How NOT to Teach a Great Lesson (or How to Increase Student Creativity)

How NOT to Teach a Great Lesson - in Ten Easy Steps

  1. Walk into class and greet the students with the question “How are you?”
  2. Await a chorused “Fine thanks, and you?” response.
  3. If there was a homework assignment, go through the answers one by one on the board, allowing whichever students put their hands up to answer.
  4. Check which page in the coursebook you had completed the previous lesson and then instruct the students to open their books at the next page.
  5. Go through all the tasks on the page in order.
  6. Check the answers (see point 3 about homework for details).
  7. Interrupt students to correct their pronunciation and grammar errors.
  8. Spend more time on language that is likely to come up on the next test.
  9. If you are unable to finish the page, set the remaining activities for homework.
  10. Go to your next class and repeat.

As you may have guessed, I have been working on some ‘How to’ instructions with my 5th graders recently.

And as you also may have guessed, much like my ‘Taking the Pics Out of Coursebooks’ post from a while back, we did not take the activities very seriously!

Our poor coursebook, which tries very hard but does falter from time to time, presented a very dry sample text about how a boy looks after his dog (in brief, he takes it for a walk, feeds it and, er…, takes it for a walk again). Students were then expected to write their own ‘How to take care of a pet’ list.

The sample text left a lot to be desired added such as ‘brush it’, ‘clean it’, ‘take it to the vet’, ‘play with it’ and even ‘give it water’! Therefore, we began quite calmly by brainstorming the other things that could be done to look after a pet.

But then, the inevitable comment came: “I haven’t got a pet, teacher!” Younger brothers or sisters were suggested as were plants but once again the cry was heard: “I haven’t got a pet OR a brother or sister OR a plant at home!”

“Do you have teeth?” I asked.

Cue a short ‘huh?’ accompanied pause followed by lots of laughter. “Hair could work as well,” I added. “Shoes, school books, smartphones…” and by this point the students had taken over coming up with more and more ideas of personal possessions, gadgets, and things that they ‘take care of’.

And so they started writing with a pleasant buzz going round the class that was very much absent in the first phase of the lesson when we were looking at the sample text.

When they were done, they took turns to read their lists out (with a few extra creative ones thrown in such as the boy who listed ways he looked after his shoes - cleaning them, not playing football in them and so on - before finishing with “and I take them our for a walk every day!”) and we went over some language points on the board.

At this point, we could have moved on to the next set of activities on the page but I had suspected that my students might enjoy a different approach to the ‘how to…’ lists, and so I showed them the following ‘How NOT to…’ list:

How NOT to look after your fish

I then directed the students to write the ‘How NOT to…’ version of whatever that had written earlier in the lesson. Normally, two writing tasks in one lesson would lead to mutiny but this was taken on with much gusto, even by the students who are usually reluctant to write. Best of all, even without me mentioning it, they did not simply convert their previous sentences to negative forms. Instead, they came up with original ideas with a lot of language flying around the classroom.

Alas, there was no time to listen to everyone’s new list so I asked the class to post their writing on our blog when they got home. Again, a writing lesson followed by a written homework task would usually be greeted with complaints but this was met with a wave on enthusiasm and by 6pm this evening, more than three-quarters of the class had submitted their posts (and that was with me telling them they had until Monday to post it).

So, let’s summarise with another list:

How to Increase Student Creativity

  1. Don’t follow the coursebook in detail. Instead, use what is there as an inspiration for your lesson… Or just ditch the thing altogether and see what your students come up with.
  2. Dig deeper than the language presented on the page.
  3. Give a task an unusual and/or humorous twist.
  4. Encourage student input as much as possible.
  5. Let the language flow - see what your students produce and help them with what they want to say.
  6. Go over any errors or things you want to draw attention to at a suitable break in the lesson.
  7. Make your students forget about specific tasks and language points and let them ENJOY learning!


  1. This is very helpful :) I'm an EFL teacher and I've gone through these times where it's hard to keep students motivated. Do you have any tips for working with FCE coursebooks? :/ because that's when I was at a loss. Students had to complete the exercises and we know how tedious drilling exercises can be! :/

    1. Hi there,

      With things like FCE preparation, I like to use my own materials or adapt things from elsewhere such as images and short news stories with tasks focused towards the exam. For example, I make use of images form eltpics to make my own 'compare and contrast' activity and then I ask my students to find their own images to do the same. That makes the process much more interactive and engaging for them :)

      Hope that helps.

    2. Thanks! Sometimes the problem I find is that I FCE is quite structured and you've got a certain ammount of time to complete the activities and also assess students' work and it can be quite boring for them! :S but I'll see what I can do :) thanks!!

    3. The structure can be a good thing as it gives you a framework within which to develop a lesson such as getting the students to produce their own transformaiton questions or taking two photos from around the school and using it for a compare and contrast activity.

  2. Love it when this happens! Congrats Dave! Sounds like you're having a much better year...

    1. Hey Chiew,

      Oh, yes - last year is thankfully a fading memory. I really like my classes this year because they are responsive and keen. I have a feeling days like these will be plentiful in the months ahead :)

  3. Hi Dave,

    Congratulations for a very insightful and inspiring post -I loved it!!

    Greetings from Spain,


  4. Sadly, I am the first list's teacher of a compulsory English lesson with 65 adult students in a class. However, you have very interesting ideas, I appreciate them :) Thank you,
    Çisem from Turkey

    1. There's always the chance to do something different, even with very large classes like yours! It's just a matter of approaching the lesson from a different angle. :)

  5. However uninspiring this may be, but what's wrong with those 10 commandments of a good ole' routine lesson: sometimes they DO help if only to get by to the next one or until another bright idea of how NOT to teach. Anyway, thanks for sharing the bit about fish care.

    1. Well, the opening list was (slightly) tongue-in-cheek and, of course, we get used to routines after a period of time. I'm just trying to get you to think 'why do I approach my lessons in the way I do?' - is it just to get to the next lesson or part of a rountine? or is there some way you can mix things up a bit?


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