How Teachers Plan Lessons

Allan C. Ornstein
Loyola University Chicago

Teachers engage in five levels of planning:yearly, term, unit, weekly, and daily. Planning at each level involves a set of goals, sources of information, forms or outlines, and criteria for judging the effectiveness of planning. Whereas yearly and term planning usually is framed around state or school district recommendations or curriculum guides, unit, weekly, and daily lesson planning permits wider latitude for teachers to develop their own plans. At the secondary school level, the chair of the various subject or academic areas usually performs this professional role and works with teachers to improve instructional planning.

Brown (1988, 1993) points out that teachers rely most heavily on: (1) previous success or failures, (2) district curriculum guides, (3) textbook content, (4) student interest, (5) classroom management factors, (6) school calendar, and (7) prior experience when they plan at the yearly or term levels. At the unit, weekly and daily levels, they are mostly influenced by: (1) availability of materials, (2) student interest, (3) schedule interruptions, (4) school calendar, (511 district curriculum guides, (63 textbook content, (7) classroom management, (8) classroom activity flow, and (9) prior experience. According to Yinger (1980), planning is perceived as rational, logical, and structured, and as being reinforced by a number of instructional and managerial routines. By the middle of the school year about 85 percent of the instructional activities are routinized. In planning, teachers use instructional routines for questioning, monitoring and managing students, as well as for coordinating classroom activities.

But the teacher needs to consider variety and flexibility in planning, as well as structure and routine, to take into account the studentsí differing developmental needs and interests. Some students especially high achievers, divergent thinkers, and independent learners, learn more in non-structured and independent situations, whereas many low achievers, convergent thinkers, and dependent learners prefer highly structured and directed environments. Similarly, many teachers are holistic an intuitive in their planning. They do not use detailed outlines which delineate objectives, content and activities, but rather use sketchy outlines and a few last-minute reminders. Some teachers ó usually self-confident and experienced ones ó prefer not to be limited by prescriptive models. Also subject matter and grade level may be a factor. Some subjects, as well as the early grade levels, may lend themselves to fewer prescriptive class activities and to more exploratory activities.

Lesson Plans By Authorities

Many current authorities who write about what a lesson plan should contain write from the point of view of direct instructional methodsó that is, a view of the classroom in which teaching is teacher-directed, methods and materials are sequenced, content is extensive and focused, students are provided with practice as the teacher checks or monitors the work, and the teacher provides evaluation of performance. The objectives are clearly stated in the beginning of the lesson, and a review either proceeds or follows the statement of objectives. Learning takes place in an academic, subject-centered environment. There is little mention or concern about student needs or interests; emphasis is on student abilities and achievements.

The authors listed in Table 1 all exhibit this direct, step-by-step approach to learning. The categories or components are lined up within the table to show similarities among approaches. All lesson plan components and classroom events are controlled by the teacher, no provision is made for student choice or planning, and the classroom is highly structured and businesslike. Most important, the emphasis is on knowledge, skills, and tasks, as well as practice, review, and testing. Very few, if any, of the prescriptions seem directed to problem solving, critical thinking, or creativity, much less personal, social, or moral development.

Although the authorities listed in the table might not admit to it or agree, their approaches apply mainly to the teaching of basic skills and basic subjects such as reading, mathematics and foreign language, where practice and drill are often recommended. They are not as effective, if they can be used at all, in teaching inquiry or discovery learning or creative thinking. Nevertheless, since the approaches do receive much attention in the professional literature and since they are applicable in more than one teaching area, they should be considered. Later, we will present a less direct approach, along with sample lesson plans, that provides teachers with greater flexibility in teaching.

Components of the Lesson Plan

There is no one ideal format to follow for a lesson plan. Teachers should modify the suggestions of methods experts and learning theorists to coincide with their personal teaching style and the suggestions of their school or district. For example, it is recommended that beginning teachers include the following seven components in a lesson plan.

I. Specific objective of the lesson

II. Appropriate motivation to capture the studentís interest and maintain it throughout the lesson

Ill. Development or outline of a lesson (sometimes referred to as content or activities)

IV. Varied methods, including drill, questions, and demonstrations, designed to keep the lesson track

V. Varied materials and media to supplement and clarify content

VI. Medial and final summaries

VII. Provision for assignment or homework (Ornstein, 1995b)

The teacher can vary how much time he or she spends on each component, how much detail is included in each, and which components are included. With experience the teacher discovers the most useful components to include and the amount of detail needed in the plan as a whole.

I. Objectives. The first question a teacher considers when sorting out the content he or she plans to teach are: What do I plan to teach? What do I want the students to learn from the lesson that will be worthwhile? The answers to these questions are the objectives; they form the backbone of the lesson. Motivation, methods, and materials are organized to achieve the objectives. Establishing objectives ensures against aimlessness. Objectives maybe phrased as statements or questions. (Most people think they can only be written as statements.) The question form may encourage students to think. Regardless of how they are phrased, they should be written on the chalkboard or on a printed handout for students to see. Here are some examples of objectives for a lesson plan, written first as a statement and then as a question.

1a. To compare the prices of agricultural goods and industrial goods during the depression

1b. Why did the prices of agricultural goods decline more than the prices of industrial goods during the depression?

2a. To explain how the production of oil in the Middle East affects economic conditions in the United States

2b. How does the production of oil in the Middle East affect economic conditions in the United states?

3a. To identify how the skin protects people from diseases.

3b. How does our skin protect us from diseases?

The major objective of a lesson may have ancillary (secondary) objectives. Ancillary objectives divide the lesson into segments and highlight or supplement important ideas. Below is an example of a lesson objective with two ancillary objectives (expressed as statements and then questions). 1a. Lesson objective: To explain the causes of World War I.

Ancillary objectives: To compare nationalism, colonialism, and militarism; to distinguish between propaganda and facts.

1b. Lesson objective: What were the causes of World War I?

Ancillary objective: How are nationalism, colonialism, and militarism related? How can we distinguish between propaganda and facts?
II. Motivation. Motivational devices or activities arouse and maintain interest in the content to be taught. Fewer motivational devices are needed for students who are intrinsically motivated (that is are motivated to learn to satisfy some inner need or interest) than for students who are extrinsically motivated (that is, require incentives or reinforcers for learning). Lesson planning and instruction must seek to enhance both forms of motivation.

a. Intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation involves sustaining or increasing the interest students already have in a topic or task. The teacher selects and organizes the lesson so that it will (a) whet studentsí appetite at the beginning of the lesson; (b) maintain student curiosity and involvement in the work by using surprise, doubt, and perplexity; novel as well as familiar materials; interesting and varied method; (c) provide active and manipulative opportunities; (d) permit student autonomy in organizing time and effort; and (e) provide choices or alternatives to meet requirements of the lesson. Some activities and materials that can be used to enhance intrinsic motivation are:

1. Challenging statements. Nuclear power plants are unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

2. Pictures and cartoons. How does this picture illustrate the American publicís feelings toward Japanese-made automobiles?

3. Personal Experiences. What type of lothing is best to wear during freezing weather?

4. Problems. What metals conduct heat well? Why?

5. Exploratory and creative activities. I need three volunteers to come to the chalkboard to fill in the blanks of the puzzle, while the rest of you do it in your seats.

6. Charts, tables, graphs, maps. From a study of the chart, what characteristics do all these animals have in common?

7. Anecdotes and stories. How does the paragraph I have just read convey the authorís feelings about the South?

8. Contests and games. Letís see how well you remember yesterdayís homework. We will organize five teams by rows. In your notebooks, list eight different string instruments. You will have two minutes. We will average the scores. The winning row, with the highest average score, will receive extra credit.

b. Extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation focuses on cognitive strategies. Activities enhance success and reduce failure increase motivation. High-achieving students will persist longer than low-achieving students, even when experiencing failure, so incentives for learning are important for average- and low-achieving students. They are important for all students when the subject matter or content is uninteresting or difficult (Covington, 1992; Stipek, 1993).

Nine basic principles can be used by teachers for enhancing extrinsic motivation.

1. Clear directions and expectations. Students must know exactly what they are expected to do and how they will be evaluated.

2. Time on task. Keep students on task. The amount of time allocated to a particular topic or task varies considerably from school to school and from teacher to teacher.  Time on task, student motivation, and student achievement are related.

3. Cognitive match. Student motivation is highest when students work on tasks or problems appropriate to their achievement levels. When they are confused or when the work is above their abilities, they resist or give up. When it is below their abilities, they seek other interests or move through the lesson as fast as possible.

4. Prompt feedback. Feedback on student performance should be constructive and prompt. A long delay between behavior (or performance) and results diminishes the relationship between them.

5. Relate past learning with present learning. Use reinforcers to strengthen previous learned content.

6. Frequent rewards. No matter how powerful a reward, it may have little impact if it is provided infrequently. Small, frequent rewards are more effective than large, infrequent ones.

7. Praise. Verbal praise ("Good," "Great," "Finework") is a pwerful motivating force.

8. High expectations. Students who are expected to learn will learn more and be motivated to learn more than students who are not expected to learn.

9. Value of rewards. Motivation is partially based on the value an individual places on success, as well as the individualís estimate of the possibility of success. Thus, incentives used for students should have value for them.

III. Development. The development, sometimes called the outline, can be expressed as topics and subtopics, a series of broad or pivotal questions, or a list of activities (methods and materials). Most secondary teachers rely on topics or questions, and most elementary teachers refer to activities.

Emphasis on topics, concepts, or skills indicates a content orientation in teaching approach. Emphasis on activities has a more socio-psychological orientation; there is more stress on student needs and interests. For example, outlining the problems of the ozone layer on the chalkboard is content-oriented. Interviewing someone about the ozone layer is a activity that encompasses a wide range of social stimuli.

Several criteria have been proposed for selecting and organizing appropriate content and experiences in the development section. The following are criteria for content developed by Ornstein and Hunkins (1993):

1. Validity. The content selected should be verifiable, not misleading or false.

2. Significance. The content needs to be constantly reviewed so that worthwhile content ó basic ideas, information, principles of the subject ó is taught, and lessons do not become cluttered by masses of more trivial content now available through the "information explosion."

3. Balance. The content should promote macro and micro knowledge; students should experience the broad sweep of content, and they should have the opportunity to dig deep.

4. Self-sufficiency. The content should help students learn how to learn; it should help them gain maximum sufficiency in the most economic manner.

5. Interest. Content is best learned when it is interesting to the student. Some progressive educators urge that the child should be the focus of the teaching and learning process.

6. Utility. The content should be useful or practical in some situation outside the lesson, either to further other learning or in everyday experiences. How usefulness is defined depends on whether a teacher is subject-centered or student-centered, but most teachers would agree that useful content enhances the human potential of the learner.

7. Learnability. It should be within the capacity of the students to learn the content. There should be a cognitive match between the studentsí aptitudes and the subject (and between their abilities and academic tasks).

8. Feasibility. The teacher needs to consider the time needed, resources and materials available, curriculum guides, state and national tests, existing legislation, and the political climate of the community.

There are limitations on what can be planned and taught.

IV. Methods. Relying on the same methods day after day would be boring, even for adults. Different procedures sustain motivation throughout the lesson. Although many different procedures can be employed in a lesson, four basic methods are (1) practice and drill, (2) questioning, (3) explanations and lectures, and (4) demonstrations and experiments. Depending on the type of lesson ó as well as the students, subject, and grade level ó these instructional methods should be used in varying degrees.

a. Practice/Drill. There is general agreement that students need practice exercises to help then transfer new information into long-term memory and integrate new and old learning. Practice problems may come from workbooks, textbooks, and teacher-made materials. Practice, in the form of soatwork, can be helpful for students if it is given for limited time periods (no more than ten minutes per class session), the instructions , and it is integrated into the lesson (not assigned to fill time or to maintain order). Drill can be basic skills, such as reading, mathematics, and language, and in lower grades and with low-achieving students who need more practice to learn new skills or integrate information (Ornstein, 1995a; Slavin, 1994).

A short practice/drill session provides a quick and efficient way for teachers to check on the effectiveness of instruction before moving to the next stage or level in the lesson. It is well suited for mastery and direct methods of lesson planning, and especially for low-achieving students. Following are some drill techniques that can lesson planning.

1. Ask pupils to repeat answers.

2. List facts or concepts to be remembered.

3. Identify characteristics or attributes of the content.

4. Review answers to questions.

5. State answers in different ways.

6. Have volunteers answer a number of questions and discuss answers.

7. Give a short quiz and have students grade papers.

8. Assign exercises from the workbook or text.

9. Monitor seatwork and provide immediate feedback.

10. Discuss or review common problems, as revealed by a short quiz or monitoring of the seatwork.

b. Questioning. Teachers should include four to six broad questions that serve the dual purpose of stimulating discussion among students and outlining the major topics or parts of the lesson. Teachers who emphasize critical thinking or problem solving tend to rely on questions to stimulate the lesson. Such questions should:
1. Be simple and direct.

2. Encourage critical thought.

3. Be aimed at eliciting broad answers, not memory or factual information.

4. Be asked in an order that corresponds to the content of the -lesson.

5. Build on each other, that is, be sequential.

6. Challenge students, yet not be above the level of the class.

7. Be framed to meet the needs and interests of the students.

8. Vary in difficulty and abstractness to encourage participation by different students.

Good questioning, for Bruner (1966), leads to higher modes of learning. In answering a thought-provoking question, a high achieving student limits it, analyzes parts of it, reformulates it, and decides on the best methods to use for answering. Thought-provoking questions usually ask how and why, not when, where, who, or what, unless introduced by aprovocative comment. Questions that call for a yes-or-no answer do not promote discussion or stimulate critical thinking or problem solving strategies. Examples of thought questions are:
1. The temperature was identical on Thursday and today, Yet today we feel warmer. What accounts for this difference?

2. How can we determine whether the author is serious or poking fun?

3. How did the concept of Manifest Destiny lead to our Latin American colonial policy during the nineteenth century?

4. Why are Japan and Korea outproducing Americans in manufacturing good?

c. Lectures/Explanations. Teachers are often required to give short lectures and explanations to emphasize an important point, to fill in content gaps in the workbook or textbook, or to elaborate on a specific content are short explanations may be embedded in the lesson plan without writing or noting it.

In planning an explanation or short lecture, the teacher should keep in mind the following characteristics.

1. Sequence of discourse. The lesson should follow a planned sequence, with few diversions or tangential discussions. Explanations should be included at proper places to maintain the sequence of the lesson.

2. Fluency. The teacher should speak in clear, concise complete grammatical sentences.

3. Visual Aids. Pictures, tables, charts, models, and computer graphics or videos can be used to enhance verbal explanations.

4. Vocabulary. The teacher should use the studentsí normal vocabulary for effective explanations. Technical or new terms pertaining to the content should be introduced and clearly defined during the explanation.

5. Inclusion of elements. The major ideas of the lesson should be elaborated with specific descriptions or examples.

6. Explicit explanations. Causal and logical relationships should be made explicit (Kiewra, 1991; Perrott, 1982).

d. Demonstrations/Experiments. Demonstrations and experiments play an important role in inductive inquiry. They are ideal for creative and discovery methods of lesson planning, whereby the teacher and students integrate the subject matter by collecting data, observing, measuring, identifying, and examining causal relationships. Younger students and low-achieving students will need more instruction and feedback form the teacher. Older and high-achieving students work more independently and participate more in demonstrations and experiments because they are more able to handle quantities of information, reorganize information into new forms, and transfer it to new learning situations. In either case the recommendations below ensure the effectiveness of the demonstration and experiment.
1. Plan and prepare for the demonstration (or experiment). Make certain that all materials needed are available when you begin. Practice the demonstration (if conducted for the first time) before the lesson to see what problems may arise.

2. Present the demonstration in context with what students have already learned or as a stimulus for searching for new knowledge.

3. Make provisions for full participation of the students.

4. Maintain control over the materials or equipment to the extent the students are unable to work on their own.

5. Pose both close-ended and open-ended questions according to studentsí capacity for deductive and inductive responses. ("What is happening to the object?" is a close-ended question; "What can you generalize from . . .?" is open-ended.)

6. Encourage students to ask questions as they arise.

7. Encourage students to make observations first and then to make inferences and generalizations. Encourage them to look for and express new information and insights.

8. Allocate sufficient time so that (a) the demonstration can be completed, (b) students can discuss what they have observed, (c) students can reach conclusions and apply principles they have learned, (d) students can take notes or write up the demonstrations, and (e) materials can be collected and stored away.

V. Materials and Media. Media and materials, sometimes referred to as resources or instructional aids, facilitate understanding and foster learning by clarifying verbal abstractions and arousing interest in the lesson. Many materials and media are available. The teacherís selection should depend on the objectives and content of the lesson plan; the age, abilities, and interests of the students; the teacherís ability to use the resources; the availability of the materials and equipment; and the classroom time available. The materials and media can be in the form of (1) visuals such as posters, slides, graphs, films, and videos; (2) reading materials such as pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, reports, and book; (3) listening media such as radio, records, tapes, and television; (4) verbal activities such as speeches, debates, buzz sessions, forums, role playing, and interviews; (5) motor activities such as games, simulations, experiments, exercises, and manipulative material; and (6) construction activities such as collages, paintings, logs, maps, graphs, drawings, and models.

The materials and media should be:

1. Accurate and up-to-date learned.

2. Large enough to be seen by all the students

3. Ready for use (check in advance of the lesson)

4. Interesting and varied

5. Suited for developing the objectives of the lesson

6. Properly displayed and used throughout the lesson

Many lessons fail because materials or media that were needed were inadequate, unavailable, or inappropriate for the level of the students. If students need to bring special materials for a task or project, they should be told far in advance so that they may obtain them. The teacher should be sure that necessary equipment is available, scheduled in advance, set up on the appropriate day and in working order.

VI. Summaries. Teachers cannot assume that learnings is taking place in the class as a whole (or even with the majority) just because they have presented well-organized explanations and demonstrations or because some students give correct answers to questions. Some students may have been daydreaming or even confused while other students answered questions and while the demonstrations took place. To ensure understanding of the lesson and to determine whether the objectives of the lesson have been achieved, teachers should include one or more of the following types of summaries.

There should be a short review of each lesson in which the lesson as a whole and important or confusing parts are summarized. A short review can take the following forms:

1. Pose several thought-provoking questions that summarize previous learning (or previous dayís homework)

2. Ask for a comparison of what has already been learned with what is being

3. Ask a student to summarize the main ideas of the lesson. Have other students make modifications and additions.

4. Assign review questions (on the chalkboard or in the workbook or textbook).

5. Administer a short quiz.

During the lesson at some point when a major concept or idea has been examined, it is advisable to present a medial summaries a series of pivotal questions or a problem that will bring together the information that has been discussed. Media summaries slow down the lesson; however, they are important for low-achieving and young students who need more time to comprehend new information and more links with prior knowledge. A final summary is needed to clinch the basic ideas or concepts of the lesson, if you realize that it is impossible to teach all You planned, then end the lesson at some logical point and provide a summary of the content you have covered. Each lesson should be concluded or brought to closure by a summary activity, not by the bell.

VII. Assignments. The work that students are requested to do at home should furnish them with the content (knowledge, skills, and tasks) needed to participate in the next dayís lesson. Following are some characteristics of effective assignments.

1. The homework should be interesting.

2. Attention should be directed to definite concepts or problems.

3. Questions should be framed so as to provide background information necessary to answer the teacherís questions on the following day.

4. Homework should periodically incorporate previously taught content to reinforce learning.

5. The assignment should provide opportunities for students to grow in written (or symbolic) expression, reading, or important skills related to the subject.

6. Provision should be made for individual differences. There should be minimum assignments for all students with enrichment levels for high-achieving students.

7. The new assignment can be from the chalkboard or photocopied and distributed at the beginning or the end of the period.

8. Homework should be explained, practice or examples given if necessary. Problems that may arise when doing the homework should be examined briefly in class at the end of the period.

9. Assignments should not be dictated, because of the time dictation takes and the errors students make in recording oral assignments. Either the homework should be written on and copied from the chalkboard at the beginning of the period while the teacher engages in administrative or clerical tasks, or it should be duplicated and handed out on a weekly basis (for younger students) or monthly basis (for older students).

10. The length of the assignment will vary by grade level and subject. It is generally thought that homework in grades 1 to 3 should not exceed 15 to 30 minutes per day; grades 4 to 6, 45 minutes; grades 7 to 9, 15 to 30 minutes per subject; and grades 0 to 12, 20 to 45 minutes per subject. Lengthy assignments discourage students, especially slow students, and create anxiety and stress.

11. For variety, assignments might include:  (a) notebook and textbook assignments, (b) working on projects, (c) writing letters, articles, or reports, (d) analyzing television programs, (e) reading related books and articles, (U interviewing people and visiting places in the community, and (g) conducting or summarizing an experiment or being involved in a hands-on activity.

12. Homework should be monitored for completion and accuracy and students should receive timely, specific, and constructive feedback. Where performance is poor, teachers should provide not only feedback and additional time for review, but also additional assignments designed to ensure mastery of content.

13. It is important for the school to have a coordinated homework/tutoring program for students who need assistance--and the assistance should be provided on a daily basis, if necessary. Provisions mustbe made for students who so not understand the daily assignment; otherwise frustration and lack of interest take over and interfere with learning.


Although teacher education programs can transmit some generalized principles of teaching and lesson planning, teachers need to learn to rely on their own experiences and capabilities, incorporating them into their own classroom practices. Teachers can also improve their instruction by observing experienced teachers, conversing with them, getting feedback about their own instruction. Since supervisors or principals rarely visit classrooms to observe teachers and provide feedback, unless they are experiencing difficulties with the students, teachers need to interpret their own instruction to grow professionally. Based on Manderville and Riversí (1991) research, the teachersí best barometers are their students. Teachers need to learn to understand their instruction from a student perspective, since students are the ones being taught and who observe teachers and interact with them on a daily basis ó and under various conditions (Hollingsworth, 1994; Ornstein, 1995b).

With experience, good teachers grow less egocentric (concerned about themselves) and more sensitive to student concerns. Such a shift in interest and focus will help teachers analyze what is happening in the classroom on an ongoing basis. By learning to read their studentsí verbal and nonverbal behavior, they will improve their instructional planning. As teachers put themselves in their place, as students, they should become more attune to them as individuals ó with particular needs and abilities ó as opposed to viewing them as some amorphous group with generic problems or concerns.


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