In it for the long haul: Managing ‘long’ lessons

During my career I have taught lessons of varying lengths. The smallest time I had was a single 30 minute lesson per week in a tokenistic compulsory second language program, teaching Japanese to Australian primary school students. I’ve also taught five-hour intensive lessons to adult English learners. The length and frequency of learning is important in Second Language Acquisition, but these decisions are rarely made with the input of the educators themselves. So, it’s usually up to us as teachers to work out how to get the best outcomes with the time that we are given. Today’s blog post presents my approach to dealing with long lessons, which for me personally is anything over 90 minutes, but for readers may be longer or shorter.

The warm-up
Some teachers begrudge the warm-up activity. But, a well-considered warm-up activity is not a lesson filler. All of us have good and bad days, and learning is better facilitated when students (and teachers for that matter) start in the right frame of mind. The aim of the warm-up activity is to get students’ interested in the lesson topic, and to help prepare them for what is ahead. You could display some stimulus photos for students to guess the topic, or pose questions to elicit students’ prior knowledge or opinions. You could ask students to brainstorm relevant vocabulary, or introduce new vocabulary and ask students to deduce their meanings.  The ideas for warm-up activities are almost endless, but ideally they should be short and sharp activities with a clear purpose which help students to get engaged and ready for what’s to come.

Getting sweaty
The bulk of the lesson is where students gain new knowledge, apply knowledge to tasks, and practice their language skills. In a general language classroom, it is easy to break up a lesson into parts and focus on different macro-skills, with an explicit focus on listening and speaking followed by reading and writing, for example. Even in specialised classes there is a place for all macro-skills as interconnected components of language proficiency. For example, in a writing class there would be benefit to students in discussing an issue with a partner to generate ideas for their writing, or to listen to the words written by a peer during a peer review exercise.

Compartmentalising learning into manageable pieces helps to break down an otherwise long lesson where students may drift in and out of engagement. If each of these pieces has an explicit aim, communicated to students, then this can also help students feel some sense of accomplishment throughout the lesson.

Take a break
In a long lesson I usually set aside a few minutes for students to relax. Engaging fully in learning can be tiring, and this allows students a few minutes to breathe, and get ready to continue. I recall my own university days when my classmates and I left the classroom during our two-hour discussion groups (the small but intensive discussion classes that followed an en masse lecture). We had a few minutes to grab a drink and have a chat, and I always remember the lecturer having to call us back in, and we would do so begrudgingly. The flow of the lesson, however smooth it may have been in the first half of the lesson, had been interrupted. With a 90 minute lesson I myself don’t think this is enough to actually leave the room, and my experiences make me hesitant to do so.

My break generally involves first a passive activity, generally viewing a short video that I have sourced online. I try as much as possible to align the video to the topic, or to language learning in general, although this is not always possible. The video also is generally not language intensive. The students thus have a chance to relax while watching a montage of great sporting feats, or a comedy sketch, or a viral video. After viewing students are given a short and non-threatening task to complete, perhaps as simple as giving their thoughts on the video to a partner.

Getting sweaty, again
After taking a break, it’s time to get back into the rest of the lesson. I like to time my break so that the first half is longer than the second half, and I also often use this an opportunity to move students around the room, particularly in speaking classes, so that students engage with different interlocutors.

The cool-down
Again, the cool-down activity is not merely a lesson filler. While giving students homework and reminding them of important dates are important class management tasks, this is also not the cool down to learning. A cool-down activity is a chance for students to reflect on what they have learnt. It can be a chance for teachers to conduct some short formative assessments, such as asking students to write 3 things they have learnt during the lesson, or to complete a PMI chart (I’ll write more about these Classroom Assessment Techniques in an upcoming post). The activity should give students a sense of accomplishment for what they have learnt, and importantly for both student and teacher to see the areas which need more focus.
Personally, I use these terms with my students. At the start of each lesson I display the plan for the lesson with the different activities we plan to complete in the different stages (although it doesn’t always go to plan). In this way students can see where we are in a lesson and how far we’ve got to go. For me it’s worked well. In a country where sleeping in class seems to be accepted, I haven’t had anyone nod off on my yet (touch wood)!



*What is the length of the lessons you teach?
*What do you consider to be a ‘long’ lesson?
*What strategies do you use for keeping students engaged during long lessons?

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Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at

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