Winging It – Not a skill to be sniffed at

My beautiful picture
Pigeons – Marc Jones, copyright September 2010

First up, let me make it absolutely clear – planning lessons, at least in your head and preferably a few jottings on paper, before you go into the classroom is highly recommended. Even with Dogme you’re thinking about your likely reactions and you probably know the learners so have a good idea of needs. However, all of us at some point, and quite often for a few of us, have to wing a lesson because of any of the following reasons:
We are covering a lesson at the last minute with no cover work left by the regular teacher.
There are unexpected occurrences that mean the planned lesson (or planned tea break) can’t happen and you need to do something, preferably with a quick decision.
IT has failed or materials are not available.

What can you do?

If you have a textbook, you can do one of the other units. This will likely be a choice of nothing or the worst unit in there. Pay lip service to it by generating vocabulary from pictures in there and then set up a task or activity related to that theme. My favourite lesson when I worked for a rubbish school was an At the Airport unit which became a roleplay with feelings and personality eccentricities. I did this by selecting the only lesson a last-minute addition to the lesson hadn’t already studied.
Otherwise, you can Dogme your lesson and start a conversation. Think at each stage, what can the learners do? What can they almost do? The almost stage is great – try something that will enable this to be further developed.


This gives you the ideal opportunity to focus on weak points of language that manifest themselves in learner output. It could be grammar but it doesn’t have to be. How often do you think students get help with pronunciation? How about use of reference to sound more natural and concise? Don’t just pick a random grammar point for the sake of it. It’s nice to have gone in winging it and come out having taught something a bit unusual. I’d also say, don’t be afraid of going wide with the language focus in your lesson instead of deep with one thing. Students like it and you can always suggest further study on that point for homework (such as finding more examples online or from a newspaper or something).


The old chestnut is, the best lessons we teach are ones we didn’t plan. Write it down: what would you do differently? What worked well? Could you substitute any part into another lesson plan to make it better? If it was without a book, your students might appreciate time to talk with each other. You’ve had a really good opportunity to teach reacting to students and not worrying about keeping to a plan. It might have been a bit rough but what were the redeeming features?
Any other tips or concerns for winging it? Leave them in the comments.

14 Replies to “Winging It – Not a skill to be sniffed at”

  1. My two choice bits:
    “The almost stage is great – try something that will enable this to be further developed.” Sums things up nicely!
    “don’t be afraid of going wide with the language focus in your lesson instead of deep with one thing. Students like it and you can always suggest further study on that point for homework” This is the balance I’ve been thinking about. Such a delicate thing that usually is the focus of my reflections after dogme lessons.
    Tidy post, thanks for sharing.

    1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and maybe a deep language focus only helps a few students in a class at times. Maybe. Still thinking. Cheers Jamie.

  2. I love “winging it” if and when the teacher gets themselves and the students using wings and doing the negative sounding but actually very affirmative term justice! wings are for FLYING, after all! πŸ™‚

    1. Yes, flying! I think, as with everything there are ways, both good and bad. Like there’s planning and planning to use someone else’s plan raw. PPP and PP. TBL and tasks that do nowt. Cheers Matthew!

  3. Hi Marc,
    Czech students have become allergic to three things, IMO, so these are to be avoided – and I wonder: is this there a part of the world where Ss like talking about there weekends? 1. Don’t start conversation asking about the weekend; 2. Don’t say What shall we do today; 3. and avoid roleplays. I go with revision or teaching something new – pronunciation and referencing are great ideas, idioms/phraseology or a vocab area have worked too. I like texts so I use those. Cheers πŸ™‚ Kamila

    1. Hi Kamila,
      Thanks for your reply. I think it is really important to know what your students tend to want or be interested in doing so that you can have them taking part in the lesson enthusiastically. This is not only important when winging it but also when pre-planning.
      Thanks a lot.

    2. Hi Kamila and Marc,
      When I used to teach offline – which sometimes seems like it was decades ago πŸ™‚ – I liked to use “Taboos & Issues” by MacAndrew and Martinez for classes I needed to plan in a hurry. Also Discussions A-Z by Wallwork (most often the intermediate one). Both had content adult learners responded to pretty well.
      Re the weekend thing – agree, not the most fascinating of topics. But I didn’t get the impression students hated it, although this might have changed since I taught offline. πŸ™‚

      1. Hi Vedrana,
        Re weekend, I know my boss/mentor has always advised against it, especially if it wasn’t Monday:-) Not everyone has interesting weekends, she would say. And now I have a student who came back to me two years after her EN course with me finished, because apparently, their current teacher only has them talk about the weekend. So I am cautious and unless students start on their own, I avoid the topic. But I do go with casual topics – just yesterday, a very successful – and emergent one – the guys started listing ALL the animals that have bitten them. Unbelievable.
        Teaching offline, I like that:-)

        1. Kamila and Vedrana: Thanks for carrying on the conversation.
          I used the Taboos book once: not so bad; definitely works better as supplementary material.
          I always ask about the week but don’t labour the point, and I think that’s the thing: what you find interesting, other people may not.

        2. Good point about not everyone’s weekend being interesting. We once had a student who became sort of legendary for her standard response to how she’d spent her weekend – she’d always say, “Cooking, cleaning.” Now I think about it, I can’t believe we let it get to the point of becoming legendary; it must have been frustrating and embarrassing for all involved. Your comment also reminded me that I would often ask, “So, has anything interesting happened since I last saw you guys/ we last had class?” and that would be an easy way out if no one felt like sharing anything.
          I like the topic your class chose. πŸ™‚

          1. That’s a good question to ask! And yes, my weekends are very much similar to those of your legendary student:-)

  4. I absolutely agree that you need to be able to wing it even if it is just for cover lessons or the moment when you discover your colleague taught something different than they wrote down in the register (I had an old colleague who was notorious for that. I learnt to ask him what he had done with Book in hand to make sure he was sure…I still walked into a lesson discovering that the students had done what I had planned at home)
    It’s a great skill (instinct?) to learn when a “side track” during the lesson is more important than the plan. I guess your statement “The best lessons are the one’s we didn’t plan” is one of the main argument for Dogme.

    1. That’s exactly right. I think the side tracks in lessons can be critical incidents and can help us develop into better teachers. Cheers for the comment, Chris!

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