Getting classes in GEAR: A lesson planning model for English reteaching

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Charles Kowalski, Tokai University

Japanese university students begin their first English class with at least six years of study in public school behind them. This has often been supplemented by exam preparation courses. The degree to which this study has prepared them to communicate effectively in English, however, varies widely among individuals, often resulting in a wide range of ability levels within one university class.

There are two opposite, and equally counterproductive, stances that teachers can take when confronted with such a class. One says to students, You've been studying this language for so long, you should have no problem using it for communication! This paves the way for frustration on both sides when the situation turns out not to be so simple. The other, possibly more common, stance sends the message, I'm sorry, but all the hours you've spent studying English so far have been wasted time; if you want to learn to communicate, you'll have to start again from zero. This assumption ignores the knowledge that students already bring with them to the classroom, which may be stashed away in receptive memory but is, nonetheless, present.

A classroom situation where ability levels vary widely and students' past experience is an unknown, but important, variable, calls for a slightly different approach than a language class in which most, or all, students will be meeting the material for the first time. This paper will present a lesson planning model tailored to such situations, and provide examples of the model at work in two classes, one with a primarily lexical focus, the other with a focus on form.

Teaching vs. Reteaching

While teaching in the ordinary sense could be taken to mean the imparting of new information, English instruction in Japanese universities often seems more like reteaching, helping students to apply old information in a new way. While the acquisition of new knowledge will certainly play an important role, a more apt definition of reteaching might be transforming knowledge and attitudes.

One challenge in reteaching is transforming knowledge from declarative, or knowing about, to procedural, or knowing how (Squire, 1986). Just as learning to drive requires both declarative knowledge (traffic laws) and procedural knowledge (how to shift, turn, brake, etc.), speaking a foreign language naturally calls for knowledge of both types (Chamot, O'Malley, & Walker, 1987). However, in many cases, the study of English prior to university has left Japanese learners with primarily declarative knowledge, such as grammatical rules. These learners have had little opportunity to develop the procedural skills of applying those rules in order to produce accurate and meaningful language in real time.

Another challenge in reteaching lies in transforming knowledge from receptive to productive. While students may come to class with a large store of recognizable English vocabulary gained through intensive reading, memorization, and translation, they may have had little practice using this vocabulary in a productive setting. Many students thus have a considerable treasury of vocabulary locked away in their minds, and the challenge in reteaching is to help learners unlock the storehouse and move the contents to a more readily accessible place.

A final challenge lies in transforming attitudes. Many students begin their study of university-level English with feelings of anxiety and intimidation, and a poor self-image of themselves as English users, brought on by perceived failure or lack of progress in the past (Burden, 2002). At the same time, a number of students still remember their delight at first learning a new language and watching their world expand daily, and retain the hope of rediscovering that feeling (Kowalski, 2002). In order for reteaching to be effective, the teacher's job also involves helping students to overcome negative and self-defeating preconceptions of their own ability, and setting the stage for success. What kind of approach would be most effective in making full use of students' prior knowledge, transforming it from passive to active, and helping to change attitudes from negative to positive? The model presented here is intended to address [this] question.

A Lesson Planning Model for Reteaching

The traditional model for language lesson planning is Present, Practice, Produce (PPP). While this model certainly has its uses, it has come under considerable scrutiny in the past decade (summarized in Harmer, 2001), including the bold, and possibly premature, claim by Lewis (1993) that it is "discredited" and "reflects neither the nature of language nor the nature of learning" (p. 190). A number of alternative models have also been proposed. Some are prescriptive, recommending a series of stages, like Lewis' (1993) Observe, Hypothesize, Experiment (OHE) model. Others are descriptive, providing labels for stages without prescribing a sequence, like Scrivener's (1994) Authentic use, Restricted use, Clarification and focus (ARC), and Harmer's (1998) Engage, Study, Activate (ESA) taxonomies.

Many existing models, especially the old standby, PPP, were designed for use in teaching situations, where the teacher can safely assume that the lesson target is new for most or all of the students. The model presented here has been developed specifically for reteaching situations, where students come to class already in possession of varying degrees of knowledge. The goal is to discover the extent of students' existing knowledge, build on it, refine it, and create opportunities to use it in real-time communicative situations. The stages in this model are indicated by the acronym GEAR:

Expand / Edit
Activate / Apply

Figure 1: The GEAR lesson planning model

While a lesson designed using the GEAR model will generally follow the order shown, there is some flexibility. Occasionally, steps will be repeated, or appear out of the given order. In addition, not all the stages will be represented in a single lesson. It may take more than one lesson to complete the sequence.

Table 1: Explanation of the stages

Stage Description Example tasks
Generate Elicit students’ prior knowledge on lesson theme Brainstorming on a given theme
Team competition
Pass the Buck
Expand Introduce new material on lesson theme Synonyms and antonyms
Graphic organizers
Edit Correct mistaken or unnatural expressions from Generate stage Corrections supplied by teacher
Corrections elicited from students
Activate Controlled practice with expressions from previous stages Quick response activities
Team relays
Card Swap
Apply Free conversation on lesson theme Free or guided conversation
Conversation Stations
Review Correct common errors; further practice Quiz or contest
Further application activities if desired


Eliciting students' prior knowledge could involve a simple brainstorming activity, asking students (possibly with the aid of dictionaries) to supply any words or expressions they know on a given theme (e.g. "names of jobs"). Other variations could include:

  • Brainstorming in groups, with each given a different area of responsibility (e.g. four groups listing their daily activities for morning, afternoon, evening, and night).
  • Team competition under a time limit, with one point awarded for each accurate, original contribution from a team.
  • Generation from a visual stimulus (e.g. labeling parts of a picture, describing the scene or people in a photograph) or other prompts.
  • Pass the Buck: activity in which each group makes its contribution on a poster, sheet of paper, or transparency bearing a prompt. After a few minutes, at the teacher's signal, the paper is passed to a different group.

While the teacher will naturally come to class with a lesson target already in mind (e.g. a core list of vocabulary items), the results of the Generate stage will often include most, or all, of the teacher's plan, and probably many items off the list as well. In this stage, students also frequently avail themselves of the chance to use humor and imagination. Lists of jobs generated in class, for example, have gone beyond the standard fare of "doctor", "teacher", etcetera, to include paths less traveled like "fortune teller", "alchemist" and "Mino Monta", while daily (or nightly) routines have included "become a monster".


Once an initial list has been generated, the teacher can make appropriate contributions, including any remaining items from the original plan. The list can also be augmented through techniques for expanding or improving access to vocabulary (e.g. Nation, 1990): synonyms and antonyms, grids, clines, clusters, mind maps and other graphic organizers, as well as collocations and colloquial expressions.


Together with the Expand stage, the teacher can correct any errors produced during the Generate stage, as well as providing alternatives to any expressions that are unnatural ("play with my friends"), overly influenced by the L1 ("freeter") or unnecessarily gender-specific ("policeman", "cameraman"). In lessons with a focus on form, this stage can be used to address grammatical questions, for example, changing present tense expressions from the Generate stage into the past tense.


The next stage gives practice in using the words and expressions generated earlier, with the goal of helping learners make them part of their active lexicon. Possible activities for this stage include:

  • Quick response: students (individually or in groups) hear a prompt, and race to supply the correct word, by itself or in a short sentence.
  • Sentence formation: students practice forming sentences from a set model, using key words/expressions selected by the teacher or determined by cards or dice.
  • Card Swap: students, in groups, write words/expressions on cards, which are then exchanged with another group; this leads to a card game where each student tries to help his/her teammates guess the word written on the card. (Example: Student with card: I work in a temple. I get up at 4:00 every morning and meditate. Teammate: Are you a priest?)
  • Group relay: in teams, students listen to a question from the teacher, and representatives from each group race to collect answers from all members. Points are awarded for speed and accuracy. (Example: Teacher: What did you do on Friday evening? Student [after conferring with teammates]: Ichiro went drinking, Jiro sang karaoke, Saburo went out with his girlfriend, and I watched a movie.)


This stage focuses on giving students practice in using the target language in a meaningful context. Activities in this stage could include language planning and fluency activities (such as a "fluency circle"), guided conversations (based on a flexible model), or free conversation. Techniques to allow practice with multiple partners, such as conversation lines, circles, or other systematic moving patterns (Weschler, 2003) are useful here. During this stage, the teacher monitors students' conversations, on the lookout for any errors, which can be addressed in the next stage.


The last stage, which could be placed at the end of a lesson, or the beginning of the next one, addresses any common errors detected earlier, possibly in the form of a quiz or contest. When necessary, the same material can then be recycled into a new application activity.

The GEAR model in action

This section presents two sample lessons designed using this model, the first with a lexical focus, and the second with a focus on form and function.

Sample lesson 1: Adjectives for describing people

Step 1: Generate. Each group is given a picture of a person, and asked to list as many adjectives to describe the person as possible in 2-3 minutes. The teacher then asks groups to read their lists, and writes new words on the board as they appear. The teacher could, optionally, ask students why they chose their words.

Step 2: Expand / Edit. The teacher elicits words to expand the given list by asking, What is the opposite of…?, or What is another word that means the same as…? Groups of words in a single category (e.g. intelligence, appearance) are arranged along a cline (Figure 2) or in a chart (Figure 3), with gaps filled in by the students or teacher as necessary. This is also the time to correct misimpressions (Edit), for example, that smart is the opposite of fat.

Figure 2: Words in a single category arranged along a cline

Figure 2

Figure 3: Words arranged in a chart

Beautiful, stunning, lovely gorgeous  
pretty Cute, good-looking, attractive handsome
  average-looking, ordinary-looking, plain-looking  
  Unattractive, ugly  

Step 3: Activate. A quick response activity follows in the form of a team game, played until one team wins a predetermined number of points, with rotating representatives from each group racing to answer the teacher's spoken prompt using a set pattern. For example, if eliciting [He / She] sounds very.., the following model may be used:

  • TEACHER: My friend is never late, or if she is, she will call you and tell you why. If she says she will do something, you can be certain that she'll do it.
  • STUDENT: [raises hand and is recognized] She sounds very responsible.

Step 4: Apply. Although a traditional "family tree" exercise would provide opportunities to practice by describing family members, this activity may already have been done by many students, and brings the added concern of sensitivity issues for students from non-traditional families.

Figure 4. A Friends and Relations Diagram

Figure 4

As an alternative, students can draw a "friends and relations" diagram (Figure 4), which is based on the model adapted from Brake, Walker, & Walker (1995) by Moran (2001). This diagram shows the people connected with the student through various groups, and allows the option of revealing or concealing information, at the student's discretion. When the diagram is finished, students show their diagrams to each other in pairs, asking questions according to a model dialogue, written on the board (and possibly erased as the activity progresses):

  • A [looking at B's diagram]: Who's Hiromi?
  • B: She's my friend from high school.
  • A: What's she like?
  • B: She's lively, outgoing, energetic and a little crazy.

As an alternative, students can bring photographs or purikura pictures of, for example, their friends, club or seminar members, or co-workers, which can be the basis for a similar dialogue:

  • A: Who's the tall girl with long hair?
  • B: That's Yuko. She's in the tennis club with me.
  • A: What's she like?
  • B: She's quiet, serious, hard-working and a little shy.

Step 5: Review. During the Apply stage, the teacher monitors groups and notes common mistakes. In the Review stage, students work in groups to correct them. For additional practice after review, another activity from the Apply stage can optionally be added.

Sample lesson 2: Future time

Step 1: Generate. The teacher posts or draws a calendar on the board, eliciting expressions of future time (the day after tomorrow, the week after next, two months from now) using the calendar and other prompts. When a workable list of expressions has been generated, the teacher gives each group a paper or OHP with a time expression written on it. In a Pass the Buck activity, each group has 1-2 minutes to write what the members think they will be doing at that time, then passes the sheet to another group at a signal from the teacher.

Step 2: Expand / Edit. When the papers have come full circle, the teacher collects them, writing the contributions on the board or displaying the OHP transparencies, correcting errors as needed (Edit) and adding any essential expressions students missed (Expand).

A similar approach is then used with modals of probability. The teacher draws a cline from 100% certainty (will, be going to) to 0% (won't), eliciting expressions from students to generate a list for the space between these extremes, and expanding the list by filling in any gaps.

Step 3: Activate. The teacher rolls dice to select a modal and time expression, and individual students, or representatives of teams, race to form sentences incorporating the given words, referring also to the master list formed during the Generate stage:

  • TEACHER: [rolls dice, which show may/might and 100 years from now] 3 and 6!
  • STUDENT: [raises hand and is recognized] I might go to heaven 100 years from now.

Step 4: Apply. Conversation Stations activity, in which students form lines facing each other across desks on which cards with time prompts are placed. One student in each pair starts the conversation: What will you be doing [during spring break]? After a predetermined interval (generally 1-2 minutes), the teacher gives the signal to move to new stations with new partners. The teacher, meanwhile, stands at the head of the line, monitoring conversations.

Step 5: Review. The teacher appends any activities necessary to correct common errors. An additional application activity for recycling could consist of the teacher or students making conjectures about the state of the world 50 years from now, and then breaking into groups to discuss the likelihood of each.


The GEAR model has several advantages for reteaching in multi-level university classes. The extent of students' prior knowledge of the lesson target, which might otherwise be a matter of guesswork for the teacher, is easily assessed. Students are encouraged to contribute their existing knowledge to the material, giving the more knowledgeable students a valuable role to play. Activation and application tasks help to place formerly abstract and receptive knowledge at students' active command. The Review stage gives the option of recycling material for the benefit of students who need more time to acquire language. Finally, this model offers opportunities for humor, imagination, and a game-like class atmosphere, all of which help increase motivation (Dörnyei, 2001), and foster positive attitudes toward English.

Every class is different, of course, and no model can suit all situations. This model is meant to expand the options available to teachers, or at a minimum, to codify a framework for strategies that are already part of their repertoire. Teachers are invited to experiment with it, adapt it, and find their own creative ways to put it to use.


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Charles Kowalski is a "reteacher" of English at Tokai University. His research interests include independent language learning and the use of storytelling in language teaching. He can be contacted at