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by Erica Fischer on Oct 8, 2013

Bright Ideas for Organizing World Language Units

There are a variety of ways to organize a world language classroom curriculum. For each teacher, the grade level, subject matter and proficiency benchmarks are so varied that it is difficult to compare one way of organizing a language-teaching unit with another. Still, on Thursday night’s #langchat, participants came up with some great basic structures for teaching world language units as well as some important elements that any unit should always keep in mind.

5 Effective Strategies to Organize Units in a World Language Classroom

It became clear early on that #langchat teachers have a variety of unique methods of structuring their units in order to make them the most effective. While some people adhered closely to textbooks when organizing units, others eschewed them completely. Many teachers felt that thematic units were effective, while others felt that exploration-based units took the themes to an entirely new level. In each case, these different structures for setting up world language teaching units had clear benefits for the teacher and students.

1. Backwards Design. To plan lessons using the method of backwards design, teachers begin by understanding where students will be at the end of the unit. @CoLeeSensei said, “I go ‘backwards’ as well -starting with a final oral task, then figuring out what they need to learn in order to complete it.” One benefit of this type of unit is that it includes having a clear, reasonable goal in mind from the beginning of the unit’s design through to the end. Another benefit is that pacing and structure naturally lead to assessments when the final product/skills are the focus.

2. Thematic Units. Many #langchat teachers work with thematic units, although the implementation and creation of these units is varied. @msfrenchteach said, “For me, units for all levels are thematic and are categorized according to the six major AP themes.” @SECottrell said, “I think units should be thematic and focused on proficiency.” @alenord said, “Our units have an overarching theme, our lessons target subthemes. For example: All About Me is the Unit. Who I am, My family are the lessons.” This type of structure gives the teacher a lot of freedom about what resources to include and differentiation for different learning styles and proficiency levels.

3. Investigation Units. This type of unit is an excellent way to encourage higher-level thinking in the world language classroom. In this style, the teacher and students discuss a vital question that must be researched and explored in order to develop an answer. @CristinaZimmer4 explained, “The unit centers around a topic that provides us questions to investigate. For example, Natural Disasters might be the topic but students can relate it to causes and locations.” @alenord added, “The exposure is via text and audio that leads to students making their own discoveries and acquisitions.”

4. Functional Units. A functional unit is based on completing a real-world task. For example, students might need to buy a car in the target language, which would expose them to new concepts and vocabulary. She explained, “My units are originally set from a ‘real world’ task – then what they need. Gr12’s delving into daily life just did a murder mystery.” In order to ensure proficiency in all 4 modes (reading, writing, speaking, listening), she also suggested focusing each day of instruction on a different mode, with the last day of the week covering all 4 briefly.

5. Resource-Based Units. Some teachers advocated for a unit to be based on carefully chosen authentic resources. @CristinaZimmer4 said, “You can find grammar in every authentic resource. Building your units around these resources makes teaching more fun!” By including songs, stories and movies, students can learn a variety of new words in an interactive way that supports a thematic or inquiry-based unit plan. @CristinaZimmer4 even suggested that a very good authentic resource, like a song, can be a stand-alone unit. She said, “I almost think a song CAN be unit. Use the vocabulary and grammar in it but tie it to a global theme. Then there’s value.”

Things to Consider When Creating a World Language Unit

Regardless of what structure you decide to go with in your unit, there are a number of vital elements that should be considered as your plan your lessons.

Scaffolding. Knowing how students will move from one concept to the next is vital in creating a unit that naturally builds on previous knowledge. By creating individual lessons that activate this prior knowledge and provide time for review and new discovery, you are giving your students the best chance for long-term language acquisition. @MmeNero said, “I think it’s important to review what they know and add to that knowledge. It’s important to scaffold units for authentic communication.”

Authentic Resources. Whether you build your unit completely around authentic resources, or just use them to supplement a different style, authentic resources need to be carefully considered. Excellent resources should be able to activate student knowledge on a number of levels, not just add to their vocabulary or grammar structures. @CristinaZimmer4 said, “I just don’t like when students are only used to listen to songs when verb tense is being studied.” Incorporating larger themes, evaluating the message for bias or synthesizing and comparing resources allows for more connection with the language.

Assessment. From the beginning of your unit, assessment should be a key component of your overall plan. What types of assessment do you need to include? How often should summative and formative assessment be included? @SECottrell said, “I start with designing modal assessments. Then, exploring what authentic resources will get us there?” Although not discussed in detail this week, #langchat participants have previously given great suggestions for how to set up assessments that help support successful unit plans.

Balancing skills and Modes. It is important to keep in balance the time you spend on teaching each skill. Creating a unit with excellent resources and thematic structure is good, but it is better to ensure that they get balanced practice in reading, writing, speaking and listening (the 4 skills of communication) as well as balanced opportunities for presentations, interpersonal exercises and interpretive activities (the 3 modes of communication).

Pacing. While some teachers complete only 3-4 units each year, others plan for 6-7 themed units per semester. The key with pacing is to make sure that the end goal is clearly in mind and true learning is taking place along the way. @CristinaZimmer4 said, “I shoot for 10-12 days (in block). Too much longer and students get bored. Less and we don’t get as in depth as I like.” @MmeNero said, “I try to focus on 3-4 units, rather than covering all of them, and integrate what they need to learn. Retention and understanding is key.”

Appropriate Goals. Setting reasonable goals for each class session allows you to have a better-defined class and minimizes potential burnout for you and your students. @mo_xing said, “I try very hard to narrow the goals. It makes it much easier for me to handle a class.” @MmeNero responded, “Agreed! Too much in one class makes it hard for retention. If they can’t remember tomorrow, what’s the point?”

Student Engagement. Finally, it is important to decide early on how to engage your students in the unit plan. Many world language teachers suggested having students help to select the themes and resources that they use during the unit. This gives the students personal investment in the learning experience, or “buy-in.” @alenord suggested having students self-select vocabulary terms so that they are more motivated to use what they learn in class. @tmsaue1 asked, “What if we asked students: do you want to ask questions? do you want to describe? do you want to narrate? And then build units around their interests in those functions?”

Textbook Usage. Many #langchat teachers are moving away from using traditional textbooks to define their units, while others still use them as strong supports for their teaching. You need to decide how or if you will be using the textbook to create your unit plans early on in the school year. There are many ways to incorporate them as well. @Sra_Hildinger said, “I only use the book as a resource. Use vocabulary and grammar included because students frequently change teachers.” @CoLeeSensei said, “I’ll admit I got my initial unit ideas from a text – that I only use now for ‘readings’ (graded readings key in Japan).” @LauraErinParker said, “I use the textbook to get ideas, but I supplement more each year.”

Thank You

We’d like to thank our moderators, @CoLeeSensei and @msfrenchteach, for giving us direction on this interesting discussion. Some of the best suggestions and ideas for creating unit plans for world language classrooms didn’t make it into our summary this week. To see the whole conversation, please visit our online archive.

We love talking with you every Thursday evening about what is working in your world language classroom. If you have any ideas for future #langchat discussions, we’d love to hear about them. Share your ideas with us and you could be helping someone become a better language teacher.

Additional Resources

Culture & Authentic resources
Amy Lenord Pinterest
Google Mexico
Le monde des Ados
Géo Ado
Veinte Mundos
Amy’s Publications
Collaborize Classroom

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.


  • Kayla Muller

    Hello all,

    I have a big question that I’m not sure who to ask. When creating a unit, where does one obtain vocabulary? That is one benefit of a textbook. Each unit has a vocab set and list. But is there any guidance on how many vocabulary words are appropriate per unit, etc? What is the role of a vocabulary list in unit design? Thank you in advance for any input.

    • Kindergarten Spanish Lesson plans Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell

      Great questions, Kayla. The best thing I can do to help, I think, is to send you to a blog post I wrote on my personal blog some time ago, on the subject of vocabulary. There are a lot of resource posts linked in that post, to my friend Amy Lenord and her journey to eliminate the vocab list altogether, and a lot of what my own approach to vocabulary involved.
      As the curriculum writer for Calico Spanish, I can tell you that our units do include vocabulary lists. They start very small at only a handful – a dozen or fewer for 10 full days of lessons – and increase as the levels go up, to a max of perhaps 20. The vocabulary is all selected from what is critical for children to comprehend in our Video Stories.
      Enjoy the journey!

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