Filler Lesson Ideas

Every once in a while, we all find ourselves in the position of not being able to move forward in our unit instruction. Essentially, we to take a quick “pause” before moving onto new lessons and new content. There’s only one problem: you can’t very well tell a whole class full of students that we simply won’t be doing school today (although, I’m sure they’d love that.) You still need to find something to do during the class period or you’ll have a total circus on your hands. Here a few of my favorite lesson ideas when you can’t start a new unit!


What is a “placeholder lesson” you ask? It’s the term I use to refer to the lessons and activities we do on those days we simply aren’t ready to “move on” with our instruction. There are several different situations and circumstances in which a well-planned placeholder lesson may come in handy.

For example:

Sub Plans:

most of the time, asking a substitute to introduce new content isn’t the best idea. Having not been present for the previous day’s learning, it can be difficult for a sub to jump in and teach new content effectively. Instead, I recommend using activities that review or extend student knowledge of subject matter that has already been taught. This can be a great time to challenge students to think more deeply about concepts covered in previous lessons, rather than having a substitute teacher attempt to cover new content.

Class trips that some students don’t attend:

Ever have a school trip that take a chunk of students out of your classroom, but not all of your students? For example, a marching band competition or a foreign language field trip? These days can feel tricky. Afterall, there are often too many students missing to justify teaching a new topic. You’ll likely end up reteaching the next day when the class is full again. These are great days to pull out placeholder lessons and activities.

School break is starting soon:

Ever wonder what you should fill your students time with the day before winter or spring break begins? Any new content that is taught will likely be forgotten over the course of the break. Not to mention, student interest in your lessons is likely to be at an all-time low the day before an extended break. What can you do? You guessed it…a good placeholder lesson is a simple way to fill the class time.

Personally, I recommend having an anticipatory set of placeholder lessons prepared and ready to be pulled out a moments notice. Oftentimes, the moments we need these lessons and great resources most are the moments we have the least amount of time to prepare.


Alright, I know this is the section you’ve actually been waiting for. Practical tips and lesson ideas when you can’t start a new unit. In other words, you’re probably wondering, “Laney, what should I actually DO with my students on these days?” Well my friend, I’ve got you covered! These are my favorite lesson ideas when you can’t start a new unit or need a good substitute plan.

Guided Reading Activities

I love guided reading? Why?! Because these activities are a great way for students to build on prior knowledge and practice their critical thinking skills. Close reading activities can be done independently, with a partner, as group work, or as part of a whole class discussion. For this reason, they make great options for sub plans but are also a good idea when you have circumstances affecting your typical class schedule (ex. short class periods, field trips, etc.)

I’ve created a line of detailed yet easy to read (avg. reading level: grades 6-8) guided reading lessons on a variety of topics. The questions that accompany each text are designed to be rigorous and require students to predict, reflect, connect, and think critically about the information being presented.

Check them out:

Do a poster project

Post projects are a great option when you need an activity before beginning a new unit of study. They require minimal prep work for you and tend to be a fun way to get students thinking creatively in the science classroom. All your students will need to create a good poster is a large sheet of paper and some art supplies (i.e different colors of crayons, colored pencils, markers, etc.)

So…what should these posters be about? Here are few ideas:

  • “Element Ads” featuring different elements from the periodic table
  • Wanted posters for famous scientists
  • Comic strips focused on specific science content topics

Once students have finished their poster creations, I like to save extra time for a gallery walk in which students are able to get up and explore the different posters created by their peers. You may even consider holding a poster contest, in which you select the top contributors or have students vote to choose their favorite posters.

Engineering Challenges

Alright, these activities do require some prep as they typically involve specific supplies. That being said, middle school students love a good engineering challenge! For these activities, students work in small groups to construct or build a specified object that accomplishes a particular task. Not only do these challenges promote teamwork, they are a great way to get your students thinking critically as they move throughout the scientific method process.

My favorite engineering challenges include:

Virtual Lab Simulation

Virtual labs make great placeholder lesson activities that students can complete without too much teacher assistance. Being a digital simulation, all they will truly need is computer (or other tech device) in order to successfully complete the activities.

Here are a few examples:

Design Your Own Game

If your students are anything like mine, they probably LOVE playing games! A fun way to incorporate more game playing into your lesson planning (while still ensuring that your games have an instructional connection) is to ask students to create their own “science themed” games. Using their notebooks, textbooks, or anchor charts within the classroom, students can design games that can be used to review important content covered within the unit.

Games may include:

  • Board games
  • Card games
  • Trivia games
  • Digital template games

Encourage your students to “think outside the box” and get creative. Best part is…once the games have been created, you can set aside a designated “game day” in which students will have the opportunity to try out playing each of the games.

Color By Number

Do your students need to practice for standardized tests? Do you need a way for students to review content while also checking for accuracy? If you answered yes to any of those questions then this resource is for you.

I created this line of color by number resources to help teachers, parents, and students by providing simple yet comprehensive practice on a variety of topics. The questions are designed to be rigorous and require students to predict, reflect, connect, and think critically about the content being presented.

The concept of this resource is simple: each answer choice has a color. At the end of the worksheet, students will color a design by matching the question numbers with the answer colors. If the picture doesn’t make “sense,” students know that there must be an error in their work.

Check them out!

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