The Unplanned Lesson: Part 2

Written by: Gerry Mallaghan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Have you ever had to cover a lesson last minute with no preparation time? In the second part of his article on unplanned lessons, Gerry Mallaghan offers further advice and activity ideas

So, 10 minutes ago you were told the news most teachers never want to hear: “You need to go to room W, to cover a lesson for teacher X, who is teaching subject Y, to a year Z class and there is no work prepared.”

Five minutes ago, you arrived in room W and, because you had read my previous article, calm has swept across the classroom thanks to your starter activities. You have set the students off on their learning journey, and you now have a few minutes to plan the rest of the trip (The Great Unplanned Lesson: Part 1, SecEd, March 2018).

A general approach

I have been teaching for several years and know how valuable a teacher’s time is. When you are given an emergency cover, you need to decide how much of your time you need to and/or can invest in the cover lesson.

This is not a question of your commitment to education, but rather getting a balance between the abilities of the students in the room, your workload, your knowledge of the subject you are covering, and the policy set by your employer.

Unless your knowledge of the relevant topic is secure, I would suggest that you set the students activities that allow them to work independently and progress at their own speed. I would add the caveat that you may need to set a minimum target of tasks to be completed as well as clear consequences for those who do not achieve this target.

I would also encourage you to regularly monitor the students’ progress throughout the lesson. The obvious question is “how often is regular?”. The answer really depends on the ability of the students to work independently and your workload.

At a minimum, I would do a walk around the class and ask students how they were getting on every 20 minutes or so. This also allows you an opportunity to refocus students and check their progress towards completing the minimum target of work that you may have set.

What work can you set?

So what work do you set for the students to complete? The easiest and quickest option is to let the students find their own work to get on with.
If you have a few students in the group who you trust, you can ask them if the class are working on a specific project or area that they can continue from last lesson.

The advantage of this is that you do not have to plan anything and can get on with completing your own work. The downside is that the students who are less independent workers will make little to no progress. It is also quite likely that you will be dealing with behavioural issues during the lesson.

The alternative is that you set a series of tasks for the students to complete (again, ensuring you set a minimum target of tasks that they must finish).

The advantage of this is that by setting a minimum number of tasks for the students to complete you reduce the potential for behaviour issues to arise. The downside is that you have to come up with the tasks. Some examples of activities that you can use are listed below.

Lesson activities

  • Most modern textbooks have a list of key words relating to each topic, either as a list or highlighted in the body of text on the page. Get the students to write down a series of key words for a topic. Student then draw lines between each of the words and write a sentence explaining how the words are linked. Obviously you will need the subject’s textbooks available for this exercise.
  • For another exercise using the textbooks, get the students to use the textbooks to produce a dictionary. You can get them to focus on words they have not memorised, a specific topic, or the whole course.
  • Write a list of keywords onto the board. Alternatively, you can write the key words on pieces of paper if you have some available, and spread them around the room. Split the students into teams. You have to give the students the definition for one of the key words that you have previously written down and the students have to race for get a team member to touch the matching key word. If you prefer not to have students rushing around the room, you can always use mini-whiteboards or students can just write down the answer.
  • Split the class into groups and get each group to make a list of multiple-choice questions linked to the course or a specific topic. Each group then takes turns to ask a question to the class. Any group with a correct answer gets a point. If no other group gets the correct answer the group asking the question gets a point. The group with the most points at the end wins.
  • Get the students to create a song, poem or play that explains a particular topic, concept or process. You can also take this a step further by asking the rest of the students to score each group’s performance. You can also get the class to give verbal feedback on the performances, ensuring they offer both a positive comment and an improvement comment.
  • Get the students to work in groups of at least four people. As a group, they need to list as many key words from the previous or current topic as they can. The groups then should produce several pieces of paper with each one containing an image relating to a specific key word. The aim is to share the images with other groups to see if they can determine the original key word. The students then need to allocate one person the role of checker and one person the role of runner. The runner gives the pictures out to each group, while the checker is the person who confirms if an answer is correct or not.
  • Get the students to make a list of topics they know well and topics they are less confident in. Assign half the class the role of a teacher and the other the role of the learners. The learners have to find a “teacher” who can explain a topic they do not know well. Once the teacher has explained the topic the learner and teacher switch roles. Students can change roles between learners and teachers, depending on their lists and the needs of the class, so that they are constantly learning or teaching.
  • Get the students to design and create a game or puzzle relating to a topic they have already covered. Depending on the materials you have available, and the students’ imagination, this can be anything from an individual creating a single-page crossword puzzle, to a small group creating a board game. Once completed the students can share the activities and try to complete each other’s creations.
  • Students spend five to 10 minutes in groups writing down as many key words and phrases linked to a particular topic. Each word or phrase must be written on a different note or piece of paper. The groups then exchange the notes or pieces of paper. Each group must then create the longest possible sentence that includes as many key words as possible from the notes/paper they were given.

Classic games

As well as the above, there are several games that you can set as activities including key word bingo, hangman, jeopardy and 20 questions.
If you can print some material for the students, it can be worth doing a search for worksheets and or revision materials online. Even if you cannot print anything, it can be worth searching for worksheets and or questions that you can display using a projector.

There is also a wealth of video material available online that you can show the students. However, you should be cautious when showing a class a video that you have not been able to review. For that reason you may want to try before you turn to YouTube and the like.


There is never a good time to be asked to cover a lesson, but you should only be asked to do this in a difficult situation.
Over these two articles, I hope that I have given you enough ideas that if you are asked to cover a lesson you have a range of activities you can use. At a minimum, I hope I have given you some ideas for activities that you can use in your own lessons which will reduce the time you spend preparing materials. If you do get asked to cover just remember to grab a pen, a board marker and a piece of A4 paper.

  • Gerry Mallaghan is an experienced teacher of 13 years, currently working at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. You can read his previous articles for SecEd via

Further information

The Great Unplanned Lesson: Part 1, SecEd, March 2018:


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin