Posted on October 22, 2019 | By Angela Lewonczyk
27th Nov 2018
As with any other job, teaching does not always go to plan… Sometimes you’ll need to unexpectedly cover a class, other times the lesson topic or curriculum will change, and sometimes you just won’t be given any information about a class that you’re meant to be leading! In these situations, it’s good to have a back-up plan. Using a theme can be a great way to build a lesson from nothing – here’s a few tips on how to get started.
What to do when you don’t know what to do
“Hi Angela. That was a great interview. We’d love to work with you.”
“Thank you so much! How do I begin?”
“Well, we have two class for you on Saturdays. 4 hours in the morning with intermediate students and 4 hours in the afternoon with advanced students.”
“Ok, and what is the curriculum?”
“Oh, just do whatever you like! Pick an article and talk about it. You know…”
But no, I did not know! This was my first official teaching job after receiving my TEFL certificate in Paris 2011. I had started to work with private students back in NYC but hadn’t worked at a formal language school yet. So, when asked to fill four hour classes with no more guidance than “pick an article”, I decided I needed to dive in headfirst and create a far better game plan. My solution? Themes.
Pick a theme!
At this point, I have been teaching for about 8 years and have developed many of my own tricks of the trade. You never know when a last-minute student might appear or you’re asked to substitute for another teacher. And for the new TEFL instructors starting out, I cannot express how helpful a nice theme can be. Travel, shopping, money, music, mystery, health. There are infinite subjects to inspire you and provide a foundation for a fantastic lesson.
Let’s take the theme of money, for example. Money is something everyone has to deal with no matter what country they are from, so we can take this theme in many different directions. Once I choose my idea, I remember that there are five primary parts of learning a language: reading, writing, speaking, listening, and grammar. Well, now we have our lesson structure! And in the age of technology, the material is literally at our fingertips.
A little text goes a long way
The first step for me is to find a text appropriate to the class or student’s level. Reading passages are perfect for vocabulary, comprehension, sentence structure, conversation and pronunciation. For lower levels, I might search for a reading passage specifically targeted at ESL learners. For advanced students, I’d probably hit the New York Times or some other reputable publication. I once found a simple article about the Lottery which I still use to this day. It allows students to talk about money, revise numbers, even practice the conditional tense. “What would you do if you won the lottery?” Grammar requirement, check!
Reading, writing and arithmetic
Students and teachers alike often forget about the beauty of writing. Not only is it an amazing opportunity to practice correct grammar and use some amazing English synonyms, it’s a great way to fill a long lesson. Have the students write a summary of the text and describe what they would do with the lottery winnings. They can get really creative and use a lot of descriptive words. You could even turn it into a story writing project and have them develop a tale of lottery winnings either on their own or in small groups.
Always be a good listener
Listening is another important aspect of language learning and we are now fortunate enough to live in a world where we all have smartphones aka portable speakers. Even if you don’t have a computer or sound system on hand, it is incredibly easy to find Youtube clips, podcasts, and news broadcasts. You can even watch Netflix and Prime on your phone. So, if the theme is money or the lottery? Check out a financial podcast, a Youtube clip on rags to riches, or find that episode of “Friends” in which they all play the lottery together.
Speak now or forever hold your peace
And let’s not forget that in the end, most language learners just want to communicate. Speaking is essential and a great way to get a class going. When it comes to themes, the options for speaking are endless. Start with some conversation questions on the topic as a warm up. What kind of money do you have in your country? Do you think money is important for happiness? Or you can set up a money role play and act out going to a bank or a shop. There are even money games, from Heads or Tails to The Price is Right to Monopoly.
Just like the English language itself, lessons can be varied, creative, and have endless interpretations. Whenever you are in a bind (or even when you have hours to plan!) just pick a theme and go from there. Your students will be able to use all aspects of English, tie their knowledge to a central idea, and more than likely, have a great time!
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