A last-minute lesson

Surprise!  Teacher X has called in sick/is stuck on public transport/has gone AWOL.  Can you go cover the class?  It started 5 minutes ago.  Thanks!Unfortunately, this happens sometimes in language schools.  I make no secret of the fact that I absolutely hate it when I’m called on in these situations – not, of course, because I don’t like teaching, or meeting new students, or am not prepared to do my job, but I suppose just because I hate feeling unprepared.  Being told I have to cover a class at short notice fills me with panic and dread.  It probably shouldn’t bother me so much, but it does.

by @foster_timothy for #eltpics

So, over time, I’ve collected several ’emergency’ lesson plans to help overcome the anxiety of the ‘surprise lesson’ (that makes it sound a lot nicer than it is, doesn’t it?!).  Or, rather than lesson plans, they’re basically just flexible lesson ‘frames’ which I’m 99% sure will work when I haven’t got the necessary time or information to prepare something else, because I’ve used them enough times now to know that the students will enjoy, appreciate and benefit from the lesson without my needing to have prepared anything else.  Everybody wins!

Here’s one of my favourite such lesson ideas, which I dreamed up in a moment of desperation some time ago and have ended up using again many times since, because it always works so well.

Step 1:
Tell the students to take a blank piece of paper and write 3-5 questions* at the top.  The only rules are:

1) No yes/no questions. Only open-ended or ‘yes/no + why’-type questions.

2) They must be questions anybody in the world could answer. (e.g. “where do you come from and what do you like/dislike about it?” but “what do you think of Paris?” isn’t because some of the students may know absolutely nothing about Paris)
3) They must be questions to which students don’t already know their classmates’ answers. (e.g. asking “what do you do for a living?” when they already know their classmates’ jobs is not a good question)Note: for higher levels, you can get them to write more complex questions (I usually just tease them out of questions like “what do you do?” by reminding them that they’re capable of much more sophisticated structures; and if they want to ask such a question, they could try and phrase it differently/creatively, e.g. “if you could do any job…” or “would you like to work underground/in space/in the 1920s and why?” etc.).

Go round and monitor the students while they write.  Help them with any problems (at all levels, question formation always proves difficult!).  They should feel confident with their questions so use this prep time to help them fix any glaring problems.  Early finishers can consider appropriate sentence stress and intonation for their questions and practise quietly (tell them they’re going to use them in a moment).

*You ask for 3-5 questions to stretch those students who are imaginative/productive without excessively stressing out those students who aren’t.  This way, everyone usually ends up with at least 3 questions, which is all – in fact, probably more than – they’ll need.

Step 2:
Tell students you’ve got a question for them and they need to put their own questions to one side, just for a moment.

Ask students what the first questions you normally ask someone upon meeting them (e.g. at a party) are – you’re trying to elicit “What’s your name?”.  This much is usually easy.  When the students scoff, remind them that it’s not always easy to remember the answer to this question!  Mention the familiar embarrassing situation where you meet someone a second time and know their face but have forgotten their name.  Elicit/teach the question “Sorry, what’s your name again?” and briefly drill apologetic intonation and encourage a sincere facial expression, too (this is usually fun). 🙂

Step 3:
Tell the students they need to write the names of all their classmates, leaving space between them, down the left-hand side of their paper.

If they can’t remember someone’s name (there’s always one!), they should use the question you’ve just taught them in step 2, above.  If they do know each other’s names, they should double-check the spelling (elicit/teach: “How do you spell your name/how do you spell that?”).

Step 4:
Students get up, move around the room and mingle, asking each other their questions.  They should ask one person one question, then move on.  If they somehow manage to speak to everyone very quickly while the rest of the class are nowhere near finishing, they can proceed to interview their classmates again, this time with another of their questions.

While they talk, the teacher monitors, ensuring all students are included/involved and making notes of good language they’ve used (to praise later, in step 7) and unusual/unnatural/incorrect language they’ve used (to correct/address later, in step 7).

**OPTIONAL Step 5 (if you’ve got a longer lesson time to fill):
Stop the students’ discussions.  Distribute (on papers or orally) to each student one of his/her classmates’ names.  Elicit/teach the question “What did you find out about X?”  They mingle again and compile a brief biography of their allocated classmate, this time writing the information more neatly and clearly on a fresh piece of paper.  When they’re done, you can arrange the papers around the room in a sort of ‘gallery’ for everyone to read.

When you sense that the questioning has been going on long enough and/or students are nearing the end of their questions and/or have asked everyone something, prepare the whiteboard for step 7 (below) just before stopping them talking and getting them to sit back down.

Step 6:
Conduct brief feedback with the whole class, asking a few people what interesting information they found out about each other.

Step 7:
Having prepared the whiteboard in step 4/5, above, now address any points of good language use you think are worth praising and/or sharing with the rest of the students, who may not have heard them; and then address/correct inappropriate language use – e.g. anything that impeded communication, anything the students asked you about while they were mingling, or anything that you feel would be useful for the whole class.

(For example, the last time I taught this lesson, the questions several students had asked and attempted to answer during step 4 led naturally to introducing the future perfect to imagine what they expect to have happened in 20 years’ time.  Then we had just enough time to practise a bit before the 60 minutes were up.)

I love this lesson for many reasons, including the following:

1. It works so well with all levels and abilities.  Often with last-minute cover, you don’t know much about what the students are capable of and of course their regular teacher isn’t there to check with; but I’ve used this with various levels and types of class and it’s always worked a charm.

2. It’s time-flexible – in my experience, it can take anything from 45 to 90 minutes (and probably longer, but I’ve never yet had to stretch it any longer) and is entirely student-generated, student-propelled and student-perpetuated.

3. It works with all different types of class – general English students can ask about anything they like, or you can encourage them to phrase their questions using a particular language point (ask them what they studied in their last class); business English students can ask more business-oriented questions; younger learners can make up whatever wild questions take their fancy (within reason); exam students can create questions of the type likely to come up in the exam (e.g. IELTS students can come up with questions they might see as follow-up questions in Part 2 of the Speaking paper), and so on.  (In this last instance, the teacher could also keep a time restriction on students’ interactions to give them extra practice in answering questions succinctly but with sufficient and appropriate detail.)

4. It’s so student-centred.  They’re only talking about things they’re personally interested in, as they were the ones who created the ‘task’.  And they can give as much or as little detail as they feel is necessary.  They always have back-up questions if there are some things they’re more/less interested in talking about.

5. Many students have often told me in the past that they rarely get the opportunity to speak freely at great length like this, about whatever topics they like, either in English lessons or in real life.  They say that normally it’s 5-10 minute “discuss with your partner”-type activities, or 2-minute transactions in shops, which are useful, but don’t help them chat to people in the pub (which is often one of their goals!).  This lesson really makes them feel like they’re stretching their abilities and using English for what they want to talk about.

6. On a more selfish note, having this lesson up my sleeve minimises my stress levels when I’m told I need to cover a class pronto and I have no time to prepare anything!

I’ve got a couple of other ’emergency’ lesson frames like this one which I might post here as well one day.  I’d love to hear of more, too, so please feel free to share them.  And if ever you try this one, let me know how it goes!


About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Hi Laura, I'm sorry but I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one. I love being called upon at the last minute to cover a lesson at work. In December I was on standby for a month and in that time I taught some the best lessons I've ever had. I'd have to agree with on one thing though. It wouldn't have been possible without a quick-fix framework up my sleeve. One of them went like this:1. After a bit of chat, write a topic on the baord, for example the underground, celebrities, the internet, coca-cola, smoking, anything you think might appeal to the group and ask students to write down one opinion about the topic. Monitor only to make sure that what is being written is clear as others need to understand it.2. Ask students to pass their opinions around the class and discuss in pairs each opinion. At this stage note down any interesting language or difficulties students are having as it can feed into the lesson later.3. Once each opinion has been commented on, put students in groups of three and ask them to think of for and against for the topic. Give them about 10 minutes for this and ask them to write down any ideas.4.Divide the board into two and ask for for and against points, making sure you reformulate any language that could be improved until you have a board full of new language and points for an argument.5. Divide the class into two and ask one side to argue with the other, using what is on the board. Swap the groups and argue the other side.6. Ask students to put their hands over their eyes and rub some of the new vocab off the board to make it into a gap fill. Number the spaces and ask students to complete. Another way of doing this could be to rub off any modals and ask students to re-modalise their language or change the meaning with different modals.7. Ask each student to write a conclusion to their argument. This one has delivered some fine lessons. It's good because it's adaptable to exam classes (a focus on a for and against essay after or linkers for the writing element of the exam), Business English with an issue at their work, or, of course GE.Dale

  2. Always a pleasure to share an idea. I'll look through my journal and see if anything else stands out and let you know. Hope it goes well on Fri.Dale

  3. The verdict: in the end I had to do a test that day!! And I only had about 15 minutes left at the end to do anything else. I toyed with some of the principles of this idea – they picked the topics to talk about and I fed in some language they needed – but unfortunately I didn't get to try it out in a lesson proper. I still want to at some point, though, so watch this space…

  4. Hi Laura,Shame you only had a few minutes for it. After posting it as a comment I did this lesson skeleton on Friday with my afternoon conversation class and it went down a treat. We started by sitting in a circle, counting (an idea I took from your blog I think?) and every 3rd number saying something we like or dislike about the tube. It was good to start this way as the class was quite low. By the end of the lesson there was a really good debate going on and the written summary everyone produced at the end was really good quality. I'll keep an eye peeled for more news. Dale

  5. Hi LauraThanks for this. I've posted it on http://www.eltbites.wordpress.com to be enjoyed by all taking part in the challenge. I've also recommended that everyone should read your origninal post here as I love the way you contextualise the use of it here. I do like the way you talk about 'frames' rather than plans. It's a word i tend to use as well. A new word I've started using is 'shapes', I link to think of the structure of lessons visually as shapes that can change, be stretched and shrunk were necessary.Anyway thanks for the inspiration.Best wishesRichard

  6. SxO

    I love this! Thank you for sharing. I have several coverages throughout the week so this will definitely come in handy

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