Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Timing your classes*

*or…

Tips I give my CELTA trainees, which kind of work, sometimes.

I’m now on my fourth CELTA course since September, and on all of them I’ve worked with the elementary students only (that will change next Monday when I’ll finally be with intermediate). Trainees are constantly asking me how to work out the timing on their lesson plans, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to try to calculate some formulae to give them at least approximate guidance. Since I was always pretty rubbish at timing my lessons before I became a tutor, and haven’t had chance to see if I’ve improved yet, these notes are to help me in the future too!

A cartoon from XKCD about estimating the timing of a project: Aaaa! I'm so bad at estimating how long projects will take. - Don't panic. There's a simple trick for that. Take your most realistic estimate, then double it. - Okay, but... - Now double it again. Add five minutes. Double it a third time. - Okay. -30 seconds have gone by and you've done nothing but double imaginary numbers! You're making no progress and will never finish! -Aaaaaa! - Paaaaniiic! -Aaaaaa!

How we all feel 🙂

This is what I’ve come up with so far (remember, this is with elementary students):

Starting the lesson

Make a note of the time you start, and calculate what time you should finish. Do this during the first activity before you forget. If it helps, write it vertically at the side of the board as a reminder. You’re less likely to erase it if it’s vertical than horizontal. To make doubly sure, draw a box around it. Enlist your TP groups’ help with timing, and ask somebody to give you a 5-minute warning if you think it’ll help.

Hampton Court Palace clock (24 hours on one face)

Hopefully the clock you use won’t be quite this complicated (my image)

Lead in

This shouldn’t be longer than 10 minutes in a 45-minute lesson, preferably closer to 5. Allocate a couple of minutes for greeting the students and setting the initial task, a couple of minutes for them to speak in pairs or small groups, then one minute for quick feedback. You should be setting the context/getting students into the topic here, not having a full-blown discussion.

Instructions

Always allocate 1-2 minutes for giving instructions and activity set-up, especially if you need to move the students/furniture.

Speaking

Students generally need about 1 minute per question, possibly each if they’re working in pairs/groups. Remember that at elementary they are probably translating the question into their language, coming up with the answer, then translating it back into English, no matter how much you might want them to operate in English only. That takes time!

For speaking tasks which required extended production, not just one or two sentences, you needed to allocate preparation (‘ideas’) time too, say 5 minutes give or take, depending on the task and the amount of support they get in the way you set it up.

Students also need practice time before performing in front of the whole class (‘language time’), when they can ask you for help. Again, depending on the way you set it up, this is going to be about five minutes.

Writing

As with speaking, students need both ‘ideas time’ and ‘language time’, though here the language time is when they’re actually producing their writing. Whether they’re working alone or in pairs, 10 minutes is probably about right in a 45-minute lesson, although again, this depends on the length of the text you want them to produce, and how much input you’ve given them before they write. Another way to work it out is to time yourself doing the piece of writing, then multiply that time by three or four.

Before students write, you need to allocate time to focussing on useful language from the text which the students can steal for their own writing. Set aside 5 minutes for this, maybe longer depending on how many things you want to highlight.

Reading

Reading for gist should be quick. That’s why it’s for gist – it’s to get an idea of the general topic and structure of the text, to prepare you for more detailed reading later. Set a time limit, probably 1 or 2 minutes depending on the length of the text, and stick to it. Don’t let the students keep reading after this – if necessary, get them to turn over their paper/close their books. Remember that you still need a peer check after this, which again should only be about 30 seconds, because if your gist task is appropriate it will only be a couple of relatively easy questions which don’t require long answers.

On the other hand, more detailed reading takes time, especially if students aren’t confident. I’d recommend 3-4 minutes for your average detail/specific information task, depending on how much the students need to reread/write. Again, don’t forget to allocate time for the peer check!

Listening

You don’t have so much control over time in a listening lesson, because the length of the audio determines it to some extent. That mean’s that when you’re preparing, you need to check how long the recording is! Work out how many times you’re going to play it, including the initial/gist activity, and (probably) one more repetitions than you expect, so that you can focus on any problem areas that come up during the lesson. You may also need to consider the time it’ll take to set up the tech, although hopefully you’ve done this before the class starts.

As always, don’t forget to factor in peer checks, perhaps between listenings as well as at the end of each stage, as this particularly helps weaker learners.

Presenting language

This is the major time sink in most lessons I’ve observed, especially if the teacher decides on a board-centred presentation. It’s hard not to keep talking when everyone is looking at you, and verbal diarrhoea eats time!

Two tips:

  1. Avoid long board-centred presentations if at all possible. How can you hand it over to the students?
  2. If you do have to do one, allocate about 15 minutes. They never seem to take less time than that! And in a 45-minute lesson, remember that’s a third of your time.Remember to allocate time for meaning AND form AND pronunciation. Again, do you have to be the centre of attention, or can you break it up somehow?

That’s not to say that T-centred presentations are a complete no-no, but make sure you’ve planned them thoroughly, and you know when to stop talking!

If you’ve managed to make it SS-centred, follow the tips in ‘language practice’ below.

Drilling

This depends on how quickly your students pick up new forms, how big the class is, how many pieces of language there are and how long each item you’re trying to teach them is, but it should be at least five minutes. Shorter than that and there probably isn’t enough repetition in there. Consider breaking it up a bit by getting students to repeat things to each other in pairs or small groups after the whole class stage and monitoring for problems. This takes the focus off you for a few seconds, and adds a bit of variety.

Language practice

Again, this depends on the type of activity students are doing and on how good your teaching was. If they still don’t really get the language, then this will all take longer. These are tips for controlled practice activities, based on the most common ones I see. For freer practice, see ‘speaking’/’writing’ above.

  • Matching: about 15 seconds per item.
  • Gapfill with words there: about 15-30 seconds per item, depending on the number of words.
  • Gapfill with no words (open cloze – students have to think of the words themselves): about 30-45 seconds per item.
  • Writing/rewriting sentences: about one minute per item.

Feedback

Reminder number one: feedback shouldn’t take longer than the activity you’re feeding back on, unless there are major problems for some reason.

Reminder number two: writing things on the board takes time. If you’re doing it, make sure you have a good reason why, and that it’s not just for the sake of having something to do. If the students are doing it, is everyone involved? What are the other students doing? Are they just watching? (It can be a good way of keeping fast finishers occupied, as long as they don’t end up doing it all the time.)

I’m not sure there’s a particular rule on the length of feedback, but it should make students feel like it wasn’t a waste of their time doing the activity, and it should round off the activity enough that students are ready to move on. Here are some approximate amounts:

  • Speaking/Writing: Allocate time for both ‘feedback on content’ and ‘feedback on language’, probably about 3-5 minutes for each, depending on how you set it up.
  • Reading/Listening/Controlled practice activities: 2-3 minutes, including dealing with any problems, unless students need to see the written form of the answers (especially for full sentences) in which case you may want to get them to write things on the board, which will take longer. To make it shorter, have the answers ready to show/give them.

Peer checks should be factored in before open-/whole-class feedback, probably 1-3 minutes depending on the length of the task and the difficulty students have had with it. Monitor carefully during peer checks so that you can make your feedback more efficient (read, faster).

In general

I’ve found that planning in nice round 5-minute units is generally the way to go. They normally balance out across the lesson. If I try to do odd 3/6/8-minute times, they always end up being 5/10-minute ones anyway! That means that in a 45-minute lesson, you have nine 5-minute units to play with. Use them wisely. 🙂

Planning your lessons

Remember that tasks fill the time allotted to them. A good night’s sleep is more important than a perfect lesson! If you don’t believe me, here’s a CELTA candidate’s (short!) take on it.

If you’d like some more tips about timing, Jonny Ingham might be able to help.

I hope these tips work for you, and if anyone has any others, please do share them. I know trainees will appreciate them!

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Comments on: "Timing your classes*" (11)

  1. Excellent tips, Sandy. Totally agree!

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  2. Hana Tichá said:

    A nice and useful post, Sandy. Despite all my teaching experience, timing is still my worst enemy related to lesson planning. I invariably include more than I can manage in 45 minutes. This is something I really struggle with. Also, I don’t mind when we digress from the topic; thus the original timing becomes totally useless. Anyway, I’ve found it really useful to hand over some of the responsibilities, such as the feedback stage, to fast finishers. However, this can be even more time-consuming than if you do it yourself. So you need to consider your priorities in the first place. I agree that it’s not useful to time your lessons in very small units. It’s really stressful for me to check my watch every 2 minutes or so. Actually, to be honest, even the 5 minute units are way too short for me. I like to be much vaguer in this respect 🙂

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  3. This will no doubt be invaluable for when I begin my course in April, so thanks Sandy! I hope you don’t mind, but I have added you to my ‘Useful ELT blogs’ section on the blog I am still developing 🙂

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    • I don’t mind at all! In fact, that’s lovely. Thank you very much, and good luck with your course. I’d be interested to read what you write about CELTA when you do it.
      Sandy

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      • Thanks! Sorry for the random posts, but I only recently signed up to Gmail, which is where a strange selection of my blog update emails are directed, so I have only just seen a lot of these comment notifications.
        I am still learning about the delights of WordPress, so hopefully I’ll catch up shortly!
        I’ll make my little humble blog public soon; I’m still faffing about with pages and trying to accumulate a few posts for the time being!

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        • No problem 🙂 Let me know when your blog is underway, and remember you don’t need to have that many posts before you start – I started with three or four which I’d copied over from another blog I’d never promoted!

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  4. Thank you–even after several years, I still struggle with timing. (Yesterday my carefully planned 90 minute exam skills class went haywire and I ended up with 25 minutes of work undone!)

    Most useful are the breakdowns of how long it will take students to answer questions, I often leave a blank space for the timings of that on my lesson plans.

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  5. I advise trainees to plan flexi-activities so they can learn to adapt to the needs of their learners. For example, if the students have got the hang of something, they can miss out an exercise (or cut it short) or the opposite: perhaps they need to spend longer on a point so require an additional exercise.

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  6. Recommended this to a Celta candidate today. I think it will really help her. Thanks once again for sharing so much of your Celta/Delta experience on the blog.

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