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Backward Design

Chris Lemon describes how students can benefit from teaching to the test

Comprehensible input. Movies. Language clubs. Guest speakers. Pirates. Conversations. Fly-swatter vocabulary matches. Video pen pals. Study abroad.

A language program can take many forms and have some—or none—of these. But how do you achieve one that is authentic, fun, and successful all at once? You use backward design to make your curriculum match your goals, and a reliable assessment to measure student success and adjust instruction.

Our goal: Seniors will earn the Ohio Seal of Biliteracy, i.e., perform at the intermediate high level in all domains.1 Research shows that most students need five years to achieve this goal, so we built an eighth-grade program. We redesigned our curriculum to move students from novice low to intermediate high with engaging topics along the way. We chose the AAPPL (ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages) because it is specific, reliable, accurate, cost-effective, and flexible. In the first two years, only a couple students scored intermediate high or better in all four areas to earn the Seal. Our students averaged intermediate high for listening but well below in the other areas. So, what did we do? We kept the language clubs, pirates, and fly-swatter games, but we added a new library and refocused our instruction and assessments on comprehension and production. We expanded our pen pal program, added more guest speakers, and got the attention of our community and administrators. We have been featured in the local newspaper twice to honor our Seal of Biliteracy recipients.

Last year, seven students scored intermediate high or better; this year, at least ten. By focusing on areas of weakness identified on the AAPPL score reports, last year we went above and beyond the national averages in all four communication skills, but especially in writing and speaking. The AAPPL includes technology, traditions, and family,2 so my students who are being “taught to the test” usually say my class is their most creative and interesting one. The variety of topics we now cover mean that I enjoy class more, too. We still teach grammar, but we focus on grammar in context. Our students have a solid view of their own progress, pride in what they can do, and a clear idea of where to go next. If you want to strengthen your program or design one from the ground up, maybe the AAPPL is the place to go next for you.

Wiggins, G. P. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.



Chris Lemon is a Spanish teacher and department chair at Northmont High School, Clayton, Ohio.

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