LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

A lesson plan is a lesson plan, right? Not always. Writing a lesson plan for other teachers to use isn’t like writing one for yourself. The form, the style, and the level of detail will all be different.

When you write a lesson plan for your own classroom, you’re primarily reminding yourself of things you’ve already done or figured out. It can be simply a set of notes, an outline of the lesson, without much explanation.

But what’s clear to you may not be clear to someone else. When you write a lesson plan for publication, you’re not just documenting what you do; you’re teaching someone else to do it. That requires a kind of writing different from what you may be used to: instructional writing.

Instructional writing

Instructional writing is just like teaching, but in a vacuum. When you teach, your students are right in front of you. You can tell by their facial expressions and body language whether they’re engaged with what you’re saying; they can ask questions; you can give them feedback; and you can assess their understanding of the material.

With instructional writing, you lose the interactive component of teaching. You still have students — your readers; in the case of lesson plans, other teachers — but you’ll likely never meet them. They may not read all of what you’ve written; they may or may not understand it; and if they do understand it, their understanding may be very different from what you intended. Most frustrating of all, you’ll never know whether they understood it or not.

This means that you have to anticipate your readers’ needs — the questions they would ask, the assumptions they’ll make (or not make), the things they won’t immediately understand and will have to go over twice. Then you have to tailor your writing to meet those needs.

Your reader’s perspective

In short, when you write a lesson plan for publication, you have to write from your reader’s perspective, not your own.

Consider manuals for software and home appliances. When was the last time you read a software manual that was really clear and helpful? Some are, but most aren’t, because their authors are writing from their perspective rather than yours. The writers assume too much knowledge on your part.

Suppose you bought a new piece of software you had never used before, and the first chapter of the manual, “Installation,” said the following:

Install the software.

…and nothing else. How helpful would that be?

Not very helpful at all, obviously. Maybe the technical writer responsible for the manual figured that, heck — anybody can install software, right? Wrong! People who don’t work with computers for a living need a little more help than that. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t need a manual in the first place. The writer was writing from his own perspective as a technical professional, rather than that of the end user who has far less experience.

Most teachers writing lesson plans for publication make the same mistake: they write from their own perspective rather than that of their readers — or they assume that their readers have the same knowledge and experience they do. In many cases that assumption is valid; experienced teachers do come to LEARN NC to get new ideas, and professional educators can be expected to share a certain basic vocabulary.

But what about teachers fresh out of college — or lateral entry teachers? Beginning teachers are the people most in need of your lesson plans, and they don’t share your knowledge and experience. And even many experienced teachers won’t share the same experiences you’ve had; their perspectives will be different.

Like software manuals, many lesson plans contain abbreviated instructions such as “group the students” or “have the students write a persuasive paragraph” — but don’t give strategies for grouping or how to present or assess a persuasive paragraph. Without an explanation, though, less experienced teachers won’t be able to implement your instructions.

Think of it this way: if your reader already knows what you’re talking about, he or she doesn’t have all that much need of your lesson plan in the first place. So you’ll be more helpful to more people if you explain yourself carefully and thoroughly, clarify your assumptions, and refer to explanatory material. A teacher who doesn’t need the extra help is, after all, free to ignore it.

This may seem like a lot of work. But there’s a benefit for you as well: remember that the best way to make sure you really understand something is to explain it to someone else! In clarifying your assumptions about the way you teach, you may find that you understand better what you do, why you do it, and how to do it better.

Questions before writing

Ask yourself:

  • What did I think about the first time I taught this lesson that I don’t have to think about now?
  • What content do I refer to that another teacher might be unfamiliar with?
  • What terms, instructional strategies, etc. do I refer to that a beginning teacher or lateral-entry teacher might not be familiar with? Am I using jargon that is unnecessary or unclear?
  • Are there materials and resources that you use, either on the Web or in print, that another teacher might not have access to? The more specialized or obscure your resources, the more difficult it will be for another teacher to use your plan.
  • Could this lesson raise issues with classroom management for a less experienced teacher?
  • How do I evaluate students’ learning? What clues am I looking for to see that they “get it”?
  • What do I do if students don’t get it? What is my backup plan (or plans) if the lesson doesn’t work the first time?