Backward Design: Bad For Languages

TLDR; Don’t use UbD, especially this next year. COVID-19 messed with everything, so keeping the same expectations is unreasonable. Let’s face it…there’s not going to be any miraculous “catch up,” nor should we expect that. Instead of guessing where students will be in the fall, and how far their proficiency might develop with all the disruptions, try Forward Procedure.

I began writing this post after seeing calls from a lot of language teachers seeking tech tools as answers…to all the wrong questions. Rather than trying to maintain what we’ve done, we’re gonna need to make considerable adjustments to our expectations. Curricular design is one of those.

Backward Design
Sure, it makes perfect sense. You start with the result you want for your students, then go backwards from there, planning learning experiences along the way. It’s been recognized as good teaching across all content areas for at least a decade, and has been around since the late 90s. This is “textbook” best practice. In fact, it’s literally a textbook…

The problem with Backward Design for languages, though, can be traced to how I first described it:

“You start with the result you want for your students…”

With learning, this is fine. We can establish criteria, and help students develop tools to meet that criteria. Acquisition isn’t so kind. The one guaranteed tool for acquisition is input. We can provide that input, make it comprehensible, and even establish an environment that maximizes it in a comfortable way, but our control pretty much stops there. At that point, all learners have an internal syllabus that takes over. When a learner’s internal syllabus shows itself to be slower than what we planned, the typical adjustment isn’t really an adjustment at all. Instead, it’s something of an intervention with the message that students need to “catch up,” or “put in additional time and effort,” when really, it’s the teacher who needs to take a look at their plan.

Assessment & Standards
When standards and assessments are thrown into the mix, Backward Design can be toxic, creating another sink or swim situation wrapped up in new packaging. For example, I know of at least one high school currently having students repeat their language classes because as a result of th pandemic, they won’t be able to reach the proficiency benchmarks established for that class. That’s just messed up. Granted, in theory, it’s a good idea to stop using grammar tests and instead focus on proficiency. However, in practice, some schools have redesigned their whole program only to arrive at a similar place. That is, those proficiency benchmarks are set without taking into account the internal syllabus, making them somewhat just as arbitrary as a grammar syllabus. Now, add the COVID closure months with inconsistent input, and that’s bad news bears.

In reality, one look at any language class shows that there’s a range of proficiency throughout, regardless of what it’s called, even if schools title their courses “Spanish – Novice,” or “French – Intermediate Low.” We can see that range everywhere. Furthermore, a common anecdote is that a particular student seems behind their peers, then suddenly makes a huge leap forward in proficiency—this—without any change from the teacher’s practice whatsoever! It just took that student longer. That’s the internal syllabus at play. Also, what are the effects of holding back that student, having to repeat a course? Surely, nothing positive. So let’s stop that kind of curricular planning of establishing proficiency benchmarks and working backwards. Here’s what Eric Herman had to say in 2017:

Before backward design, it was more likely a teacher was trying to cover the next page in the book. They were primarily responsible to the textbook. Backward design shifted the teacher’s focus to covering a list of goals (i.e., another type of covering). Now, a teacher was responsible to outcomes. This encourages a teacher to do things that are not optimal, but result in some short-term, non-transferable behavior, in order to prepare them for a test (e.g., practice speaking about daily routines in order to test them on their ability to talk about their daily routine). Both covering content and covering goals make a teacher responsible to the syllabus.”

So, Backward Design was one step in the right direction, but maybe an oblique step. It’s good that the grammar syllabus was given less attention in favor of goals. However, the problem is that these goals are just as susceptible to “covering,” and maybe fall into the Unit Test Mastery (UTM) trap. What’s an alternative? Forward Procedure.

Forward Procedure
This idea hasn’t caught on, probably because it’s too difficult to monetize, but it’s the next biggest game-changer for teachers of second language. There’s talk about “untextbooking,” which is almost getting there. However, it’s still possible to merely “cover” the same content and goals…just without a textbook. What difference is that, really? If content/goal, and even pacing remain the same, using a textbook or not isn’t what really matters. It’s the syllabus that does. For example, if you want to teach the ablative absolute, you might as well use a textbook, and/or textbook rules to do so. However, you can include the ablative absolute in any text when it simply makes sense to do so, tell students what it means in English, and then move on (i.e. students will acquire ablative absolute after exposure).

Granted, the “untextbooking” movement tends to be associated with more input and less grammar—definitely a good thing—but Forward Procedure would be the final step in following through that line of thinking. But what is Forward Procedure? Well, it’s actually a term coined by Eric Herman, and has roots in Central Design (Richards, 2013). If you’re interested, check that out. Otherwise, here’s Eric’s explanation:

“Forward procedure is process-oriented. It focuses on where students are. That doesn’t mean you can’t have tests, but those are not pre-determined. They are created in response to what has happened in class and tailored to where students are. If there had to be an element of “standardization” between sections, this would be to agree to use the same test format, but not the same content (e.g., sections hear a different story and do a timed rewrite). Rather than focus on something to cover, it focuses on giving students what they want and need in that moment to learn. It is the approach that makes a teacher most responsible to the learner. In a second language, communicative classroom, this is a much better fit. To quote Savignon (1976): “Above all, remember that for it to be real, communication must be a personalized, spontaneous event. It cannot be programmed – but you can make it happen” (p. 20).

So, we can establish an environment that encourages communication, which is why purpose is so important. Oh, and no need to create tests (i.e. more planning time!). Eric compares to Backward Design:

“Backward design is so often victim to ignoring a learning theory. It is susceptible to fallacious thinking that there is a one-to-one relationship between the ends and the means (e.g., the goal is to speak, so we plan speaking activities). Backward design can take into account learning
theory, but forward procedure makes that more likely and should be an omnipresent force. Backwards design would have a teacher spend a lot of time up front, lesson planning and designing the curriculum. You can end up with some fancy documents. But this is time away from focusing on those teacher skills necessary to make that curriculum happen. Forward procedure understands that what a teacher most needs to be successful is training in the moment-to-moment interaction with a class. Therefore, forward procedure is not only more student-centered, but also does more to support a teacher.”

There it is. A curricular focus on communicative purpose drives the interaction that students actually need. Finally, Eric continues this idea in Research Talks (p. 185-187), and gives a super practical outline of what that looks like:

“Therefore, the primary focus is on selecting activities and procedures that create optimal conditions and experiences for learners to acquire a second language. There would be plentiful opportunities for learners to influence the course content and pacing…curriculum design starts with procedures and goes forward from there. By doing so, it best enables teachers to start with where students are and choose procedures to give students what they want/need to move forward. I have a feeling that this is what good teachers of any subject matter have always done, but many have had to do it by ignoring the syllabus and tests.”

“In a forward procedure approach to curriculum design, the content on the syllabus emerges, reactive to student needs and interests. What to teach and when to teach it is not predetermined…A teacher may have a plan, but has to be able to adapt it. The syllabus that emerged from the previous year can serve as the tentative plan for the current year. The syllabus would then consist of a list of potential activities and loosely sequenced content. As an example, one way of structuring a syllabus is around a loose collection of stories and story-based activities. The content that makes up a communicative syllabus is not a list of words or rules, but rather, consists of personal information, stories, culture, subject matter, and/or universal themes such as fears, dreams, family and friends, accidents, etc. In fact, the ready-to-adapt syllabus could be a general blueprint for every level of the program. Then, the teacher modifies the activities and content to the interests and proficiency levels of the learners.”

Eric’s description of Forward Procedure can be seen in my Universal Language Curriculum (ULC), which you can check out if you want an even closer look, and a complete example for Latin.

What About Tiered Readings?
Good question. Top-down tiered readings with the goal of students reading an original work of Latin are just as susceptible to all the “covering” issues already mentioned. Besides, right now, the profession is struggling with this goal big time. Reading unadapted Latin went unquestioned for a long time. Now, it’s being called out as unrealistic, or just a goal that serves a very small select few. Practically speaking, all of the work preparing students to read unadapted Latin might even lack a communicative purpose altogether. In fact, it often does. When students can read a simplified text, what reason do they have for reading the same text at a higher level? There isn’t much, really. For example, I’ve read a few different adapted versions of Don Quixote in Spanish. I have no reason to read the original. This is personal, just like most decisions of what to read. So, it takes significant internal motivation for a learner to want to read unadapted Latin for its own sake. Compare this to being entertained, or learning something about the Romans using a level-appropriate text. The latter reaches more students. After all, what kind of community do you want?

Tiered-readings or no, teachers should learn to recognize when a topic has run its course (for that particular group that particular year), and then adjust, perhaps abandoning plans to read the unadapted text altogether. Using Forward Procedure not only is more reasonable, but is flexible enough in a way that will help avoid burnout, especially in what could be one of the craziest school years to come!

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