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Backward Planning in the Secondary ESL Class

Why should you first map out the specific skills your ESL students need to achieve instead of blindly following the textbook?

Essentially, backward planning is the act of defining the learning goals your ESL learners need to achieve by the end of a unit, a term, or the year. Most beginner ESL teachers I know, however, follow the units in the activity book without mapping out the specific skills that students need to master so that they can accomplish complex performance tasks. Yet, relying solely on a textbook does not always equal with doing everything by the book. Some workbooks might seem to follow the required standards or the progression of learning (in Québec), but it is not always the case, or students simply perform below the expected level, thus, not being able to fully engage with a unit/theme. That is why the standards or progression of learning should be the starting point when it comes to designing a learning situation focused on a unit in the workbook or an engaging topic your students are interested in.

Let us consider the stages of backward planning:

1) Identifying learning goals and what we want to measure or assess at the end of a unit

During this stage, we need to select essential content and the skills we want our students to master, for example, at the end of a unit. Once we defined the learning goals, we may proceed to organizing and selecting relevant activities that will guide and help our students achieve those goals.

2) Preparing texts, mini-lessons, and activities

This phase is about selecting and preparing relevant texts, grammar concepts, and various activities that will assist students in developing the skills needed to complete the final task and showcase their learning. We should also consider planning differentiated activities, offering lots of feedback, and using formative assessment to be able to adjust our lessons or to offer more support to students in need.

For instance, if we want our students to write an opinion text on school uniforms as a final complex task, we need to select reading materials and videos presenting both sides of the issue. To support students’ understanding of the selected texts, they need to complete various activities requiring them to explore the texts alone and with their peers. As learners must demonstrate their ability to write a specific text type, they should also look at the features of an opinion piece. Therefore, we should provide mentor texts and should make sure that students have plenty of opportunities to practice writing captivating introductions, well-developed supporting paragraphs, and engaging conclusions. Since an opinion essay is generally written in the present tense, except for personal anecdotes, learners also need to be familiar with the simple present, present perfect or even present continuous tenses. So, these must be either taught or reviewed beforehand. By assigning a grammar test (formal assessment), we could also verify if we need to reteach any of these grammar concepts.

3) Measuring/Assessing learning

This phase assesses students’ ability to autonomously reinvest what they have learned during the learning situation. The final complex task demonstrates learners’ mastery of the targeted content and skills so we can evaluate to what extent they have attained the desired learning goals.

To help you with backward planning, you may download a free template from the free resources library if you are already a member, or download it from my VTT shop here: Backward Planner.

If you're looking for more planning tips, read my next blog post here: How to Cut Down on Your Planning Time.

Happy planning!

Kynga C.


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