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by Erica Fischer on Sep 1, 2016

How can WL teachers structure & implement an effective curriculum without a textbook?

High pile of hardcover books

High pile of hardcover books” (CC BY 2.0) by  Alberto G.

Last week, #langchat got back into full-swing for the school year with a great conversation about ways to structure and implement an effective world language curriculum without a textbook. Chatters discussed how to select themes, as well as ways to determine which ones are the most important. They talked about how to choose the best vocabulary and structures to frame units, along with tips on how to flesh out resources into fully-fledged lessons. Participants also weighed in on the types of textbook activities that can be built upon when developing separate lessons plans, and they finished up by discussing the strategies that help if you are given a curriculum that feels incomplete or unclear.

We’d like to say a big thank you to Wendy (@MmeFarab) for heading up the first #langchat of the year, along with Colleen (@CoLeeSensei) for lending her a helping hand. Thanks to everyone who participated in this chat – we’re glad to be back, and are excited to see what great knowledge the #langchat community imparts to each other this year!

Question 1: How do you select themes and which ones do you choose to focus on?

Langchatters jumped in to the off-textbook discussion by addressing themes, and how to pick which ones are most important to focus on. For some, selecting themes is easy because the district sets them but for others, picking themes is where it all starts.

Ideas for doing so included basing themes strictly on things that both the teacher and students will both like, by thinking solely of the content/context of the level, by looking at textbook’s structure and adapting it to your needs, or just by considering student interest and cultural content. Another popular thought was to compare notes with other teachers, figure out what’s worked for them in the past and then use that as a jumping off point. @SenorG summarized all these thoughts best when he said that he, “Sometimes [finds themes] by asking Ss, sometimes by my own curiosity, usually though, it’s beg, borrow and steal from my PLN.”

The overall consensus seemed to be that combining all of the above techniques is oftentimes the best way to find themes that will work for your specific situation. For example, @MmeFarab, “…loosely bases [her] themes on other units (textbook themes, Jefferson or Shelby County themes) or what [she] feesl Ss are interested in!” and @CoLeeSensei starts by, “Reworking older units that originally came from TB. Adding/dropping/modifying – it was my first ‘map’.”

Question 2: How do you select the vocabulary and structures that frame your units?

After picking your themes, selecting vocabulary and structures to frame units is the necessary next step in building your own curriculum when you’ve ditched the textbook. A popular thought here was to consider what you want your students to be able to do at the end of the class, and then go from there in your selection process. For example, @ProfeCochran keeps it simple by choosing her vocabulary and structures, “Strictly from the functions of the level (or the next level up, actually). Check the Can-Do Benchmarks!” Similarly, @SraStilson considers, “What would I actually say if I were having a conversation on this topic/theme outside of the classroom?” when picking her vocabulary and structures for framing units.

Another much-agreed upon idea was to make sure and not go overboard with choosing too much vocabulary or to many structures that students won’t actually need to complete a given task or communicate about a topic. @Mundodepepita said, “High frequency vocabulary is 1st consideration; can it be used in real communicative interactions in my room & beyond?” and @MmeCarbonneau agreed saying she picks, “High Frequency, real, useable language. Not out of date vocabulary and structures that no one who really speaks the language uses.”

Focusing on real, usable language was a major faction in the answering of this question and @LauraErinParker wrapped up the overall consensus when she said, “I’m moving away from long lists – core, useful vocabulary + student selection – otherwise it’s too overwhelming for students.”

Question 3: How do you flesh out resources into fully-fledged lessons?

Once you’ve got your themes, vocabulary, and structures established, figuring out how to flesh out your resources into fully-fledged lessons can be a bit of sticking point. It’s time consuming to do it all from scratch and it requires a lot of effort, which is why langchatters were in a hurry to share their best tips and tricks for making it less painful. One idea was to create interpretive, interpersonal and presentational tasks based around each individual authentic resource. Another thought was to focus on the final performance assessment for the unit and base the “fleshing out” on making sure that your students will get what they need for it.

A popular suggestion was to backward design by starting with your goals for theme (all the way from overall goals to daily goals) and then choose appropriate resources from there that will allow your students to get to those goals. Like @doriecp said, “Backwards design. What’s the purpose of this resource? What do I want them to get out of it? How will we accomplish that?” and  @CristinaZimmer4 agreed saying, “[We] need to look at all angles of resources. What’s culturally important? What representative structures are used? Can we talk about what happened?”

One good point that was made several times was to remember to use the resources you have around you to make sure that you don’t over-do it when creating your own lessons, and then get burnt out on it in the process. Use the resources you already have and take what you like from them and then go from there. For example, like @lovemysummer said, “[I’m] not usually a textbook fan, but found one that has the kinds of activities I would design. I’m enjoying not creating EVERYthing.” and similarly, @CatherinKU72 pointed out that,” Teachers who don’t have time/knowledge [for] curating resources, [should] follow organizations/people who do the footwork. Stay engaged!”

Overall, @CoLeeSensei shared a tip that resonated soundly with participants when she stated that teachers need to remember to, “…ultimately cut [themselves] some slack. We need to have lives & if its too much …don’t use it!”

Question 4: What textbook activities can you build on when developing your curriculum/lesson plans?

When moving away from using a textbook as your primary sources of curriculum, taking activities from it and building on them can be a great bridge for beginning to create your own lesson plans. Things like writing activities, structured readings, communicative activities, exercises for remediation, ideas for writing prompts, and cultural pop-ups led the list of the things that langchatters said they like to pull from textbooks and adapt to their students interest.

Some langchatters shared that they were hoping to use their textbooks less and less but either weren’t allowed to quit using them all once, or felt that it would be too daunting to do so. @SECottrell encouraged these langchatters that they weren’t alone when she said, “Had I tried to kick the textbook all at once I’d have gone crazy. Slow journey-away, basing units/sequence on chapter content.” @MmeFarab agreed saying that teacher can, “Definitely modify some things [from textbooks] or make them more communicative/purposeful! Don’t have to light them all on fire at once!”

And @PiperKrupa summed up the overall answer to this question when she shared that, “Textbooks give us ideas and themes to use. But in reality all textbooks are way too dense. We picked our [favorites] and went deeper.”

Question 5: What strategies help if you’re handed a curriculum that feels stifling or incomplete/unclear?

One of the most daunting things a world language teacher can face is being handed a curriculum that’s incomplete, unclear, or doesn’t match their style of teaching, but it’s happened to the best of us. Instead of loosing sleep over it, langchatters pitched in lots of ideas for strategies to mange it with the least amount of pain. Ideas included reworking the textbook to fit your style, being aware that a textbook isn’t “one size fits all”, and focusing on student needs and department goals and pulling out the things that will help you get there. @SraDetnlinger suggested, “[Begin] with little additions to the textbook. Ex: using authentic music, exploring videos to watch w/kids for certain chapters.” Similarly, @SpanishEagles said, “You have to make [the textbook] work for you. It’s like being comfortable in your own skin. Personalize it and push that to [students].”

Overall, what you have to do is to try and understand where the textbook is coming from and adapt to your (and your students’) needs as much as possible.” An encouraging way to look at an unwanted textbook came from @tmsaue1 who said, “A curriculum is just the beginning. Like a GPS you can always change the route, but looking at the map helps you get there.”


Last week, langchatters had tons of great ideas to share for ways to structure and implement a WL curriculum without a textbook. Takeaways included remembering that whatever curriculum you have or don’t, you can work through it, that textbooks can be used as a resources and not the sole source, and that everyone is in the same boat! But the overall takeaway came from @bjillmoore who said, “Language teaching is hard work & [is] always evolving. [Teachers] need to be flexible and keep goals of communication and student success in mind.”

Thank You!

Thank you to everyone who joined in #langchat this week and shared their thoughts on textbooks.  The #langhchat community would also like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Don Doehla who is “retiring” from moderating this year. For more than five years he’s shared his time and expertise with this group, and we just want him to know how much we appreciate his servant leadership as a moderator. We look forward to having him drop in to chat whenever he’s able and we wish him well, so thank you again, Don!

And we also hope that all of you continue to join #langchat as often as you are able to – if the weekday chats on Thursday evenings at 8 p.m. ET don’t work for you, try joining the #SaturdaySequel, every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. ET instead!

Our weekly #langchats have gotten busier and busier, so due to space limitations, the summaries always focus on the main themes and takeaways from each week’s conversation. Many tweets have to be omitted but to read the entire conversation from this week, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive. Have a topic that you’re impatient to discuss?! Send us your ideas for future #langchats!

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.

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