Although specific goals and objectives, a lesson plan, and preparation are all important to the success of a lesson, the classroom remains a very dynamic and changeable environment. Even the best lesson plans may get altered based on the needs of the students on any particular day. And although a lesson plan shouldn't be ignored, the teacher should also be aware that any plan isn't set in stone. What's more, he should also be on the lookout for teachable moments.
A teachable moment refers to a time when students are especially receptive to learning something. The teacher can take advantage of this moment and take a detour from the lesson plan. In so doing, students gain value from the detour, as well as better remember the information conveyed.
A teachable moment can arise from anywhere in the lesson, even from the most mundane portion. For example, the teacher opts for an activity to talk about weekend plans. He first has students brainstorm activities for the weekend, which the class does quickly. He also wants students to add a few additional ideas to the list, so he asks everyone to brainstorm a few more activities that university-aged students in the US might do. However, no one in the class really has any idea what their peers overseas do on the weekend, except for what they see on TV. The teacher thus realizes that now would serve as a good time to incorporate a bit of culture in the classroom, talking about typical weekend activities for young adults back in the US. The lesson suddenly moves to the tangible, and students will likely better remember the contents in the future.
In the above example, the teachable moment focuses on culture. The language classroom too often sets aside culture for concrete language points on grammar and vocabulary. However, language and culture are bound together, and a student must also know something about the culture of English (for example) to correctly use the language. Students tend to get into trouble when they incorrectly assume that language/culture rules from their native tongue/country also apply. The teachable moment may be a brief note on what Americans like to do on the weekend. It may be a brief note about how business emails are structured in English. It may be an extensive explanation about and practice on how to shake hands when meeting someone for the first time.
In the initial example, the teachable moment also has the teacher present the information to the class. However, this absence of knowledge can be the subject of a future lesson. For example, the teacher later sets up a Q&A session with a class in the US, allowing his students to ask questions about weekend plans. His students not only get to use the target language previously studied, but the ideas, information, and language will be much better remembered.
It's important to note cultural aspects serve as only one example of teachable moments. Any detour that meets the needs of the students, and in which the opportunity creates a highly receptive audience, can be considered worthy of attention. For example, perhaps in the middle of the lesson, the teacher realizes that students need additional practice with the past tense. Everyone has made numerous mistakes with the pronunciation of -ed endings. Which words use the /t/ sound? Which words use the /d/ sound? How about /id/? As such, the teacher spends some time explaining the different sounds, as well as the rules to correctly determine which word takes which sound. He also elicits examples from the class, and lastly drills the material before returning to the focus of the lesson.
As a final comment, the teacher shouldn't use the idea of teachable moments as an excuse to meander through the lesson or squander time chatting with the students. Remember: The key idea is that the specific needs of the class present an opportunity for the teacher to provide information that will resonate and result in high retention rates.