Teacher and polyglot Katie Harris explains how you can save time and increase student engagement when lesson planning, so that you can lighten your workload without feeling guilty.




How much time do you spend planning your lessons? 

In my first year or so of teaching, if I hadn’t spent two hours cutting up little bits of coloured card, I felt like I hadn’t done enough. 

But every now and then, something would happen where I couldn’t do that. Like that time I realised my lesson started earlier than I thought and I had to stop what I was doing, run to class and decide what to do on the way. 

At first, it felt like one of those nightmares where you look down and you’re naked. I was expecting the students to see right through me, call my manager and get me fired. 

Then something unexpected happened. Without my trusty worksheets and cards, the only resources I had were the students themselves. To create a lesson out of nothing, I needed their help. I let them take charge of the direction the tasks would take, making decisions based on their knowledge, tastes and curiosity. Without the usual bells and whistles, they seemed more focused and learned just as much (if not more) than in my usual lessons. 

Then there were times where activities I’d spent the whole evening preparing were over in two minutes, or simply didn’t go down very well. I started to notice that there was often no correlation between how long I spent preparing a lesson and the value the students got out of it. 

Teacher guilt

If you care about teaching (and it’s safe to assume you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this), there are lots of things to feel guilty about. Especially when it comes to planning. Because no matter how much time you spend preparing your lessons, there’s always something more you could have done to make the lesson better. 

In the staffroom, there’s a badge of honour that comes with running around looking stressed and complaining about how much time you spend planning lessons. And a tendency to judge teachers who don’t spend as much time planning as we think they should. 

Why? Because it seems logical to associate planning with quality. But if you’ve ever experienced a room full of students chatting about the weekend fall silent as soon as you whip out your lesson plan, you’ll know that it doesn’t always work like that. 

With workload and teacher burnout on the rise, it’s time to revisit planning. So I’m going to confess something I’ve been too afraid to share until now, just so long as you promise not to tell anyone in my staffroom. 

I don’t spend much time planning my lessons.

And you probably don’t need to either.

Minimise effort, maximise results

In 10 years of teaching, I’ve never heard a student say: 

  • I wish we had more worksheets.
  • There weren’t enough slides on the powerpoint.
  • I wish the flashcards were better quality.
  • We didn’t get enough bits of card to play with today. 

As long as they’re doing activities that are useful and enjoyable, students don’t care how much time you spend planning. In fact, giving students too many pre-prepared materials takes away choice and creativity that helps them take control of their own learning. 

When you put the onus on the students, they’re more engaged and you can spend less time planning. In other words, the less you do before the lesson, the more your students have to bring to the table during the lesson. 

In the rest of this article, we’re going to look at ways to save time and increase student engagement so that you can lighten your workload without feeling guilty.

Three strategies to plan less (by getting your students to do more)

1. Think and go: zero-prep activities

Flashcard replacements

Instead of choosing, printing, cutting and laminating, here are three alternatives: 

  1. You draw: Grab some plain cards and draw the flashcards in front of the students. This adds an element of mystery and competition while students try to guess what you’re drawing. Even if you’re a terrible artist, it’ll give students a laugh and get them engaging with the lesson content.
  2. Students draw: Students close their eyes and imagine they’re in a place that’s related to the lesson. For animals, ask them to think of a zoo or a jungle. For food, a supermarket or restaurant. When they open their eyes, they share what they saw with their partners and draw the flashcards together.
  3. Race: In teams, students write as many words related to the lesson theme as possible. ’You have two minutes to write as many sports/clothes/animals … Go!’
  4. Miming: Why not mime instead? Even if it’s a tricky thing to mime, like furniture, you’re bound to get a good laugh from the students. Students can then take over and mime in pairs/groups.
  5. In the book: There’s a place where you already have lots of pictures and it’s right under your nose: your textbook. And there’s no need to confine yourself to the suggested tasks. For example, you could ask students to choose a picture and describe it to a partner, who tries to find it based on their partner’s description.


Designing worksheets is one of the biggest timesuckers when it comes to planning lessons. Here are some speedy alternatives: 

  1. Dictation: Get students to draw the worksheets as you describe what should be in it. For example: Draw four columns and five rows. In the top row, write….
  2. On the board: Write the worksheet on the board and elicit students’ ideas as you go. 

Zero prep games

Get students to write words you’ve learnt recently on blank cards. You now have a set of cards you can use for games to review lesson material. A few classics you can play with these cards are:

  • Pictionary
  • Back-to-the-board
  • Taboo
  • Charades …

2. Speedy supplementing: fast ways to bring the textbook to life

What’s wrong with ‘doing the book’? Nowadays, most activities in textbooks are fab – all you need is an element of unpredictability to shake things up a bit. Here are some examples: 

1. Change positions

If the speaking task in the book is already good, why reinvent the wheel? You can simply wake students up a little by putting them in positions that help them focus. For example:

A. Chair rows: students to sit opposite each other in two rows and discuss the first conversation question. For every new question, students shuffle down one chair to change partners.

B: Two circles: Half the class forms a small circle facing outwards. The other half finds a partner to stand in front of in the inner circle (this forming an outer circle). Once they’ve answered the first question, they can swap partners by moving around one place in the circle. 

kh image 1

A. Chair rows: students answer a question with their partner sitting in front of them, then everyone shuffles down one to change partners for the new question.

kh image 2

B. Two circles: students answer a question with the partner standing in front of them, then everyone moves around one place in the circle to change partners for the new question.

2. A3 paper

A few simple A3 pieces of paper can go a long way to perk up the energy in the classroom. For example:


  • Stick a few pieces around the room and in teams, students write what they understand.
  • Between each successive listen, students wander around, read and add to the notes on the other sheets.


  • Stick some paper around the room with questions from the task. Students walk around and write notes to brainstorm before they start speaking/writing.
  • Each table has a blank piece of A3 paper with a question. Once they’ve finished discussing ideas and taking notes, one person from each table takes their sheet onto the next table, continues the discussion and adds more notes.

3. Templating: structures you can apply to any lesson

1. Slides

If you use slides in your lessons, you can cut your workload by including templates that you complete with your students during class. For example, you could have a slide called ‘class examples’ and fill it in at the end of a speaking task by asking students to report back and give examples of the things you studied being used in conversation.

2. Presentations

Presentation lessons get students working hard and require minimal preparation on your part. Here’s an example task that you could apply to almost any lesson theme (adapted from Macmillan Education’s new Language Hub course):

  1. Choose: Students select a question from a list of possible topics.
  2. Plan: Students write 3–4 rhetorical questions about their topic and plan how to answer these questions in their presentation.
  3. Present: Students give their presentation to the class. Ask them to listen carefully to the other presentations and be prepared to ask questions.
  4. Reflect: Students work in groups and discuss the questions: What did you learn from the presentations? What surprised you? 

Over to you

Those were a few ideas on how to save planning time and help your students learn more. I’m sure you have many more ideas and I’d love to hear them! Can you share any minimal planning – maximal results activities in the comments?

About the author

katie harris


Katie Harris is an ELT teacher who speaks Italian, French and Spanish as well as some German and Mandarin. She is the founder of Joy of Languages, a blog which helps language learners find fun and effective ways to start speaking a foreign language: http://joyoflanguages.com/ As an active member of the polyglot community, she is often invited to participate as a speaker/panellist at events such as the Polyglot Conference.

Watch Katie’s webinar on what learning five languages taught her about ELT here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrdivFDV5jg

Want to watch more useful webinars? The archive of recent Macmillan Education webinars is here: www.macmillanenglish.com/webinar-archive/

Find out more about Language Hub, a new six-level general English course for adult learners designed to take the complexity out of teaching English, here: http://languagehub.macmillanenglish.com

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