Three-Phase Lesson Planning

8543315720_4c4676260bOne elegantly simple way to lesson plan is to go through these three phases:

  1. I do it
  2. We do it
  3. You do it

In other words, first you introduce what the students will be learning. Then you all practice it together. Lastly, students have the opportunity to practice it more independently.

I want to be clear that I did not invent this. I learned about it in several conversations and trainings. It’s not the only way to lesson plan – just a really helpful tool to have at your disposal.

Five things I love about this lesson planning lens:

  1. “Do.” In a language classroom, we are using the language to do things. We should not just be learning about the language.
  2. Teacher Talk (or TTT) is in its place. It serves phases two and three. It introduces and then steps aside. It is not the point.
  3. Metacognition. Students need to have ownership of their own learning. One way we can support this, even within the confines of a syllabus-led class, is to be up front about the strategies we use. This lesson plan is an easy one to communicate.
  4. Buy-in. Some students might not think that group work or fluency activities are “serious.” Particularly adults accustomed to a non-communicative way of language learning. Showing that this is an intentional part of a methodical plan can help them try it out with an open mind.
  5. Over-thinker support. I am a classic over-thinker. There are lots of detailed lesson planning suggestions out there, and they rightly point out the bazillion factors you should consider in your lesson plan. This one helps me take a step back and see in broad strokes if I have a pretty good plan or if I’ve been rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Does anyone out there use this lesson planning method?

Photo Credit: Tim Green on Flickr

You’re reading Three Phase Lesson Planning, originally posted at


Throwback Draft: Off on the Left Foot

Tying the Knot by psyberartist on Flickr
Tying the Knot by psyberartist on Flickr

[I have a collection of unpublished drafts in this blog, and I thought I’d publish some from time to time in a Throwback Draft series.]

I wrote this piece more than five years ago, as I was transitioning from being in nonprofits to being in ESL. I’d like to keep the timeframe vague because it will help protect the identity of the kind  people and beneficial orgs in the specific example I describe.

I turned out to be happy teaching the class I describe in this article, and I have been happy with my current part-time contingent role at multiple sites through multiple community colleges over the years.

That said, looking back at this post more than five years later, it still resonates with me. I’m happy teaching and assistant teaching, but what’s going on around my classroom is still significant. The nonprofit I wrote about here has shut down. Academics is considered to be having an ” adjunct crisis.” I think a lot of us have a sense of doing ever more with ever less. Our students are not benefiting from this trend, and I’m not sure who is.


The beginning of this new teaching gig has been a string of annoyances and errors so far.

I’m blogging about them because I feel like they exemplify what’s wrong with running low-efficiency operations hog-tied by arbitrary funding rules and changes.

Background: I will be working through a community college to teach ESL at a small nonprofit.  I have met everybody involved and there are no slackers, no morons, and no mean-spirited trolls; there are just good people trying to run a good program.

The Comedy of Errors

  1. Disrespectful scheduling: I requested morning classes through the college.  They were all listed as 9AM – 12PM.  I was scheduled as the teacher for one of them at “Nonprofit A.”  Then the college moved my class one hour earlier.  I found out via a mass email of the changed schedule.  There was no acknowledgement that I did not sign up for an 8AM class, nor were there offers of flexibility or explanation.  There were, however, enough obvious errors on the schedule that I had to email the office to confirm that the change was not a typo.
  2. Slow Information: Teachers were going to receive materials at a meeting over a month before classes started.  This meeting was then moved to be two weeks before classes started.  So much for planning ahead.
  3. Inefficient, Ineffective Meetings: Said last-minute meeting was so generic that the teachers still did not know what to plan.  It had to be followed up with other small-group meetings the week before classes started.
  4. Chase Grant or Prep Teachers?: Said small-group meeting was derailed because the leader of the meeting unexpectedly had to deal with changes to our grant (which begins Monday) that morning and so was unable to be prepared for us.
  5. Logistical Detail Disaster: Remember how they pushed my class one hour earlier?  Nobody thought about building access.  The regular teacher who has a key is currently hospitalized.  And the Nonprofit A staff who have keys to the building don’t normally come in until 9AM.  The director is graciously coming in at 8AM to let us in.  Yes, that’s zero set-up time for my first class.  And a potential security issue in the future if the only people in the open building are small teachers in their classrooms.
  6. Technological Ineptitude: When I called Nonprofit A to see if I could come in today to at least drop off some materials, their voicemail message was the generic one that comes with the phone, confirming the telephone number but making no mention that I had reached Nonprofit A.  An internet search to confirm the phone number and find their hours of operation showed that they don’t have a website.  Seriously?

My Conclusion: We Have Low Overhead

What Low Overhead Looks Like (photo by jhf on Flickr)
What Low Overhead Looks Like (photo by jhf on Flickr)

I see too few people trying to do too much in too few hours.  I see good things done poorly.

This is why it might actually drive me crazy one day when I hear that people interested in donating money are quite strongly opposed to said money going to overhead.  This mentality implies the belief that somehow their money will magically help “the people who need it” more if the organizations trying desperately to serve them are as starved for resources, infrastructure, and staff hours as possible.

I strongly suspect that the reason we’re locked out of the building until class time is because budgets are too tight to have extra keys available and a safe place to store them.

I’m quite sure that there was no special meeting for teachers new to the college because there wasn’t the staff time available to run an orientation.  I’m also positive that the office staff would have loved to send out an error-free schedule that was backed by lots of one-to-one talks with the teachers to be sure there was clarity and harmony in the department.  The way things actually went just smacks of a scarcity of staff hours.

I’m sure that Nonprofit A would love to have a web presence, but I’m also sure they don’t want a crappy website that nobody has time to update anyway.

And nobody wants to be unprepared for a meeting, especially one you’re leading.  But when your bread and butter grant changes under you four days before it starts, you kind of have to drop everything and respond.  We’re so starved for funding that we have to sacrifice the very quality the funders are trying to encourage in order to just survive.  They intend to underwrite excellent programming, but unreliability undermines it.

But what can we do?

Thus, My Conundrum

Everywhere I look in my work with nonprofits, I see broken systems and a dearth of the power necessary to fix them.

I see a great many people who are working hard and doing their best in good faith that it’s enough.  If we just pour enough of ourselves into the effort, it will be enough, right?  I’m hardly a seasoned veteran, but even I have seen more than one nonprofit worker get stressed out to the point of serious physical illness.

But I see little change.  I no longer have the faith that just showing up as I am and doing my best is enough.

And I ask myself what my role in it all should be.

Duolingo and Teaching – Part 2

12791947485_5ee1562a3dIn Part 1, I looked back at my own history of language learning and then my current experience using Duolingo.

In this post, I’ll be looking at how, based on these experiences, I see language teaching and great free tech like Duolingo as intersecting and what questions I have about it.

Possible Roles of Duolingo-like Tech in Classrooms

none – teachers pretend that tech like Duolingo doesn’t exist and just do what they’ve always done how they’ve always done it.

unofficial supplement – students use the tech on the side, even as their teachers ignore it.

supplement – teachers intentionally use Duolingo as a separate supplement for traditional class. Some class time might be devoted to using it, or it might be homework.

guide – teachers change their instruction based on Duolingo (or whatever tech). The class becomes a supplement to the tech.

replacement – teachers are replaced by educational technology because the tech is cheaper, more time efficient for each student, easier to collect data on, and is possibly more effective.

Thoughts on the Guide Role

I’m all about data-driven decision making, including decisions about instruction. Duolingo certainly has a lot of data and it might become reasonable for it to influence our instruction, or even place our instruction in a more supplemental role.

That said, I see two clashes between formal education and Duolingo (or similar tech) that I think will hamper the app from taking on this leadership role.

First, Duolingo is set up to reach individuals. By contrast, formal education is set up to reach groups of students separated by “level.” Grouping students is always problematic, but we educate huge numbers of people this way for convenience. In my opinion, it’s going to be hard for the hyper-individualized instruction of Duolingo to carry over into formal education without a major structural shift in education. I’m not opposed to such a shift – I just know that education is slow to change.

Second, Duolingo’s pedagogy relies on grammar translation (so lots of L1 use) and the audiolingual method to teach through repetition what “sounds right.” By contrast, most classes for adults I’ve been involved with emphasize direct instruction – learning the language and learning about the language. I don’t think either philosophy is perfect. I do think that a change away from direct instruction would be a major shift and would be an uphill battle for Duolingo to face, even armed with a lot of data.

These two clashes are both pretty major. I don’t think it would be smooth sailing for the two different systems to play nicely together in this way.

Agaist the Replacement Role

I’m an ESL teacher, so obviously I have a vested interest in not being replaced by a free app.

That said, I also had eight semesters of very pricey Russian lessons in college that really didn’t reach me effectively. Yes, I’m largely to blame – I could have tried harder. But as a teacher, I try to meet students where they’re at, and I think my instructors also could have tried harder.

The point is, I hope that my own disappointment in traditional language lessons helps me be open to teaching language better, even if that means stepping aside entirely.

Before I’m willing to cede my role to Duolingo (or whatever other free app crops up next), I think it ought to address some of its shortcomings:

  1. Its audio is really limited. I love the way it’s integrated into just about every question, but the computer voice is always the same, sometimes not clear, always disembodied, and only as good as my speakers.
  2. Its error correction is quite good but not as reliable as a knowledgeable teacher’s. It also doesn’t seem to take into account what is an error of understanding and what is an error of accidentally clicking the wrong button. And its error correction does not seem to immediately cause similar questions to pop up to practice the shaky skill.
  3. It cannot help me with my pronunciation. This is one area where human teachers are still far, far superior.
  4. The impersonal nature of it is great at the beginning to avoid embarrassment. But the lack of interpersonal communication quickly becomes a liability. I see that they’re piloting automated “chats” in French, and that’s a good step. But no computer is going to glare at me when I accidentally use the informal “you” instead of the formal “you.” That was a mistake I only made once in Russia.
  5. Sometimes an explanation is needed, and Duolingo does not provide.
  6. Duolingo excels at providing a sentence’s worth of context for grammar and vocabulary. So far Duolingo has not done more than this, but connected text and thoughts are a crucial part of any language. Perhaps I’m just not far enough along, though?


img_2778Some Questions

Lastly, I wanted to pose a few questions I’ve been thinking about as I continue to teach in a traditional system and continue to use Duolingo for myself.

  • How and why is Duolingo free? It’s a good program with a nice, well-designed interface. It seems to be working for me, at least in the beginner/intermediate levels, so I bet it’s working well for many other people. The quality is good. Perhaps even great. So I don’t understand why it’s free.

    I truly don’t know the answer. Three thoughts though:

    1) Crowdsourcing. I looked at the Duolingo incubator and it looks like there’s a process of crowd-sourcing new language modules and then reviewing them. Is that where all of the levels and languages come from? Does this drastically cut costs and allow it to be free?

    2) In-app purchases. I broke my streak (sad!) and it offered to un-break it for me for a mere $5. “This helps us keep education free.” Really?

    3) Data. I assume that it uses algorithms to look at my answers and other taps and use that info to determine which questions should come next, which units I should review next, etc. It is collecting similar data about an incredible number of other language learners. If I were this company, I would aggregate and examine and use this data. Is it financially free because it wants our data? If so, for what purpose?

  • Who is Duolingo? And why should we (or shouldn’t we) let it influence our learning and our pedagogy? What are their motives, and what is their long-term game?
  • Why does it teach the way it does? It is essentially collecting data that I assume supports the use of grammar translation and audiolingual methods of teaching. Why did it choose those two? Does/did it run other versions that use (and thus measure the effectiveness of) different methods? This also ties back to wondering what purpose they will put their collected data to, and who they are to begin with.
  • Is it reasonable for formal education to rely on free apps? Duolingo is a relatively new app that is currently free but has a short track record. Will Duolingo still exist in two years? Will it be much the same? Will it still be free? If we were relying on it and then it disappeared or abruptly transformed, what would we do?

I think that’s a pretty complete summary of what I’ve been pondering when it comes to Duolingo and teaching, at least for now.

I’m really interested to see what they do next, and how educators embrace or ignore them over the coming months and years.

And I’m really excited to continue with my Russian exercises and see how I do.


Photo CreditBem photography: 0983194978 on Flickr

You’re reading Duolingo and Teaching – Part 2, originally posted at

Two Deep Pronunciation Resources

15186400768_446484e376The past year or so, I’ve been getting much more into pronunciation than I ever was before.

By personality, I’m very bookish and very drawn to the written word (if you couldn’t tell from this blog). I also enjoy analyzing how things work, so I get a kick out of grammar. Pronunciation kind of went under my radar.

But then two things happened thanks to really amazing colleagues:

  1. In conversation, one colleague name-dropped a few ESOL big-wigs she’d met at the big TESOL conference over the years. I only recognized one of the names. I unabashedly wrote down the other names (she kindly repeated them for me) and looked them up. One of those names was Judy Gilbert.
  2. Another colleague is running a special program focused on giving one-on-one pronunciation help to students. She told me all about why she started it and what it means to the students who attend, and then I couldn’t help but invite myself over to observe. It’s fascinating and has a huge impact.

Now I’m hooked on pronunciation.

So the following resources are for deep learning. They are not the ones that will be useful to you ten minutes before class starts. But I found them really eye-opening.

  • Teaching Pronunciation Using the Prosody Pyramid by Judy B Gilbert. This is a 50-page book, and it’s worth every single page. It completely convinced me that pronunciation is more closely tied to the other skills than I had realized and gave me a ton of activity ideas. It is posted in the TESOL resource center with no pay wall, so I assume it’s legitimately online for free.
  • The Color Vowel Chart by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson. This is a visual system of dealing with the 15 English vowel sounds. It’s a really powerful way to sort, communicate, and systematically teach and compare our vowel sounds. It is posted in the US State Department’s resource section, so I assume what I’m linking to is legitimately online for free.

Any similarly awesome resources to share with me? Please let me know in the comments, even if this post is already years old!

Photo Credit: Suzanne Nilsson on Flickr

You’re reading Two Deep Pronunciation Resources, originally posted at

Assistant (to the) Teacher

In a spate of blog-updating energy, I gave a quick update and then talked about a Conversation Partners class I got to teach earlier this year.

Next on my list is my new role as an Assistant Teacher.

How I Got There

I thought I wasn’t going to be able to teach this semester. My family moved such that commuting to the place(s) where I used to teach became nightmarish. I’m just not cut out for a drive of less than 15 miles taking 50+ minutes. I guess one of the benefits of being an adjunct with no possibility of benefits is that I’m at least not tethered with golden chains to a specific brutal commute. I applied to programs closer to our new home and discovered another group of lovely people running a great program, and I was very pleased to be welcomed onto their roster of teachers. The problem was that their courses all meet twice a week.

I actually prefer the twice-a-week model to the once-a-week model in terms of learning retention, assignment pacing, class camaraderie, etc. The problem was that in order to prep my once-a-week class I was already tiptoeing around the home office before sunrise to get my planning in. Planning twice as many sessions was going to push me into the zone of “I’m Probably Overextended But I’m Doing My Best Given The Circumstances” for both my teaching and my momming (I am in charge of the kids during the day). This is an uncomfortable zone to be in, and in my own experience comes with a frenetic pace and lots of crankiness. The cost-benefit analysis was pretty clear: it didn’t make sense to teach this semester. When the kids are older, when they (and I) sleep better, when they can be expected to play on their own for a reasonable amount of time, then would be the time I could take on a twice-a-week class and give it my actual best.

Then I got an email from the department asking if I’d like to assistant teach this semester. Half the in-class time commitment and none of the prep. That sounds like about what I can handle right now – yes please!

The Experience

So I go in for about an hour twice a week. The location is really quite convenient to my  home – hooray! The teacher is kind and welcoming, and I enjoy brainstorming with her and working with the students.

This is actually my first time assistant teaching  and it’s a hugely valuable experience to be in an ESL classroom throughout the whole semester but not be The Leader. I can bring a much more low-key energy, focus on different things and different people, and see the classroom from a not-the-teacher perspective. Really, it’s like a semester-long professional development activity that I’m getting compensated for.

One source of irony is that this experience, like other great PD, is a huge idea generator. But as the assistant, I really don’t have a say in how the class goes (though the teacher is super collaborative and asks for and values my opinions). I’m taking detailed notes on specifics so I can apply some or all of these ideas to my next class. In the meantime, I’m doing my best to stay in the moment and not get carried away with the possibilities. Having the space to wind down and be is a huge benefit of being “just” the assistant.

I wouldn’t want to forego actual teaching, leading, and preparation for any length of time – I value it and I already miss it. But I’m just so pleased at how things worked out this semester: I’m involved, I’m not overextended, and I’m growing as a teacher.

You’re reading Assistant (to the) Teacher, originally posted at



Journal: Passive Voice

Sorry for the blog hiatus.  We’ve been working on passive voice (i.e. “My wallet was stolen.”) for the last week and a half.  I can’t use the textbook’s materials because this topic is scheduled for next semester, not this one.  However, we needed it now, and they’ll need it again next semester.  So I’ve been working extra hard with no text to lean on, and it’s been wonderful but tiring.

Students: 12

One thing that went well:  Jigsaw reading.  In my attempt to not over-use it, I’ve been under-using it.  This time, I used two readings that were fairly long and hopefully high-interest.  The students read independently and worked on comprehension questions.  Then they got together into two same-story groups to discuss their stories: 1) main idea, 2) new words, and 3) what surprised them.  Then they split into different-story partners and shared about their story using the same three questions.  One or two groups finished early, so I had them compare and contrast the two stories.  That proved quite interesting – I wish I’d had everyone talk about it!  Two particular victories: I didn’t talk much, and it ended our class on an energetic and communicative note.

One thing to improve:  Eliciting student opinions.  I actually do it a lot – that’s not the problem.  The problem is that I’m usually met with ringing silence.  I’m clearly not framing it as well as I could, both leve-wise and culture-wise.

One surprise:  I gave a quiz in passive voice today.  I mostly left transitive vs. intransitive verbs off of the quiz – they’re important, but the class was simply not ready for a quiz on them.  However, I wrote a bonus question asking them to write a passive sentence with the verb “sleep.”  This is a trick queston because you can’t use “sleep” or other intransitive verbs in the passive voice.  My happy surprise?  Several students got it right!  It was very exciting.

Journal: Tiny Class

Students: 9 (sad!)

One thing that went well: Yesterday’s lesson.  And I still had abysmal attendance today.  Although I hope that if I taught horribly my students would stop coming to class, I just really can’t take it as direct correlation between bad teaching and low attendance.

One thing to improve:  Actually, today was pretty good too.  Even in terms of talking too much – I stopped myself several times.

One surprise:  Realizing for myself that English spelling rules for -ed verbs and pronunciation rules are both pretty simple and pretty consistent, but are 100% unrelated.  It’s so crazy!