Backward Design and ACTFLs Keys to Planning

I am a long time backward planner! I love dreaming up hooks that get students excited to dive into a new unit and planning assessments that measure students real ability to use their new language! Many people love the idea but don’t know how to get started. How exactly do we come up with an essential question that will carry meaning for our students?? How can we remain true to the tenets of comprehensible input yet teach cultural content in the target language? I assure you, it’s possible and exciting to use real contexts while maintaining comprehensibility!

Step 1: What do I want to teach?
This is a question we never got to ask ourselves when we were tied to a textbook! Laura Terrill, in a workshop presented for IL teachers last week reminded us that we should be considering themes rather than topics. The text is divided into isolated, blocky topics that often lack depth and engagement. Rather than listing chores they like and don’t like to do, think of your teaching in a bigger theme. EQ- How can I serve others in my community? You can still touch on chore vocabulary if it is important to you but you are able to connect that learning to a real opportunity to serve others at home and abroad.

Step 2- What will I accept as evidence that my students have acquired this new language?
Again, textbooks provide us a ready made, one size fits all solution to this question. I want to challenge you to think of ways you can assess that allow for student choice and are performance based!
Have you ever offered a choice board that offered students several options of final product? Have you ever allowed for multiple topics that yield the same product?

Step 3- How will instruction look as they acquire the language they’ll need to perform well on the summative assessment?
Reading, acquiring necessary vocabulary, film, and art… There are so many things to think of when planning instruction! Every step of the way, plan to use authentic resources along side your classroom materials! Authres are all the rage and their value to language learners is clear but don’t discount non-authentic resources that are produced for language learners. The greatest thing about using comprehensible input to teach language is that it levels the playing field! Where grammar and spelling might force slower processors out of traditional programs after a year or two, CI gives them the confidence to continue into upper level classes where they NEED reading designed for language learners to help them build skills just as they had readings designed for them learning L1! I read the classics but I love a good old YA fiction book the most! #pleasurereadigisagatewaydrug

Step 4- How do I know when they are ready to move on?
Assess formatively! Not as a grade in the grade book, assess them to evaluate where you go next! Follow the NBPTS architecture of accomplished teaching: if they aren’t progressing, go back and hit the concept again!

Two recommendations: ACTFL’s keys to Planning book offers some great lessons (and in French even) ready to adopt!!!
ACTFL’s Keys to Planning app in the App Store is an easy way to have a record of your units and a ready made template to plan them with!!

Here are the basic ideas of planning your first UbD unit (let me know how it goes):
1. What are you going to teach them? Is there a novel that accompanies the theme? Are you thinking big (theme not topic)? What authentic resources can you find to accompany the unit?
2. What is your essential question? Think big! This should be an “enduring understanding” in the words of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe! “What is in my backpack?” This isn’t what I want to “endure” for my students! If you love school supplies (we ARE teachers after all) think of a good context… “What are students around the world in need of as they start the school year? How can I help?”
3. How will I assess? Filling in blanks has no depth! What can we do to get students thinking critically and using language in real world situations? While they have a “small basket of vocabulary” in the words of Donna Clementi, they have strong cognitive ability and can understand a lot of serious topics!
4. What do students need to know (facts) and what do they need to know how to do (language)? Plan instruction around meeting all of these points!
5. How will I ensure that they’ve acquired the new language? Formatively, how will they show you that they’re on target!?

So I challenge you, find an authentic resource or a novel that gets your mind churning! With that piece in mind, apply the steps and create a unit that will draw on other authres, teacher created resources, and lots of CI!


  1. Thanks so much for the post!

    I can very readily see the value of Ubd (understanding by design) frameworks in designing upper level courses where you have the freedom to focus on specific content – whether it be violence and class struggle or how to take care of the environment. There are deep understandings that we should aim for our students to think critically about.

    However, I am having a lot of trouble with the very idea of “understanding” at the lower levels where the focus is on acquiring the language and basic fluency. As TPRS teachers do we really care if our students have deep understandings of the language. Isn’t that a linguistics class? Millions of people speak fluently without understanding why. What generates an “understanding” in a language class that genuinely reflects what we our students to get out of it? Krashen argues that language acquisition is unconscious – the very opposite of the higher-level thinking skills that Ubd asks us to aim for. I want my students to think critically and try to encourage it, but I struggle to see how that is an appropriate goal when the focus should be on acquisition and communication.

    Backwards planning can surely be beneficial, whether it is in structuring a unit or quarter so that students can read a TPRS novel, or in thinking about what structures are really essential for students to acquire in a given year of study. I am well aware of and using the ACFTL guidelines for novice learners in order to shape my curriculum so that the students can communicate in the ways detailed therein. But in this process isn’t very easy to lose track of the idea central to TPRS and all CI based instruction that it is input not output that leads to acquisition?

    I hope this comes across as respectful and engaged as I intended it. I appreciate your time and thoughts about the subject. Thanks for starting an interesting discussion.

    • We are totally on the same page! I don’t plan for deeper understanding of language in the novice levels, still focusing on content but with a whole different vocab and set of expectations!!!

      In level 1, we study Guatemala’s civil war and political unrest during quarter 4. I just have to really plan instruction that gives them the language they need to be part of the discussion!
      I don’t force output. I agree, it is the input that is key to every unit!! Expectations of what they can understand are much higher than what they can produce!

      I love that you commented back! It’s nice to discuss rather than just post and end!

  2. I love UBD and have been reworking my curriculum. For some reason I really struggle with the essential question part. You make it seem so easy! Is there any way you would be willing to share more of your questions for basic units in level I?

    • In level one I am a heavy storyteller. Most units revolve around the the unit story.. I start the year w Ben Slavic’s circling with balls (google it, it’s amazing!) and my EQ is How can I create an immediate connection with my ss? I try to use PQA to create some fun inside jokes and personal knowledge that create an immediate relationship w the class! The next unit is the story the boy who cried wolf. My EQ is Why is it important to tell the truth? Of course the answer will revolve around what we know (so wolves don’t eat your sheep) but we really focus on answering it through our story!

    • Think of EQ in terms of what you want students to carry as enduring (lasting) understandings… Ex. When I am introducing the idea of city vs country living in level 1, our EQ is What are the reasons I am lucky to have grown up in Carlyle. Of course we also then compare with ppl living in cities and rural areas around the world but I want them to always carry an appreciation 4 their roots!

  3. I came across your blog a while ago and I’ve been gobbling up everything on it! I have a couple of questions regarding my transition to using Standards Based Teaching with IPA. Would you be willing to write me individually so that I can talk with you directly (and not clog up your blog!). Thank you!

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