Whiteboard Aims & Objectives: Why Lesson Menus don’t Work

Over the last few weeks, the topic of sharing lesson aims and objectives with learners has cropped up several times. I was recently having dinner with my brother, who is a member of the senior faculty at a British secondary school, when we got on to the topic of lesson aims and objectives. It is an understatement to say he was surprised and shocked to learn that some ELT teachers don’t share aims and objectives with learners at the start of the lesson.

The topic has cropped up several times since and I have come to notice there are two schools of thought: those who believe in sharing lesson aims and objectives with the learners, and those who don’t.

There are arguments for and against sharing lesson aims. This post will consider both sides of the coin.

Sharing Aims and Objects

Those who share lesson aims and objects with their learners most often do this by writing them in a column on the left-hand side of the whiteboard – often known as a Lesson Menu. Others present them as a slide on PowerPoint. They might be referred to explicitly, with the teacher going through each point one by one at the beginning and end of the lesson, or they might just linger there, on display for the learners to read at their leisure.

I asked my brother why teachers at his school share their lesson aims and objectives at the beginning of lessons. He provided quite a nice analogy as a response: “When you listen to the news, it starts with the bulletins, then it goes into the details of each story one by one, and then it finishes with a summary of each story.”

While this analogy is quite beautiful, it overlooks two key features:

  • The format of the news is a particular genre and has little to do with classroom teaching.
  • Very often, based on the bulletins, we decide which news reports we will skip over or turn off from and which ones we will focus on – probably because they interest us.

Ignoring Aims and Objectives

This notion of tuning out is particularly important in the classroom. When a learner walks in and reads  “Present Perfect” under the aims and objectives, not only are we risking them writing the lesson off all together, stating ideas such as “it’s too difficult”, “not this again” or “we’ve done this, I know it”, but we are also risking the effectiveness of the lesson.

What is meant by the “effectiveness of the lesson” is best explained with an example.

Sticking with the topic of the Present Perfect, in order to teach this you will want to present the target language in a clear context – most probably a text. However, in order to make sure the meaning of the text is completely clear, so as to ensure the notion of the Present Perfect is there before you give them the actual English words, you need to check they understand the text. This is probably best done with a short gist task.

However, the second you put the text in front of them, they won’t do the gist task you have just given them, because they have seen “Present Perfect” on the board and will be scanning the text for that. Even if they don’t do this consciously, they will be doing it subconsciously.

Don’t believe me? Think back to your school days when you were told to read exam papers through from beginning to end before writing a single answer – the argument was to get your brain thinking about the questions. It is the same notion here.

Activating Schemata

The counter-argument to the one above is that by telling the learners in advance what they will be doing in the lesson, not only will they feel informed of the lesson’s aim and purpose but they will also subconsciously activate their previous knowledge about the topic. This way you will be getting them thinking about the topic before you even get on to it.

However, while that does stand to reason, it does make one wonder: why do have lead-ins then if the same aimed is achieved through sharing lesson aims?

Surely, if anything, you would be better of writing on the whiteboard the lesson aims as you go through them, after having aroused their interest and covered the topic. This would make the lesson menu a chronological record of what has been covered in the class, rather than a table of what is to be done. 

Lesson Menus

Lesson menus can very often be poor in quality, in that they don’t actually do what they are supposed to. The original idea behind them is to share with the learners what the aim of the lesson is. However, most teachers end up producing lesson menus which provide a description of activities – a run-through of what will be done in the lesson, rather than why.

For example: it isn’t uncommon to see lesson menus like this:

Today’s Lesson:

  • Revise the Present Perfect
  • Read a text on travelling to New York
  • Complete a gap fill
  • Play a game
  • Homework

The ‘aim’ of the lesson is buried somewhere in those activities, but that is all they are: activities and procedures. They do not represent what the aim of the lesson is. By the end of the lesson, the learners might be able to say what they have done or completed, but they probably won’t be able to state what they have learnt.

Furthermore, if you don’t cover everything in the lesson menu, then the learners will walk away from the lesson thinking they and you have underachieved. This can lead to a number of negative knock-on effects, including the sense of failure and the notion of unprofessionalism on the educator’s part.

Recapping on the Lesson

Time and time again I see teachers finishing lessons with the short “What have we learnt today? Tell your partner!” activity.

Not only are the learners aware this activity is a complete cop-out and a mere time-killer to finish off the last 5 minutes or so, it is an unprincipled activity that is setting you up for failure, especially if you are being observed.

It is very difficult to truly learn something in a single lesson: language is acquired over time. What usually happens in lessons is that you gain knowledge and further practice in a given aspect of the language. So, asking learners what they have learnt is never going to reveal a true answer.

Furthermore, if you ask them to recap on the lesson during an observation and they aren’t able to state what they have learnt, then you are putting every thing in place for the lesson to look like a complete failure.

19 thoughts on “Whiteboard Aims & Objectives: Why Lesson Menus don’t Work

  1. Hi Anthony,

    What’s your take on reflective lesson menus? Not asking the students specifically what they learnt, because that can be difficult to express, but by asking them what they did at certain points in the class. Even the use of prompts could be used – what did we do at the start of class? As a reflective exercise it becomes more about the students’ sense of achievement rather than skipped lesson goals. And if students don’t remember, you are aware of what to bring up as a review. And if the students don’t remember anything, then yes, it’s a failed lesson but you know that you need to cover that material again.

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  2. Really interesting, Anthony. I do feel discussing lesson objectives is essential, don’t know if they should be on the board from the beginning or not. I also feel it’s a matter of routines. Board menus work nicely in the YL classroom cause ss usually ask for certain games, they want to see if you’re including them or no. Students may also remind you about homework that needs to be checked, or a question they may have. When I write board menus and state objectives, I like to do it with the students at the beginning of the class. Students are responsible of the learning process, so if there’s a board menu, they should also have a chance to ask for certain things to be there. I wouldn’t say lesson menus don’t work, I’d say they’re a waste of time if they’re done for the sake of doing them or ticking a box, they should be done to be exploited for further learning, otherwise, what’s the point? Moreover, i never write down things like present perfect, I write more like some reading, language focus, etc. At the end of the lesson, the board menu provides a chance for reflection, and so does the vocab column.

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  3. I agree with you entirely. I’m pretty sure my students already know what we are trying to achieve because we did a needs assessment together at the beginning of the term. On Monday they find out which unit / topic of that theme will be tackled. They know that all during the week, I am helping them gain the skills to be able to transfer language into real-world situations outside the classroom. There is a lot of trust between us, so as long as I prime their brains for the schema at the beginning of each lesson, I don’t feel it’s helpful to put a lesson objective on the board. I agree with all your points re why this can actually be counterproductive or at least a grand waste of time.

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  4. For example it could be as simple as “What are 5 different ways to say ‘how are you?'” or “What did you do yesterday?” or little more complex for higher levels, “Is a lottery a form of gambling?” “Where do you derive most of your income?” The idea is that the question should synthesise the TL & context so that they can answer using what they’ve learned. It’s very similar to a can-do outcome but I think it’s a lot less prescriptive and gives the students a bit more guidance for home study if they didn’t catch something in the lesson.

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  5. When I was at school, every teacher was required to write an “essential question” somewhere on the board. For example “Why was the significance of the unification of Germany.” Could easily relate that to ELT, obviously. The teacher didn’t always start class with it, but it was always written down so it was accessible if we needed that guidance. The idea was, by the end of the lesson we should have the answer to that question. I like having an EQ because it gives some sort of context without being too restrictive and there should theoretically be a nice, coherent finish to the lesson. Luke suggested writing the “can-do” on the board but I think this leads us back to the original problem.

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    1. It sounds good but how do we incorporate it into the subject of English language teaching? Language learning is quite skills drive: the ability to speak the language or not. It doesn’t matter if the learner can describe how the Present Perfect I used, they just need to be able to use it correctly, right?

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  6. I agree with Christopher here, surely a more effective method is to put up a ‘can-do’ target which is the focus of the lesson and will be achieved in a free practice activity,
    So, taking present perfect as an example, the lesson aim could be to discuss previous travel experiences.~
    Doing this allows the students to know what they are aiming for but also hides the meta-language which students may have prior feelings out.

    What do you normally do Anthony, where do you fall?

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    1. A can-do statement is very subjective. The learners might cover all the points in class and perform well but still “feel” they can’t do it, because… Well many people are quite negative about their own abilities, aren’t they? Especially in a culture like the one you’re currently working in Luke where it is seen as poor form to talk positively about oneself.

      I don’t bother with any of these things. I just teach the lesson and they know what they have gotten out of the lesson. My current learners are quite mixed ability, so sometimes some will leave the lesson with the notion of having revised something while others leave thinking they covered something new.

      I also think learners know which things are time-fillers and which are really learning-oriented activities. Teachers can get this feeling too when they attend an INSET session, the trainer is setting up the technology and is having difficulties and he says, “tell your about what you did at the weekend.” I think most teachers would do as they’re told but think “Why? What’s the point – you aren’t interested in what we did at the weekend and it’s irrelevant to the session.” I feel like this about “What have you learnt today” activities.

      However, if you ask the learners to discuss what the point of a particular activity was and you’re getting them to do this in order to train them to be better learners, then that’s fine. An example would be if you do a reading activity and you get them to look up unknown lexical items in an electronic online dictionary – you’re getting them to do this so they can learn to help themselves outside of class: you might want them to become conscious of this through a “What was the point of that?” type question.

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      1. I agree that in Poland it is true that learners are quite negative about their abilities. However, partly due to this it could be seen as important to boost their confidence by highlighting progress they have made at some point. If not at the end of the lesson when woul you do this? [/do you think this is helpful?]

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  7. Can see your point for some parts of this, although I’m not sure why learners knowing procedure rather than aims matters. Sometimes it just helps them orientate with where we are in the lesson and what we are doing, especially in a long lesson (4 hours for example).
    Also, if you ask your learners what they learned at end of lesson, it doesn’t mean they need to trot out the aims. Just means they think about one thing that they can take away that they didn’t have at the beginning, be it a word they misunderstood that has been clarified, the pronunciation of a known word that they know better or a spelling correction. Doesn’t have to be something big, but means they leave feeling they have something to take home.

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    1. They should be able to leave a well constructed lesson with the feeling they got something out of it – not because the teacher wastes 5 minutes getting them to think up a word or a structure EU “learnt” during that lesson.

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      1. I noticed you said “asking what have you learned today is setting yourself up for failure when you’re being observed” and I couldn’t agree more, because lesson observation by a DELTA and especially a CELTA tutor calls for a very structured lesson. If you were concentrating on a grammar tense and the learners say “we learned vocabulary” it looks really weird if you’re being evaluated. However, in a more relaxed setting if a lot of the lesson was just going with the flow of the learners’ emergent linguistic needs and there were no fixed goals presented at the beginning of the lesson, I don’t see any harm in the question. The answers might be surprising and not what you were trying to teach them, but the main thing is they did learn something. Going over the lesson in their heads to say what it was can make it more memorable I think.

        On the whole, I agree completely that putting aims on the board is counter-productive. What with all the dogme, you can imagine I am generally not a fan of aims))

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        1. Thank you for the comment Olga 🙂 Avoiding such things when being observed is very important. It could make things go pear shaped.

          I’ve been learning more and more about some of the principles behind Dogme – largely thanks to Angelos Bollas – and one of the key principles seems to be post-planning rather than pre-planning. So, on the basis of that, going through the points of the lesson – establishing what has been covered and what has been achieved – this falls into the post-planning principle, doesn’t it? So, it’s Dogme approved me thinks. ^_^

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  8. Interesting post. I have tried a few different things and the one that works for me is telling students what the last task will be and nothing else. I always have a task at the end of the lesson and letting them know what’s expected of them seems to focus their minds and think about how each stage will help them do the task. It also helps to ask them at the end of each stage how this feeds in to the last task.

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    1. Is the final task designed in such a way that they need the use the target language of the lesson to complete it or can it be completed independently of the target language?

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