Aim to please

By Derek Keever

“Yes, but I wasn’t clear about your aims and these need to be made clear to the learners!”

Having worked on both PRESET and INSET Training courses, I have heard this refrain countless times — it must be one of the most frequently voiced trainer criticisms in post-lesson discussions. I had similar feedback from a DOS on a lesson, one that I thought had been fairly successful in terms of the opportunities that the material afforded to the learners. It was a text-based lesson on viral videos, with lots of interaction and opportunities for the learners to share information and ideas.

The lesson started with discussion about social media, memes, viral video, etc., an authentic video from YouTube (Technoviking — the first internet meme according to the video’s creator), followed by an authentic text, some comprehension questions, noticing activities for interesting lexis, and finally more personalized speaking.

After the lesson, the DOS had nothing positive to say, and asserted that he wasn’t clear about what the main aims were. He felt that the text was too short for receptive skills development but agreed that it was lexically rich and that the main aim must have been vocabulary, but, since it wasn’t explicitly stated to the learners, it was ineffective.

This notion of explicitly stating aims, outcomes and techniques as requisite for a successful lesson is also instantiated in Delta Module 2 criteria. Here is a gloss of the specific criterion related to aims: “candidates should ensure that learners understand/appreciate (either implicitly or explicitly) the relevance of techniques, procedures and activities used during the lesson to achieve the learning outcomes.” (Cambridge Assessment English, Delta 5a).

So why the preoccupation with aims, and isolating discrete language items and/or skills? The underlying assumption seems to be that learners will learn what you teach them according to the precise specifications laid out in the plan. “To write an effective plan the teacher needs to think carefully about what exactly the aim of the lesson is. What will the learners learn?” (Watkins, 2005, p.108). State your main aims, follow the procedure, each stage is interconnected and interrelated.

Will they learn what we teach them?

However, the complexity of teaching and learning a language, as research on SLA suggests, resists such a simple process. Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997) reminds us, “learning linguistic items is not a linear process — learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either.

The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings” (p. 18). Hence, for any particular lesson, Larsen-Freeman’s ideas raise questions like: What will the learners learn? Something new or will they consolidate lexis from the previous lesson? And, will all the learners have the same takeaway from the lesson? Can we expect them to learn it at the same pace? And are we talking about explicit knowledge (learning about grammar, or what words mean and how to say them), or implicit knowledge (how to use language and lexis in real time)? Is it realistic for all learners in the class to achieve the same mastery in a 1-2 hour lesson? And, finally, how do we know when someone has learned something?

Steve Brown in his writings on ‘Preflection’ has this to say about aims, “Teaching is more about exploiting learning opportunities than achieving pre-selected aims”…“Just because you have decided that you want to teach a certain language point…this doesn’t mean that students are ready or able to learn it” (Brown, 2013). And, as Dick Allwright (2005) points out, “What learners get from a lesson is not predictable merely from what is taught in that lesson and certainly not just from the teaching points covered… We cannot now sensibly measure the overall success of a lesson simply in terms of the percentage of teaching points successfully learned because the learners may have learned little from the teaching points and a lot from everything else that happened in the lesson” (p. 12).

Aims as learning opportunities

Hence, it might be better to start with the assumption that learning is not predictable, uptake in the lesson is unknown, and therefore planning should allow for more “richness of opportunity”, and we should replace teaching points with “learning opportunities” (2005, Allwright, p 13). For a language lesson on narrative forms, for example, an overall lesson outcome might be ‘learners will have opportunities to interact and share past experiences in the context of childhood stories’. This will no doubt elicit the use of narrative forms, but the key takeaway for some may be new lexical items, how to best structure a story, and so on.

In a teacher training context, less trainer insistence on, for example, trainees doing corrective feedback only, or primarily, on the target language would also accommodate and support the notion that language learning is complex, non-linear; feedback and input on, for example, other emergent language, on a lexical gap, a way to conclude, etc. may be more valuable and timely for the learners’ developing interlanguage system than correction of a past form.

Viewing the lesson aims as opportunities for learners to engage with learning materials, and with the other people in the room, with the overall goal of assisting them with communicating their thoughts, ideas, and feelings aligns with key precepts of a Dogme approach, and is closer to the original goal of communicative language teaching. So planning for an activity such as a role-play interview that affords opportunities for the likely emergence of the present perfect is a valid activity, but allowing the feedback and input to diverge, allowing for the lesson to go where it could go, based on learner output. This, rather than where the teacher wants it to go, based on a finely tuned plan, may be more effective as it allows for learning to take place at the point of need.

This more responsive and reactive approach to teaching challenges the traditional in-service teacher training models found on courses like CELTA, underpinned by the assumption that novice and inexperienced teachers lack the language awareness and confidence to deal with emergence in the classroom. However, there have been teacher training courses that are in contradistinction to this view (see the videos and writings from Anthony Gaughan’s fascinating blog,, for an example). In this training model, lesson aims are much more loosely constructed and teachers are encouraged from the outset to develop the ability to deal with language beyond the target grammar structure from the book.

In the end, having a direction for the lesson, an overall aim is usually desirable, but measuring the success of the lesson in terms of the degree to which aims are achieved seems more focused on what the teacher is doing rather that what the learners want or need. Viewing aims as opportunities and affordances seems much more in line with a learner-centred approach as it reinforces the common refrain on teacher training courses: ‘teach the learners, not the plan.’


Allwright, R. 2005. From teaching points to learning opportunities and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 39, 9-32.

Cambridge Assessment English, DELTA 5a 2015, CUP.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 1997. Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics 18.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.

Watkins, P. 2005. Learning to Teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Addlestone: Delta Publishing

Brown, 2013.

Author's bio: Derek Keever is a freelance teacher trainer, researcher and lecturer based in Japan. He has worked in the ELT field for over 25 years, teaching, teacher training and researching and studying how languages are learned
and taught.

He specialises in the creation of CPD programmes, exploiting authentic texts for the classroom, and task-based language teaching.