A Quest for Excitement

Some ideas for teaching English with Nova's Quest textbooks

September 16, 2002
by Trevor Harmon

Picture of Nova students

On December 7, 2001, I began my first day teaching English lessons at a Nova school. I was never really nervous, but I certainly was stressed. The pace of eight lessons a day, with just ten-minute breaks between, was a lot to handle at first. I found myself coming to work an hour early just to plan the lessons for that day. Never having taught English before, I was determined to look like I knew what I was doing.

It got easier, of course. After about two months, I had taught so many lessons that I could almost always choose one I had done before and knew well. Plus, I had been making lesson plan outlines in little notebooks to help me remember how to teach each lesson the next time around. By the time I left Nova nine months later, I had become so familiar with the textbooks that I never needed to plan a lesson at all. I could sleep in and spend those ten-minute breaks chatting with my buddies in the break room.

Not every Nova teacher worries as much as I did about lesson planning, but for those who do, I want to share a few ideas. Teachers with a few months of experience have probably already figured out most of these tips for themselves, but for Nova newbies, I think this stuff could be really useful during those first few weeks. I sure wish I had known these ideas before I started teaching.

The Top Tips

  1. Learn from your coworkers. More important than any manual or training session is the collective knowledge of your fellow teachers. Every time I got stuck planning a lesson, I asked another teacher and often got back ideas I never would have thought of. My advice: Always ask your coworkers for new ideas, even if you think you already know how to handle your lessons.
  2. Alternate material is a lifesaver. Most teachers would agree that the official Nova Quest textbooks are far from ideal. More than a few lessons could be taught better with other material. That's one of the reasons Nova stocks additional textbooks such as Side by Side and Vocab Builder. Some of the lessons in these books are simply more coherent and effective. But alternate materials aren't just for the students. They can save your sanity by providing a little variety in your day. After all, who hasn't gotten sick of doing that "My daddy can..." lesson a zillion times? (I know a guy who's been working at Nova for over three years and can quote entire passages from Quest.) Alternate materials can also make your life easier when you're about to teach a group of students that has done every Quest lesson three times. (Yes, this does happen.) And by the way, about that alleged rule concerning Regular B, or "RB", students...people say you're not allowed to use alternate material on them. Personally, I think that would be doing them a disservice. I always ignored the rule, and I think my students are better off because I based my lesson plans on their needs, not Nova's policies.
  3. Word by Word cards are your friend. Every Nova branch has, or is supposed to have, a set of Word by Word cards. These laminated, colorful cards are divided into sets (jobs, seasons, emotions, etc.) and each card has a picture that matches a word in the set. Though they were probably designed to be flashcards, they make great tools for games and other applications. For example, the setting of lesson 15, level 6, is a job interview, and as an application, I do a role play where one student is the recruiter and the other is applying for the job. That's a pretty conventional setup for a Nova lesson, but there's one thing missing: What's the job? I put the cards face down in the middle of the table and make the students base their role play on whatever card turns up on top. This is good for the students because it prevents them from using simple job vocabulary. More importantly, it's good for me because I don't have to worry about time. If I only have a few minutes left, then we just do a couple of cards and say good-bye, and if there's a lot of time, then we just keep going until the bell rings. Time management can be a problem that plagues even the most experienced teacher, but the Word by Word cards go a long way in curing it. I can't recommend them enough.
  4. Newspaper articles are overrated. A couple of the teachers in my branch loved doing newspaper articles. They'd take a recent English-language newspaper, find an article that they like, and spend the lesson discussing it with their students. Perhaps those teachers had some kind of magic up their sleeve that could make it work, but I always thought newspaper articles made for bad lessons. Usually they have such tough vocabulary that you'll spend a lot of time explaining words. And even if the vocab isn't an issue, you'll probably do a lot of talking to explain background information, slang, and idiomatic phrases. It's just not a good idea if student talk time is your goal. The only time I would ever do a newspaper article is if I'm teaching a level 3 class and everyone has already done everything else.
  5. Everyday conversation lessons are underrated. I remember one of my co-workers saying, "I never do those everyday conversation lessons. I'd feel sorry for my students because the conversations are so boring." A lot of teachers must feel the same way because I've noticed that the everyday lessons (you know, the ones with four photographs and dialogue on the side) are usually the last ones open on students' mark-off sheets. In my humble opinion, many of those lessons aren't any worse than the others; they just take more time to plan. If you spend just a little extra work developing a decent warm-up and application, they can actually be valuable lessons. After all, these are "everyday conversations", with phrases and vocab our students could use out in the real world. Just make sure your role play ideas are natural, and everything will come together. And the best part? Because few teachers like to do these lessons, they'll be wide open for you.


I was never good at icebreakers. Maybe it's because I'm not good at smalltalk. But somehow I stumbled upon a few icebreaker games that worked well every time. I don't take complete credit for the following inventions; I built them out of ideas I got from other teachers and materials.

Picture of Nova students

Quest Lessons

Whenever I planned a lesson, I would write down an outline for it in one of my little yellow notebooks. Too pedantic? Maybe. All I know is that it saved me a lot of time and trouble in the long run and, I think, made me a better teacher.

Most of what I wrote in the notebooks wouldn't help other Nova teachers. That's because the outlines for my lessons consisted largely of my personal preferences, such as which practice drills from the Quest teacher's pages worked best, or which questions to ask for the Q&A part of the lesson. But there are a few ideas, especially for applications, that other teachers might find useful. I've listed them below. Again, I don't take credit for all of these ideas. Some were inspired by ideas in Nova textbooks.

Level 7C

Level 7B

Level 7A

Picture of Nova students

Level 6

Level 5

Level 4

O-tsukare Sama Deshita!

I hope you've found this page useful. If you have any of your own ideas that you'd like to see here, send me an email and I'll add them.

For more thoughts about the Nova experience, see my Japan page.

Picture of Nova student

Disclaimer: The opinions on this page are mine and do not necessarily represent those of Nova Corporation.