All at Sea in the Classroom? 5 Ways to Save your Lesson when Things go Wrong

in Teaching

You came away from your ELTABB workshop last Saturday feeling enthused and inspired – it’s given you lots of new ideas to try out in the classroom. You’ve worked hard to prepare some innovative and exciting activities for your students. You even secretly feel that you could be the next Scott Thornbury…

Fast forward to Monday. You begin teaching the lesson but start to have a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you continue. Your students look at you blankly – they’re not responding. You sense some irritation. You suddenly realise that your lesson plan isn’t working. It’s time to press the stop button.

Let’s be honest – we’ve all been there. It’s probably not your fault. You don’t know what your students have been going through prior to your lesson. Have they had a bad morning? A problem with their boss? A stressful meeting? Perhaps they are adults who don’t have a choice to be there or not.

Sometimes you just have to read the room and react accordingly – and that usually means a spontaneous change of plan.

So, what do you do next?

Here are my suggestions for what to do when your lesson goes wrong (all these activities can be used online):

1. Books

Two books I always carry around with me are Five-Minute Activities by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright and Five-Minute Activities for Business English by Paul Emmerson and Nick Hamilton. They’re great to dip into if you’re looking for a warmer or to fill in time at the end of the lesson. You can develop the activities so that they last longer than five minutes.

Sample activity: ‘I would like to be a giraffe’. Write down the following words on the board:


Each student decides which of these they would prefer to be and tells their neighbour why.

2. Have a Plan B that contrasts with your Plan A

Sometimes I’ve prepared a speaking lesson and the students don’t want to talk. In this situation I’ve used the Guardian articles and Business Spotlight articles from (currently free until 30 June 2020).

At other times I’ve prepared a worksheet and the students are not interested in it. As an alternative, I’ve used questions from

I also recommend the books by Larry Pitts.

3. A critical thinking activity

Pick a topic – for example, 30 places to visit in Berlin. Ask the students for ideas for the list. Write them on the board, and then give them a series of questions to discuss: What are the three most important places to visit? What about three places to avoid? How about the three most suitable places for a teenager, a student of architecture, someone interested in history, and so on?

A very good introduction as to how to structure a critical thinking task can be found here:

Ensure that your students explain why they’ve made their choices. I’m sure you can think of many more questions to ask.

4. Grammar Auction

Students are given a list of grammar sentences and then bid for the correct ones. Tip: use grammar mistakes made by students in recent classes.

This article explains how to prepare a grammar auction:

I have a notebook where I keep a record of mistakes made by my students in recent classes. This gives me the opportunity to tailor the auction so that it can also be used as a means of revision.

5. Noughts and Crosses

An extension of ‘taboo’ – students get a nought or a cross when they correctly guess a word. Tip: ask the students to write the words down on cards before the game starts. A full description of the game can be found here:

Tic Tac Toe

I would suggest that you use it to revise vocabulary. Again, use your notebook to refer to new words learned in recent lessons – or you can ask the students to write down the words you’ve taught them on cards. You can then place the cards face down on a table – students can choose a card from the middle, top right, etc.

If you are reading this and have any more ideas, then please feel free to write the next post about five more activities you can do. I look forward to reading it!

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