Backward Planning

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34 thoughts on “Backward Planning”

  1. …I still think that I am going too wide when I backward design….

    Jeff isn’t that because the text always has more terms than we can effectively isolate in our backward planning? I don’t think it’s you going wide. I think the text is too wide. We end up wrestling with a too-big text as an end point instead of the end point of just being hanging out with our students. I know, more hippy talk.

    OK it’s time for a definition. What is backward planning? I’m not sure we all even agree on what the term means. What is it? You only get one sentence.

  2. Backward Design: “Plan the lesson/unit with the end assessment as the focus.”

    But….don’t we do this when working with a script/movie anyway? i.e. using target structures to have students acquire so they can “tackle” a text?

    But….many of us work in environments where we have to design a project – so that is the end that is in sight for many of us; therefore, a wide text to jump around.

    1. I’ve kind of given up on backward planning in years 1 and most of year 2, for specific texts. I’ve mainly been story reading anyways, so you could say that the story reading is what we’re backward planning from if you have to. It usually ends up being reverse, but really only with certain details, if we stay true to the script.

      My mind has been more at ease this year by just focusing on the Power Verbs, and letting other verbs come into the fold as they may. If I am debating between a story and interest is not a factor, I look at the frequency of the words in the story and decide from there. I have been referencing Davie’s Frequency Dictionary more than ever this year.

      Re definition, I think Mary Beth may have nailed it. Though perhaps “assessment” is not the only thing we’d backward plan from? Would we consider a novel an assessment? Can we develop a more TCI-based definition. Something like “Planning class content around what will prepare students to comprehend a specific more advanced piece of literature or lecture”. Rough.

      1. I always plan on a novel in the last quarter of my courses, so before then I make sure to teach structures that will factor heavily in the novel. I do consider reading a novel my true final assessment that I backwards plan from, but I also have a final exam that I make up at the end of the year using a couple of texts that seem like the natural next-step in my students’ progression.

        What you describe, Jim, (relying on Power Verbs and high frequency structures in the first levels) sounds more like front-loading than backwards-planning to me. Getting those essential structures so ingrained as to be automatic can only help our students to read almost anything we put in front of them. I think that’s the strategy I need to be using more in my lower-level classes. Do you think a teacher in a more backwards-planning oriented school would have trouble justifying that to admins, though?

        1. Perhaps that’s what it would be Erin, front-loading, unless of course you’re prepping kids to be able to read a specific text that has all those power verbs, which basically all do given the pareto principle. I don’t know re admins, I haven’t had to think about that all for years. Someone here probably will though.

          I would justify it (under whatever name) as preparing kids for real language use. If they have those power verbs understood extremely well, they can negotiate any text easier, as you said Erin. Can you go through any one of the texts you’ll be reading and count how many times those power verbs come up in a passage (% of total words)? I’d guess it would be relatively high, and thus justify the continual focus on them. But teaching other verbs that will come up in your texts is good too. I do, just not as mindfully planned as you will likely have to.

          1. OK we could probably use some clarification on Power Verbs for any new people reading here. Here are some links:


            I would also like someone, Jim or Eric or anyone else, to explain Power Verbs as if you were talking to a two year old. I have a feeling they got discussed up in Maine, but we need to make sure that on the PLC we are using the term with a clear shared understanding of what it means.

            Doing that, making sure that our understanding of all the terms is shared and clear, is a big task for us here. That’s why I keep republishing that Big Ideas article, so that new people can read around in those articles and understand how those strategies, most identified in acronym form, work.

            Those strategies are our bread and butter strategies. I know it’s all about “just talking to the kids”, but how? That is what the acronym strategies in the Big Ideas offer us – a shared vision of what exactly we do to rock the house in our CI classrooms. I would be very happy if we spent all our time discussing how we use those strategies in our classrooms – that is the original goal of this site.

          2. Where is the clarification on Power Verbs for the new people? Eric? It would most likely come from you. Please explain it in simple and clear terms. Explain the importance of teaching those verbs in the first month of the year. Jim it could come from you too, right? This information needs to be in one post here and not all over the place in different articles spread out in four different categories.

            People have a hard enough time researching strategies here on this site, just because there are seven years of intense discussion and multiple strategies, all excellent for CI creation, represented in these pages. I guess the SVA link is the key to this for the new people until we get a Power Verbs article. Specifically, we need to know what the Power Verbs are and how to use them.

            The reason I need this is because I never isolated Power Verbs, myself, being a bit too California to do that much organized planning. But two people in the past week – Jim Tripp and Anne Matava – have talked about their importance. I am waiting for the simplified email explaining Power Verbs from someone. I will take the email I receive and make it into an article. Then new people can understand the Power Verbs.

          3. There’s Terry’s “Super 7 verbs” which have been listed elsewhere on this site. Some people add 2-3 more verbs they consider essential to level 1. These are the verbs that give you a lot of bang for the buck.

            Essentially, we first focus on the 12 or so highest frequency verbs. I’m not sure what a “power verb” is. I remember we had the idea of doing concentrated PQA on 1 high-frequency verb (I would do 5 minute spurts) and it became called the “Power Verb Activity.”

            I’d just scan any script and adapt so as to be written with high-frequency and/or high-interest verbs.

          4. Maybe the “Power” comes from the activity not the verb. You can do it with any verb.
            The “Super 7” plus a few more are the basic verbs that we use all the time and are good to focus on early:
            to be
            to have
            to want
            to do
            to go
            to see
            to want
            to like
            to have to
            to be able to
            etc. I don’t remember what the original Super 7 are.

          5. Ok guys, I used “power verbs” when I meant “Super 7” or “Super 10”, the most frequent verbs in the language. Sorry about the confusion on this. Not sure what “power verb” is actually.

            Also Ben, do we have an agreed upon definition of “frontloading”? AFter reading your comment at the bottom, and reading Erin’s comment a couple days ago, I’m confused as to what it actually means to you all.

          6. I would say that a power verb is one that does a lot of communicative work. They create more fluency for their size, than other verbs. They are like pulling a lever on a steam shovel. They are combined with a lot of other word types quite readily or they have shades of meaning so that the focus is less and less on form and more and more on a new shade of meaning.

            A word with many uses is “pasar” (pass). In Spanish we can pass the salt, pass the test, pass (=spend) the summer, pass by someone’s house. We can ask what is happening and what is the matter with someone. A lot of meaning can be acquired with the same forms in different situations.

            Words like “can,” “likes,” and “wants” are employed endlessly over any topic and word sets with a very limited number of forms needed for fluency.

            Compare that with “juggles.” We can have a lot of fun with juggles (juggles tigers or juggles caterpillars?), but it does not create fluency. Juggles is pretty much limited to the art of tossing things in the air and catching them (metaphorically it can be extended to multitasking). These words are more like a bunch of hand shovels: they are more limited in their production and it is easier to forget where they are, or even whether we still have them.

          7. I agree with Nathaniel on the meaning of “power verb” and think that it is better than “Super Seven” (or 10 or 12) because it doesn’t set a limit that may be different for various languages. For example, German does not distinguish “to be” in the same way that Spanish does (ser vs estar); like English it has only one verb to indicate existence, location, transitive circumstances, or permanent characteristics. On the other hand, would, could, should are separate verbs rather than being forms of every verb. So, I like the idea of calling these verbs by a name that doesn’t set a number but still indicates their importance.

        2. Michael Nagelkerke

          Erin said: “Do you think a teacher in a more backwards-planning oriented school would have trouble justifying that to admins, though?”

          In my experience, yes. I got canned because I could not adapt to a school wide “Understanding by Design” backwards planning system.

          I’m like Jeff. I have the hardest time backwards planning mainly because it takes so much time. Its just so much easier to just to teach to the script of the week. I feel its more effective and I don’t feel overwhelmed trying to make sure I cover every major structure in the text.

          1. Wow. I used to teach at a school that was big into UBD, and I shoehorned CI into the form using mostly Blaine Ray’s LICT main stories as a final “assessment” thing. Can’t imagine getting canned over that, though. Sorry you went through that.

            I’m a little more free at my new school to do as I see fit, and I never have to submit anything to admins, but I still find myself working backward from a song I want to play or a novel I want to read.

          2. Michael Nagelkerke

            Yup. It was a sucky experience. I guess I was being too naïve and honest. I should have just faked the whole UbD thing and called it good.

          3. Dude this is important for people to read. A CI teacher canned for not playing the game. It can happen. Had you faked it, Michael, which is what I always did, nobody seems to notice. That is how fake what they do is – we fake it and they think it is good.

            But aren’t you in a better situation now in Colorado Springs? Yes?

  3. Just to back up what Jim said…

    You are backwards planning. Your goal is to have students read a text in the TL and have 100% understanding of that text. That’s your end goal. Everything you do (PQA, TPR, full story, MT, quick quiz,) are all working toward students understanding the text. You’re a great backwards planner.

  4. Do a google search for UbD template. There are different templates, some with slightly different terminology and they range from basic to very complex. Regardless, the process starts with goals.

    From Wiggins & McTighe:
    stage 1: desired results
    stage 2: assessment evidence
    stage 3: learning plan

    I’ve seen stage 1 goals divided into 3 categories: transfer, meaning (including understandings & essential questions), and acquisition* (knowledge & skills).

    *This confuses things, since acquisition is not used here in the way we use it.

    I’ve never liked UbD because I don’t see where the place is to consider theory and method, i.e. how languages are acquired. I could say the transfer goal is to speak in a new context, I assess that with a speaking task, and I plan for that by . . . ? That last step is where teachers are going to confuse the ends with the means, i.e. speaking needs to be practiced in the learning plan.

    1. Michael Nagelkerke

      Amen to the comments on UbD. For the life of me, I could not make it work with CI/TPRS. UbD is for learning. It doesn’t take in account what’s necessary for acquisition.

  5. Let me explain how my mind is working on this whole backward planning thing.

    Option I: Choose a reading: Chapter in a novel, poem, song, etc. Use all the CI techniques we have to teach the vocabulary and structure in the reading. Find resources that can help you do that: i.e. Movie talk, look and discuss images, story script, one word images etc. We can use anything that we have in the arsenal. After working with the vocabulary, we read the pre selected piece, perhaps in embedded fashion. We do some post reading work.

    Option II: Select a script, ask a story, type of reading: read: Find a video. Select some structures: do CI, type up reading based on video. Students read story. Find an image: Do some preliminary look and discuss. Introduce some structures. ask a story about image. type of reading: read. I guess it is like Laurie’s embedded readings. You can take a reading and build it up or you can take a reading and whittle it down. For me, building reading up is easier because I have more control.

    I am also trying to figure out what to do with a text that has so much vocabulary that I don’t care about. Do I teach that vocabulary? Do I gloss it? How important is that word really?

    A few of my fastest processing kids want me to give them more vocabulary: Maybe when I select a reading, I select the words that are necessary and work with those and then give out ones that are “impress me words” and those students can try to use them. I won’t work to get those acquired, but they have them and they can do what they want with them.

    Funny thing is that the kids do get more vocabulary because I go out of bounds too often, yet they don’t learn that vocabulary. Maybe they just want it because it will feel like that are learning more. More vocabulary even if not functional is more vocabulary, I guess.

  6. Jeff, to me Option 1 seems like what most would call Backward Planning. I’m not exactly clear on what you are saying in Option 2, but I think you are saying that you do the front-loading as Erin called it, and create the reading based on what was discussed. I think they’re both good options. At least you’re not doing grammar drills!

    As far as “fast-processors” wanting more vocab, I think it’s a perception of superiority with most kids. Or perhaps some weird sense of self-inflicted punishment (usually follows the former). If they’re really interested in expanding their vocab, give them something to read on their own. Shit, do you Latin Kings have that kind of stuff available to you? I didn’t think about that. I’d had a kid a novel at their level if they wanted me to teach them more stuff. Plus, we’re not just teaching vocab when we’re delivering CI, but all that other stuff that makes up appropriate L2 communication.

    Re the texts with the out-of-bounds vocab, I’d say don’t waste your time, or at least don’t make a habit of it. Most kids aren’t going to be acquiring much if they’re struggling with it. I’d recommend either finding something else to read that’s comprehensible, or creating your own readings. I don’t think I’ve had my first year kids (who only have 4 weeks left… block classes) read anything with me yet that I haven’t written specifically for them, or for a past first year class (even then I find that I need to edit because I’ve used enough different vocabulary in the past stories so as to make them less than 95% comprehensible).

    Off this topic but on the comprehensible text topic, my second year kids have their own novels that they read for about 25 minutes a couple times a week. Recently I had my kids count the number of words they knew out of a random 40 word passage. Should’ve been no more than 2 words they didn’t know. Perhaps no more than 3 or 4 is a more realistic limit considering the available novel options we have. I think I’ll do it again soon (they’re finishing novels about every 2-4 weeks), because this is a great way for kids to self-select reading at their level or to give it up when they realize it’s not at their level.

  7. Jeff you asked:

    …I am also trying to figure out what to do with a text that has so much vocabulary that I don’t care about. Do I teach that vocabulary? Do I gloss it?….

    Ostensibly you have chosen a text that is simple enough, one that has in it vocabulary that they know already. This is the same principle that operates in stories, where it is assumed that the students know/have been exposed to via massive repetitions of all the words in the script except the three new structures.

    (If that is true, we can use Matava/Tripp stories with ease, by the way. It is our job to never present a script that includes anything new but the targeted three structures. Those who complain that Matava/Tripp scripts are random do not appreciate that fact, do not plan accordingly. If they did that, if they chose scripts in which the only new words to their students are the target structures, they would see something about storytelling.)

    Jeff your Option A is my idea of CI. We build from a few structures into a story and into a reading. What I have learned from Diana Noonan recently is of concern – newer teachers feel the pain of doing those Three Steps in that order, and turn to a reading, and frontload (thank you for the distinction there, Erin), but they never present simple enough texts as explained above in the first paragraph, and hence run into problems, and Option B, if I read it right, becomes a failure.

    My own view is we need to stop with novels if they don’t know all the words. The entire last ten years has seen more and more teachers avoid the Option A of creating stories via the Three Steps. They fail to highlight the reading created from the story (Step 3). Doing that makes them perspire, and so they turn to novels. But because they didn’t do enough stories in advance to reading novels, their kids can’t read the novels. And the CI suffers and the grammar teachers down the hallway in their unfounded misunderstanding of what we do cackle from behind the clammy, flint-like doors of their classrooms, convinced that we don’t know what we are doing.

    On your point about vocabulary Jeff – when we give fast processors extra vocabulary, certain really bright kids will remember them. Very few. Good for them. Give those rare kids all the words they want. They will have a superficial relationship with those words only, and we do not do superficial.

    Those kids, even those smart kids, will misunderstand what it means to learn a language. Indeed, they will not have acquired those extra words because they didn’t hear them enough in meaningful context. The words will be like wet leaves stuck to the inside walls of their minds – they will fall off after a short time. Only through massive repetition can the leaves/words stick to the wall and therefore eventually become available to them in the form of output. Slow circled reps are the glue that keep the leaves/words attached to the growing language system.

    1. If I’m hearing correctly, what you’re saying is that reading should be a capstone to the process of creating stories and interesting things to discuss in the target language, not the drive behind what we discuss and create. Reading should serve, not control, the direction of how we spend time with students – especially novels need to serve and not control. Did I get it?

      1. This is how my class operates, because I am lucky enough to have the freedom to do so. I am sorry for those of you who are micro-managed so much that the art of teaching is stifled. I think I’d have a hard time doing it. You’re all better than I for being able to not only teach kids, but do all that junk on top of it!

        I’d like to share another Xmas script here, with the variables in caps. I’m embedding options for differentiation into the script, as I used different words for different levels. Sorry, this is an awfully sloppy script as written below with too many embedded notes. I just used it this week for the first time and it worked for me. If you want to avoid using “leaves behind”, you could easily do it. Substitute “the gift is not in the bag, it’s in the North Pole” [as in he left it behind] and “puts” the gift by the tree.

        writes OR asks for
        what [ex. what she asks for]
        leaves (behind) [“deja” in Spanish]
        (“bag” and “tree” will probably come up in the story also)

        DANIKA writes a list for Xmas. She write/asks for ONE thing/gift. (Somehow Santa gets the list, so go through that process… or just fast forward to him with the list.) Santa has what Danika wrote/asked for/wanted. So Santa goes to Danika’s house.

        Santa looks in his bag. Oh no! He left behind what Danika wrote/wanted/asked for. But Santa has something else. So he leaves a different thing/gift ON TOP OF the tree. (optional: Danika gets up and RUNS to the tree because she is very excited.) Danika opens the thing/gift/box/bag. Santa left her a [I pulled some weird prop(s) from my closet and put it/them in Santa’s bag, so the students didn’t really have control of the variable but it was novel nonetheless… it was yarn for one class, so Santa “left her Sminion hair”, and it was a little plastic turtle in another.] Santa didn’t leave Danika what she asked for, BUT SHE IS HAPPY or SO SHE IS NOT HAPPY with the thing/gift.

      2. Here’s what I’ve done with reading as it’s developing this school year:
        – 3 Steps from Establish Meaning to massive aural input to reading stuff created in class with the students (or sometimes written by me, but highly linked to previous class discussion).
        – In addition, about once a month or at most once every 2 weeks, we read a part of a book written by someone else as a capstone. First time we read a really beginning-level book in Chinese 1 (full of illustrations and big, big font) we made it a party day and kids brought food.

        So I am working backwards from novels, but I’m using them more as a break for me from needing to prepare more reading every so often, and a chance to view the same words and phrases in a new context for the students. I can see how it could dominate the direction of class if one lets it (and how that would hinder things) but I think having our own reading as the majority is going pretty well.

        1. What you say there Diane is exactly what I recommend for those who see this as a job and not as an all-consuming life experience. It’s the only way that makes sense to me. Unless we like to backward plan. Again, the key point in reading novels has been exposed – we read ultra simple novels as an adjunct to our auditory instruction in our CI classes.

          If we hand our students anything that cannot be processed effortlessly, then we are going against the effortless piece, which is the big piece of CI and yet a piece that many of us conveniently forget, perhaps because we can’t shake our own training in education, that it all has to be complicated.

          When are we going to get the relaxation piece in this work? We probably never will. We will always make it more complicated than it needs to be. Only our students who become language teachers will do it in the way we ourselves can’t, by totally relaxing and letting the language happen. We are more slaves to our own past training as teachers than we think. Bless our tired hearts.

  8. Jim I started using the term front loading years ago. For me, it simply meant targeting words in a text that I eventually wanted them to read. Jeff described it above. You have a novel, say, and you look at the chapter and you pick out words that you want the kids to know so that they can read it later and you use stories and CI and PQA and all that to get auditory reps so that when they encounter the text they can read it.

    In the old days we would just hand them a list of definitions – I did that a ton as an AP teacher with bright kids and they would just memorize the words and read the text but it all felt fake. Now we know that memorizing lists doesn’t work so we do auditory frontloading using CI strategies so that the kids can read the text without referring to a list of vocabulary. That is what I think frontloading is. So there is in my mind no difference between that and backward planning. And both terms make the targeted reading the driving force of the instruction.

    Now go back and read what Michael and Diane said. Both are saying that reading should emerge from and not drive instruction. I could never be in a situation where I had to take a text and backwards plan from it. And in DPS, I can’t tell you how much time we spent in the summer sitting around a table with ALL of Blaine’s and Carol’s novels in front of us trying to pull vocabulary out of it to make a list to backward plan from. It sucked, because there were and are always going to be TOO MANY WORDS to teach to set up full and effortless reading of the novel as per what David Sceggel said above.

    So where does that leave us? Speaking for myself, I fully support what Michaels says here, which is the opposite of backward planning and the only way I can teach, because if it is not organic and emergent as opposed to canned and prescriptive than I want no part of it. So what Michael said for me is the real deal and a rejection of backward planning:

    …I’m like Jeff. I have the hardest time backwards planning mainly because it takes so much time. Its just so much easier to just to teach to the script of the week. I feel its more effective and I don’t feel overwhelmed trying to make sure I cover every major structure in the text….

    Another point: when kids learn a language, do the people they hear speaking during the thousands for hours they do that – before speaking themselves – speak to them with some kind of final assessment in mind? That smacks of thematic units and organizing language for conscious analysis.

    In that sense, backward planning, at least as I see it myself, is just another excuse to mess with the natural and organic nature of language acquisition, to be in control. Either the deeper mind is in control of the process or it is not. When we control the vocabulary choices we go against what Krashen said about the process being natural. Which is it? What do we want to do? I know what I want to do and it isn’t backward planning.

    Erin addressed that. She faked it with LICT but who needs that hassle? Will our kids learn more language if we backward plan? I think not. I think they will learn less, because the natural mojo factor will be greatly reduced when we backward plan. That is why I only taught from Matava’s scripts. Jim came along and used that model and look at what he offered us. Leigh Anne uses nothing but those scripts. Don’t we want simpler lives re: planning?

    1. “the term front loading years ago. For me, it simply meant targeting words in a text that I eventually wanted them to read.”

      I am under the impression this is backward planning. I’m still not sure of the difference here between front-loading and backward planning.

      I think we do choose our vocab mindfully though Ben… we pick the high frequency words (versus the lower frequency stuff because we could use those since we know them but we figure out clever ways to say the same idea with a much simpler lexicon). I agree though, if we focus on the high-frequency stuff (the Super 7 or 12 verbs and the important function words and judiciously allowed nouns) we’ll be much calmer and we’ll go deeper and the leaves will stick so to speak (nice metaphor Ben!)

      1. My understanding is as follows:

        Backward Planning = choosing what needs to be taught in order to achieve the goal
        Front Loading = providing students with the vocabulary and understanding needed to perform the final task (e.g. read a novel)

        During Backward Planning for a reading, I may decide that a particular word is so transient and/or low frequency that I can safely gloss it and go on, so I will not Front Load it for students. High frequency words (either in the text or in general) will need to be Front Loaded so that students do not stumble over them in the reading, since they will be encountering them often.

        Most of the time teachers talk about front loading vocabulary, but sometimes we need to front load other understandings. When my AP student read Emil und die Detektive, for example, I front load the geography of the city of Berlin so that they know where Emil is during his adventure.

        1. Ok, so you front-load what you’ve backward planned for. I’ll just say I’m frontloading for eventual authentic communication in whatever form that may take (I know, I’m a lucky dog!)

      2. I agree that is backward planning. When I was using the term ‘front-loading’ earlier (not realizing that it was already an established term here), I meant the practice of targeting structures with super-high frequency (have/want/go/etc.) without a clear end goal of “Students will be able to read this novel/final text” in mind. Does that make sense?

        1. Yes, I like that definition of front loading – taking the most important verbs and loading up the front part of the bed of the CI truck with them so you make sure that the kids have them. Stack the low frequency verbs like chairs on top of the load and who cares if they fall off.

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