Success with Less: The 20-Minute Formula for Better Lesson Planning

in Teaching

For most teachers, the best part of the job is the actual teaching. We love engaging with our students in class and creating those “lightbulb” moments of clarity. The part of the job that most teachers don’t love? Lesson planning. Here’s why, and what you can do to make lesson planning easy and effective.

Planning can be time-consuming, stressful, and overwhelming. Most dedicated teachers end up doing far more preparation than they get paid for. School directors often expect (or even require) detailed lesson planning, but give little guidance on how to go about it.

So it’s no wonder that many teachers view lesson planning as a necessary evil.

But here’s the thing – it doesn’t have to be. With the right strategies, you can plan lessons that are more effective and more fun, without the guesswork and stress. And you can drastically reduce how long it takes.

Choose ONE Main Focus

When choosing a focus for your lesson, less is actually more. My golden rule for effective lesson planning is this: It’s better to teach a lot about a little rather than a little about a lot.

Here’s why it matters.

Option 1

You teach a lesson in which the students learn some new adjectives related to jobs, then they do a listening exercise about climate change, and then they study the present perfect before writing a short paragraph about their hobbies. The lesson ends with a class debate about the pros and cons of social media.

The students leave with their heads full of new information. But because the focus was on so many different things, they didn’t get a chance to master any of it. In fact, they can’t even remember a lot of it.

Option 2

You teach a lesson on 8 vocabulary words related to work. The students start by having a short discussion in pairs about what kind of job they would like, then read a sample job advertisement which contains the target vocabulary words for the lesson. From there, you clarify the meaning, form, and pronunciation of the 8 words before the students practice those same words in a “describe and guess” flashcard game. The lesson ends with a job interview role play in pairs.

The students leave feeling confident that they can use all the vocabulary they learned in the lesson. They certainly don’t know all the words in English related to work yet, but they now feel much better prepared to talk about work in English.

It’s better to teach a lot about a little rather than a little about a lot.

Clearly, option 2 is more useful for the students. Option 1 had so many different aims that the students didn’t end up confident in any of them. Option 2 provided one clear focus. By the end of that lesson, the students’ abilities had noticeably improved in that particular area.

The first step in planning a successful lesson is to choose one of the following skills or systems for each 60-90 minute lesson:

  • reading
  • listening
  • speaking
  • writing
  • grammar
  • vocabulary
  • functional language

Obviously, any lesson will contain almost all of these aspects in one way or another. The point is to make only one the main focus and then build your entire lesson around that.

Use the Right Framework

Once you’ve determined the lesson type from the list above, the next step is to use a lesson framework. A framework is basically a template or outline corresponding to the lesson type. It’s made up of a list of stages (typically with one activity per stage) and each stage has an aim (a justification for how that stage contributes to achieving the main aim of your lesson).

The framework you use is determined by the type of lesson you’re teaching. A listening lesson has a different framework than a grammar lesson. Because these are very different aspects of English, the way we approach teaching them will be different.

For example, a reading lesson framework might look like this:

Stage Aim
Lead-in to set the context of the lesson; to engage with the topic and warm up
Gist Reading Task to practice skimming for the main idea of the text
Vocabulary Pre-teach to clarify potentially blocking words in the text
Detailed Reading Task to practice reading intensively, for more in-depth comprehension
Productive Task to practice speaking fluency in the context of the text

So any time you teach a reading lesson, you can use this same framework – just with a different text and relevant activities for each stage.

Lesson frameworks are the #1 way to streamline your planning process and make your lessons more effective. Once you’re familiar with the different frameworks, no longer have to waste time thinking about what kind of activity to plan next or how much to include in your lesson. You simply follow the outline.

Get the Most Out of Your Material

Another benefit of using a framework is that it helps you shape your material into a cohesive, intentional lesson. If you’re teaching from a coursebook, you can now evaluate what’s on the page and determine which activities fit into your framework and which don’t. Take the activities you need, slotting them into the appropriate stages, and cut out the rest. Is the coursebook page missing a gist task? No problem – now you know exactly what you need to supplement.

Remember – less is more. Your entire reading lesson should be designed around one text. Your entire vocabulary lesson can be designed around one set of 6 – 10 vocabulary words. The beauty of this is that you get the most possible mileage out of your material, and you don’t spend time looking for a bunch of different random activities to fill up your lesson time.

You can use frameworks with authentic material as well. Perhaps you’ve found a short TED Talk you’d like to use for a listening lesson. Use the listening lesson framework to inform the activities you design around the video.

Tips for Saving Time

picture of an hourglass on a table top

Once you get really comfortable with the different lesson frameworks, these will be your biggest timesaver, because you’ll no longer have to create lessons out of thin air. You’ll have a handy template up your sleeve for any possible lesson type or material.

If you’re looking to reduce your planning time even more, here are a few additional tips help you.

  1. Plan backwards. Can I let you in on a lesson planning secret? Plan the most important activity first. And the most important activity in your lesson should never be your lead-in. The lead-in is just there to quickly introduce the topic and get the students engaged. In a 60-minute lesson, this should take five minutes or less.

If you start planning the lead-in first, it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of activity options. Should I start by showing a picture or a video clip? Should the students discuss some questions in pairs? Before you know it, you’ve spent 30 minutes “planning” and haven’t even worked out the first activity yet.

Instead, start with the “main event” of your lesson. For example, in a reading lesson, this would be the detailed comprehension task. If you’re using a coursebook, this will most likely already be provided for you. Boom! That stage is done. Now work backwards from there. By the time you get to the lead-in, the rest of your lesson will be planned, and all you need to do is tack a quick 5-minute warm up activity (in the context of your reading text) onto the beginning.

  1. Set a timer. If you find yourself spending an hour or more planning a single lesson, my timer trick may help. Set a timer for 15 or 30 minutes and tell yourself you have to have the lesson planned by the time it goes off. You don’t need to have the perfect visuals ready to go or all your instructions written out. You just need to have enough so that you could feasibly walk in and teach it: the stages, plus the aim and activity for each stage.

Challenge yourself to put the lesson together without worrying about every little detail. THEN go back and add any necessary embellishments afterwards, once the timer has gone off. You may even realize you don’t need to add on as much as you thought.

  1. Build up your resource library. I recommend keeping a folder (physically or digitally) with your favorite activity ideas. That way, you can easily pull one out whenever you need to supplement a stage in your lesson.

And remember – just because the activity doesn’t focus on the exact grammar point you need, it doesn’t mean you can’t use it. Many activities can be easily adapted to practice different language. For example, a game like Find Someone Who can be used to practice anything from the present simple (“Find someone who plays tennis / has a dog / speaks 3 languages”) to the present perfect continuous (“Find someone who has been studying English for more than 5 years / has been living in the same house since they were a child”).

If you like the format of the activity, you can save a lot of time by creating different versions of it rather than trying to find something that’s already tailor-made for the exact language point you’re teaching.

If you’re looking for more guidance on your teaching and planning, feel free to stop by You can also download the free Guide to Lesson Frameworks here for an easy reference.


Shannon Felt

Shannon is an experienced CELTA trainer and the co-founder of TEFL Horizons. Her mission is to help teachers become the best versions of themselves that they can be. You can find out more about her at

1 Comment

  1. Dear Shannon,

    I found this article a useful review of things I already knew but, in the ‘heat of battle,’ occasionally forget. Anyone who’s been through CELTA will be familar with lesson templates. But your tip about planning the main activity first and worrying about less important parts like the lead-in later was a helpful reminder not to work through templates in a too-mechanical, step-by-step way. Thanks for posting!


    Christof Morrissey

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