Affordances and learning opportunities in lesson plan templates

This article argues that the typical lesson plan templates commonly promoted on teacher training programmes are inappropriately premised on an outcomes-based approach to teaching, and instead proposes an affordance-based approach to planning, giving practical suggestions for modifying the template and its role in lesson observations.

Article: Anderson, J. (2016). Affordance, learning opportunities, and the lesson plan pro forma. ELT Journal. 69/3. pp. 228-238. Available here.


On language teacher training programmes, lesson plans are a key tool in the typical planning, observing, and discussing cycle, though there is little specific literature on the most effective templates. Anderson argues that most resources seem to employ an outcome-based approach to planning, in which teachers ‘attempt to affect universal behavioural change in a group of learners’, and which is thus inconsistent with modern understandings of how languages are learnt and with experienced teachers’ classroom behaviour, i.e. allowing deviations from their original lesson plans. The result of planning with this kind of template, then, Anderson argues, is that teachers in training are not well prepared for handling unpredictable events and may not make the most opportunities for real learning within their lessons.


The term ‘affordance’ is borrowed from psychology, and in the field of langauge learning/teaching, it is understood to mean ways in which the learning environment provides opportunities for learners to learn through participation, i.e. perceiving and using the ‘ambient language’ around them (van Lier, 2004). ‘Affordances’ thus take into account the individual relationships learners have to their learning environment, and proposes that, while these relationships are beyond the teacher’s control, the teacher should aim to create an environment beneficial to nurturing individual opportunities to learn; they ‘must be both proactive and reactive […], the catalysts of learning opportunities.’

Research & Findings

Anderson looked at 23 lesson plan templates and found that very few included scope for affordances, but all were centred around an outcomes-based approach to teaching, including elements such as aims/objectives, learners & context, procedure & activities (inc. staging), and potential problems and solutions. There seemed to be a focus in the accompanying guides on how best to formulate a lesson’s aims, with references to SMART target-setting and action verbs from Bloom’s taxonomy.

To avoid inconsistency between understandings of language learning and what trainees are required to produce as lesson plans, Anderson proposes adaptations of the typical templates as detailed below. In his view, the slightly increased effort that planning in this affordance-based way may require is largely justified by the benefits. He states three main advantages:

  1. “It is more realistic to what we know about how learning may or may not occur in the minds of learners.
  2. It both reflects and accommodates the teaching practice of experienced teachers more accurately.
  3. As a result of the first two advantages, it is likely to help trainee and in-service teachers to gain a greater understanding of how to understand learning and thereby teach more effectively.”

Template Tweaks

1) Learning opportunities, not learning outcomes

Instead of describing what the teacher hopes for all of the learners to learn, they should instead attempt to speculate about what each individual learner may achieve. He gives some examples, including noticing or uptake of language items, and internalisation of knowledge, and also mentions metacognitive and affective factors which can indirectly foster language learning. After observed lessons, for example on training courses, then, the teacher can reflect on the extent to which learning actually occurred among the learners, how well this was predicted, and how well the teacher facilitated these learning opportunities, justifying any decisions to deviate from the previous plan. Anderson argues that this would make the post-observation discussion central to any assessments of the lesson.

Anderson goes on to discuss the language most effective at expressing these predicted learning opportunities in a plan, having previously highlighted ‘may’ as key in the formulation. The table below summarises his suggestions.

2) Allowing for affordance in the lesson procedure

Instead of ‘anticipated problems’ sections in lesson plans, Anderson suggests including a section where ‘possible occurrences and responses’ can be described. A section like this would provide space for affordances to be predicted, thereby promoting an understanding of how complex facilitating individual learning (i.e. differentiating) can be in reality, as well as allowing teachers to note possible responses in preparation.

3) Contingency for flexibility

Anderson argues that lessons, and therefore also the plans, should include enough time and flexibility for learning to occur in unplanned or unanticipated ways. He notes that this idea is mentioned in some guides on lesson planning, but is rarely evident in the planning templates employed on teacher training programmes. To build in this contingency, he suggests some further tweaks to the template;

  • replacing ‘Timing’ with ‘time frame’ and giving a rough guide to the time an activity may take, expressed as a range, e.g. 4–7 minutes.
  • including space for teachers to indicate optional activities or stages within the procedure.
  • including space for teachers to indicate different possible orders of progression through the procedure.

Take Away

Lots of teachers report frustrations that their training programmes do not reflect the reality of the job. This approach to lesson planning and these tweaks to templates are flexible enough to be applicable in various contexts, and Anderson justifies thoroughly why they would be a good inclusion on such teacher training programmes. Furthermore, training teachers to approach planning in this way could also serve to encourage reflective practice and professional development, making it an even more worthwhile venture.


Anderson, J. 2016. Affordance, learning opportunities, and the lesson plan pro forma. ELT Journal. 69/3. pp. 228-238.
van Lier, L. 2004. The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning: A Sociocultural Perspective. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.


Clare Maas on TwitterClare Maas on Wordpress
Clare Maas
Lecturer in EFL and EAP at Trier University (Germany)
Clare holds post-graduate qualifications from the University of Wales and Trinity College London. Before moving into tertiary education, she taught English at German grammar schools, and English for Specific Purposes at several language academies in the UK and Germany. Her professional interests include EAP materials development and CPD for teachers. She also blogs at

3 thoughts on “Affordances and learning opportunities in lesson plan templates”

  1. Many thanks for covering this Clare. Glad you found the article useful. For anyone who wants a video summary of it, see here: Colleagues have found the video useful as a starting point for in-service teacher development sessions. Teachers may also want to suggest the article to managerial staff who are still using rather inflexible pro formas for in-service observations.

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