Recipe for a good lesson

Introduction: Cooking and Teaching

The parallels between cooking and teaching are not as bizarre as you might imagine. A chef selects and prepares ingredients so that they are easy to eat, easy to digest and nutritious. The chef tries to make them as tasty as possible so that the diners will enjoy consuming the meal and will be eager to return for more. Teachers select language activities which are both enjoyable and have a strong learning value. The language activities may use either authentic, raw, language, or simplified, cooked language, which is easier to consume and comprehend. The teacher chooses language activities which are entertaining, interesting and have a high level of student participation. The teacher’s aim is to produce lessons which are both intellectually nutritious and easy for students to follow. The teacher hopes the lesson will be satisfying for the students so they will be eager to return and learn more..

Preparing a tasty lesson

Meals usually consist of a number of different courses; a starter, a main course and a dessert which might be followed by cheese and crackers, fruit or perhaps a strong cup of coffee. Similarly, lessons follow a programme of different phases. Each phase will have a specific structure and learning aim.

Meals are for nutrition but, like lessons, they are also social occasions. When learners come to English language classes, they come from their L1 world of work, travel, shopping or other lessons. On arrival, they need to ‘switch’ into English, so it is useful to start a lesson with an easy, amusing activity, which exploits previous knowledge and acts as an aperitif for the lesson. I often start by eliciting a summary of the previous English lesson. This does not require new knowledge or new language but stimulates the recall of half-remembered knowledge and language from the previous English lesson. It acts as a link between lessons in the learning chain of the language course. The communal recall of the previous lesson exploits the collective memory of the group and binds them together as a team, in the same way that clinking glasses and saying “Cheers!” binds a group of diners.


Starters are usually short, amusing, dramatic or interactive activities which exploit known language and, most importantly, do not conflict with the content of the main course. Teaching is a process of building – building new language upon the foundations of known language. A starter might refer to an everyday communicative situation, which is later exploited in the main course.

The Starter may be an analysis of the different phases of language interaction used in that context. For example, a restaurant meal will usually start with reading and consideration of a menu. The discussion of the menu is between the diners and does not include the waiter. Each diner makes choices from the menu. A diner, who is unable to choose, may ask the advice of other diners before coming to a final decision. The next phase involves giving the order to the waiter. This may be done by each diner individually, or a spokesperson for the group might tell the waiter about all the individual menu choices. Often a spokesperson may attempt to give a summary of the choices, but be interrupted and corrected by individual diners.

The choice from the menu encourages the diners to think ahead about the food they will eat, whetting their appetite and preparing them for what they are going to eat.

In a collective classroom, students do not usually have the chance to make choices from a menu, the teacher has prepared a set menu which will be shared by all the learners. Often, the set menu may be visible in the contents of a unit in the Student’s Book. The teacher might start by ‘talking through’ the unit, drawing attention to listening tasks, comprehension activities, reading tasks, games, songs, etc. This will whet the students’ appetite and give them an idea of what they should expect.

The language of menus

Menus should be comprehensible and written in language which is understood and valued by the diners. Unfortunately, pretentious restaurants often insist on describing their dishes in French. Themed restaurants sometimes list Tarzan’s Escalope, Jungle Salad, and Jane’s Fish Surprise. Diners are then forced to ask the waiter to translate the menu into plain English.

There is a wide belief that students should be informed of the learning value of each lesson. In the past, the learning value might be described in structural terms: forming affirmative and negative statements and interrogatives in the Past Perfect Tense. This was as valuable for the learners/diners as the restaurant which divided its menu into proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, sugars, fats and fibre. After the introduction of functional and notional language models, learning aims were described in similarly incomprehensible constructions such as “enquiring about the existence of defined amenities within defined locations.” ALTE’s ‘can do statements’ are a great improvement, but we have not yet discovered a menu language for lessons which is both comprehensible and valued by learners.

The main course

The main course of a meal or lesson contains the key learning content. Sauces and vegetables are often used to add flavour to the content of the main course. It is important to ‘sauce’ the content of main course of the lesson with elements of flavourful entertainment. Vocabulary tasks adorn and extend the language content, skills activities aid digestion and absorption of the content, songs and games make the content more memorable. Role play and drama activities help learners to place the content in context.


Some desserts, like profiteroles, are merely a piece of frippery intended to repay the learners with some sugary entertainment after a boring lesson. The dessert course in a lesson should contribute to the digestion of the main course. It should be entertaining and enjoyable, but should be chosen to make the language content of the main course entertaining and memorable. Some textbook authors use songs, others use picture stories or videos, but each is designed to leave the learners with memorable images, tunes or stories. Students don’t remember grammar tables or exponents of ‘can do’ statements, they remember images, tunes and stories. These become the ‘hooks’ by which they remember new language.

Nutrition and Learning

When teachers analyse their lesson plans, they sometimes add up the proteins of grammar or communication, the vitamins of vocabulary or skills, the carbohydrates of energy and entertainment.

The question which they should be asking is “What will my learners remember?”

Buon appetit! Enjoy your lesson.


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