What makes a lesson GREAT? Part #4

Here is the much-delayed part four in a five-part series of posts inspired by Mike Harrison, who asked on the IATEFL Facebook page “what makes a lesson GREAT?” My answer was:

Group Dynamic

Relevance to learners’ lives

Emergent language



You can find my posts on the first three characteristics by clicking on them above. Or you can start in medias res by reading on…

A for Attentiveness

The now-traditional glance in my dictionary tells me this about attentiveness:

attentive |əˈtɛntɪv|


paying close attention to something : never before had she had such an attentive audience | Congress should be more attentive to the interests of taxpayers.

ORIGIN late Middle English : from Old French attentif, -ive, from atendre ‘give one’s attention to’ (see attend ).

Attentiveness is then, the paying of attention to something. Seems obvious, but there are one or two implications worth paying attention to! For instance, paying attention is a conscious, deliberate act, and the collocation pay is more than coincidental.

The capacity to pay attention – or focus – on something is cognitively limited and it comes with an opportunity cost: humans are not omniscient – we have to make attentional sacrifices.

These sacrifices for learners may come in the form of error, memory failure, tiredness. As teachers, it is worth being attentive to the shifts in dynamic which may arise from the impacts of our learners paying attention to something new in class.

Here is a simple piece of homework for you:


In coming lessons, practise slowing down any instructions you give or transitions you make by counting to to three after each part of the instruction or transitional talk. In this three seconds, work on using eye contact to gather your learners’ attention. Try to use silence and stillness to marshall their attention instead of volume and movement. Here is an example of what I mean…

Ok everyone, you came up with some great ideas in that last task (3 second pause; look at learners)

Now, let’s use those ideas to make something (3 second pause; look at learners)

Look here (indicate section of coursebook containing next task; pause three seconds; check learners are looking at what teacher is pointing at)


This is aimed at training an attentive, deliberate approach to gathering your learners’ attention in preparation for new tasks. In the cut and thrust of a class, it is not uncommon for us to feel under time pressure and try to work more quickly than our learners may be able to follow; slowing down transitions like this may actually lead to gaining learner attention more effectively and thereby enabling them to get to work more quickly.

Paying attention to attention

Attention as a concept is also worth attending to briefly. Here are some excerpts from its dictionary definition:

attention |əˈtɛnʃ(ə)n|


1 notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important : he drew attention to three spelling mistakes | you’ve never paid that much attention to her opinions.

What catches my attention here is that attention is linked to interest or a sense of importance. We pay attention to what seems interesting or useful for us. This relates to my earlier post in this series about relevance to learner lives. Paying attention is selectively ignoring other, competing stimuli in the environment in order to focus on something that we have deemed worth our attention.

The pedagogic implications of this for lesson content selection should be obvious – if we expect learners to pay attention to what goes on in our lessons, we had better make sure that what’s going on is interesting or important for the people in the room. To do this successfully, we need to be making the content of our lessons more worthy of their attention than anything else in the competing environment.

But how can we best manage this given that what is interesting or important may change on a daily basis for the people in the room, while the content of any given syllabus is prescribed months if not years in advance?

Scott Thornbury has just been discussing the limitations of such “bulldozing” of content; to take his evocative flock of starlings metaphor (read his excellent post to see what I am talking about), if we as teachers use buckshot instead of birdseed to get our learners’ attention, we are onto a loser.

All we will succeed in doing is scattering their attention even further, instead of focusing their attention on something that will generate a feeding – or learning – frenzy.

Easily said, but how can we as teachers pick the right kind of birdseed? To stretch the metaphor to breaking point, I would suggest we should pay close attention ourselves to the topics and language that our learners start pecking at, in class and outside of it. To help promote and develop this habit, here is a little homework:


Over the next week, keep a notepad handy and note down at least 2 examples of the following for each of the learners in a chosen class:

1) pieces of language that they ask for clarification about while engaged in talk with classmates not involving a teacher-specified task

2) topics of conversation that they use to initiate or extend conversation with classmates or you, the teacher.

The language that the learner uses is not important for our purposes here – if you do not share their L1, and you suspect that something interesting or important is going on in their conversation, ask them to paraphrase in English in the break.

I hope that after this small piece of data-gathering, you will have an increased sense of what kinds of things catch your students’ attention, and then you should be in a better position to leverage it in future. If you do this experiment, please let me know what you learn, and how you manage to exploit it!


    • Anthony Gaughan

      Thanks, Tony – just one more to go, probably up tomorrow. But I have a few ideas for other things to write about, so I just have to find time!

      Just wish I was as prolific and informative as yours – and also wish I managed to comment more than I do (but I always read and enjoy them!)

  1. Ben Naismith

    Very nice Anthony – if you don’t mind I think I’ll be stealing your task #2 and using it as an observation task on the next celta I do, starting a couple of weeks from now.

  2. Scott Thornbury

    Another great post, Anthony. The pecking/picking metaphor reminded me of this extract from Leo van Lier’s Interaction in the Language Curriculum (1996):

    “I have suggested that in instructional settings, attention-focusing needs to be fostered. … But this does not mean that we can or should predict what it is that will be focused on. …. Some teaching methods appear to assume that it can be decided beforehand, for every student, what is to be focused on, how, and when, and this is, I think, a very wasteful procedure. The emphasis should rather be on providing a rich variety of exposure-language, and to let the students pick what they need. It is not necessary to worry about the things that are not picked. To use Neisser’s analogy: ‘To pick one apple from a tree you need not filter out all the others; you just don’t pick them’ (1976:84-85). However, we must make sure that there are apples within the reach of all students (this is where access, in the form of comprehensibility, familiarity, assistance, and so on, comes in). This view of exposure as the provision of opportunities for engaging with language is, as I have suggested before, an ecological approach” (p.53)

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Thanks Scott: I must have had this quote in mind as I just read van Lier a few weeks ago. His point about having a rich environment that simply offers itself reminds me of these lines by Andrew Marvell talking about the willing affordances of a garden:

      What wond’rous Life is this I lead!
      Ripe Apples drop about my head;
      The luscious Clusters of the Vine
      Upon my Mouth do crush their Wine;
      The Nectaren, and curious’ Peach,
      Into my hands themselves do reach;
      Stumbling on Melons, as I pass,
      Insnar’d with Flow’rs, I fall on Grass.

      The Garden by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

      What interests me here is the playful agency of the environment: its impish intention to be of use. We can dismiss this as poetic fancy, perhaps, but it might be a useful Metaphor to counter the “bulldozing” one you suggest is prevalent today.

      Might viewing the natural environment in the classroom as a complete and intentional whole lead to more flexible and less invasive teaching interventions? How might teachers change the way they talk about their lessons and their outcomes?

      (hopefully not in metaphysical conceits!)

      • Scott Thornbury

        Wonderful analogy – and poem. As for “viewing the natural environment in the classroom as a complete and intentional whole” – yes, absolutely, but, not of course, at the expense of knowing that this ‘compete and intentional whole’ is itself a complex constellation of individual parts. Thereby the ongoing tension of ‘managing learning’.

        • Anthony Gaughan

          Absolutely, Scott, both levels of the game – the unified whole and the discrete networked elements – need to be kept in mind.

          As there is always an attentional cost to any cognitive activity though (making an assertion as fact here…), I wonder whether teachers typically pay more attention to one of these levels or the other a) during teaching and b) post teaching.

          I also wonder whether this bias (if it exists) is significant, if so in what ways, and whether it is related to the influence of prior teacher education.

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Glad you liked it Willy. I’ve been surprised how much I’ve been stimulated to think more deeply about these commonplace words (relevant, attentive etc) by simply looking them up and exploring their roots. Brad Patterson is really onto something with that etymology blog of his!

      Thanks for stopping by!

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