There is one movie trope above all others that really bugs me. You’ll see it occur in almost ever film set in a school. The students are in class, the teacher is explaining some crucial aspect of the lesson, the students are all slumped over their desks or tapping their pens, and then it happens…right in the middle of the teacher’s key input stage the bell goes off and just like that the lesson is over. The students pile out of class while the teacher shouts something along the lines of, “Read pages 40 to 400 and we’ll pick this up tomorrow!”
Then my poor wife has to pause the film and listen to me rant for the next ten minutes:
“But, but, they knew the bell was coming! The lesson is presumably the same length every day. It wasn’t a surprise. Why are they so bad at planning that they are surprised by the bell every day?! What happened in the first half of the lesson that caused them to be so off on their timings that they’re only getting to the main input stage in the final moments of the lesson! HOW IS ANYONE MEANT TO LEARN ANYTHING IN THESE LESSONS?!”
Then we carry on with the film and I silently seethe. Sometimes I ponder one question from my rant: what happened in the first half of the lesson? And sometimes I reflect on my own teaching and realise that while I was maybe never as bad as this movie trope, I was often guilty of front-loading my lessons to the detriment of my lesson objective.
Especially in my early years of teaching, I had a fear. A fear that informed how I planned and taught my lessons. It was a simple fear but if I’m honest, it had a serious impact on my students’ learning. What was it? It was the fear of running out of material before the end of my lesson. This fear of dead lesson time causes me to front-load.
What do I mean by “front-loading”?
If we imagine the average English language lesson will include the following major stages:
- Schemata activation discussion.
- A reading or listening text.
- Comprehension checking questions.
- Vocabulary input and practice.
- Grammar or skill input.
- Controlled practice of the grammar.
- Freer practice of the grammar.
Front-loading occurs when a teacher spends the majority of their lesson time on stages 1 to 4, often supplementing with extra readings, listenings, or activities that relate to the topic. While these stages are important, it could be argued that they are the set-up for the input, practice, and feedback stages in which the real learning of the lesson occurs and learners will see real progress. This is not to say that the first stages are unimportant in any way, that set-up and schemata activation is hugely important but when front-loading occurs, it tips the balance of importance in favour of the set-up.
Where does “front-loading” come from?
Much like my early years of teaching, it is born from a fear that we will be left with empty lesson time and nothing to fill it. It comes from the belief that the material we have is not enough for the time we have. In my case this fear and belief persisted despite constant evidence to the contrary, despite always having to squeeze the most important stages of the lesson into the time left over.
How can we avoid “front-loading”?
Simple: plan less, teach more. When I am planning a lesson, I have to force myself not to front-load, not to spend too long on that opening discussion just because it’s interesting. The discussion is not my objective. The second half of the lesson is where the real learning occurs The first half is the set-up for the learning, it is just the context.
Below are some tips I employ to avoid front-loading:
- Tip 1: I try to avoid supplementing with topic-based material. My learners might need more input or practice on the target language or skill but they probably don’t need another reading on the topic or another topic-based vocabulary exercise on top of what is already there. Any necessary lexis can emerge throughout the lesson.
- Tip 2: Comprehension checking tasks aren’t always crucial to achieving my learning objective. If my objective isn’t to improve reading or listening comprehension, then maybe my lesson time is better spent on practice and feedback. I will often instead focus on the language within the text that will help my learners achieve their objective.
- Tip 3: I remind myself constantly that it is ok to have time left over at the end of the lesson because:
- Giving students the chance to repeat an activity and improve based on the feedback I’ve given, is an excellent use of class time.
- Reflecting on what has been learnt in the lesson is worthwhile and my learners will benefit from this discussion.
- Giving students time to consider how they will use the language they’ve learnt outside the classroom can help bridge the gap between the lesson and the real world, which is something I am constantly trying to achieve.
So, if you find yourself spending two thirds of your lesson on the set-up and squashing the actual learning into the final third, then avoid becoming a film trope and plan less, teach more.