Visualizing your materials in the classroom

When we write a series of exercises for a complete lesson, for example, in the form of a worksheet, it’s easy to become engrossed in how it works on the page or screen. However, it’s more important to visualize how it will work in a lesson. Visualization of a lesson is commonly used by many teachers when planning a lesson. You picture how each part of the lesson might work in terms of classroom management or how students will respond to a particular exercise for example. It’s rather like a mental rehearsal of the lesson. (See also Thornbury, 2011)

Heads-up and Heads-down

This type of visualization is similarly useful for the materials writer because, without physically taking the material into a lesson, you can picture or visualize how your materials might work. One visualization technique I use a great deal is to picture when students’ heads will be up and when they will be down. A ‘Heads-up’ exercise or activity means students are looking up at the teacher or at each other. They are communicating in pairs or groups or maybe giving a presentation to the whole class. A ‘Heads-down’ activity is when students are looking down at the page or at the screen. They are reading a text, studying a grammar explanation, or filling in gaps on their own.

Striking a balance

I’d suggest that most lessons require a good balance of ‘heads-up’ and heads-down’ stages or exercises. For example, if your materials for a lesson start with a ‘heads-up’ class discussion of a photo, you might follow-up with a ‘heads-down’ reading activity. Perhaps you have some reading comprehension questions which are also ‘heads-down’. By which time, students will be ready for some kind of ‘heads-up’ communication so maybe your next exercise involves pair or group work discussion related to the contents of the reading text.

Mapping the flow

You can even map the heads-up/heads-down pattern of your materials by drawing a diagram like this.

The horizontal line represents the length of the lesson. Then you write the number of each exercise in your lesson material along the line. So, in this example, I had 8 exercises on my worksheet. I placed them along the horizontal line to roughly reflect when they might occur in a 60-minute lesson. And for each exercise, I visualized whether students’ heads would be up or down and then placed them either above or below the horizontal.

As a result, you get a visual representation of how your materials might work in a lesson. The diagram above suggests that there is going to be a good balance of heads-up and heads-down. Of course, it may vary. The example above is from a lesson with a listening task in the first half and lots of speaking in the second half. The result might be different for a lesson with more reading or writing; I’d predict more ‘heads-down’ for such a lesson, but I’d still try to have some ‘heads-up’ discussions too.

Observing the materials at work

Clearly, this isn’t a scientifically accurate way to analyze a lesson, but it provides a broad overview of how your materials are likely to work in the classroom. And of course, you can use this approach to observe a lesson by drawing the diagram to reflect what actually happened during a lesson. (I thoroughly recommend observing another teacher – not yourself – using your materials as a way to test them out. And any teacher trainers reading this will also recognize the value of heads-up/heads-down mapping as a useful tool for lesson observations on a training course.

Heads together

One other variation has been suggested by Lindsay Clandfield in lessons involving video. Given that a video lesson often requires students to look up at a screen and watch, this means their heads are up but not actually communicating in the way we usually think of ‘heads-up’. To resolve this, Clandfield (2014) suggests a three-part analysis with heads-up (watching the video), heads-down (doing exercises on the page) and a third ‘heads-together’ for communication activities between students.

What other techniques do you use for analyzing your materials before they go into the lesson? Do you use visualization techniques for planning and writing?



Thornbury, S (2011) V is for visualization at

Clandfield, L. (2014) Heads up, heads down, heads together English Teaching Professional, Issue 95 November 2014, p4-6

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