Anticipatory Sets: Meeting Students Where They're At

By Justin Lim on February 22, 2010

There's a famous maxim that goes, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." The problem with this statement is that it's just not true. The fact of the matter is that you can feed a horse salt so that it becomes thirsty. What approach do you take when it comes to your students? Are you feeding them salt or waiting around for them to drink on their own?

As teachers become more and more pressured to stick to rigid pacing plans and prepare students for standardized tests, it seems that the anticipatory set is becoming a lost art. What is an anticipatory set? It's what should come at the beginning of each lesson in order to pique the interest of your students. It's the short clip from a scary movie that you might show before teaching a lesson about Edgar Allan Poe. It's using a popular song to introduce figurative language. It's the class debate that comes before a persuasive writing assignment. In sum, it's the salt for our kids.

If you feel that there's no time to fit an anticipatory set into your already packed pacing plan, I can't blame you. Consider though, a five to ten minute high-interest introduction to a lesson can build student engagement, cut down on classroom management issues, increase achievement, and just make class more fun!

Here are some tips on how you can jump start your lessons:

1. Media - With the prevalence of the internet, it's easy to find videos, sound bites, and pictures related to almost any content that you might be teaching. I often use short movie clips combined with a structured class discussion to build student interest. Especially for your EL students, media can prove invaluable, as it provides a context for understanding the content.

2. Relevant Content - As of late, I've been assigning my 10th grade students loads of essays in preparation of the high school exit exam that they'll be taking in March. While essays are normally not the most popular of assignments, I've been getting great enthusiasm because my kids have been sincerely interested in the topics. Their last three essays have been about whether or not schools should hold kids accountable for inappropriate postings on social networking sites, whether juveniles should be tried in adult courts for violent crimes, and what skills teenagers need to have in order to get jobs. Sometimes, finding good essay topics is as easy as perusing and checking the current events section.

3. Be Enthusiastic - Last week my class read Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Cask of Amontillado. To start off, I showed a short clip about Poe's life and then went on to lead a discussion about the thrill of reading a gripping horror story. The story is a good one, but I'll be honest, it's not quite the same the sixth or seventh time you read it. For my kids though, it was their first, and so I built it up as though reading that story was going to be the highlight of their week. Did it work? You bet. The kids absolutely loved the story, despite the fact that it was probably the most difficult piece that they've read all year.

4. Content vs Skills - Remember that to your kids, the appeal of a lesson is the content and not the skill or standard. For instance, last week my goal was to teach my students how to identify an unreliable narrator. If you ask any of them though, we were learning about an insane killer in The Cask of Amontillado. That's not to say that the standard should not be made explicit (it should be) or emphasized, but simply that we need to be aware that our content is the vehicle to take our kids where we want them to be at.

What are some ways that you set up your lessons?

Warm regards,

Justin Lim

Rosemead High School

El Monte Union High School District


I am actually a high school student in a program called Ready Set Teach. Most of my peers choose to visit elementary schools to teach the smaller children, I however prefer high school education. I would like to be a 12th grade Eng. Lit. teacher, but since I am a senior, I teach freshman. My mentor teacher got hurt recently and couldn't call into work, therefore I walked into class unaware that I would have to teach the entire class on my own. A sub wasn't acquired until 2nd period. My mentor teacher didn't have a lesson plan ready, and if she did, it was nowhere to be found.

I looked up the "Harris Burdick" pictures (a creative writing teacher had shown us) and had them write on 3 of them for 5 min. each, but they quickly got board of this activity. So I made something up.

I had them take out a piece of paper and number them from 1 to 14 and proceeded to ask them random facts about themselves (a.e. favorite color, favorite animal, hero, etc.). Once they were done they had to write 5 line poems. Each line had to be a simile or metaphor for themselves and that trait. We went around the room and everyone had to read 1 line and from that we created a poem for the class. They loved it. It was interactive and fun and something they hadn't seen before. I was so relieved that the teacher who had been checking in on me told my mentor teacher that she should leave me to it more often so she could get more ideas for her class. :P

[Edit: Response]


That's an outstanding story! You made a great adjustment when you recognized that the initial activities were not engaging the kids!

Great job!

Warm regards,

Justin Lim

Great article, Justin!

Google Earth is one of my favorites. I also like to use Brainpopjr (I teach the little kiddos). We just had a Skype session from Asia to learn more about Chinese New Year.

I love to run to the library and have books related to the topic scattered around the room. This week our Language Arts story was a non-fiction about the first man to discover a T-Rex fossil. I introduced the lesson with a real dinosaur bone (borrowed from a teacher friend; available in science stores) and a class discussion.

I go a little overboard. I tend to decorate the room based on what we are studying. This includes posters, artwork, artifacts, puppets, models, mobiles, etc. This generates buzz as soon as the students enter the room. It keeps things fresh, for me as well as for the students!

[Edit: Response]

Hi Ashley,

That's awesome! I really like the Google Earth idea! I'm definitely going to use that.

I have no doubt that you keep things fresh! Your class sounds like it's a lot of fun!



Post a Comment
(Please sign in to leave a comment. Privacy Policy)
RSS Subscribe ButtonSign up to get these great teaching ideas delivered automatically.Subscribe now >