How to make an ESL Lesson Plan (+ FREE LESSONS + TEMPLATES)

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This is the ultimate guide to creating an ESL lesson plan because once you get the system down, it's simple, endlessly repeatable and most importantly, EFFECTIVE. 

Here is the key: We're going to plan it backwards.

And it's going to look that good. 

The key to an effective lesson plan is THEME.

I'm not talking about some superfluous "decoration" you doodle on your worksheets like nutcrackers and elves at Christmas time.

Themes are what cement the target language in a student's mind.

Themes create context and put the student in a real world scenario where they will need the tool (the target language) you've just given them.

Bubba at the hardware shop doesn't sell someone an allen wrench by saying, "This is a useful tool to do stuff around the house."

No, he says, "This is the exact wrench you will need to assemble any piece of furniture you ever buy from Ikea. Here, let me show you how."

His customers aren't going to use the allen wrench to unclog the sink, to repair a lamp or to hang a painting. But every time they buy a piece of Ikea furniture, they're going to remember to go for the allen wrench. The tool (allen wrench) and the scenario (Ikea furniture assembly) are now tied together in the student's mind

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That's the power of theme.

Picking a theme for a vocabulary lesson is pretty easy — a theme for food vocabulary can be supermarket shopping, ordering at a restaurant, cooking Thanksgiving dinner...the list of thematic options are endless.

Definitely check out this post to see how I plan vocabulary lessons 3 x faster than before once I implemented this theme-first strategy.

But grammar is a little trickier, and it's what we're going to focus on in this post.


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Picking a theme for a food vocabulary lesson is easy. But what's the theme of the Second Conditional? 

Hmm....good question.

This is where the FUNCTION of the grammar point comes in. You know those 2-7 functions per grammar point you had to memorize when you were in TEFL? You still have those on the tip of your tongue right?


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Grammar functions are the reasons why we use one tense and not another. It's why we use Future Simple with *will* for instant decisions and Future Simple with *going to* for pre-made plans.

It's why we use Present Perfect to speak about life experiences of the living, but Past Simple to speak about life experiences of the deceased.

If you don't know the function of a tense, then you cannot teach it. It's like working at a hardware shop and not knowing one good use for a hammer. So make sure you've got your functions down.

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(Sure about that?)

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Moving on to our Second Conditional lesson. To choose a theme, we refer back to its functions:

  1. Hypothetical, unlikely, or impossible situations in the present

  2. Hypothetical, unlikely, or impossible situations in the future

  3. Giving advice ("If I were you...")

The first mistake newbie teachers make is to try to teach all of these functions in the same lesson, in a list, just like we learned them in TEFL. 

This is a little like handing Grandma an iPad and telling her she can shoot videos, record music, play video games, send emails, post images of her cooking and video chat with her cousins in the Old Country all with one device!

She'll end up using the iPad as a coaster.

Your students will do the same thing with the 2nd Conditional if you try to force feed all the functions at once. They must learn and show that they can use each function, one at a time. You need to isolate one function, and use that as the basis of one lesson.

Step 2: Choose your theme

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Now, we're going to choose a theme for each of the 2nd Conditional functions (each one being a different lesson).

FUNCTION 1: Hypothetical, unlikely, or impossible situations in the PRESENT

In what scenarios do you use the 2nd conditional to talk about the present? Imagining other possibilities rather than your current reality:

If I were rich...

If I lived in Paris...

If I were finished with my homework...

These are wistful musings. So try to come up with some wistful musings that appeal to your students' age and interests. 

  • Imagine you are [a movie star]. What is your life like? What do you eat for breakfast? What do you do for fun?

    • "If I were [a famous movie star] I would wake up late every day"

    • "If I won an Oscar, I would give it to my mother."

  • Imagine you are a [person same age] in Africa or Asia (or somewhere far away). Answer the same questions above.

    • "If I lived in Brazil, I'd play football every day."

    • "If I were Japanese, I would eat sushi for breakfast."

FUNCTION 2: Hypothetical, unlikely, or impossible situations in the FUTURE

In what scenarios do you use the 2nd conditional to talk about the future? These too can be wistful:

If I won the lottery next month...

If I quit my job tomorrow...

If we didn't have school next week...

Make sure to emphasize that these things are hypothetical (and not likely) in THE FUTURE. Students have a hard time using the past simple (If I *traveled* to Mars...) when speaking about a future time, so you want to choose a scenario that emphasizes that this situation is happening in the future.

  • (For adults) Imagine for your 65th birthday, your family gives you a trip around the world. Where would you go? How would you travel? Who would you take with you?

    • "If we flew to Antarctica, I'd pack my snow boots.

    • "If we went to Africa, I would go on Safari.

  • (For kids) Imagine you are chosen for a Mission to Mars in 2025. What would you do if...

    • "If I went to Mars, I would bring my dog."

    • "If I saw an alien on Mars, I would invite him to earth."

FUNCTION 3: Giving advice

In what scenarios do people give advice? You can have a lot of fun with this one. 

  • For adult students, imagine you are a therapist. Your partner has several problems. What advice can you give?

    • "If I were you I wouldn't work so much."

    • "If I were you I would communicate more with my wife."

  • For younger students, get them to give advice about something they're an "expert" in, like video games or making chocolate chip cookies.

    • "If I were you, I would add more chocolate chips."

    • "If I were you, I would fight the dragon with the golden sword."

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Want to Supercharge your lesson planning?

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Now you have not one but SIX different potential themes for 2nd Conditional! I highly recommend teaching each function in a separate lesson (if your schedule allows it), so they really got the point of each function.

Remember poor Grandma and that iPad.

STEP 3: Make an activation from your theme

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Now we get into the meat of the lesson plan.

From your theme, you devise an activation.

The activation is the final exercise your students will do in the classroom (I try to allow about 1/3 of the lesson time for it.) It's the one where they use what they've learned in the first 2/3 of the lesson, and use it in a natural way. 

Getting your students to use the language naturally is the entire goal of your lesson plan.

Let's take one of the themes from above (visit to the therapist) and make a tangible exercise or game from it. 

I'd pair up my students, and give each one 10 minutes to be the therapist. Then I'd get the "patient" to choose from 3 photos of people to pretend to be. Maybe one is a bad boy musician, one is a 40 year old man living with his mother, and one is a harried housewife and mother of 3. Choose examples of people who clearly have problems to solve—the more exaggerated the examples, the more your students will have interesting things to say.

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Then let the patient express their issues and the therapist offer advice using the target language. 

Let's say you choose the Mission to Mars 2025 as your theme. What is the concrete activation exercise? 

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Pair the kids and give them the chance to campaign for the Captain & Co-Captain position.

"If we were your Captains, we would let everyone drive the space shuttle. If we were your Captains, we would play zero-gravity kickball at recess." Let the pairs pitch three promises and let the class decide who would be the best captains.

So the activation is really just a concrete assignment that acts out the theme you've chosen. It should require the students to use the target language naturally and without your prompting. It should take up the final third of your lesson time.

Step 4: Create your Studies

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Think of studies as worksheets or other English teaching materials meant to get the students practicing the grammar point in various forms (negatives, questions, etc.). The two studies together should take the middle third of your lesson time.

Notice how we're planning backwards here? Activation first? Then studies?

There's a reason for that. The activation is the most important part of your lesson because it's where the student gets to show their stuff. If they crash and burn during the activation, it's because your explanations, demos and studies were not gearing them towards the activation.

Example: Let's say you copy a random fill-in-the-blank exercise from a text book, and in that exercise, here are three examples:

  • If I ____ to medical school after college, I would ______ a doctor. (hypothetical future)

  • If I ____ you, I would _____ harder to pass the test. (advice)

  • If we _____ in Brazil, we would _____ Portuguese. (hypothetical present)

Just like the above, it is not uncommon for a textbook exercises to combine ALL the functions of a grammar point, without much explanation, and if you've only taught the 2nd function, your students can get confused. 

I'm ALL for using textbook exercises (and I have a trick for sucking the marrow out of those textbooks right here). But make sure that those textbook studies will guide them toward your activation, which as we know, IS THE WHOLE POINT of the lesson.

So our studies are going to *warm our students up* to the activation. 

Study 2 (OPEN)

Let's plan Study 2, which should take about 10 minutes and come AFTER Study 1. This is the "open" study. That means we structure the exercises around some props, direction or information, but we still allow students to get creative with their answers. (Open answers, open study, get it?)


In the therapist theme, we want to warm them up to giving advice. For this, I would cut up cards with "problems" on them. "I am 50 kilos overweight" or "my son is marrying the wrong woman" or "I'm afraid of my boyfriend's pet snake." The funnier and the more exaggerated the scenario, the more the students will engage with it.

One student will read the card, and the other student will give advice. "If I were you, I would....If my son still lived at home, I would...." etc.


In the Mission to Mars 2025, put the kids in small groups and get them to write down 3 fantastical scenarios in space. (You see an alien...your spaceship breaks run out of food...)

You could do the same pre-made card exercises, or if you trust them to get creative, you could have them write a list themselves. Then have them pass the list to the left. The next group has to answer "what they would do if" each one of those scenarios happened. They are the leaders of the mission and they must come up with a plan for any strange thing that happens. 

Alright, let's keep moving backwards to Study 1.

Study 1 (CLOSED)

Study 1 is the closed study, meaning that the answers are not open to interpretation. Good exercises for a Study 1 are a fill-in-the-blank or matching, where there can only be one correct answer.

The point of a Study 1 is for them to practice forming the grammar point on their own. The exercise should be focused on the structure...

[If + subject + past simple, subject + bare infinitive]

...but should still revolve around your theme. So remember, if you're teaching about 2nd conditional in the present, stick examples in the hypothetical present. 

Study 1's are often the easiest exercises to churn out, especially when you already know what your activation and study 2 look like.

For the therapist example, I would create sets of matching pairs of *If* clauses and *Main* clauses, and have partners mix and match them. Or if I was running short on time, I'd simply make it a draw-the-line matching exercise.

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For the Mission to Mars 2025, you could do the exact same exercise, but with fantastical scenarios: "If our spaceship had an accident, we would call the space police" etc.

Step 5: Write your Intro

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Finally we've arrived at our Intro. This is where you introduce the theme of the lesson in a fun and dynamic way. Acting, miming, props and imagery work great when you're trying to elicit the theme.

Remember, you want the students to inhabit the world of this particular lesson's theme, because when they are in that scenario in the future (giving advice or hypothesizing about the future), you want them to remember to use their tool (2nd Conditional)!

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Bring in a picture of Dr. Freud and put it on the board. Mime lying on a couch and telling the class a fake "problem". Get them to give you advice using grammar they already know: "You ought could..." Then introduce the 2nd conditional and show them how it applies to this situation.


Bring in photos of a car, a train and a spaceship. Put them on the board. Tell your students you are going on vacation next week. Ask them which transportation you'll be taking. Ask them "how possible/likely? 100%? 75%? 01%?" is it that you'll be taking a car, a train and a spaceship. This way you're warming them up to using the 2nd Conditional in an unlikely scenario.

When you board the grammatical structure, be sure to indicate the negatives AND questions:

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So let's review:

  1. Pick a function to focus on

  2. Choose a theme around that function

  3. Create an activation scenario from that theme

  4. Create or find 2 studies that lead toward that activation

  5. Come up with a fun way to introduce the theme

Bata bing, bata boom, you've got yourself a two killer and incredibly effective lesson plans.


We wouldn't be your one-stop shop for all things ESL Teacher productivity if there weren't templates & lesson plans! 

Happy lesson planning!