Do you ever create your own lead-ins?
Open most coursebooks and you will notice that new sections often start with one or two questions related to the topic of the lesson. For example:
What kinds of activities work well as lead-ins?
This is by no means a bad way to start a lesson, but, as we all know, there are myriad other ways to raise students’ interest in a topic and activate their prior knowledge of it. The problem is that most of these other types of lead-in don’t fit comfortably in a coursebook, where the majority of the page has to be left for the “meat” of the lesson, i.e. the tasks or exercises supporting the main learning outcomes.
This article starts with a list of tried and true ideas for lead-ins. These could either be used as an alternative way of leading into a lesson from a coursebook or as a lead-in for materials that teachers have prepared themselves. Later on, we’ll look at some best practices for lead-ins.
Apart from space limitations, this has probably become the default way for coursebook writers to start lessons because questions do tend to work quite well. Here are a few ideas for starting with questions:
- Put up five or six questions and have students choose two they’d like to discuss. This helps avoid the problem of students having little or nothing to say about the topic.
- Dictate the questions. Then project them on the board so students can check themselves. If you don’t have access to technology, elicit them to the board.
- Add an extra challenge by leaving gaps in the questions, e.g. What do you do ___ the weekend? Or ask students to form the questions themselves, e.g. What/do/weekend?
Brainstorms are useful because they can provide the teacher with a good idea of how familiar students are with a particular lexical field. For a skills lesson, they can function as a sort of prediction task. Here are a few ideas for starting with brainstorms:
- Gamification: the winner is the group to write down the most words in a set time limit; lists can also be compared and any items in common crossed out, the winner being the group with the most remaining items.
- Instead of making a list, students organize their brainstorm into a mind map. For a brainstorm about food, say, you could get them started by eliciting a few subcategories, e.g. seafood, fruit, vegetables, etc.
- A ranking activity is easily added to a brainstorm, e.g. Which three of the foods do you think we should all eat more of? Why? Students must negotiate with their classmates until everyone agrees.
The idea is to board a number of words related to the topic of the lesson. Here are a few ideas for starting a lesson with words:
- Students find and discuss connections between the words from the lesson.
- Start with 10 words related to a particular lexical field. Students decide on categories and make a mind map. Then they add 10 more words of their own.
- Pre-teach difficult lexis by asking students to research the meanings of a small number of words in monolingual dictionaries. They then predict what the text will be about.
The test of a really good picture is that you look at it and it asks you questions, such as this copyright free one from www.eltpics.com:
Here are a few ideas for starting a lesson with images:
- Put up one or more images and get students to speculate about the topic of the lesson. Make sure it’s not too obvious.
- Show a picture of a person in a particular situation. Ask the students how they would feel if they were that person. What would they do in that situation?
- Put up an image and pull out as much relevant vocabulary as possible.
Realia for lead-ins
It’s worthwhile sometimes to do something completely unexpected to get your students’ attention and arouse their curiosity, whether you are working with adults or young learners. This effect can be created by bringing in something that would normally never be found in a language classroom, for instance, a tornado in a jar for a lesson related to weather:
Here are a few ideas for starting a lesson with realia:
- Students discuss in pairs questions like “What is it? What is it used for? Where do you normally find it?” Etc.
- If small enough, hide the object somehow—in a bag, for example. Get students to listen to it, touch it, smell it, etc. before revealing what it is.
- You or the students act out a brief scene involving the object.
The purpose of a lead-in, on the other hand, should be clear to both the students and teacher
A few thoughts on lead-ins
It’s worth taking a minute to distinguish lead-ins from warmers, which are quick, fun activities to “wake up” your class at the beginning of the lesson. In contrast, lead-ins are relevant and connected to the themes of the lesson. As Houston and Starck (2019) point out, with a warmer, students may sometimes wonder, “Why are we doing this?”
The purpose of a lead-in, on the other hand, should be clear to both the students and teacher. I must admit that I share the same general scepticism of warmers expressed by Suan Chong (2016), who argues that many warmers could be turned into proper lead-ins with a bit more thought and imagination. While some teachers might find warmers essential for certain groups, such as shy YLs or teens, it does seem better if the fun, engaging activity you do at the beginning of the class can at the same time mobilize enthusiasm and motivation for the topic of the lesson.
Apart from being relevant, good lead-ins are also simple and short. Otherwise, there is the risk of them becoming full-fledged tasks. While doing teacher observations, one thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes teachers’ lead-ins are too good, in the sense that they are so interesting that it’s hard to stop talking about them and move on to the “meat” of the lesson plan. I’ve seen many a sensibly planned lesson devoured from the feet up by an out-of-control lead-in. Keep lead-ins under five minutes whenever possible. It can be hard, but sometimes we teachers have to step in and end the fun, or cut short an interesting conversation, to make sure we have time to meet our lesson aims.
one thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes teachers’ lead-ins are too good, in the sense that they are so interesting that it’s hard to stop talking about them
You’ll notice that all of the lead-ins described above require little or no preparation. This is also important. In terms of learning outcomes, the lead-in is not the most important part of a lesson, so it’s not something you should spend a lot of time preparing. In fact, when you sit down to plan, resist the urge to think about how to start your lesson until you have planned the main components, i.e. the activities involving the target skill or language point for that day’s lesson. Try planning the lead-in last. When you can visualize the whole lesson, you are often able to strike a few notes at the beginning that you can circle back to later. It also helps you avoid sinking an unreasonable amount of time planning your lead-in, when that time could be better spent thinking about more important stages of the lesson.
On the advice of a friend, I went looking for a quotation to end this article. I found a number of good ones, including:
“Getting started is the most difficult thing to do; once you file it out, the rest of the journey is as soft as the straw. Be a good beginner.”
“Starting is not most people’s problem, staying, continuing and finishing is.”
“The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead.”
And it made me realize that I had forgotten to mention that a few good quotations, especially if one is slightly in contrast with another, can also make a great lead-in!
Houston, H. & Starck, A. (2019) “Small teaching: predicting” Modern English Teacher, 28 (1)
Suan Chong, C. (2016, August) “Warmers, fillers, what on Earth?” English Teaching Professional. https://www.etprofessional.com/warmers-fillers-what-on-earth