up and give a one-minute speech in reply to their question.

Applying PPP in your lessons and in your life

Other structures than PPP exist, but I would strongly encourage fully exploiting PPP before examining them. They’re really just variations of PPP disguised as something else.

Once you’ve fully mastered PPP, you’ll begin to see it everywhere in the world. You’ll see PPP when you open an app for the first time and it shows you where the important elements are. You’ll see it when you play video games and you play through the tutorial. You’ll see the lack of it when you find yourself having an uncomfortable learning experience.

PPP is everywhere, and the quicker you master it, the quicker your career will progress.

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N.G. Rees

N.G. Rees

Teacher trainer and ESL instructor based out of Morocco. Head of Training and Development, Resilient Communities NGO. hmu @rees_is_