Lesson openings: how to start a lesson well

Author: Andy Sammons
Published: 18/08/2020

Effective lesson openings

If you’re new to teaching, it’s not possible to overstate the importance of getting the opening of a lesson right. The most effective teachers in your school will almost certainly have some kind (even unconsciously) of imposed order that characterises the opening sequence of their lessons.

A wonderful former colleague of mine used to say it was all about becoming ‘unconsciously competent’. In the meantime – like with anything – it’s all about practising things deliberately in order to test what works best for you. What follows are my ‘go to’ tried-and-tested things.

Not being established in a school or being inexperienced gives you a lot less margin for error in terms of the students whose learning you are trying to manage. Children have a sixth sense when it comes to feeling a lack of structure and composure in the openings of lessons. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that students love structure and consistency, and the opening of a lesson is your chance to assert that you will be providing just that. Openings are, by their nature, messy. To my mind, there are certain obstacles that need to be overcome:

  • latecomers
  • raucous behaviour
  • shoddy uniform
  • lethargy
  • lack of equipment
  • distributing books and work

That’s a lot to think about all at once. However, you can absolutely impose order and structure for those that need it, as well as giving those that want to get on something to really sink their teeth into. Structure offers a clear framework for calm and clarity. 

Where possible, aim to greet students at the door, have the books ready on tables, or assign students the task of distributing them to a seating plan. Next, ensure you have a ‘do now’ task of some description for the students to be focused on. You'll find some suggestions below. 

How to design the ultimate ‘do now’ task: 

If my students are raucous and it’s impossible to get them settled ...

  • Use a crossword generator to recap key terms.

  • Put five short-answer questions on the board for the students to answer in full sentences.

If the class is too passive at the beginning of a lesson ...

  • Try something a little more challenging, such as ‘This is the answer. What is the question?’

  • Prepare a game of Blockbusters using key terms from previous learning. Try teaming up boys versus girls.

If the previous lesson’s work was shoddy ...

  • After the title has been written, ask the students to pick an area of the work to redraft and demonstrate their ‘true’ selves.

  • Ask the students to answer two questions frankly and honestly: ‘What did I learn last lesson?’ ‘How can I improve my learning this lesson?’ You might need to give them some steers so they don’t shrug their shoulders, but it can be a useful way of grounding and focusing the class.

If I want them to reflect on their previous work but I don’t have enough time to look at the books first ...

  • Skim-read the books, highlighting one key area that must be redrafted.

  • Start with an ‘Is this you?’ slide, asking students to reflect on errors that you have seen when skimming over books. Ask students to redraft specific areas for improvement.

Andy Sammons

Andy Sammons (@andy_samm) is author of 'The Compassionate Teacher' and head of department.