Course Planning: Removing the Guesswork

It seems to me that most of the posts I write are about course planning. The other day though, a Czech teacher of English asked in one of our private Facebook groups how to plan a conversation course in English; and I realised there can never be enough written on planning courses, especially those where a coursebook is not used.

I outlined the main principles I follow in the post I link to above, but this year, I am also introducing some nouveautés and tweaks. Pardon me if am also going to repeat myself.

The very first thing you want to begin with when planning an individual course for your students (my context: private classes, adult students, B1+, who stay for years) is to ask them what they want to learn. You really need not be afraid of spending a part of your lesson on that. This year, I got a multitude of answers from my old students, and I am going to list them below with my immediate thoughts of a possible solution/teaching strategy/course content.

Class 1:

Students’ need: more work projects coming up, such as negotiations with clients and presenting results

My thought: TBLT syllabus – get hold of a good business book for ELT – design tasks based exactly on what they need

Class 2:

Student’s need: change of position – new role at the reception – lack of confidence in general English

My thought: focus on telephoning and go over some telephoning language – focus on listening to a variety of accents (, perhaps?) so that the student understands people she’s not used to hearing – work on fluency as the telephone language needs to become automatic – improve confidence (how? a bit tricky, let’s ask on Twitter) – work on her vocabulary by including a variety of topics of general interest plus dialogues in everyday situations (ESL Library) – work on her fluency and accuracy by automating sentence patterns (thanks my sister in arms Katka Pastorková!)

Class 3:

Me thinking before the lesson: We’ve been together for so long I really am not sure what we’re going to do this term.

Note: That’s when I would emphasize really going ahead and asking the student while  having some options ready. My options were: (1) another video series by Chasing Time English – The student had loved Adrift; the problem is, the only one still available, Fortune Gold, is one level lower and it would be a step back (secretly wishing the publisher would come up with another series SOON because everybody loves them!) (2) buying a textbook (hope not, pleaaasee!) (3) Fluentize video lesson plans by a fellow teacher Jake Young  – which are subscription-based, but affordable, and they can be reused with other students.

Student’s actual need – Well, it isn’t easy for me to say, but the need really is to have one English lesson weekly, so as to maintain the language skills. The student is aware that if she stops attending, her English skills will deteriorate rapidly. Obviously, the student wants to enlarge her vocabulary and brush up on her work skills, but really, not much of progress is needed. You’d be surprised how many students like that there are.

Decision: The student became really enthusiastic about the Fluentize lesson plans, so we’ll start by testing out the free lesson and if she likes it, we’ll continue. This is in line with her interests (improve listening, general English), as well as her work needs, because she works for the envi unit of a large international, so all things environment are suitable. Another option is listening to podcasts. The American Voices app sounds all great, although I need to consider the cost for just a single student. On the other hand, I’d rather pay a moderate amount to an independent publisher than spend hours browsing podcasts and transcribing them with a pen&paper (although I’m sure I would learn a lot myself from that – cheers, Marc!)

What next?

Once you have your needs laid out by the student, I make a sort of a syllabus. This year I am making detailed syllabuses lesson by lesson, including revision and all materials. I make a Google Doc table which I share with my students and ask them to make any adjustments. I was asked on Twitter if it was sound to make such long-term plans as many things could come in the way. I understand completely because I have been there, too. But if you make a syllabus based on what the student wants and needs to do, the worst thing that can happen is you take too long going through it. Nonetheless, everything in the syllabus is based on what the student wants to learn in the September to December period. If something unexpected comes up, like a work task or an illness, you just delay your plan, but the advantage here is you never study anything the student is not interested in doing, and I think that is really important.

Of course, I’ve put in the syllabuses items that I consider important myself, such as focusing on the article, verb tenses, word order and prepositions, because ALL Czechs need to work on this including myself, but the students are ok with this.

That’s another thing with the needs analysis – not everything in it must come from the student. The teacher has their say, too. Only you can hear and see what is wrong and what needs to be improved. That’s why you are hired. That’s what the student expects. When it comes to the choice of topics, though, you shift the weight of responsibility onto the student. Do they want to talk about sports, travel, literature, entertainment, or history? This is where the enormous benefit of private classes comes in and it’s where standard course books cannot cope, because there are all sorts of issues. (Want a bit of a laugh? Read this!)

What next, again?

Be organised. I couldn’t stress this enough. Maybe it’s because I am Czech and I teach Czech people, but the two things Czech students love about their teacher are: (1) being prepared for the lesson (IOW don’t just ask us about the weekend, because that’s always our chalupa – country house, or house chores; (2) organisation. I may not be a great teacher; my qualifications make me cringe and my vocabulary is lower than I want it to be, but I know what I’m doing, I know where I am going and I go the extra mile to make this clear to the student. After every lesson I write up a summary of the lesson including homework or any other notes. Previously, this used to be shared via Google Docs. This year, however, I’ve decided to migrate the majority of my private courses to a new LMS (Learning Management System), Google Classroom, and everyone seems pretty fond of it.

The benefits are that I can type out the Class Info on the tram home and share assignments with the class via the G calendar. Another great thing is that the students have “my English app” on their phones and find all info there –  no need to look up a week-old email.

The disadvantage is that for a private teacher account, the student needs a email. Nothing else will let them join a class. I’ve also had to set it up in class for most of my students, because they found joining the classroom a bit complicated. But once it’s up and running, it’s all great.

If you have any questions, do let me know in the comments, and I would love to hear about your classroom management life hacks!


4 thoughts on “Course Planning: Removing the Guesswork

  1. Michael Hagan

    Interesting post.
    It gives me a refreshed perspective on your work. Since you were teaching me Czech, the English teaching challenges that are part of your teaching life weren’t as visible. Wow, there is a lot of work involved in preparation and you have to do it for English as well as Czech learning students! As I said in the beginning, new appreciation of your talents as a teacher. You should be proud of yourself

    Have a fabulous day! 😎
    Sent from my iPad Mini – with the usual autocorrect issues 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Michael, for reading and commenting! Well, it may be a lot of work, but that’s what makes the job interesting. I’d be bored to death if I had to use the same textbook over and over again. I hope you are well; we must meet for a catch-up soon!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s