Timing – when to go slow, when to move on

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Perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of planning and executing a lesson, is getting the timing right. How long will an activity take? When should I move on? Am I going too fast / too slow? How do I know? We’re going to look at these questions and more, and provide some answers and tips.

Firstly let’s see what you already think about timing. Look at the following scenarios and answer the questions.

  1. You planned 5-7 minutes for your lead-in, but students are really engaged and want to keep talking. You let them continue for 15 minutes. Is this a good idea? Why / why not?
  2. In a reading lesson, you set a gist task with a time limit of 3 minutes, but students want to read for longer. Is it a good idea to let them? Why / why not?
  3. In a listening lesson, you have 3 words to pre-teach. Is there a maximum amount of time you should spend on this? If so, what is it?
  4. Students are doing controlled practice of a grammatical structure. You gave them 10 minutes but they seem to only need 5. What should you do?
  5. You are planning a productive follow-up task (writing or speaking), to use as the last stage in a receptive skills lesson (reading / listening). How long should this activity be?

Now, read the suggestions and ideas below and see if they change your answers to the questions above. (Full suggested answers will be given at the end of this article.)

Timing – the planning stage

Think about stage aims

When planning your lesson it’s crucial to know what the purpose or aim of each stage is, and how these contribute to the main lesson aim. If we are very clear about the stage aim, we will be much more aware of when it has been achieved – and when it has been achieved, it’s time to move on. For example, the aims of a lead in could be; to generate interest in the topic, to get students speaking English at the beginning of the lesson and to start setting a context. Once that aim is achieved, we can progress to the next stage. We wouldn’t ordinarily let a lead in run on for too long, because if we do, we may find that there isn’t enough time left in the lesson to fully achieve our main aims. In order for the lesson to be timed appropriately, we need to ensure that things which are more important (i.e. contribute more to achievement of the lesson aims as a whole), are prioritised and get the time they need, while things which are perhaps less important can be dealt with more quickly. It can be helpful, with main aims in mind, to set a little reminder in your plan – I will start this stage no later than…

Do the activity yourself

If you are unsure as to how long an activity will take students, a helpful technique is to do the activity yourself and try to relate that back to the level of your students. It will usually take students a minimum of twice as long as you to complete something like a controlled practice activity, so you can use this as a starting point, but of course be ready to adapt. Remember, you are making an educated guess, not a set in stone decision about how long something will take. Doing all your activities yourself, also really gives you the advantage of having looked at the activity from the students’ point of view. You are much more likely to spot potential difficulties with tasks if you have tried them out.

Have a plan A and a plan B

Timing often causes teachers a problem when they find themselves with a set amount of time available towards the end of a lesson, and the activity they have planned is either not long enough, or too long to be workable. Perhaps for example, the activity needs careful setting up, which may mean in the time remaining students wouldn’t really be able achieve much. Or, perhaps the teacher finds themselves with 15 minutes of a reading lesson left and the planned productive follow-up is not ‘meaty’ enough to fill this time in a productive way. The planning stage can be helpful here. Either, we need to have a plan A and plan B (if there are less than 7 or 8 minutes left I will do…if there are more than 7 or 8 minutes I will do…), or, we can have planned how we might meaningfully extend an activity if we have more time than anticipated. We might, for example get students to do the same pair work task but with a different student and find out who they have the most in common with. Or we might plan a time flexible activity like a mingle, which could run successfully for 5 minutes or much longer.

Pace and timing while teaching

Monitor

There are a whole host of reasons to monitor (see classroom management), and to inform your timing is an important one. Look and listen carefully while students are engaged in activities. Note down where they are up to and which specific questions or parts of the task they are doing correctly / with relative ease, and which they have got wrong / are having difficulty with. This will allow you to stop the task at an appropriate time and also to ensure that feedback focuses on what is needed and doesn’t waste time going over things in too much detail if students aren’t having problems with them.

Go at the students’ pace

Remember, the students and their progress, not yours, should be the focus of the lesson. A common phrase used by teacher trainers to describe this, is: teach to the students not the plan. In other words, rather than looking at your plan and refusing to adapt your timings – look at how students are doing and what they need at that particular part of the lesson. Your plan is exactly that – a plan. Use your monitoring to inform your pace. If you set 10 minutes and they need 15, notice this and respond by giving them it (as long as you have taken into account the point above about the relative importance of that stage). If you have set 10 and they find it relatively easy and don’t need that long – move onto a stage of the lesson that will prove more beneficial. Remember, the aim of a lesson isn’t to get through all your stages – the aim is to help students develop their abilities – use you timing and focus to ensure this happens.

The exception to this would be in the case of a gist task. The aim of getting students to read for gist is to practice and develop their ability to read quickly for overall understanding. Since the natural inclination of most students is to want to read very carefully, processing each word individually, if we don’t stick to our (deliberately short) time limit here, then we will not be practising the skills we set out to, and therefore not achieving the stage aim. So, in all other cases, we go at the speed students need, but in the case of gist, we need to stick to the time limit we set. Checking the instructions to gist tasks may help students understand that this is achievable. For example, we may ask, ‘Do you need to understand everything? (N – you only need to answer this task / question, we will read it more carefully later).

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Don’t start anything complicated with 5 minutes left at the end of the lesson

Realistically, not that much can be achieved in less than 5 minutes. Students could perhaps discuss one or two questions in pairs, but there is simply no point embarking on long instructions when time is this short – students will not have time to actually do the task you are setting. So either plan a simpler task or give them longer on the previous one, to avoid the last 5 minutes of your lesson being taken up by pointless instructions.

 Suggested answers to questions

  1. You planned 5-7 minutes for your lead-in, but students are really engaged and want to keep talking. You let them continue for 15 minutes. Is this a good idea? Why / why not?

No, generally it isn’t – see think about stage aims above. The lead-in is exactly that – a lead-in to the main body of the lesson, don’t let it grow at the expense of main aims.

  1. In a reading lesson, you set a gist task with a time limit of 3 minutes, but students want to read for longer. Is it a good idea to let them? Why / why not?

No it isn’t – see think about stage aims above.

  1. In a reading lesson, you have 3 words to pre-teach. Is there a maximum amount of time you should spend on this? If so, what is it?

You probably don’t want to extend this past about 5 minutes or so. Remember, in this case the words aren’t target language or the main aim of your lesson. You are teaching them mainly so that students will be able to successfully deal with the reading text (your main aim). Spending a really long time here, may mean students don’t get the time they need on the reading tasks. The exception to this may be if the words you are pre-teaching may also be used in your productive follow-up. In that case, you may choose to spend a little more time as students will not only need to recognise them, but also produce them.

  1. Students are doing controlled practice of a grammatical structure. You gave them 10 minutes but they seem to only need 5. What should you do?

Stop them at 5 minutes if that is all they need and move to pair-check, feedback and then the next stage in the lesson – in this case probably freer practice.

  1. You are planning a productive follow-up task (writing or speaking), to use as the last stage in a receptive skills lesson (reading / listening). How long should this activity be?

If your main aim is receptive skills, you would probably end up with anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes remaining in the lesson to dedicate to this secondary aim (depending on how students have done with the main aim of listening or reading and the total length of your lesson). Plan for both eventualities and respond to the situation as it arises.

 

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