What makes a lesson challenging and practical teaching hints

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By Valia Georgilaki, Teacher of English, Doukas Primary School

Are we ‘anaesthetizing’ students?

A long term study in the USA, which was published recently and 1500 kindergarten children were tested, showed that 98% scored genius in creative thinking, i.e. their ability to generate ideas spontaneously. These children were tested every 5 years after their first test and every time the study showed that their thinking abilities dropped to 50%. The main reason why their intelligence declined was attributed to school education which offered them limited opportunities to use their mind and taught them to memorize and that there is only one answer to the question. Despite being context specific, this study implied that we all have this capacity of creative thinking but it mostly deteriorates as we get older (Robinson, 2006).

Students seem to be losing this quality as teachers do not adequately cater for its development in their lesson. The question raised is: what can we do to prevent this?

The key word seems to be “challenge”, which means that:

the lesson should be intriguing and fun

When the lesson is appealing to the students’ age, level of ability and personal interests then it is more likely that it will attract their attention and they will feel more interested and amused. A well-planned lesson based on these features will initiate meaningful individual and group activities (Tomlinson, 2008-2013; Strang, 2014).

According to psychologists, students need to learn by asking, discovering, doing and taking risks. So, teachers should create a relaxing and positive atmosphere to encourage expression, allow failure and permit the development of curiosity which will help them increase their creativity and critical thinking (Briggs, 2014).

the lesson should be thought-provoking and ignite problem solving

The students need to push the boundaries of their imagination and enter a world of infinite possibilities where fresh and original ideas are born. They need to think more deeply to provide answers, suggestions and find solutions to problems. Tell your students to speak their minds, question and doubt by making clear to them that there are no black or white answers (Janesick, 2004). You can ask them questions like “What advice would you give on this?”, or “What do you think would happen if…?”. You can ask a student to provide a solution to a problem that may arise at that moment or create your own problem like “Two students want to borrow the same book from the library. What would you advise/tell these students?”.

the students should be offered choice

Offer them choice regarding the end result, not the process towards the end result. For example, after finishing a unit, they can either produce the test they take up depending on what they have understood or produce the questions on content or on what they feel strong about. Moreover, they can choose from discussed options the one that best appeals to them to carry out a project or task or they can decide the starting point on their assignment. You may, also, offer choice in terms of the amount or topic of homework assignment. In these ways, not only do they build their confidence, feel useful, creative and amused but they also do something they have not been assigned before (Strang, 2014).

the teachers should teach the students learning strategies

Teaching students to have learning strategies is important so that they become autonomous, self-regulate, reflect and be more flexible (Whitney, et. al., 2012). For example, you can teach your students how to organize and plan their work, memorize and set priorities.

the lesson should be realistic and meaningful

Make the lesson more personal since students are more likely to thrive if it applies to aspects of real life and reflects their own context and culture. Also, use everyday examples and let them know about how the skills they develop can be of practical use in real life so as to motivate them in class and make sense of the lesson (Whitney, et. al., 2012). For instance, if you teach about kinds of music, you can ask your students to tell you about how important music is in their life, which kinds of music they like or how it makes them feel.

From theory to practice

Below you can read 5 practical ideas and hands-on activities to use in class that require little or no preparation.

Journal writing

  • Keeping a journal to collect ideas and thoughts on various subjects can be a relaxing and enjoyable way to develop students’ writing skills while stimulating their creativity. It can be as simple as a thin notebook which serves as the student’s writing space or an A4 paper. Here are some activities:
  • Personalised journal entry: Students write about themselves, their hobbies, or anything else related to their lives.
  • Discussion sentence stems: Teachers dictate sentence stems and students complete them in any way they want. For example, ‘What I enjoy most about learning English is …’ etc.
  • Character writing: Students read or listen to a story and they express their views and initial reaction. Alternatively, they can imagine that they are a character in the story and rewrite it from their own perspective.
  • Happiness diary: Students write about what made them happy (or sad) the previous week and why they felt like that.
  • Vocabulary stories: Students pull words out of a box and in groups they write a story in their journals.
  • Free writing: Prompt them by playing some music in the background and let them write how it makes them feel. As another option, teachers can show proverbs, sayings, quotations, video segments, or pictures. This activity can generate a variety of spontaneous ideas without proofreading or revising and offering a prompt is useful to stimulate their thinking skills and engage them into writing.

Mind mapping

  • Mind mapping is another way to challenge our students to organize their ideas and inter-connect them in a creative way. Where can we use mind maps? Let’s go through some practical suggestions…
  • Mind maps can be an effective asset when learning new lexical items is the goal. Kids can start with a single word or idea in the centre of the page and draw lines from it to a new related idea or word that branches off the main topic.
  • In writing and problem-solving activities the visual aspect of the map stimulates students’ mental activity to generate ideas! Students can start with the problem and write solutions around it.
  • Do your students lack ideas? Ask them to brainstorm (see below) and record their thoughts, pause and answer questions orally or in a written form.


  • Brainstorming is a challenging approach to develop students’ lateral thinking and directs them to authentic idea generation and exploration with a view to providing solutions to problems. How can we use brainstorming in class?
  • In warm-up stages of listening, speaking, writing or reading. Students can be asked questions to reflect on the topic.
  • In grammar. Instead of teachers explaining the grammar rules and forms, it is interesting to ask the students to brainstorm and guess how and why these structures are used.
  • In vocabulary. Students often find it hard to comprehend difficult vocabulary items. So, encourage them to guess the meaning of new words using the context!
  • In writing. Students can work either individually, in pairs or in groups, as part of an activity or game to generate ideas on a topic in order to complete a project, a leaflet, a poster etc. or brainstorm a story using the new words of the lesson. Then they can present in class, swap with classmates to correct or they can vote the best and declare the winner.

Constructive feedback

  • Using rubber stamps is a practical way to get messages across to students by motivating them and can definitely make the lesson more interactive and enjoyable.
  • Students can also swap papers and give each other constructive feedback. This can be challenging but having this responsibility will make the lesson more fun.
  • Assign classroom jobs to your students

Let students (especially the antagonistic ones) be your helping hands so as to take their task more seriously and become more objective and stricter. Decide what jobs can be assigned, who is going to do which job and for how long. Some classroom jobs that kids can help with are:

  • Paper collector
  • Lamp monitor
  • Lights monitor
  • Calendar helper
  • Homework helper
  • Board eraser
  • Trash monitor
  • Floor monitor
  • Learning technology assistant



Briggs, S. (2014). 30 Ways to Inspire Divergent Thinking. Retrieve from http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/divergent-thinking/ on March 7, 2017.

Dossetor, J. (2013). Class Journals. Retrieve from https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/class-journals on February 27, 2017.

Exploring teaching experiences that challenge and stretch learners https://challenginglearners.wordpress.com/

Janesick, J. V. (2004). Standards and critical thinking. In J. L. Kincheloe & D. Weil (Eds.), Critical thinking and learning: An encyclopedia for parents and teachers (pp. 389-394). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Robinson, K. (2006). Do schools kill creativity? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1yl0MFYzXc on March 7, 2017.

Strang, T. (2014). Helping Students Think More Critically and Strategically. Retrieved from https://blog.cengage.com/helping-students-think-more-critically-and-strategically/ on March 7, 2017.

Tomlinson, C. (2008-2013). Fulfilling the promise of differentiation. http://caroltomlinson.com/

Whitney H. Rapp, Katrina L. Arndt. (2012). Teaching everyone.

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