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by Erica Fischer on Apr 15, 2016

Structuring & Designing New Units in the World Language Classroom

Last week, #langchat enthusiasts joined in to continue the discussion on units in the world language classroom. Participants shared their thoughts on how to best structure and design each new unit to fit the needs of students, and meet the requirements of the approved curriculum at the same time. The contributors covered how they pick units, when and where the planning process starts, as well as how they decide what content is worth including. Chatters finished up with discussing the ways that they vary unit elements, while still making sure to take students’ cognitive levels into account throughout the planning process.

Thank you Wendy (@MmeFarab) for leading the Thursday night chat this week, as well as Coleen (@CoLeeSensei) for bringing us the #SaturdaySequel. And thanks to everyone who joined in for either (or both) of last week’s great #langchat conversations!

Question 1: How do you determine what units you do?

#Langchatters had a plethora of great tips and tricks to share for how they pick what units they do in their world language classes. While some teachers have the freedom and responsibility to create their own units from scratch, other have to follow more restrictive guidelines according to their school’s curriculum policies. This question really helped explore some of the ways that teachers on both sides manage to make the best of their situation, whatever it might be.

For teachers who get to create their own units, a lot of the ideas centered on things like finding motivating themes to incorporate students’ culture, looking for content that ties into other disciplines, building around novels and cultural themes, finding good music and movies, or even utilizing really great authentic resources as the basis of a new unit. @CatherineKU72 shared a popular idea when she said, “Units come from AP themes, global issues, student interest, and culturally-rich stories/legends. It’s a wide buffet of choices.” Similarly, @mmshep suggested that teachers really work to take, “Student interest, [your] passions, student proficiency & current events.” into consideration when deciding what new units they want to design.
For teachers who’s units are set by outside forces (aka – a textbook, administration policies, co-teachers preferences, etc.), most of the suggestions were about working to take those set unit topics and personalize them for each class and group of students to keep them from feeling forced or boring. Ideas for personalization were closely aligned to previous ideas, such as finding ways to incorporate teacher/student interest through content choices, as well as finding interesting novels and authentic resources to supplement the text or laid-out-plan. Like @MaCristinaRV said, even when your classes have to be based on a book, your lessons can be “…greatly enhanced by videos, stories, authentic resources, songs, interactive games, activities, etc.”

Question 2: Where does your unit planning process start, and why?

The beginning of the unit planning process is highly-personal for some as several chatters shared that they get their best ideas while doing everyday things such as cleaning, in the shower, and even while trying to fall asleep! Other participants were proponents for a more concrete planning process such as using district performance assessments as a starting point. @nicolawork shared her fun way of blending both the creative and concrete planning processes when she shared that she starts with, “… [the] textbook for topic, gym for inspiration & Pinterest for concrete materials.”

Popular suggestions included @CristinaZimmer4’s idea to “Look for engaging and current topics and then see what’s out there to learn about it!” and @mmeshep’s suggestion to begin with “Can-Do’s [which] progress from immediate environment to social situation to ‘anything I’ve learned about.’ [And] Try to plan accordingly.”

Other ideas for starting the unit planning process included things like picking a sequence of books, focusing on theme and essential questions/student can-dos, finding authentic resources and creating CI, making sure goals are proficiency based, and most importantly, making sure to provide opportunities within the unit plan for students to engage and interact with the target language, and with each other

Question 3: How do you decide which content is worthwhile to include in a new unit?

Participants overwhelmingly agreed that choosing the right content is essential to the creation of a worthwhile and effective unit. The general feeling was that content has to be comprehensible enough for students to get something out of it, while at the same time meeting the requirements of the class. Several suggestions centered on looking for content that works together toward the theme/goal of the unit, making sure the content recycles old vocabulary in new contexts, and overall ensuring that the content provides engaging, compressible input in a variety of formats.

Many chatters agreed with @MmeFarab’s idea that, “If it’s interesting, engaging, silly, might happen in “real life,” or cultural, I want it in my unit.” Similarly, @IndwellingLang suggested that teachers look beyond the content itself and figure out, “What all can we do with it in addition to read/view/listen? Lots of great content, but some lends itself better to extension.”

Langchatters had many submissions for ways to determine which content is worthwhile, including age/proficiency appropriateness, what is needed to scaffold, making sure to use a variety of types/sources, thinking about the theme/vocabulary/grammar, and most importantly, deciding whether or not the content will support the unit’s communication goals since the point is ultimately for each unit to further your student’s ability to speak/understand the target language.

Question 4: How do you vary the elements of a unit (or not)?

Most chatters felt that varying the elements of a unit is very important to the success of the student’s use and relation to that unit’s content. One suggestion for incorporating variation was to begin each lesson with an authentic resource, and then interpret and discuss it before having students write about it. Similarly, @MCanion suggested for teachers to “Vary the input – [use] stories, video clips, music, short texts, longer texts.” to provide variety and keep things fresh.

Another idea to provide variation that a lot of teachers got behind was to incorporate lots of different types of elements within a theme to provide students with new vocabulary and new experiences in as many contexts as possible. Doing so always depends on the age of your students, and @CecileLaine had great tips for concrete ways to make sure you take that into account when she suggested, “For Novice the “bone” is often the same (CI CI CI + carefully chosen #authres) but with a variety of activities. [And] for Intermediate, I tend to follow the IPA model: read/listen, talk about it, write/speak about it with extensions.”

Variation can also be super simple, such as providing variety within one element. For example, @alenord’s idea for if you are teaching something like a unit on music, “… have [students] listen to music, describe, but then recommend based on how that music compares to U.S. genres.” The overall consensus was that varying elements is key, 100% of the time if you want to keep student interest and make it effective for long-term proficiency.

Question 5: How do you honor students’ cognitive levels when planning instruction of a new unit?

Participants agreed that making the effort to tailor new units to your students’ cognitive levels and abilities is a huge part of whether or not that new unit is successful. While it can be time consuming to adjust content on a per-class basis, making the material too hard or too easy for different classes of students can have very negative effects on their progress and understanding of the new content.

Suggestions to gauge whether you’ve lined up the difficulty of your new unit with your students’ cognitive levels included going slowly at first, asking students their opinion, and making sure to only plan to use lower-level materials once in a while for very specific activities (i.e. – kids songs in high school classes). And of course, you have to take time and how much in-depth attention a new unit is going to need into account based on the age of a class – for example, you’ll usually need more time/in-depth activities for middle-schoolers than high-schoolers for similar content.

Takeaways

Last week, Langchatters had a lot to say about how to structure and design new units so that your students will get the most out of the content. Takeaways included making sure to focus on the end task, varying the final assessment for each unit, keeping the content interesting, using as many different types of content as possible within each unit, and always incorporate authentic resources whenever possible and appropriate. @bjillmoore summed it up well when she said, “[My Takeaway]: We all have great ideas. [We should] Go ahead and plan our topics that will engage students and help them see connections to real world.”

Thank You!

Thank you to everyone who joined in #langchat and shared their ideas for structuring and designing new units for the world language classroom. We hope that you continue to join #langchat whenever you are able – if the regular chat time on Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET doesn’t work for you, try joining the #SaturdaySequel, every Saturday at 10 a.m. ET instead!

Our weekly #langchats are getting 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!

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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