What a lead-in should and should not be

I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to observe around ten teachers each semester. These observations provide me with the chance to assess how effective our mentoring system and teacher induction sessions have been, as I typically observe teachers in their second semester at the institution.

Methodologically speaking, most of the classes I observe are generally effective and there are only a few minor aspects to consider. However, if there’s one aspect that is recurrent in my observations and that some novice teachers have difficulty grasping, it’s the role of a lead-in in a communicative, interactive, student-centered classroom.


What a lead-in should be

As the word itself implies, a lead-in is meant to lead students into the lesson. Its main purpose is to set the mood for what is to come next, to arouse students’ curiosity about the topic and motivate them to want to learn more. It is supposed to provide a meaningful and authentic context for language learning. Cognitively speaking, it has the purpose of tapping into students’ prior knowledge about the topic that is going to be addressed so as to link new information to information already stored in the brain, maximizing long-term learning. A lead-in should also be used to relate the topic of the lesson to students’ personal experiences, favoring long-term retention as well.

Lead-ins can come in different formats and a whole range of techniques and resources can be used, such as discussions, role-plays, mind maps, games, videos, songs, pictures, comic strips, ads, surveys, drawings, you name it. It’s also important to vary your lead-in techniques so as to arouse students’ curiosity and interest.

Sounds simple and easy, right? Well, not always. I’m going to focus on what I see as the two main misuses of lead-ins.


What a lead-in should not be

1)      A lead-in should not be an excuse to pre-teach the grammar and vocabulary of the lesson

This is the most common misuse of lead-ins I see. In the ELT institution I work for, we adopt what we consider to be cutting-edge course books that present lessons within an authentic, communicative context in which meaning precedes form. Lessons typically begin with some sort of input for language contextualization, and the content of this input is focused on before its form is addressed, preferably in an inductive manner that stimulates critical thinking. Teachers can be very creative when thinking of lead-ins for these lessons because the topics are usually stimulating.

However, what they sometimes do is to introduce the lesson by pre-teaching the grammar and/or the vocabulary, spoiling the whole inductive process thereafter. Now that we have computers and projectors in the classroom, teachers prepare beautiful and laborious PowerPoint presentations with grammar explanations and vocabulary practice so that when students open their books, there is nothing new to discover.  They don’t even need their course books anymore! Forget the input, the input processing, the guided discovery, the trial and error process. Let’s just spell it all out for them and then practice!

If there are pictures to match with words in the book, leading students to start from what they know and then use critical thinking to match the ones they don’t know,  teachers will spoon-feed the students by showing one picture at a time and eliciting the word from the class before students even open their books. The grammar that is nicely contextualized and presented at the discourse-level in the book is reduced to the sentence-level and presented out of context for language analysis. One of my colleagues has named this “Death by PowerPoint”.

Of course lead-ins to specific activities can include the pre-teaching of one or two language items essential for the successful execution of the activity or task. What I’m talking about here is the pre-teaching that spoils the lesson and that, rather than arouse curiosity and activate students’ brains for learning, actually spoon-feeds the students and does all the work for them.

2)      A lead-in should not be longer or even as long as the lesson or activity it is supposed to introduce

The second most common misuse of lead-ins I have observed is making it longer than it should be to the point that it actually becomes the core of the day’s lesson, turning it into a conversation class when it wasn’t the teacher’s aim. If a lead-in is longer than the lesson or activity it was supposed to lead students into in the first place, it isn’t a lead-in any longer! This usually occurs for two main reasons. Sometimes the problem is in the planning, and the lead-in conceived is already too long and laborious, taking up, say, thirty minutes of a fifty-minute lesson. This results in the teacher having to rush through the lesson in the last twenty minutes. Other times, students are so engaged in the lead-in activity that the teacher decides to extend it, despite the lack of pedagogical gains resulting from such extension. Lead-ins need to be short and snappy. Are students motivated and having fun? Perfect! They’re in the mood for what’s coming next.

What usually happens when the lead-in is too long is that the teacher ends up having to rush through or even skip that last, authentic, communicative task in which students are going to use the language functions and lexical items just learned. In other words, students spend a lot of time in class on a speaking activity to preview the day’s topic before being exposed to it, using the linguistic and communicative resources they already have.  As a result, they spend little or no time at the closing phase of the lesson engaged in speaking activities that will stimulate them to use the newly-acquired resources.  I call this a “language acquisition hijack”.


A caveat

My reflections on what lead-ins should and should not be are based on lessons in general, as a rule of thumb. However, just like any “rule”, they can be broken when specific situations or contexts call for it.  For every rule there are many exceptions. I could write a whole new post to explain when a lead-in can and should be used for pre-teaching or when it can or should take a longer portion of the class than originally planned, but I’ll leave it at that!

What about your experience with lead-ins in your lessons or lessons you have observed? Any other ideas on what they should and should not be?


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Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 33 years, where she is currently the Corporate Academic Manager . Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham. She has recently published the book “Teaching EFL Writing - A Practical Approach for Skills-Integrated Contexts.

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