Aims. How to avoid being aimless!

In the first of a small series of posts on lesson planning, we consider possibly the most important thing to be clear about…aims.darts-155726_1280

Why aim?

It might first be useful to ask ourselves why we even need an aim. In other words…what is the aim of our aim?

Well…firstly, if we don’t know what we’re trying to achieve we have a much smaller chance of achieving anything at all! Our lessons shouldn’t be about simply doing things for an allotted amount of time, but about doing things that help students. We need to be clear about what it is we’re helping them with. If we imagine the lesson as a journey, we want to ensure we know where we’re headed. Without aims, we are liable to wander about all over the place and we may not reach any helpful destination.

Secondly, if you’re doing any kind or teaching course, your ability to write appropriate aims is likely to be assessed.

What kind of aims are we talking about?

You will usually be asked to consider four types of aims. Look at the differences:

Main aims – express the purpose of your lesson as a whole, and tell us the most important thing/s it should achieve.

Subsidiary aims also known as secondary aims, these give information about anything additional to the main aims that the lesson should do for students. For example, if you are teaching a grammatical structure and you are using a text as the context for the structure, you may have a subsidiary reading aim.

Stage aims – state the purpose of each part of your lesson. They tell us how each stage of the lesson contributes to achievement of your main aim. If you don’t know how a stage contributes, or it doesn’t…it shouldn’t be there!

Personal aims give the teacher an opportunity to focus on what they want to get better at, for example, ‘giving clearer instructions’.

What makes good aims?

Have a look at the following three aims from different lessons. Do you think there are good, or could they be better? What’s the reason for your decision?

  1. To present and practice grammar
  2. To teach students some reading skills
  3. For students to learn new words

It is safe to say that these aims could be improved! The first two in particular, would be much more helpful if they focused on the students. Especially if we are new to teaching and we are trying to remember the various stages we need to go through and techniques we need to employ, we can tend to focus on what we are doing, when ultimately we should be trying to focus on what the students get out of what we are doing. One of the ways that aims can help us, is by reminding us to think about things from the students’ point of view. In the first aim then, it would be better to move from ‘to present’ to thinking about what this part of the lesson achieves for students. The presentation stage is designed to ensure students understand the meaning, know how the language is formed and help them identify pronunciation features and sound better when using the language. Practice activities are designed to contribute to students’ understanding of the meaning, form and pronunciation of the language and help them be more accurate or more fluent in its use (depending on whether they are controlled or freer). If we have a teacher focused aim, such as ‘present’, we may be able to say we have achieved our aim, even if the ‘presentation’ is absolutely terrible and of no benefit to the students! We are less able to fall into this trap if the aim is focused on students.

The aim is also not very specific. Which grammar point is being focused on in this lesson? Many tenses, for example, have more than one use, so we may need to specify which we are dealing with. For example, the present continuous can be used to talk about things in progress at the moment of speaking, or to talk about future arrangements. We need to be very clear on which one we want students to deal with. Lack of clarity over something like this could result in us giving students practice tasks which focus on a different use to the one we dealt with in the clarification / presentation stage. Similarly, in the second example of an aim about a reading lesson, there is no detail about which particular reading skills we are hoping to improve.

In the third aim, (for students to learn new words), the teacher has focused on the students, which is good. But is the wording helpful? What exactly does ‘to learn’ mean, and how will we know if this has happened? ‘To learn’ implies completion. It implies that if we have achieved our aims, then after our lesson students will require no more practice, no more exposure to these words. Since learning doesn’t usually work this way, but instead requires multiple exposures and continued practice – the aim is not realistic.  Wording is key. With good aims, we should be able to look back at a lesson or even a stage and know that we have achieved it by what we can see and hear in the classroom. In the case of stage aims,  we only know when to move on, when we can assess that the aim for that stage has been mostly met; for example, students are answering concept checking questions correctly, or have improved their pronunciation during drilling. For this reason, words and phrases such as develop, improve, be better able to, with greater accuracy, expand etc. are helpful because we can see that they have happened and to what extent: we can reflect on whether students have improved based on evidence.

Following these points and applying them to the original aims, results in something like this:

  1. for students to have a better understanding and be more accurate in their use of the present continuous for describing future arrangements.
  2. For students to practise and develop their ability to read quickly for the general idea, and to develop students’ ability to find specific information in a text more quickly.
  3. For students to be better able to describe meals using a lexical set of food related adjectives.

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Top tips

  • Focus your aims on the students rather than the teacher whenever possible
  • Be as clear and specific as possible
  • Word your aims carefully and in a way that will make it easy for you when the lesson is over, to assess the degree to which they were achieved
  • Be realistic about what is achievable in a given time frame
  • Be clear about the main aim/s of your lesson as compared to subsidiary aim/s



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