A is for Aims

24 04 2011

Ready, aim.... (Vital Imagery Ltd)

“Yes, but what were your aims?!

This must be one of the most frequently voiced questions in the discussion that follows an observed lesson. The trainee – with little or no idea of how language learning is managed – is pitted against the trainer, convinced that learning can be manufactured according to precise specifications, and with the reliability of a Swiss watch.  It’s all about planning, anticipating, predicting and pre-empting.  Hence, the need for aims, and hence, the kind of advice on lesson planning of which the following is typical:

“To write an effective plan the teacher needs to think carefully about what exactly the aim of the lesson is. What will the learners learn?” (Watkins, 2005). 

Yes, but what will the learners learn? Will it be someting entirely new or simply consolidation of existing knowledge – in which case, will the improvement be perceptible? Will all the learners learn the same thing, and at the same pace? And what does ‘learn’ mean here? Is this conscious or unconscious learning? Are we talking about the acquisition of inert, declarative knowledge, or is this knowledge available to be proceduralised, and, if so, how can such proceduralization be realistically achieved in the space of a 45-minute lesson? And how, in the end, do you measure it?  How do we know when someone has learned something? And so on and so on.

The concept of aims seems to be based on the fallacy that language learning is the incremental accumulation of discrete-items of linguistic knowledge. But, as Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997) reminds us, “learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings” (p. 18).

Not only that, the classroom – being essentially a social organism –  is a complex dynamic system, where small effects may have unintended consequences, and where major interventions may produce only trivial results. As Dick Allwright (2005) points out “What learners get from a lesson is not predictable merely from what is taught in that lesson and certainly not just from the teaching points covered… We cannot now sensibly measure the overall success of a lesson simply in terms of the percentage of teaching points successfully learned because the learners may have learned little from the teaching points and a lot from everything else that happened in the lesson” (p 12).

Hence, it might be better to start with the assumption that learning cannot be programmed, in any deliberate sense, and that, as Leo van Lier puts it “it might be a good idea to design … lessons as if they formed a small organic culture (or an ecosystem) in themselves, where participants strive to combine the expected and the unexpected, the known and the new, the planned and the improvised, in harmonious ways” (van Lier 1996, p. 200).

What advice should we give trainee teachers, then? Allwright suggests that we should not abandon the idea of planning, but that we should replace the notion of ‘teaching points’ with that of ‘learning opportunities’: “I see planning as crucial to language teaching and learning,  but planning for richness of opportunity and especially for understanding,  not planning to determine highly specific learning outcomes” (op.cit, p. 10). That is, rather than defining the aims in terms of pre-specified outcomes (typically grammar McNuggets), trainees should be encouraged to think in terms of the desired learning opportunities, or what van Lier calls ‘affordances’.

Moreover, evidence from research into expert teachers’ planning decisions suggests that effective teachers seldom start their planning processes with a clear conception of an ultimate aim. Rather, they start with a somewhat fuzzy notion of what will feel right, for this class, at this stage of their learning, at this time of day, and given such-and-such contextual factors – what I call ‘fit’.  I now tell my trainees to try and esatablish a ‘fit’ for their lesson, and work from there, while at the same time incorporating plenty of elasticity into the design. And I tell them to be prepared to adapt or even abandon their plan in light of the response of the learners.

A coursebook

Such an approach, of course, sits uncomfortably with the ‘teaching point’ culture imposed by coursebooks. But coursebooks (mercifully) consist of more than simply a syllabus of teaching points. They include topics, tasks and texts – all of which, with only a little ingenuity, can be usefully detached from the teaching point that might originally have motivated them. If trainees can be encouraged to see the ‘affordance potential’ of coursebook tasks, for example, they may be some way towards designing lessons that maximise learning opportunities, even within a coursebook-driven paradigm.

In the end, as the man said, we cannot cause learning; we can only provide the conditions in which it may occur. And maybe, therefore, we should learn not to fear unpredictability, even to celebrate it. As Stenhouse put it, a long time ago now, “Education as the induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable” (1975, pp. 82-3).


Allwright, R. 2005. From teaching points to learning opportunities and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 39, 9-32.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 1997. Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics 18.

Stenhouse, L. 1975.  An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.

Watkins, P. 2005. Learning to Teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Addlestone: Delta Publishing



42 responses

24 04 2011
Luiz Otávio

Just when I think you’re about to run out of letters to describe concepts… you manage to go back to A!
I also find lesson aims very hard to write and all too easy to pay lip-service to. My three (!) cents:

1. I tend to think that ACTIVITY aims (rather than lesson aims), are, to a certain extent, easier to write and can more accurately describe the intended outcome of an activity rather than of the whole lesson, which, paradoxically, as you said, might be only marginally related to what the activities in themselves were trying to do in the first place. So, for example, teachers have to know that a pre-listening task, for example, is meant to arouse students’ interest and activate relevant background knowledge and if that doesn’t at least SEEM to happen (as you said, the evidence can be v e r y elusive), there might be something wrong with that PART of the lesson. But if a teacher doesn’t at least know what that particular step is TRYING to achieve, he/she will have no benchmark against which to measure its (prima facie?) effectiveness. (Sorry about the caps – can’t seem to use italics here).

2. Helping novice teachers write clear, realistic and intrinsically plausible activity aims also involves helping them choose the right verbs. I usually tell them to steer clear of “make” (e.g., “make students use the simple past freely” / “make students understand the difference between…”) and use “help” or perhaps “enable” depending on the aim. This is not semantic hair-splitting, I tell them. It’s how the teacher ultimately defines his/her role (and the ultimate impact of his/her interventions) in class. And who guarantees that, in the long run, teaching novice teachers how to phrase their aims might not have some sort of backwash effect on their classroom practice?

3. I believe professional developmental aims are critically important, too. As teacher educators, we must find a way to somehow help them move beyond the bureaucratic and often meaningless CELTA standard phrases (e.g., “I want to improve my classroom management”) and zoom in on SPECIFIC aspects of their classroom teaching worthy of attention. But for that to happen, first they must learn how to describe their lessons (plans and outcomes) with a minimum degree of precision (and a common set of codes, as it were). This involves going beyond an initially hazy, wishy washy, intuitive notion of how a lesson hangs together and, to that end, knowing how to state aims might help, I think.

Thank you for another thought-provoking post. It’s 3:52am here, but I didn’t want to go to bed before giving the whole issue some thought.

26 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Good advice, Luiz. Yes, I also get a bit squeamish when I read aims (whether prosepective or retrospective) couched in terms of coersion: “I had the students compare the past and the present perfect…” “I’ll get them to read a text about ….”

And I totally agree that the teacher should have a clear idea of how each activity contributes to the logic and flow of the lesson – again, it’s the notion of ‘fit’ at work: how does this lesson fit into your scheme of work etc? and how does this activity fit into the lesson as a whole?

24 04 2011

Damn the internet and its effect on my brain. When I turned the computer on, I was aiming for top billing in the comments, but emails, and other blog posts distracted me and now here I am – playing second fiddle to Luis Otavio.

You might be surprised to hear that I am not implacably opposed to lesson aims – but largely because I have seen too many classes where an aimless lesson detracted from the learning experience. I think it’s good to have some point where we sit back and reflect on what we (had) hope(d) would come from the lesson.

When I see lesson aims expressed as, “To learn XXX” or “to raise awareness of XXX”, my eyes involuntarily roll. It’s difficult to measure either or them. But does this mean that I have become a bureaucrat who has no interest in something that can’t be measured. All I can say now is that I hope not. [For Luis: to use italics type a pointy bracket pointing left, the letter i, and a pointy bracket pointing right, before the phrase that you want to italicise and the same with /i in the middle, after the phrase, and no spaces].

I think teachers, under the pressure of work, the contempt bred by familiarity, whatever reason, often lose sight of the fact that they are supposed to be engaged in a purposeful pursuit. Regrettably, the infrastructure of most educational concerns does nothing to disabuse them of the idea that they can just skulk through the fields. Here’s a coursebook, there’s the students, close the door and noone will hear you [plural] scream.

Aims therefore become a reasonable expectation that a manager can use to encourage teachers to return to a time when they considered what they were going to do with their students. And I don’t mean aims such as “Learn the present perfect.” I do like the illusion of structure offered by the CEFR and so our teachers are encouraged to use the “Can dos” as their aims – or outcomes – or objectives.

These are also easy to use no matter how you go about your teaching. There is nothing inconsistent, I would hope, about a dogmetician walking into the class thinking, “No matter what we’re going to do today, I’m going to try and help them improve their ability to talk about cause and effect.” Presumably not because this is something the dogmetrix is interested in but because he (gender already marked by “dogmetrix”) has spotted the need of some students to work on this. I think competency-based aims are beneficial to one and all: students get the benefit of pretending that there is a structure to their learning; teachers can marshall their thoughts around language -pre-packaged or emergent- and use this to help them select purposeful activities; administrators can rest easy.

Incidentally, as you may have inferred from my second paragraph, I do not believe that lesson aims have to be set in stone before the lesson. There is no harm in writing them post facto. In fact, we are arguably being more honest if we do so and it encourages teacher reflection more than writing them a priori [I think it’s a sign of my age that as I get older I pompously inject Latin into my writing. Apologies.] If a teacher sat back at the end of her class and thought about what had gone on and why it had gone on, this would be a damn sight better than writing some aims a few hours before the class began.

24 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

As usual, Diarmuid sensibly reminds me that I should curb my enthusiasms! (And I should say that, on reflection, I did amend the last sentence of my initial posting, which originally read “…we should learn not to fear aimlessness…”, and which seemed to give the wrong message entirely).

I think you are absolutely right that there is a lot of merit in articulating a purpose to a lesson, so long as this purpose is (a) achievable (b) activity-oriented, and (c) communicative, e.g. the learners will develop their ability to talk about their experience in a job interview situation. This would seem to easily map onto CEFR descriptors – one reason I’ve always favoured such descriptors, and resisted the idea of inventories.

And, yes, there’s no reason to have to articulate these aims at the outset of planning, but rather let them emerge from a consideration of what might ‘fit’.

24 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Thanks Scott.

This is a brilliant line: “Education as the induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable” I’m going to remember that one… and check Stenhouse out!

I remember my *induction* into standard operating procedures (the CELTA) and having massive problems trying to fill those aims sheets in before and after each test lesson. It was a nightmare, to be frank, and I was the only one who even had the balls to ask the tutor whether I really had to do *so much* goddamn paperwork, filling in this (what seemed like) mountain of bloody forms just to do a practice lesson. (Mind you, I recall it was a very materials-heavy course anyway).

It’s funny to think of this now. I can, of course, see what the tutors were trying to get us to do (work from your own aims, learn how to do this kind of analysis), but a few things strike me (in relation to your post, Scott).

(1) I’ve worked for 5 schools/companies since and nobody has (rightly or wrongly) asked me to fill in forms anything like this.
(2) I know it’s a difficult balance to achieve training novices (starting with simple, digestible ideas/instruction and so…), but couldn’t any more be done to prepare teachers for the very unpredictable nature of learning – not teaching – *learning*? Maybe not, I don’t know, I’m not a trainer.

That feeling of *fit*, you talk about, Scott is perfect for what I do now. I hardly ever go into lessons with anything, but a vague – outline – notion of what we will be doing. Or often, with simply a conversation starter (or not!) in my head and that’s it! Why? Because I’ve learned that you *cannot* predict what language the learners are going to use or what they are going to learn and you have to make the most of these realities.
My job, as I see it, is largely to guide the proceedings like I am the host of cocktail party or something where everyone is mingling and socializing… I try to: look after the flow if I see it sagging, validate people’s voices – praising interesting (and effective) things they say (even very trivial stuff), but *importantly* quite often looking after the flow means knowing when to *leave people alone* when they are involved in *their own* conversations.

My *aim to teach* ‘present perfect continous’ takes a back-seat in light of what I now understand about *learning* in the classroom. Yes, of course I’m going to do my best to (economically, efficiently) help people understand that tense when it is needed and when they are curious about it, and also to give good advice (read: have real two-way *discussions* with learners) about developing learning styles and strategies, but I’ve always felt somehow that teaching (when it is done well) is much more than the sum of its parts.


24 04 2011
David Warr

I once did a story with children about a group of pirates sailing to different islands. They had to draw the route on the map, along with all the stuff they encountered on each island. Afterwards, they had to write up the story. When I went round the room, one boy had no words but just 6 or 7 beautiful compasses, http://tinyurl.com/3mnrf88 that I had originally drawn on the board. I just laughed. That’s what he’d learned, and I thought they were amazing.

24 04 2011

‘I now tell my trainees to try and establish a ‘fit’ for their lesson, and work from there, while at the same time incorporating plenty of elasticity into the design. And I tell them to be prepared to adapt or even abandon their plan in light of the response of the learners.’

This sounds like an incredible amount to deal with for a trainee teacher. How often do you find trainees who are utterly overwhelmed by this?

While it’s a perfectly sensible idea to look at what experts do and try to actualize their ‘planning’ processes, aren’t there many times when there’s simply no substitute for experience? Your paragraph here gives me the impression that trainees can quickly become experts by mirroring the practices of experienced pros. While this can guide them well, surely it can’t make them expert planners overnight. Am I wrong?

24 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

No, you are not wrong, Adam – and pace David (Darkbloom’s) spirited defence (below), I should perhaps retract a little, or at least cover myself by saying that I had inservice teachers more in mind than preservice ones, when I suggested that ‘fit’ should be the starting point for planning. But I still think that it is a useful ‘construct’ to introduce early on, so that trainees appreciate that – eventually – it’s the learners’ needs, interests etc that should drive lesson planning (and course design), not the teaching point agenda so beloved by coursebook writers, syllabus designers, and testing bodies.

(The pace above was both a nod to Diarmuid’s predilection for Latin, and a way of testing his advice on italics – let’s see if it works!)

(It didn’t – I had to go into edit mode – what did I do wrong??)

26 04 2011
Chiew Pang

Amid such learned company, I have no thought-provoking opinions to add, but, however, I could help you, Scott, with one thing. To do the italics, you type the less than sign, then “i”, then the greater than sign before the words you want in italics. After these words, type the less than sign, followed by “/i”, and then the greater than sign.
The “i” within the less than/greater than symbols start the html command, but perhaps where you went wrong is the closing part, which is the same as the opening command, except for the slash sign.

If all of the above appears in italics, then what I’ve said is true; if not just delete this message!

28 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Chiew – if this appears in italics you are a great teacher! The problem was that last time I put the slash sign after the i.
Good tip!

24 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“Your paragraph here gives me the impression that trainees can quickly become experts by mirroring the practices of experienced pros. While this can guide them well, surely it can’t make them expert planners overnight. Am I wrong?”

Interesting interpretation. Personally, I didn’t see any assumption in what Scott said that he expects trainee mastery of any sophisticated teaching skills overnight (and to be frank, it perhaps a bit misguided to think that with all his expertise, he would not have anticipated such notions!).

It seems to me (and I could be wrong, of course) that Scott is simply trying to establish the very best ‘start as you mean to go on’ ethic with trainees, based on sound principles, *regardless* of how long in reality it will take the trainees (maybe a few years) to really master these skills. These are fundamental principles…

I really think no matter what we’re teaching, we have to come to terms with the following:

Whilst it is certainly sensible – even necessary – to go from simple to more complex models, we should be wary of giving *inadequate models*, thinking we are simply being pragmatic.

For example, in the case of my CELTA course, my tutor is still *absolutely adamant* – taking a pragmatic approach – that PPP and teaching from coursebooks is the only really feasible strategy for novice teachers.

The problem is: often learners/trainees will cling onto a particular model much of their career because of the (implicit or explicit) example their tutors gave – that this is how to do/understand something.

My CELTA tutor agreed with me when I mused that many teachers would stick with PPP throughout their careers simply because that’s the model you taught them to do – *even if* you made it clear that it was just a starting point on the course!
Is there something to be done to remedy this problem? I really don’t know, as I’m not a trainer, but people like Anthony Gaughan certainly seem to think so.

Start with principles that will bear fruit *not just in the short term, but in the long term*. Start as you really do mean (for people) to go on…


24 04 2011

Thanks, Mr. Darkbloom. Let’s see what Mr. Thornbury has to say.

24 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Adam – see above. I might add here that – in support of your argument — research into teacher development does indicate that teachers’ initial concerns are with self, then with technique, and finally with their students. To assume that we can jump-start them into a concern for their students may be wishful thinking, but, on the other hand, unless we set this agenda early, they may never reach that Elysian field!

25 04 2011
J.J. Sunset

1. On Scott’s entry:

“…unless we set this agenda early, they may never reach that Elysian field!”

This LEARNING HOW TO TEACH IS A JOURNEY metaphor pretty much sounds like a plan with its goals rather than a more “Larsen-Freemanian” approach to learning as a chaotic/complex nonlinear system, hardly measurable, which some bloggers here seem to support so enthusiastically.

2. On Scott’s introductory piece:

“The concept of aims seems to be based on the fallacy that language learning is the incremental accumulation of discrete-items of linguistic knowledge.”

The journey metaphor also entails an incremental accumulation of items/steps/stages of pedagogical knowledge within a program. Is learning how to teach a fallacy as well?

What is the nature of these items when assessing trainees and conferring CELTA certificates? Is it really about trainees’ grasp of how to create learning opportunities, fits, flow, deal with unpredictability…?


25 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

J.J. Sunset – I take the point that there seems to be similarities between the way I describe the learner’s ‘journey’ – as plotted out in terms of teaching points – and the teacher’s journey, as construed as a staged and predictable process. But there the similarity ends. While the teacher’s developmental trajectory is emergent, largely self-realised, motivated by increasingy less ego-centric concerns, and is described in terms of professional skills or competencies (e.g. the capacity to predict learners’ errors, facility in organising groups etc), the learners’ experience is typically straitjacketed by a syllabus of discrete items of knowledge which are, in turn, articulated as the ‘aims’ of each lesson, and tested as such. The teacher develops organically; the learner does too, but in spite of – not because of – the grammatical syllabus he/she has to conform to. Teachers develop and grow; learners are frogmarched through an alien, and often hostile, landscape of grammar McNuggets.

28 04 2011
Declan Cooley

request for reference to aforementioned research – thanking you in advance.

24 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Well, even if I am wrong, I hope I can be fairly relied upon at least to give a spirited defense!

Like I said, I’m not a trainer (I’m still doing my DELTA!), so I’m very curious to hear what trainers have to say about these matters. Especially people like Mr Gaughan… Where art though, Anthony? Come give a spirited defense!

By the way, if I’ve got the Italics thing right, the first *spirited* should be in Italics in this message!

24 04 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Speak of the devil and he doth appear!

Sorry, but have been a bit busy over on my own blog 😉

Aims have been driving me mad for years. My problem with them, in essence, is this: if you can measure how far they have been achieved, they are worthless.

For example, an aim like:

“By the end of the lesson, the learners will have been introduced to a lexical set of 5 fixed expressions relating to the word “mind”. They will have had opportunities to use these phrases in controlled and communicative written and spoken practice”

Is entirely measurable, but its achievement says nothing about the actual quality of the lesson as a learning experience for the students (let alone the trainee teacher). It is, however, common practice to encourage trainee teachers to frame such lesson aims because they establish observable features of the lesson on which success can be asserted, rather than on the rather more significant unobservables (such as actual learning).

Why is this so? Because trainers and examining bodies need something unambiguous to measure for the sake of face validity and for practicality’s sake. However, this need (however understandable and non-malign) has a problematic longer-term side effect…

Namely, trainees start to be discouraged from framing less observable aims that may actually focus on their learners and their learning with the guidance/threat that if lesson aims cannot be seen to have been achieved, lesson grading may suffer.

This necessarily feeds a culture of teacher centredness and marginalises the learner in the lesson planning process, as trainee teachers (who grow up to be fully fledged teachers and, eventually, teacher trainers) continue to ask the benign question “are these aims measurable?” and unwittingly divert their attention towards searching for observable success in materials and procedure, at the expense of searching for engagement with their learners.

Granted, I am painting with broad strokes here, but this reflects my experience as a trainee back in the day, on both short ELT and state-level teacher training courses.

I think aims are important, and I think framing aims well is an important thinking skill to acquire, but I am concerned about the issue of measurability that aims bring with them.

As for the discussion (somewhere in the thread, sorry, but lost it) about whether learner-centred flexible approach to aims is beyond pre-service trainees, I don’t know. What I do know is that trainee teachers are often capable of much more than you may think.

Nailing my colours to the mast, I think many pre-service teachers could think and act in this way – the trick is making them feel comfortable enough to do so, and this entails removing the fear of grades suffering if things go belly up.

Where each lesson is discretely graded, this requires a good deal of discretion and sensitivity on the part of the observer: something that, understandably, trainers may feel uncomfortable about.

But like Scott, I believe that we as trainers should ditch the “give ’em enough rope and they’ll hand themselves” negative view of trainee competence and replace it with a view closer to “give ’em enough rope and they’ll build themselves a bridge”.

Not sure if this constitutes a defence of anything, but I hope it’s spirited enough for you 😉

24 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Thanks, Anthony.

Kinda funny how we’re supposed to make teaching nice and predictable when the actual learning isn’t…


25 04 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Yes, that is one of the great paradoxes of education. Seeking measurability is well-intentioned and I certainly don’t wish to demonize those who look for ways of doing this. But the road to Hell is paved with good intonations and so I think we need to be careful in what we try to measure, and how.

Pity I don’t have a positive suggestion in this direction!

25 04 2011
Luiz Otávio

I think you’re absolutely right in saying that:

“It is, however, common practice to encourage trainee teachers to frame such lesson aims because they establish observable features of the lesson on which success can be asserted, rather than on the rather more significant unobservables (such as actual learning).”

But this last sentence leaves us with a paradox, doesn’t it? If some of the most important stuff (such as actual learning), as you said, is unobservable, how does one go about observing / describing / conceptualizing and then assessing it?

In other words, when do we know that something got learned? Through those so-called “Ah-ah” moments (in which instruction and students’ ZPD seem perfectly matched) that may or may not happen? Through subtle changes in the students’ facial expressions that might signal that the penny has dropped?

Or through the deployment of the “structure of the day” during meaning-focused tasks, which, in the words of Jane Willis, could be evidence of conformity rather than accuracy? (especially if we consider that proceduralization doesn’t happen over night).

26 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

Luiz asked “when do we know that something got learned?” Short answer: we don’t. Longer answer: we have to defer to the learners, and perhaps consult them directly – not through tests so much as questionnaires, surveys, conversations.

Apropos, I once observed a class of beginners where the teacher presented/reviewed the present simple for daily routines: he gets up at eight, he takes the bus to work at nine etc. The lesson was very well staged, well-managed, varied and generally as clear as it could be. The teacher even took time, five minutes before the end of the lesson, to hand out a short questionnaire, soliciting feedback on the lesson, e.g. those activities they had liked/not liked, etc as well as including a question as to what they thought the lesson had been about. After the students had left, the teacher and I sifted through the feedback, and found, predictably, that the students had liked all the activities, and that most of them had correctly identified the aim of the lesson, even if they phrased it differently, e.g. present simple, habits, daily routine, etc. But one student had identified the aim of the lesson as being “prepositions”. This took us back a little, until you think that, yes, there are a lot of prepositions in a “daily routine lesson”: at eight o’clock, to work, by bus, etc etc. The question then is: why had the prepositional content of the lesson been more salient to her than the present simple? One possible answer might be that she had done the present simple before, and was looking for other affordances that the lesson might offer: perhaps she had recently encountered a preposition problem, and was looking for help. Another possibility is that she simply wasn’t “ready” for the present simple — that is to say, her internal grammar wasn’t sufficiently structured to accommodate it. We’ll never know, but the story tends to confirm Allwrights position, quoted in my original post, that even the most well-planned lessons may have unexpected outcomes.

26 04 2011
Luiz Otávio

Fascinating account of the mismatch between teaching goal and student perception. It made me wonder if the fact that her overt focus on lexis (for whatever reason) might’ve worked as a sort of “form de-focus” (to use Keith Johnson’s term) through which she, paradoxically, ended up noticing and practicing the structure of the day.

24 04 2011

Seems we have a case of three people writing responses at about the same time. Sorry for causing any overlaps or confusion.

I’d like to assure you that I wasn’t trying to suggest you are wrong, nor that there’s anything bad at all in trying to set trainees off in the right direction. Indeed, the continued use of the PPP for several years *after* initial training should be evidence enough for the adoption of this more enlightened approach. Nevertheless, there’s so much to take in when you embark on this exciting life that you can see why PPP is so pervasive.

Good luck with the DELTA, by the way.

24 04 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Thanks Adam.

I can’t be right, until I’ve been wrong!

Don’t worry, I love being *constructively* criticised by people who know more than me… It’s all part of the fun of learning and the main reason I write messages on here. (and I’ve even learned how to do Italics today… yay!)

“Indeed, the continued use of the PPP for several years *after* initial training should be evidence enough for the adoption of this more enlightened approach.”

But *how much* this ostensibly enlightened approach could be used with novice trainers is what I’m fascinated by. Maybe PPP and coursebook teaching is the only reasonable thing that can plug the hole here.
I simply want to understand whether this is true or not!

Answers on a postcard (as they used to say…).

24 04 2011

Lİke Mr Darkbloom, the ‘aims’ section of lesson plans were always a struggle for me in my pre-service training and early teaching days. I always seemed to make lists that made it seem like I was planning a heavily grammar-oriented lesson (e.g. introduce present perfect simple for unfinished actions; elicit uses of for and since, etc.) or something vague like ‘develop reading skills’.

I used to think it was a matter of articulation and I would be able to describe clearer aims with time but I later began to question the point. Everything was set out in the teacher’s book so why regurgitate it on my own plan?

Fast forward a few years to a teacher training session where the speaker said aims only made sense if they were evaluated and re-written after the lesson. That made more sense I did this for a time before again dropping the aims and just doing the post-lesson reflection part

Fast forward again to now and the presence of Ministry of Education inspectors in my school. It has been decided that we should all have a standard lesson plan format to fill in and ‘aims’ is right there at the top. I’m filling them in but with no reference to language points to be covered or skills to be practised. Instead, I’m articulating my aims along the lines of ‘facilitate collaboration’ and ‘ensure student contributions to and engagement with lesson content’ – that one is on nearly every lesson plan. 😉

So, I guess my ramblings here tell me I’m no longer looking at aims as single lesson ones but instead part of the larger picture of long-term learning habits I want to encourage.

24 04 2011


1. I think having clear aims for a lesson can help teachers and students focus. It is however important to come up with aims that will actually take the students somewhere, eg, if the aim is “present simple” the students might be able to do a gap fill perfectly but might not be able to say or do anything. But they achieved their aim and therefore were successful…On the other hand, if the aim is to be able to talk, write and ask and answer questions about daily routine the students might actually end up being able to use the language, not only present simple but also prepositions of time, the time, days of the week, connectors, vocabulary, question words etc
2. But talking about aims…one of the problems I see in my school, is that students don’t know where they are going with their English. Not too long ago a 15 year old said “I don’t think I need to come to class any more. My English is petty good”. And it was but the only thing that came out of my mouth was “We need to talk”. This student is almost B1 and his English is OK for his age and learning experience but why did he say he didn’t have to come to class any more? Because he didn’t have a clear aim. He didn’t have an AIM. We could discuss how effective lesson aims are but the interesting point for me is to discuss the students’ big AIM. This might actually take us somewhere. Where do they want to go with their English? To London? To Madrid? To Buenos Aires? Depending where they want to go they will need to go further, they will need to take an umbrella, a bigger suitcase, they might have to get on a plane or they might just have to go for a short walk around the block. I sometimes feel that teachers and students work very hard putting bricks together, putting present perfect together with just, since and already. Now let’s get some future tenses and put everything together. Now let’s get 4 bricks of phrasal verbs. We work hard building a house…we haven’t designed, we haven’t visualised….and one day students might realise that their house has no windows. Or no front door. They will feel disappointed because they wanted to have a nice big welcoming front door. One of my roles as a teacher is to design this house with the students and go along with them while they are collecting the bricks they need to build their house. If the students’ AIM is too big for our time together, maybe 9 months, I will try to make sure they collect as many bricks as possible so that they can continue with another teacher later on…who will hopefully have or get a copy of the house the students are building.

24 04 2011

This post got me thinking about the difference between skills-based and knowledge-based teaching. This would be different in a language school context, but in a college which teaches subjects from across the spectrum, the need for standardisation might force these two together.

I would suspect that in a knowledge-based course (say, history) it is easier to define exactly what needs to be covered and to decide what will be taught (what will be learnt is a bit trickier). I’ve always felt that a language course is more skills based, and so it is more difficult to predict what will be needed and learnt in any session… Of course, a rigid coursebook structure sometimes tries to tick off points, considering them to be “done” after one or two lessons.

25 04 2011

Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil if you’d like to check for comments.

Please feel free to post there when you have anything you’d like to share.



26 04 2011
Zach Dallman

I think that the question of language learning aims is best solved by pushing them into the back of one’s mind while planning and instead focus instead on a different set of aims. In TBL, for instance, the teacher does not put to learners the learning aims, rather he must challenge them to complete a task, a challenge, a puzzle, a problem, a game…anything with a TANGIBLE outcome. Because nothing could be more abstract, more perplexing, more uninteresting and more unmotivating than to say to learners, “Class, (great news!) today you’re going to learn how to use will and going to for making predictions!”. You can almost hear the collective groan of the class. So instead say, “Today I want you to read the beginning of this story and predict what you think will happen next”. The difference is clear and the language aim ends up being the same! The difference is in the perception and reception on the part of the learners and makes planning (for me) so much easier because the aim is no longer abstract and “what” they learn (or don’t) isn’t as important (eg central) as HOW.

27 04 2011
J.J. Sunset

Hi, Scott.

I’d like to suggest a topic: D is for ” English Department”.
Teachers’ identities, line of work, meetings, etc…


28 04 2011
J.J. Sunset

Little help, please:

I don’t understand Chiew’s instructions when he says “less than sign” or “the greater than sign” to put stuff in italics.

28 04 2011
Scott Thornbury

The ‘less than’ sign is this < and the 'more than' sign its opposite. Chiew was not able to type the whole formula because it would have remained hidden, as code. I'm not even sure the less than sign will appear here.

29 04 2011
J.J. Sunset

Thanks guys

28 04 2011
Chiew Pang

Scott, you’re a good student…and a good teacher, too! 😉

29 04 2011

I’d like to add a little to the aims discussion here by referring to so called Receptive ‘Skills’ aims.

These are often expressed as “To develop the skill of…”. This mode of expression is invariably provided by a course tutor as a cover-all, blanket term for what would otherwise be an aimless (therefore pointless?) activity. Reading and listening texts tend to follow a very set procedural formula which includes setting comprehension tasks such as comprehension questions. Comprehension questions are also used in examinations which the student may pass or fail depending on how many s/he gets right. If these questions are for assessment in an examination, in what way are they any different in a receptive skills lesson? I would argue they are not any different at all. The tutors simply never realised that all they are getting their trainee teachers to do is test comprehension.

Tests are useful to discover what the student can’t yet do very well then help him or her do it ie: they may have a useful diagnostic function. However, I have never worked with or heard of a tutor who points this out. Testing a language point is simple enough and can give some face validity at least to the teacher who says: “Oh look! They’re not very good at using prepositions of place, I’ll teach them these next lesson”. But how does this fit with the receptive skills lesson? “Oh look! They all got number four wrong I’ll ….Hmmm, what will I do next lesson as a result of this?”

I wonder how long it would take to ‘develop’ the average student’s reading or listening ability by continually testing their comprehension. Rather more than one little lesson I think.

Of course there are ways in which we can help develop skills such as inference (though tragically this is rarely encountered as a syllabus feature on pre-service teacher-training courses in my experience).

The following is from an Easy Jet in flight magazine:

“I felt so nervous I even briefly entertained the idea of diving into the nearest bar for a quick shot”

Focus students’ attention on the words ‘nervous’ and ‘bar’ and they start working out the meaning of this text. Discuss what ‘dive’ and ‘shot’ mean in this text and they get a lot further. Ask them one comprehension question: “Did the speaker have a drink?” and you know whether or not they understand what “I even briefly entertained” means. Get them to reformulate the whole text in their own words and Bob’s your uncle. What they’ve done is to put 1, 2 and 3 together to make six. I think this sort of inferential approach could qualify as ‘developing the reading skill’ as it’s one of those reading skills that often do not get transferred from reading in L1 to reading in L2 and helps point out the danger of fixing on, and mistranslating individual words as opposed to working out textual meaning.

My point here is that whether or not anyone feels pre-selected aims are a good or bad thing, an awful lot of what is expressed as an aim is in fact dogmatic bunkum, particularly in the case of receptive skills. (By way of a footnote I think it’s pretty fair to say that most inexperienced teachers’ ideas of the aim of speaking activities is to fill up lots of class time. I’ll leave writing activities to someone else.)

Roger Hunt

29 04 2011
Luiz Otávio

“Oh look! They all got number four wrong I’ll ….Hmmm, what will I do next lesson as a result of this?”

Roger, if you focus on the answer itself, nothing, of course. But the underlying subskills (or lack thereof) that might have contributed to the wrong answer are probably, as you said, amenable to ongoing training. So if the teacher states her aims as “I hope to help students develop the subskill of (inferring)” and actually proposes classroom activities that go beyond testing comprehension (as you said, too), then I can’t see what’s instrinsically wrong with this particular aim.

My only quibble about “teaching” reading comprehension via microskills work is the over emphasis some teachers wind up placing on top-down processing and strategy training. I sometimes think that ELT might have taken the “grade the task, not the text” philosophy a bit too far, especially in the 90s.

30 04 2011

I think Luiz makes a very good point.

A lot of the time, reading and listening comprehension exercises are not much more than tests from which the student learns little and often gets depressed. They don’t amount to much more than ‘So you got it wrong. Better luck next time.’ Getting the right answer often depends on being lucky enough to know and be able to recognise a turn of phrase … or not. All very arbitrary.

Receptive activities are good for some things though: listening/reading for pre-taught lexis; language presentation; a stimulus for discussion; and the work on inference that Luiz mentions. I also use reading comp to practise recently presented language items through transformation exercises (for instance, with cause and effect structures).

It’s all about knowing why you are doing something instead of doing it because ‘we haven’t done any reading/listening for a while.’

5 05 2011

Larry Ferlazzo’s blog is a veritable treasure trove of stuff:

In a recent post there, he writes about using Blooms taxonomy in class and provides some frameworks that could be used for aims:

In particular, the second link leads to this:
where you can find “question stems” in a word document.

This gives you some of the functions of Bloom’s taxonomy written out as what could be used as aims:
• Make a concept map of the topic.
• Continue the story…
• Conduct an investigation to produce information to support a view.
Some more example, adapted might be:
• Ss will Describe what happened after…
• Ss will decide Which factors they would change if…?

Using these as lesson aims follows a more task based approach, not specifying language but perhaps more notionally or functionally what students will be doing in class – not specifically what students will be learning.

5 05 2011

Maybe the aims section on pre-service teachers lesson plans should be more connected with aspects and elements of their teaching rather than students learning outcomes.

Aim: To create a relaxed atmosphere in class and really listen to the students
Sub Aim: To make notes of language students use while carrying out a particular task and offer them some different ways of expressing themselves

They could then do the language analysis on the emergent language afterwords.

5 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Steph – this would seem to be more ‘dogme-esque’, although it might not satisfy those who want to see concrete learning outcomes.

10 12 2012
Ratnavathy Ragunathan-Chandrasegaran

Hello Scott,

I feel a whole lot better about myself after reading this post! I’ve always found it tough to set ‘learning aims’ and my lesson planning definitely unfolds little by little as I trod along the path and based on my gut feelings of what feels right within the context of classroom and among my learners, as I sometimes feel that setting the aims of a lesson are rather constricting to me!

I’m not saying that aims are unimportant; they are for sure especially to focus on what needs to be done. However, I do believe that lesson aims themselves should not be a focal point in planning a lesson; it’s needs to a guide!

Just as you’ve mentioned above, there exists a substantial number of variables that need to be considered apart from the lesson aims themselves. Taking these variables into consideration would help manifest a wholesome lesson!


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