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The traditional way to start a lesson with Secondary school learners is with a 'do now!' activity. It works. You get a focused start to the lesson, with students calmly settling into an activity as soon as they enter the room. Moving on – and introducing the ‘learning intention’ – however, can be a little more challenging. This is especially true for EAL learners, particularly if the lesson is a tricky or more academic one, such as a writing lesson, that may have negative connotations for some pupils. It can therefore be really worthwhile taking time to prepare a few engaging starter activities, to ‘hook in’ your learners and motivate them to engage with the learning intention. Harmer refers to four crucial factors when considering engagement: enjoyment, involvement, purpose and agency. Keep these in mind as we read about the following possibilities.

Engage - don't explain: For your EAL learners, a lengthy explanation of a learning intention is unlikely to go down well. What you need is engagement, rather than explanation. We’ve got four great ideas for how to achieve this, based on some popular learning intentions for secondary writing lessons.

Learning intention 1: 'Learning the features of instructional writing'

Here’s what NOT to say: “Hello class. Today we’ll be learning the features of instructional writing.” Yawn! Try this instead: “Shut your eyes, put your lead down and listen. I want you to picture what I’m saying.” Then give a set of directions which – in their minds – take the students out of the classroom to somewhere else in the school. When you’ve finished, ask, “Where are you?”. Then repeat the activity, but change the order of the directions. Ask: “Am I in the same place?” This naturally gives rise to a conversation about whether or not the sequence of the directions is important. The conclusion? One of the most important features of instructional writing is ‘sequence’.

Learning intention 2: 'Learning how to take notes'

Another dry-as-dust topic for your EAL learners? Not necessarily! Remember, note-taking doesn’t always need to be in words. Just as the Learning Village is image-based, making it easy for EAL learners from all language backgrounds to understand the meaning of words, so the learners themselves can use pictures to help them learn and remember words.

Give your students a six-grid storyboard (or ask them to draw a simple one on paper). Take a topic, divided into six sentences, and read one sentence at a time, slowly. The students must draw a picture relating to each sentence in each box. Now ask the students to ‘read’ their story to a partner. If one partner remembers more details than the other, the other can add elements into their own picture. Next, ask the students to retell the information – this time in words – by writing exactly what happened, according to their storyboards. At the end, ask the students what they’ve learned – and show them that they have understood the learning intention.

Our free resource includes a sample storyboard and story, focusing on past tense verbs. You can download it by clicking on the button at the top and bottom of this article.

Learning intention 3: 'Learning about prediction and use of plot'

It’s the end of EastEnders (substitute your preferred programme as appropriate)! The music starts, the credits roll, but – what a place to leave the story! What on earth will happen in the cafe/pub/car-dealership next?

Prediction and discussion of plot are things your students will do every day whilst watching TV, enjoying online videos, and speculating about their own – and their friends’ – social lives. We’re all constantly asking ourselves, ‘What happens next?’, and finding clues to back up our hunches. In your EAL writing class, harness everyone’s natural enthusiasm to work these things out to kick-start a discussion of these particular elements of writing.

“Stories are your best lesson plans.” Innovative ELT presenter and trainer Jamie Keddie argues that the most engaging way to involve our learners is through stories, because they not only entertain, but are inseparable from communication. Human beings are creatures of narrative. Stories define us. 

Start by reading a short cliff-hanger story to the class. Tell the students to come up with some questions they would like to find out, having listened to the beginning of the story. Extend the activity by giving each group a starting sentence. From here, they can brainstorm a range of questions that will create the core of a longer narrative. These activities will naturally lead into discussion of prediction and the use of plot.

Learning intention 4: 'Learning to use descriptive vocabulary'

Too many words? Start a lesson with a few seconds of a video-clip, or an audio recording, instead. Use a sound which doesn’t involve speech, such as someone running on gravel, and ask the students to guess what the sound is. Ask questions to prompt them to explain why they think as they do – automatically generating more vocabulary from them, particularly adjectives.

Now ask them to write about the action in a sentence, perhaps in groups. Compare sentences on the whiteboard, highlighting the descriptive vocabulary used. Which sentences do they think are the best? Work with them to construct some success criteria for a good sentence and then ask them to correct each other’s work using these.

Hook your students into writing!

The most challenging aspect of learning English for many students is writing. Jumping straight into explaining that our learning intention is focused on writing will not usually instigate the best outcomes. Considering a range of creative lesson starters, to ‘hook in’ your EAL learners, can help you get everyone engaged and on board – and can ensure that writing doesn’t become a dirty word in your EAL classroom.


Harmer, J. Innovative, first published in ETp, issue 42, January 2006.

Keddie, J. Stories are your best lesson plans// date unknown.

Further learning - Blog

Created: Tue 2nd Feb 2016

11 fantastic resources to promote elements of international mindedness...

Created: Sun 29th Dec 2013

Scenario: You are moving to a new country (pick a country which has a different script such as China, Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh).  You can only take a suitcase with you.  Discuss your thoughts on the following groups of questions;

How would you feel about moving?

  • What would you take?
  • What would you leave behind?
  • Who would you miss?
  • What activities would you miss?

How would you feel about learning the language?

Dialogic teaching
Created: Sun 8th Nov 2020

Think about the last lesson you taught to English language learners. I’m sure you did some form of planning beforehand. I imagine you probably asked several questions throughout the lesson as well. After all, the foundation of effective teaching is interaction with learners. However, did you think about the questions you were going to ask when you were planning? Did you write down any key questions?