Number one for English language teachers

General: controlling time

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Teaching notes

It can feel unsatisfactory to suddenly rush an activity at the end of a lesson. Here are some strategies for taking control of time and shortening over-long stages.


It can feel unsatisfactory to suddenly rush an activity at the end of a lesson, cramming stuff in, leaving out important stages or even letting the whole lesson overrun (with restless students trying to secretly pack their bags). Following last month’s ideas for extending short stages, here are some strategies for taking control of time and shortening over-long stages.
  1. Be pre-emptive
    Try to spot timing problems early on. This allows you to make realistic decisions early on in a task rather then suddenly being forced to make drastic alterations at the last minute.

  2. Extend old tasks rather than start new ones
    Think very carefully before starting a new activity, especially if it is late in the lesson. Isn’t it better to extend the previous activity till the end of the lesson rather than doing a ludicrously rushed version of the next activity?

  3. Speed up early stages rather than cut off the end
    If an activity does start late or looks like overrunning, don’t wait until the end and then suddenly cut it short. Decide early on how to alter the activity so that it still achieves what you want it to do. It’s often better to speed up an earlier part rather than to abruptly stop things when the bell rings.

  4. Offer choices
    If you only have enough time to do one out of two possible activities, ask the class what they think. As with any ELT democracy, make sure that you hear (and take notice of) more than just the loud one or two that shout out first – and take care that you really do go along with class wishes, not just what you intended to do all along.

  5. Don’t offer inedible carrots
    Try to avoid telling students: “I had planned a really good activity next but I’m afraid we don’t have time” That’s like saying “I was going to buy you a box of chocolates…”

  6. Bend the laws of time
    Remember that lesson time follows the laws of relativity! It is entirely flexible and seems different to different people. When you start an activity you can state how long students have to do it e.g. “You have ten minutes.” But just because you said a time limit – it doesn't mean that you have to measure and keep it exactly! If you are running short of time simply announce “one minute left” even if students have had much less time than you previously announced! (No-one is likely to notice!)

  7. Pause mid-task
    Although we are often trained to finish things off neatly within lesson time – maybe don’t worry about pausing tasks right in the middle (even mid speaking activity!) and picking them up again tomorrow or next time. This gives you a way of neatly linking lessons, as you can continue things from precisely where you left off – and students can take some time to re-tune themselves to where they were. (I was rather shocked when a trainer first did this with me – but it does have some interesting results).  

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