How to teach a 45-minute lesson totally unprepared

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You know the situation: you have to deal with something really urgent/challenging/stressful during the break and then the bell rings and you have to go and teach a lesson. You only have enough time to grab your stuff (let’s not take it to an extreme here; let’s presume that at this point you know which class you are going to teach and what materials, i.e. coursebooks, you need). You enter the classroom and…

The first thing that captures your attention upon entering the classroom is the fact that your students are conspicuously quiet, busily studying something from their workbooks. You stop and think. It suddenly dawns on you. You promised a short vocabulary test in the previous lesson. Hm. You obviously forgot about it and made no copies. You must never break your promises though. Keep pretending that everything is under your control. With a poker face, get your students to take a piece of paper each. Don’t forget it is you who is NOT prepared; your students should not bear the consequences of your mess. Thus, make the test as student-friendly as possible. Most students prefer a simple L1>L2 translation test (you dictate the Czech expressions, the students write the English equivalents). It’s not ideal, but it will do for now. Next time, you can make something more sophisticated and meaningful.

Although the test is very student-friendly, unfortunately, it’s not very teacher-friendly – this kind of format doesn’t allow you to gain time. Anyway, you can gain 5 more minutes by asking the students to do a peer correction. My students are used to this so it’s usually very quick and efficient. In the end, ask your students to put the vocabulary items into sentences/context. Alternatively, you can work on the pronunciation for a bit.

At this point, you can’t tell your students to take their coursebooks on page x because you can’t remember which page it is. You have a couple of options:

A) Ask your students to look out of the window and describe everything they can see. B) Ask them to take out their mobile phones and describe a picture they recently took. C) Ask them to tell their partners about their last/upcoming weekend.

Meanwhile, open your coursebook and try to figure out as quickly as possible which section you worked on in the previous lesson. At this point, things may a) get back on the right track or b) they may not.

In the worst-case scenario, when the students finish the assigned speaking task, do the following: Ask Anna, for example, to summarize briefly what you did in the previous lesson. Then, to be absolutely sure everybody is on the same page, metaphorically speaking, ask James to tell you which of the exercises/points you worked on he found easy/difficult? If it’s a grammar point, give the students some extra practice, such as a few sentences to translate. If it’s a reading or listening task, ask them to summarize the text in pairs. If you are an experienced teacher, you’ll certainly come up with a few more follow-up questions. If not, ask the students to create some.

Now, you can ask the students to pick up where they last left off, or, if you have already finished the whole section/unit in the book, start a new one. Fortunately, each unit/section usually starts and winds up with a speaking task. At this point, while the students are working, scan the page quickly and decide what your next steps will be. I usually manage to create something on the spot, such as slips of paper for a mingling activity. These can contain vocabulary items, questions, tasks, etc., related to the topic.

If you find this way of teaching too uncomfortable or confusing, ditch the coursebook completely at this stage. Instead, get your students to write something related to the topic. This may be the question already discussed during a speaking activity or something new. Give them a time limit (which will coincidentally equal the time you need to cover the rest of the lesson). 🙂

This may eventually be a totally rubbish lesson or it may well turn into something quite valuable. You never know. To a great extent, it depends on your teaching experience and the group you are teaching. I’d like to stress that I believe that this can happen to anybody, regardless of how well-organized they are. Don’t blame yourself too much and for too long.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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4 Responses to How to teach a 45-minute lesson totally unprepared

  1. This may be a peripheral comment but I do quite like the idea of integrating phones to help give meaning and purpose to objects which are often a distraction to many of our learners! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anita says:

    This techniques help me how to make lesson interesting .let gives us innovative ideas . thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anita says:

    This techniques help me how to make lesson interesting .it gives us innovative ideas . thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mirella Kałymon says:

    Hello , I tried this idea twice today and my students were very excited showing and discussing their pictures. It was a real fun for them. Thanks
    Mirella

    Liked by 1 person

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