Five Tips For Innovative Lesson Planning

This article originally featured in the March 2021 issue of Connect.

Nate Olson (Tōkyō)

Before the spring semester starts, what goals have you set for yourself? Perhaps you want to try something new or develop aspects of what you’re already doing in the classroom. Or, maybe you’d like a sneak peek of the upcoming policy changes in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) national curriculum guidelines or Course of Study (学習指導要領 gakushū shidō yōryō). In any case, here are five tips that will help you stay ahead of the curve in your lesson planning.

Teaching language always involves some level of teaching content. Rather than just focusing on communication and culture, MEXT recommends that teachers utilize subject content in a manner that stimulates student interest. Teachers should link their lessons with that of other subjects, such as social studies, physical sciences, art, music, and physical education. For example, if a topic about history is being covered in the lesson, you can give students more information about the event or surrounding events. If a certain city or country is being referenced in an example sentence, you can show students the Street View of that city on Google Maps or a short video that shows a slice of life in that area of the world. The point is, look for every opportunity to deepen the content.

If you have freedom in your lesson planning, don’t be afraid to go beyond the textbook topic and personalize your lessons. Explore what you think students might find interesting or relevant to their daily lives and use your expertise and passion to create a cross-curricular connection. This could be a subject you studied in university, such as history, science, literature—you might even partner up with another subject teacher at your school to find creative ways in which you can bring English into their class or bring their subject into your classroom. Alternatively, the content could simply be a topic you are interested in and knowledgeable about, such as culture and entertainment, social issues, health and fitness, artificial intelligence—anything! Chances are, if you’re interested in a topic and see the value in it, your students will too.

Another big push from MEXT is to foster skills through authentic learning (or so-called “active learning”) that benefit students’ future lives. (The new catchphrase for the Course of Study is literally “Beyond learning, the power to live” (“生きる力、学びの、その先へ” ikiruchikara, manabi no, sono saki e). These general purpose competencies are “soft skills” that students can use in the real world, beyond the confines of the classroom. For instance, a project that asks students to create presentation slides and give a talk in front of the class creates several opportunities for learning soft skills—everything from how to search online or use software to public speaking. It will be up to you to make a point of “training” these soft skills by demonstrating, for example, how to collaborate simultaneously with group members on the same presentation using Google Slides or giving students pointers about eye contact, gestures, and voice modulation for public speaking.

MEXT is also pushing for higher levels of student intellectual engagement. They are even adding the word “Logic” (論理 ronri) to the official title of English Expression classes in senior high schools (cf. 2011 versus 2021 Courses of Study). This means moving away from choral repetition and grammar pattern practice towards task- and project-based learning, which encourages critical thinking and deeper engagement with the content. In a class with limited English ability, it might be difficult to achieve a motivating level of cognitive activity. Consider implementing scaffolding or translanguaging strategies to give students the foothold they need to reach higher levels of cognitive engagement in a task or project.

An emphasis on cognition also means getting students to think critically about what they are learning. Don’t be afraid to ask your students “Why?” questions. If you do, make sure you give them plenty of time to think! It is a bad habit of teachers wanting to move the lesson along to not give students a chance to answer meaningful questions. In addition to “Why” questions, consider asking students to categorize, analyze, and evaluate information whenever possible. This can be structured into a formal debate or kept more casual and fun with think-pair-share type activities. In any case, if it’s ad hoc, it’s likely to be skipped, so it’s important to make room for this in your lesson planning. Critical thinking takes time and patience, but it will make your lessons much more meaningful for students.

Recently, the term “cooperative learning” has become a bit of an educational buzzword. The idea behind cooperative learning is that students can learn just as much (if not more) from their peers as from the teacher. Try to incorporate pair- and group-work activities into every lesson. This is not just about drilling the grammar pattern of the day in pairs or practicing a scenario or skit in a group. Giving students opportunities for peer feedback or peer evaluation can help them to keep themselves and each other accountable to the learning objectives. For example, you can have students peer review a piece of writing or evaluate their peers’ presentations based on an agreed-upon rubric. Or you can break up students into groups for a jigsaw reading activity, where they are responsible for teaching their group members information needed to complete the task. In general, incorporating a variety of solo, pair, group, and whole-class activities will help build community in the classroom.

Consider opportunities to introduce multi-modal input into your lessons. Modes might include texts (e.g. textbooks, news articles), visuals (photos, maps, diagrams), statistics (tables, graphs), video (YouTube clips, TED Talks), audio (podcasts, songs), or interactive media (comprehension quizzes with Kahoot!, instant polling with Google Forms). This will add variety to the students’ input, and some students may learn better or more effectively with certain types of input over others.

These five areas of innovative lesson planning fit well with a CLIL approach. Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) is a dual-focused educational approach that recently has been gaining popularity in Japan. In CLIL, students learn content through language and language through content.

If you are interested in implementing CLIL into your team-taught lessons, please get in contact with Nate Olson, a former JET ALT and current researcher at Sophia University. Nate invites you to participate in a pilot study where he will be a consultant on your team-taught CLIL project, helping you and your co-teacher to implement a CLIL approach. Please see his TTCLIL project video series for more information about CLIL and examples of team-taught CLIL in action.


Nate is a former JET living in Tōkyō. Originally from Minnesota, he taught elementary, junior high, and senior high school as an ALT in Iwate and Hokkaidō. When he’s not conducting research on team teaching and CLIL, you can find him studying Chinese, playing guitar, and riding his motorcycle across Japan.