In a Nutshell – Backward design

Welcome to the first post in the In a Nutshell series.

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In a nutshell, the backward design is a lesson planning method in which we focus on the lesson objectives first rather than on the language items that will be taught.

I have seen a lot of teachers in various settings who start their planning routine at, “what pages will I cover today?” or “which topic do I have to get through tomorrow?” In this traditional way of planning, ESL/EFL teachers may, for example, focus on teaching the present perfect in contrast to the simple past, or maybe, the structure of a 5-paragraph essay. Another example of this traditional planning is the teacher who focuses on covering one chapter of the coursebook on a certain day. That way, teachers teach a given content, students practice the new concepts, and then there are tests and exams to assess how much of that content students have learned.

Backward Design suggests something different. The initial question should be, “What do I want my students to be able to do?” From that, the teacher plans how the new skills will be assessed. Then the teacher plans what will be provided to the students so that they can develop those skills. For example, if I want my students to be able to introduce themselves in English, it can be assessed through a role-play activity for formative assessment. It can also be assessed through writing for summative assessment (students build a comic strip containing a dialogue, for example). Based on the chosen form of assessment, then it is time to identify the linguistic tools students will need to accomplish those tasks and how those tools will be taught. These are the key questions to be answered in this order:

  1. What do I want my students to be able to do?
  2. How will I assess the newly acquired skills?
  3. What linguistic tools they will need to accomplish that task?
  4. How will I teach that language, and how will the students practice it?

Backward design is not about teaching for the test. It IS teaching with an end goal in mind. Several years ago, when I was beginning my teaching career, my mentor teachers kept asking, “What is your aim?” The “aim” had to be clearly stated in my formal lesson plans so that I would not lose focus. Ask yourself, “What is the AIM of this lesson?” That is what backward design is really about.

The aim CANNOT look like the items below:

  • finish pages XYZ
  • Start the new unit
  • Teach question formation using _______
  • Practice irregular verbs
  • Read the text about _______
  • Write a paragraph about ________
  • Review _____ for the exam

The items above can appear in the assessment or in one of the steps of the lesson, but they are not appropriate as end goals.

Instead, the lesson objectives (with some additional suggestions for assessment) could look like these:

  • Students will learn about two diverging opinions on ________.
    • Assessment: students will create a compare-and-contrast chart to show their understanding of text 1 and text 2
  • Students will be able to tell or retell a short story.
    • Assessment: students will write a short composition about their last vacation trip.
    • Language: simple sentences in the simple past
  • Students will be able to critique an advertisement piece based on the images
    • Assessment: In small groups, students will discuss their opinion about advertisement pieces and will compile their discussion on a poster
  • Students will apply their knowledge of English grammar to review and edit an essay
    • Assessment: Graded editing stage of a process writing

Note that those objectives can be applied to various levels of language proficiency, and the assessment can be adjusted and differentiated to meet your students’ level. This differentiation is also part of the backward design. When I plan my lessons, I personally like to use Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs in the objective statements and on the assessment rubric. This way I know the levels of high order thinking required in the lesson. But, this is the topic of another post.

Dear teacher, I hope this post gives you some insight into what backward design is, and that it has some positive impact on the way you plan your lessons. Do you have any questions or comments about this concept? Send me a message!

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