Getting the Timing Down

New ESL teachers don’t always realize how important it is to plan the lessons out and get the timing right. Your lesson lasts a certain period of time, and your students (and their parents!) expect you fill it with quality material. I’ve definitely been in situations where I blew through the material quickly and would then have a moment of panic because I “had nothing left to do”. That’s when I learned how important it is to get the timing right when I’m doing a lesson. Perhaps the best thing about this is that I always felt a lot more confident and in control of the class when I had things set to the minute.

Let me tell you about what I consider to be one of my absolute finest moments as an ESL teacher. The school was running a “summer camp” type program, and the them for the elementary-aged kids was “Secret Agent”. This school was really good about providing teachers with really specific activities to do on each of the days, so I didn’t have to worry about that type of planning, but for my idea to work, I needed to get the timing exactly right, down to the minute.

You see, I set timers on my cell phone to go off at specific times throughout the class. I was dressed as a secret agent (suit and sunglasses), and was role playing that I was receiving calls from the director, letting me know when to change activities. It was really just awesome. I’d start by chatting with the kids for about 5 minutes and then the phone would go off. This created an awkward moment where the kids were like, “OMG, Sensei forgot to turn off her phone! And she’s answering it!” but then they really got into it. I knew that I had to carry on the particular activity until the phone went off.

Obviously, that was a pretty unique situation, and most teachers won’t want to get that involved every time they teach a lesson. It was a lot of work to set up all of those alarms at pretty weird times. However, the principles remain the same.


Why You Need to Get the Timing Right

Let’s face it. Not all of the ESL teachers working abroad are educated, experienced, dedicated professionals. Many times, “teach English” is the response that comes up when someone mentions wanting to live abroad for a while. Some countries don’t even require their ESL teachers to have a teaching degree or ESL certification. I certainly didn’t have these when I came.

Even if someone has studied teaching ESL as part of their regular college courses or has gone through an ESL certification program, it can still be really difficult to actually be in the classroom. This is especially true when you work with children, who may be internally motivated to be there or who may not have a lot of experience with what to expect in the classroom setting.

If the English teacher isn’t fully prepared, there’s a much higher chance of the class getting out of control. You see, if the teacher isn’t leading the class from activity to activity 100 percent of the time, the kids can get rowdy. While you’re fumbling around looking for your materials, the kids might start talking to each other in their native language or otherwise getting silly. Once you’ve found what you needed, you’ll have a hard time getting them back on track.

Additionally, if you don’t have the timing down, you run the risk of blowing through all of the material you planned and still finding yourself with 10 minutes or more left of the class. This can make you look extremely bad.


Mapping Things Out

Fortunately, it isn’t that difficult to figure out what you want to do and plan your class down to the minute. This can be tricky to explain because every school operates differently. Some will give you a lot of details when it comes to teaching the classes, while others might just tell you to “do something about colors”.

As the teacher, you need to look at the types of things that you hope to accomplish in class. For instance, you might want to practice conversational skills, review old skills, teach some new vocabulary or a new grammar point, do an activity that will reinforce new knowledge, and maybe practice writing. That’s five things. If the class is 60 minutes long, that leaves you with about 12 minutes for each goal. However, you might know that you don’t really need 12 minutes for each of those things. You might only need five minutes to review last week’s material, which means that you’ll have to shift those seven minutes to a different category.

Do something that makes sense for your class. In a class of very young children, it may be unrealistic to expect them to do a single activity for 12 minutes. Instead of one game that lasts 12 minutes, you might plan three games that last five minutes each. If your lesson is only 30 minutes, you may not be able to cover all five of those ideas and will have to alter your plan accordingly. Ultimately, getting the right timing has to be about what’s right for your class.

Once you have a fairly good idea of what you need to do and how long you want to spend on each activity, write a little schedule for yourself. For ease, let’s say that all of your classes are 45 minutes long and they start at the top of the hour. You might write something like this:

0-5: Easy conversational questions

5-7: Quickly review last week’s vocabulary

7-15: Play game with last week’s vocabulary

15-20: Song and dance break

20-25: Introduce new vocabulary

25-35: Game that focuses on new vocabulary

35-43: Game that uses new vocabulary in a sentence

43-45: Clean up and get the class ready to leave

That’s just a quick example of what my schedule in the classroom might look like. If you need more ideas, you can take a look at my English lesson structure.

The key here, is to keep this schedule somewhere where you can easily see it. You’ll also want to be able to see the classroom clock or wear a watch that you can use to check out the time and make sure that you’re on the right track.


Having Some Time-Fillers Under Your Belt

Ultimately, not everything you try is going to work. One day, a game idea might just flop with one class even though another class loved it. Another day, you might only have half of your students show up, which means that things seem to move a bit faster because there isn’t as much time making sure everyone gets a turn.

All of us run into these types of things.

The key to dealing with them, is to have what I call “time fillers” ready to go at a second’s notice. For example, if you have 10 minutes left before class ends, quickly have them play another game and pretend that you planned that all along. Sometimes, I’d have the students line up to go and realize that I was two minutes early, so I’d do something like play “Rock Scissors Paper” with them and have them answer a question if I won. You can see more of these types of ideas here.

A good teacher is well-prepared, and this is extremely important in the ESL classroom. By taking the time to map out your lesson, you’ll feel a lot more confident and prepared to not only handle the lesson itself, but any problems that may come up.

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