How to improve your lesson timing header
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How to improve your lesson timing

I am mentoring a teacher who is preparing for DipTESOL at the moment. Her main concern about the observed teaching practice is timing, so this post is for her and anyone else who has identified timing something to work on in their teaching.

Actually, I think all teachers have had issues with timing at some point or another (observations in particular). People often offer suggestions like:

  • Set realistic timings in your lesson plan
  • Make sure you can see a clock or wear a watch
  • Use a timer on the IWB or your mobile phone

Don’t get me wrong, these are all useful suggestions. The problem is, they’re all pretty obvious and don’t actually get to the root cause of timing problems. So here are my top 5 tried-and-tested timing tips…

1. Plan for flexibility

If you’re haemorrhaging time in your lessons, it’s often because you’re teaching WELL! Congratulations! It could mean you’re responding to learners’ needs by doing things like:

  • showing an interest in what they have to say
  • providing opportunity for questions
  • picking up on errors
  • upgrading learners’ output
  • working with emergent language
  • opening up discussions rather than shutting them down

You don’t want to stop doing those things, because that’s what makes your lessons worth attending and where lots of the learning is taking place. So what can you do?

Plan for flexibility. Give yourself leeway in all your timings. So if you think that final speaking task is going to take 15 minutes, give yourself 20 or 25 minutes. That’ll give you time for feedback on content and form, following up the discussion together, recording any new language and so on.

Alternatively, build a ‘flexi-stage‘ into your lesson plan. Add up your estimated timings and make sure they come to 50 minutes for a 60-minute lesson. That give you a 10 minute flexi-stage to spill over into.

In summary, the key thing is to know yourself, know your learners and allow yourself leeway at the planning stage. But remember, this time is for those positive things mentioned above! What if you’re haemorrhaging time for things that aren’t beneficial? Read on…

2. Black holes

We all have our favourite teacherly time-wasting habits. Here are just a few that I’ve been guilty of over the years:

  • Making asides to ourself
  • Making all learners wait while we hand out materials, write on the board, etc.
  • Waiting for technology
  • Wasting individual learners’ time as they wait for others to finish tasks
  • Drawing out instructions
  • Giving unclear instructions and having to clarify or intervene in tasks
  • Getting carried away with CCQs and ICQs
  • Going off on teacher tangents (not to be confused with exploring something that everyone wants to talk about)
  • Letting activities run for longer than necessary
  • Doing things in open class that could be done faster in closed pairs/groups.

If that’s the case, you might want to ask someone to observe you to identify ‘black holes of time‘ in your lesson. You could ask them to look specifically for what they feel is unproductive use of time. Alternatively, they could just write down everything you do, time it all and you can discuss what was productive or unproductive use of time afterwards.

Thornbury’s post ‘T for Time’ makes for an interesting read on this subject, with data from a newspaper about the worst offending subject teachers by country!

3. Front-loading and backwards planning

Another way to address timing in your lesson plan is backwards planning. This works in any lesson plan that builds towards a final communicative task.

Imagine the final communicative task that learners will complete is a job interview role-play. Everything that you do in the rest of the lesson should prepare them for that. If there is anything that doesn’t fit the bill, then scrap it. For instance, if role-playing a job interview is the main aim of the lesson, reading advice about job interviews isn’t necessarily going to help learners’ output and might just eat up time. You’d likely be better off spending time looking at collocations about professional achievements (set up a project, get feedback, etc.).

Of course, take this with a pinch of salt – the reading advice activity above might be a nice detour towards the goal, it might add some non-linguistic aim to the lesson, or you might have plenty of time.

However, if timing is an issue, then this strategy is very good for avoiding…

  1. …the urge to plan according to materials. It focuses your mind on learners achieving an outcome, not on bits and bobs that seem to fit together from the course book.
  2. …front-loading, ie. where you pad out the start of a lesson too much, maybe to try to engage learners or out of a subconscious fear of getting through your lesson plan too quickly.

4. Integrate activities

I often see teachers using various materials for each stage of their lesson. A flipchart slide for pronunciation stage, a short writing practice activity from the book, a gap-fill from somewhere else in the book, etc. This can be very piecemeal for learners, often lacks a unifying context and most importantly, it takes up valuable learning time.

Take a materials-light approach. One excellent way to do this is to integrate several activities into one. Here is one I made earlier…

Integrating activities photo

This one piece of material is basically a whole lesson:

  1. Class chit-chat about where they are living/staying, what their houses are like, who does the chores…
  2. Conversation flows into names of chores in English, at which point learners match the verbs on the left with the collocates on the right of worksheet above.
  3. Now the same worksheet becomes a controlled speaking task in which learners ask each other 3 questions from the paper, like ‘Who does the ironing in your house?’, etc.
  4. As anticipated, they had difficulty with pronouncing the -s endings of the verbs and also with the juncture between the words (eg. makes_a mess). Now the material becomes a fun pronunciation drill.
  5. To put that back into practice, learners pick a question and ask everyone in the class their one question, then report back to a partner.

By integrating all those activities (lexis, speaking, pronunciation and implicit grammar focus on ‘subject questions’) into one piece of material, it cuts down on wasted time – handing out, instructions, learners’ processing time, pre-teaching vocabulary for different activities, etc.

5. Routines

Efficient classroom routines can save a lot of time, whether you’re teaching adults or young learners. Learners get used to them and give you a shortcut for all sorts of things that take time to explain. Here are just a few examples of time-saving routines:

  • Attention getting routine: tap the board, countdown, silent countdown on fingers, ‘hands on head’, turn off background music, IWB countdown, hand up, etc.
  • Gestures: ‘work in a pair’, ‘work in a group’, error correction on fingers, etc.
  • Distributing/Collecting materials: distribute face-down while monitoring in preparation for next task, nominate a student hander-outer, giving learners a time limit to get a pen, etc.
  • Setting clear time limits: negotiate a time limit with learners, tell learners time limit in instructions, show the time limit on IWB, reminders (one minute left), learners use their own timer on their mobile, etc.

Time and Timing

The ideas above all relate to ‘timing’ as a teaching skill. I hope you find them useful and please do leave a comment below with your own thoughts 🙂

The notion of ‘time’ in lessons is more subjective. I’ve known plenty of teachers who think that it’s a waste of time for learners to do writing in class, for example. So it’s also essential to know how students want to use the time they’ve paid for. More on that another day.

Featured image adapted from: Image from page 98 of “List of premiums, rules and regulations of the … State Fair of North Carolina” (1910), and Image from page 28 of “Premium catalog.” (1914)Image from page 1453 of “Electric railway journal” (1908). For more information on images on TESOLtoolbox, see Imagery.


  1. Some really good tips here. That handout is certainly efficient. I’d like to do more like that, but in my teen classes we follow a coursebook. That means, given the parents have paid for it, I’m kind of obliged to do a few things from it. You’re right, things do become piecemeal. Cheers for tips anyway 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers, Pete. 🙂 Some course books are really good at integrating activities, too. Face2Face was really good at giving controlled written practice that then becomes a nice speaking activity where learners can personalize the language.


  2. Re including a flexi-stage, I good tip I got while studying for the DELTA was to include a flexi-stage in the MIDDLE of a lesson plan, rather than at the end. That way, it can be jettisoned if necessary to allow you get back on track if you’re over-running; alternatively, it can provide a nice buffer / break in the middle of a lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agree! The flexi-stage is maybe even bit of a misnomer… essential we just need some free time for all those great responsive teaching things mentioned in the post.


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