Writing Lesson Plans

Every year in the JET program, we say goodbye to those who have not re-contracted, and we say hello to a bunch of new people coming in to replace them. Starting this year, I'm an RPA, which stands for Regional Prefectural Advisor. And as RPAs, one of the things we do is hold a Work Orientation seminar to give useful advice to the new people of our prefecture.

I volunteered to give a presentation about lesson planning, and how I do lessons. To prepare for this, I wrote out an entire transcript of what I planned to say. So, that is the following text, though I changed a few things for it to read better. This is similar to my previous blog post about lesson planning, but this assumes the reader (or listener) has no knowledge of lesson planning, or classroom experience at all.


Let's Begin

Hi there everyone. My name is Jim, and I'm starting my 4th year as an ALT.

This session is about lesson planning with a little introductory about the classroom setup, and classroom flow, as well.

First, I'll talk about my background. Next I have a handout for everyone. It has two lesson plans that I wrote and have used on both sides.

The first real topic is about talking with your homeroom teachers about your upcoming lessons. Next, I will actually explain the lesson plan format I use for the handouts. Then we'll go through the flow of a typical English class for me. And that's further broken up into 3 parts: beginning, middle, and end. The next topic is about having a goal or purpose with your lessons. And then, I will explain what ESA means. More on that later.

My Background

Let me give you a little background about myself before I start my presentation. This shall give you some proper context on where this information is coming from.

I'm not an education major. I majored in Computer Science and Mathematics and worked for more than 6 years before coming here to teach English. Prior to coming to Japan, I had no classroom teaching experience, no training, no real education, and absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do, or how to do it. Even after I arrived and started "teaching", I still had no clue. I have a feeling many new ALTs are in this exact same situation.

But, I did have one thing. Prior to coming, I had signed up for an online TEFL course. For those who don't know what TEFL stands for, there are two terms actually. TEFL is Teaching English as a Foreign Language. and there's TESOL, which is Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

I signed up through ITTT or teflonline.net, which was advertised through the JET website. You can get a discount by using your JET number. I think normally it's $300, but you get a $100 discount.

Before coming to Japan, I went through about half of the course. I became too wrapped up with packing and moving my life to Japan, that I quit for the time being. The first half of the course was about some theories, classroom management, and grammar. Nothing really concrete. As one ALT currently talking the course told me, it's very "Mickey Mouse".

After being in Japan for a few months, I decided to finish before the course expired. The second half of the course focused on actually writing plans which is what I was already doing in my schools. So, I was learning things I could immediately use, and could easily see the value in what I was being taught.

Overall, this presentation is about two things. First, It's about the single most valuable thing I learned from my experience. And it's about the single most valuable I learned from that course, and how I consistently use it when planning and writing my lesson plans.

But, before I explain that, I want to show and define what I mean by Lesson Plan.


These are two of my actual lesson plans I used for my classes. Though, I recently rewrote it for clarity, and to reflect what I actually did in the class. My original plan had too much going on to fit in time.


Just to note, I know this looks a bit daunting. To be clear, you don't necessarily NEED to be this detailed when planning your lessons. I do things this way for a couple of reasons. I can talk about that a little bit later if we have time.

Talking with the Teacher

For every class I've ever planned and taught, I've written something similar to this. Before I teach this class, I will make a copy, and give it to the homeroom teacher. As I give it to them, I will explain and discuss the entire thing, so they know exactly what to expect when I come to their class. I will go through the plan, bit by bit, and explain each action. I explain what I will do, what I want them to do, and what I want the students to do.

This can be a problem for new ALTs that don't know a lot of Japanese as most homeroom teachers don't know a lot of English. In fact, I have one homeroom teacher in particular that no only doesn't understand my English, but has trouble understanding my Japanese. And really I can't understand a lot of his Japanese either.

But even for you guys that don't really know a lot of Japanese, I have some small bits of advice. And perhaps the other RPAs could jump in too, if they have any advice.

But 2 things:

1: Use simple English. As simple and direct as possible. And 2: Use a lot of gestures, to explain your actions. In addition to gestures, drawing pictures and diagrams work really well, too. These are the things I did before getting a lot more comfortable with the Japanese language.

Whatever you do, however you do it, getting them to understand your plan is essential for a successful class. Again, I have some reasons.

1. This is a great way to practice how you intend to explain your games and activities to the students. If you can't correctly and concisely explain and demonstrate your ideas to the teacher, most likely the students won't be able to understand it either.

2. Next, talking about your plan out loud, and trying to explain things to someone else, is a good way to figure out any problems you might not have thought of. Also, the teacher probably has a good idea whether or not something will go well, or fail outright. So, talking about things is a good way to iron out any problems.

And 3. Explaining everything to the homeroom teacher will allow them to jump in and explain things to the students when they have trouble understanding you.

Talking about everything before class will allow you to teach the class together, rather than being there alone, or trying to figure out things in front of the students, and wasting class time.

Explanation of the Lesson Plan

So, let's go through it!

At the top are the schools and classes where I will use this plan. The dates are empty. I usually write those in when I make a copy for the teacher.

On the next line, first is the grade. Next is the plan number, so this is my third "official" class with the sixth graders. Next is the Lesson number, which refers to the chapter in the book. Next is the class number for that lesson, so this is my first class for lesson 5. And a quick descriptive title for the lesson.

Next is the grid. The first column is the how many minutes I expect each part of the lesson to take. Bolded numbers are for the section. The second column is the activity for each row. Underlines are for each section. Next column is "Contents", which is a quick description of what we'll do during that part of lesson. Next column is "ALT". This is what the ALT will do during that part of the lesson. Next is "HRT". This is what the homeroom teacher will do. Next column is "Goal" or "Purpose". This is why you are doing whatever in the lesson. And last is "Grammar" and "Vocabulary". This is the words or grammar I intend to teach the students. Sometimes I have a description or translation along with it.

On the bottom, I have a row for materials. These are the materials that are needed for the classes. For "ALT", this is what I will bring. For "HRT", this is what I will need from the HRT for class. And for "Students", these are things the students will use in class.

Underneath, is for homework. This is something new I've been doing this year. I usually assign something for homework every 2 or 3 classes. So far, it's just been writing practice, or doing an interview with family members or other teachers.

Finally, at the bottom is a date. This is essentially the version number for this plan. It's the most recent time, I have updated it. So, if I make changes, and have a bunch of print outs, I can tell which one is correct.

On the other side is a URL where you can get this plan online. Though, I'm bit behind with that. The idea is that if some teacher or ALT in the future comes across this plan, they can go online and find all the plans associated with this lesson, downloads for materials, and possibly a blog post explaining how well or how bad the class went using these plans, and how I could make it better.


Flow of Class

The handout has two lesson plans written on it. There's #3 and #4, so these are back-to-back. Let me quickly go through how I used this plan in class, and how a typical class will operate.

I don't know if they mentioned this during Tokyo Orientation, or if we did during Life Orientation, but I think it'll helpful to reiterate it. And if you haven't heard of it, it'll be good, too, because then you will know about what happens before you step into class for the first time.

The Beginning

First, the ninchokyu, or subject leader, will come to the front. They'll tell everyone to stand up, kiritsu. They'll say attention, or kyoutsuke. Then they'll say the Japanese aim for the class, or they'll say, "Let's start English." And then the class repeat, "Let's start English." Then they say sit down, and every sits down. Then the class begins.

For me, first is the greeting. I'll say, "Hello everyone" And then they'll reply, "Hello Jim" or "Hello Jim-sensei" Some classes call me Mr. Jim. One class called me Jim-teacher for a little while. Only the foreign kid calls me Mr. Hendricks, which is really weird, and I don't like it. Then the teacher greets the class, and they reply.

Then we do questions. I always do, "How are you?" and have the students reply with as many unique answers as possible. Then it's "What day of the week is it today?" Then "What is today's date?" Then "What time is it?" And then "How is the weather?" For some reason, junior high schools ask these questions at the start of every class, so I try to do the same for elementary, so they already know everything. In 5th grade, I teach the days of the week. And 6th grade, I teach the other 3.

After that, I will place today's plan on the board using these cards. And these cards correspond to the terms in the "plan" column of the lesson plan. I will show each card to the class, and they'll repeat the word on the card. They'll also see the meaning underneath. Then I'll place the cards on the side of the board, so it's always visible in class. This is so the students know exactly what's going on in class, and what's coming next for today. As another RPA pointed out, this is also a great way for the teacher to keep track of class too, and not get lost.

I do this every time. During this part, many of my students have memorized all of these words and want to guess my plan. So, they start yelling out what they think the next card is.

The Contents of the Plan

Then we'll go through the plan set on the board. And actually, my following description of this plan is almost exactly how I describe the plan to the homeroom teacher of the class.

First is reviewing lowercase, which was the contents of the first two lessons. And it's quick quiz, showing them the letters and asking, "What's this?" I'm doing this with the whole class, but it would probably be better if I quizzed individual students. But I don't want to spend too much time doing it, because it won't be used in the rest of the lesson.

For Today's Aim, I will write that aim on the board, and then ask students to try and read it. Some students can, but most can't. I'll ask them to repeat after me, and then we'll try and translate it as a class. All of my aims begin with "Let's", so all my students know what that means. Some students can figure out other words, and closely guess the Japanese meaning. But eventually, I'll just tell them what it means.

It took me a long time to get comfortable using Japanese in class, or really even knowing enough Japanese to be used in this way. This is the kind of thing that your homeroom teachers should be doing in class, so if you don't really know Japanese, or aren't comfortable with it, please ask the teacher to help explain any English you want to students to know.

My students know how bad my Japanese is, so they correct me a lot when I mistakes in class. But they can almost always understand what I'm trying to get across. Though, as a rule, you aren't supposed to use Japanese with students, since they're learning English. But... that's another topic, we can talk about later.

Anyway, next on the plan, I'm passing out the homework sheet to students with all of the flags I intend to teach, along with the English name written next to it, and space for them to practice writing. This is not for them to practice writing in class, it's for them to try and read the English name written on the sheet. Writing practice is for homework. Again, there's another rule that says elementary schools are to focus on communication in class, never on writing since that comes later in junior high. Again another topic we can argue about later.

And then the HRT and I introduce the flags to the students, and I ask them for the English name. They can try to read, but I eventually tell them what it is. And then they repeat it after me. The book only teaches 10 countries, but I bumped that up to 18 because it was too easy otherwise. Most students already know the names. Also, for some students that have problems at English, I mention to them that they can write the Katakana pronunciation on their worksheet, if they can't remember the words. Doing this is yet another debated topic for another time, but really only a few of my students actually do it, and it does help them quite a bit. I never do it for them.

After all these flashcards are on the board, then we practice them again all at once.

For the grammar, I write the English on the board, and ask them to try and read it. Some can. Then we practice speaking the grammar as a class. I will ask them what they think it means in Japanese. And then write the Japanese on the board, explaining each of the parts.

Activity - Keyword Game

For the activity, we'll do the keyword game. This is another one of my go-to games that the students really enjoy. You can read the description on the plan, but let's go through the setup. First, students make pairs with their partners, and place an eraser between them. For each round, I will choose a keyword from the vocabulary. Students will try and listen for that word. When they hear it, they'll try to grab the eraser faster than their opponent.

I modified this game a little bit to have more grammar, and be a bit more complex. First the students will ask the question, "Where do you want to go?" I will reply with "I want to go to ____." If they don't hear the keyword, then they'll repeat that phrase. And then ask the question again, and continue the round until they heard the keyword.

Let's Play!

As you can see on the sheet, first we'll explain the game, though I frequently do this game, so some students know it by name already. Then we play the game. This game and others with similar setups are extremely great. They have very little setup, and you can finish them at any time. But even though, they're great to fill time, they are extremely repetitive, so you don't want them to go on long.

Finishing Class

Finally, to close class, I have evaluation. Many teachers have their own goofy names for this. The first teacher I worked with called it "Good Job Time" so I've been sticking with that since. There's probably a better name for it, but whatever. It's fine. During evaluation, I will choose a student who I thought did really well. And then the homeroom teacher will choose another student.

The student I choose is someone who could complete goal, and could also accomplish the 3 points I have listed on the side. The student had a good smile. The student made good eye contact with their partner during conversation. And they used a clear or loud voice that was easy to understand.

This lesson kinda sucks for that because the students didn't really communicate with each other. It was all repeating and listening. For this class, I would probably choose a student was paying close attention to what I was saying, and really tried to get the pronunciation correct for the countries. Or used a really clear loud voice during the game. Or perhaps, I'll choose a student terrible at English, but who really tried their best, and made some small improvement.

Whatever the reason, I make sure to clearly say why I choose this student, and what they did during class do deserve today's honor. There's really no point in doing evaluation if you randomly choose a student, and the class has no idea why they were chosen.

Taking and Assigning Leads

One last thing about this plan.

If you take a look at the plan, I have these certain sections marked with an asterisk. That is to indicate the lead for that part of the lesson. So, for passing out the homework, I will take lead. Then the homeroom teacher will take the lead introducing and explain the country flags. Then I will lead the repeating part of the lesson. And then it will go back to the homeroom teacher, and they'll take over introducing and explaining the grammar I want them to learn.

In theory, this is how I want to class to work, but in practice it never really works that way. Again, this comes back to communicating with your teacher. A lot of teachers are quite shy about the English that they know. I'm sure many of you can relate with your Japanese skills. For example, when I first came to Japan, I knew some Japanese, but I was not comfortable at all with what I knew. I would never speak in public with it because I was way too shy and self-conscious about it.

So understand that the homeroom teachers are in the same situation. They have to help teach students in a subject they barely even know themselves.

My supervisor has instructed me to actually push these teachers into using their English more, but in a lot of cases, I end up doing most of the asterisk points, and the homeroom teacher hangs back, and helps out with any Japanese.

So anyways, that's the whole plan. Any questions?

Having a Goal or Purpose

Having a Goal or Purpose is an essential part of any lesson plan. This is for you to explain why you are doing what you are doing. And this can help you get rid of non-essential crap that might just be wasting class time.

This will also help you design an overall idea and plan not just for this single class, but for the entire lesson as a whole. Again, this is class #1 for this lesson. All other classes for this lesson to follow will build upon what I teach in this class. Likewise, the things I teach in class #2 will continue being used in the lessons after.

I think the technical term for this is called scaffolding. First, you need to clearly establish the basics. Then expand on those basic concepts, by adding in the necessary complexity, a little at a time. Once you have established everything, you need to use these concepts, and end the lesson in a meaningful and satisfying way.

When I think about planning lessons in this way, it reminds me of basic storytelling where you have a beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, you're introduced to the characters and everything is laid out in a simple way. In the middle, shit happens. This is where things start to get a little complicated, but interesting. And the end is where all the complications come together in a meaningful and satisfying way.

The Departed is a fantastic example of this. Same with Fight Club, Breaking Bad, and Lost (maybe).

As a concrete example of this, you may have noticed that even though this is my third class for my sixth graders, I'm already doing Lesson 5. This is because my end goal for this lesson, or it's ultimate activity, so to speak, was to interview foreigners during their school trip at the end of May. I wanted to get them interested in other countries in the world, and then come face to face with those people. And I wanted them to learn questions they could ask these foreigners, and use those communicative skills in real life, rather than confines of their classroom.

I actually have another document that partially describes this arc.


These are my first 5 lesson for the sixth graders. First we did the lowercase letters, and then we have the countries. Here is #3. There's a quick review of letters, then introducing the countries. Quickly introducing some grammar, then practicing it. Next class, #4, review countries, introduce more grammar, and then practice that grammar. But here, they're also learning about the countries. Last one, #5, review countries, review grammar. There's a quick listening activity. And then we're doing a full interview, where students each other, "Where do you want to go?" and the other stuff.

Before their trip, I had 3 more classes which taught them more specific words and phrases they could use with foreigners. First class was the teaching. Second class was practicing. And the third class, some students pretended to be foreigners, and the others interviewed them. And then they switched.

For two of my schools, it was a huge success. They took a lot of photos of themselves with the foreigners they met. For the next 3 lessons after that, we talked about the kinds of people they met, and then they made posters about their favorite countries, and presented them to the class.

Overall, we spent 9 classes for Lesson 5... which is a lot. But it was worth it.

Anyway, that is the single most important thing I've about learning planning from my experience so far. Think about your lessons like a good story. Have a beginning, middle, and end. Start simple, and build on that to a meaningful ultimate end.

Any questions?

ESA - Straight Arrow

But, the most important thing I learned from that TEFL course is how to do that within a single class. And that is ESA. ESA stands for Engage, Study, and Activate.

- E - Engage - S - Study - A - Activate

Shane is an education major, and he has fancier terms for these things, but I think these are easier to remember. If you look at my lesson plan, those sections are renamed to Review, "Today's Aim", and Activity.

The Engage stage gets the students active and involved in the lesson. Many homeroom teachers that do the lesson planning use something called "ALT Time" where the ALT just talks about something referring to the lesson. For example, today's class is about numbers, so please say numbers 1 through 10 in different languages. Or, today's topic is about gestures, so show the students some gestures from your country.

I use the Engage stage for students to remember and use the contents of previous lessons, especially contents that we will build on and use in today's class. Then we're all on the same page, and can continue to the next phase: Study.

The Study stage is the part of the lesson that teaches new things to the students. For this part, I will write "Today's Aim" on the board in English, and explain the goal of today's class. I will teach new words, or new grammar, or new ways to use the words or grammar they already should know. I will explain things, and we will practice together as a class. If we have time, I'll have them practice with their partner, too.

Next is the Activate stage. This is where students get to use the language that has been taught to them. I plan some kind of activity that allows for that. Like for class #1, we're doing the keyword game where students practice speaking the vocabulary and some quick grammar, as well as listening and identifying vocabulary words. Class #2 that activity is also more practicing and repeating. Though, I think that activity is still within the Study phase, as it's teaching them about various countries. My third class activity with very much an Activate Stage, though, as students interviewed each other, and they answered where they wanted to go, what they wanted to see, and what they wanted to eat. Students could answer whatever they wanted, or chose from a list.

Predictability v Consistency

I would say 95% to 99% of all my classes use the straight arrow, Review-Study-Activity pattern. Using the same pattern over and over again provides the students with a consistent model for class. Consistency provides a safe and comfortable model for the class that the students and teachers subconsciously learn and expect. They know exactly what your classes are about, and no longer have to worry, on any level, about the structure of class. They can focus purely on the contents of what you actually want them to learn.

Predictability and Consistency are really just two sides of the same coin. Though, it's always a good idea to change some things around to keep the students active, and test their abilities in different circumstances. Don't feel constrained by any structure you've built.

Why I write lesson plans this way

There are numerous benefits to writing such detailed plans for your classes.

Back in the "Taking with the Teacher" section I mentioned that it's a great way to completely think through all the details of your lessons. This irons out any problems you might think will happen during class, or during your activity. You can think about how you will explain things to students, and the exact steps you think you'll need to accomplish your goals. How will I do this? What materials will I need? What do I need the HRT to do to help me? What do I need from the HRT to do this? It's best to think about all these before class, rather than during.

Additionally, writing plans like this make you look more professional. It brings you credibility, and makes you more of an equal among the teachers you will work with. When they see the amount of work you've done planning and preparing a class, they will definitely listen to you more, and trust you with what's going on. It shows that you're taking your job seriously and aren't slacking off, or doing the minimal amount of work to get by. It shows that you're part of their team, and really do care about the education of your students.

And, also, writing plans this way is a great way of putting down all your thoughts on the lesson into one place, so you don't have to remember every detail about every lesson yourself. I teach about 12 elementary school classes each week, and my schedule can be all over the place. There's no way I can keep all those details in my head at a time. Every morning, I can look at my plans for that day, grab all the materials I need from the list on the plan, and read everything over to make sure I don't forget a thing. I can double check things during class, too.

It's the same case for the HRT, too. They can look over their copies of the plan, and remember their role, and everything they need to do.


This is how I write my lesson plans, and my entire thought process about doing all of this. It's the structure I've built to bring more meaning, and structure to my life as an ALT, and I've received many benefits from it. I hope you able to take some pointers from the way I do things, and find your own structure that works for you.

Again, most ALTs don't do things this way at all. This whole construct is something that is very much "me" so I don't expect anyone to look at this, and do things exactly this way. It's important to find your own structure, and your own patterns, build them, perfect them, and share them with other ALTs.

I hope I was able to point in a direction that works for you. Thanks. :D