From Z to A: Backwards Mapping

Planning a unit is always challenging; meeting the academic needs of and engaging a diverse group of learners is no easy task. But this task is infinitely more difficult, nearly impossible, if the educator has no learning goal in mind. The learning objectives for a unit should be clearly defined  before the first class starts. Of course, how these objectives and goals are achieved should be adaptable and flexible, but the goal itself should remain consistent to ensure a high expectation and a supportive environment for students (Stokes, 2015). An educator should not only understand what they want their learners to achieve but they, just as importantly, must know how the learners will achieve it and have a means to measure the students’ growth in achieving the desired goal. The ultimate goal of a unit or lesson plan is to focus on what the students will do with the information once they have it. Or more plainly, how will students use what you have taught them inside and outside of the classroom? (McTigh, 2012). How will the learners engage the lesson’s content and objective is not an empty question.

Backwards mapping truly encapsulates these values around learning, lesson plans and student growth. Starting with the learning standard, where you want your students to end, and working back towards where your students are now, ensures that each and every step taken will focus on the end goal.

Currently, I teach an English conversation class with EFLs at the middle school level in South Korea. Due to the nature of my class, there are no externally imposed standards or objectives. I am given a textbook and asked to teach the dialogue section of each lesson. Outside of this, no expectations are placed on my lessons. I know what you are thinking: wow! Or maybe: wow… The first “wow” was basically a: “you are so lucky to have so much freedom to do anything you want.” The second “wow” was a: “how in the heck do they expect you to teach much of anything with no standards?” This has been difficult; I have found some innovative ways to work through the textbook and engage the students. My ultimate goal for students has been to provide opportunities that increase their confidence and ability to speak English in real-world situations. However, I must admit that without backwards mapping I have too often been caught up in my teaching actions rather than the processes that will most help my students engage material, learn and grow (Backward Design, 2013).

To demonstrate the backwards mapping process I will outline a unit for my second grade (15 year old) EFL students in our English conversation class. I will utilize a standard taken from the Common Core English Language Arts for 7th graders and adapt it to guide our movement through the the unit. I am conflicted in using this standard since it is not specific to EFLs, especially EFLs still working through the early stages of language acquisition. However, I do feel it is the most appropriate and adaptable of the Common core standards available.

The standard:

Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

At first glance this standard seem completely stale and detached from real-world English. It sounds purely academic. But this standard is extremely adaptable and, once unpacked, will offer my EFL students a chance to engage with each other which is the very essence of communication, the goal of our class. It also offers guidance in performance but leaves the content open for adaptation. This standard focuses on the skills and student learning not particular content, which is a huge benefit for the learning that takes place in my classroom since I must utilize a Korean English textbook. As you can imagine, it is especially difficult to adapt an American educational standard to a South Korean classroom for EFLs in the early language acquisition stages. There are educational, cultural and linguistic barriers. This is true in any English conversation class setting but using a Common Core standard that is this flexible and focused on skill building rather than content will provide my students the most opportunity to be creative and to use the communication skills in creative and adaptive ways.

To more clearly illustrate the standard above, the following subsets clarify what the students will be able to do if the standard is successfully met and the students have achieved proficiency:

Follow rules for collegial discussions, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.

Pose questions that elicit elaboration and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant observations and ideas that bring the discussion back on topic as needed.

Acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views.With this standard in mind, I will focus on 3 proficiencies. At the end of the unit the students will be able to:

1. Engage in activities with a single or multiple partners; they will follow rules in basic communication tasks and respond to each other in basic and complex ways.
2. Express their ideas or opinions clearly, respectfully and effectively.

3. Listen to and understand the ideas of others while, when warranted, modifying their own views.

These three proficiencies, guided by the standard, will guide my unit. All activities, assessments and content should scaffold towards full independence and comfort with completion of these tasks. My lessons are typically broken into two class periods per chapter. I only see my students weekly which makes planning in-depth lessons a bit difficult. But I have achieved a basic structure to lessons that has worked positively with the students.This is especially true since my class is EFLs of wildly mixed levels.

I usually begin each class period with an ice-breaker or warm-up that immediately introduces the content and attempts to activate student schema. We then move on to a quick (I always try to limit it to less than 8 minutes) of direct instruction to cover the day’s content. This is usually a grammar point of some sort and some accompanying vocabulary. There are some basic writing and speaking tasks that are covered in the text book that are then covered. Finally, I present the class with some sort of activity, task or game that attempts to get the class speaking and thinking creatively. My goal during this time is to get the class from rote use of language to more creative and real-world applications. It is during this time that I see the best space to adapt standard and focus on working on the proficiencies. The activities that I plan to use to have the EFL student work towards the proficiencies and standards are as follow:

1. People Bingo
The class will engage in a adapted form of people bingo. This activity is a one to one speaking process. The teacher will begin with a practice game to present how to play. The teacher will employ an I do, we do, you do model which has been used with great success in the past (Teaching Channel, n.d). The goal of this activity is to allow students to express their opinions via a dialogue to classmates and track others’ opinions or experiences on their bingo sheet in hopes of scoring a bingo. This activity is simple and the content is easily modified to meet any grammar point or dialogue used in the textbook. The important aspect of this activity is that the students are given opportunities to engage in conversation, track information and, with multiple rounds played, attempt to forecast the opinions of others. The students are also given ample room to modify the language and content as a class with the teacher from round to round which will assist with student engagement as the topics are directed by them.

2. Scattegories
The class will engage in a very simple but also easily modified game of scattegories. This is a listing game and at first glance it seems like it is only working on vocabulary. But this game, played in teams, asks them to forecast what the other teams might answer. This is because teams only receive a point for unique answers. An example might be, list 10 items you shop for, or list ten places you go on vacation. If multiple teams have the same answer, they erase the answer from their list and receive no points for that answer. Also, working in teams, of four students, allows for collaborative discussion about the topic and will help students modify their opinions of what should or should not be written on their list, based on the ideas of their teammates. It is also worth mentioning that this game is a whole lot of fun.

3. Picture Charades
One student will come to the front of the room and a picture will be displayed behind him or her. The goal of the this activity is to help the standing student guess the picture without using the blacklisted words on the board and without  using any body language. This game truly allows for students to use whatever language skills they have and participate in this game. Again, this activity is easily adapted to any content and allows access for EFLs at various language acquisition stages. I feel this game also strives to answer the essential question of “how can one express complex ideas using simple terms?” (McTigh, n.d).

All of these activities will help the students engage in conversation in various group sizes, with diverse partners and will push students to use language to communicate their own and reflect on others’ ideas and opinions.

The three assessment tools that I will use to measure these conversational goals are: a midterm test, a review lesson, and the in practice section of the textbook. I would also add that throughout these activities the participants are given team points to spend on incentives throughout the semester, so there is a bit of informal measurement taking place at all times. If the activities are engaged by the students their is an arc of growth that is working throughout the semester by the very nature of engaging in these lessons since they are constantly pushing the students to collaborate, think and communicate. But the midterm test will ultimately reflect if their language acquisition and communication skills have increased in their use and command of the English language. The review lesson is a reworking of different activities and contents that we have worked on throughout the semester, but the teacher asks the class to complete the tasks in small groups independently rather than as a class with the teacher guiding. This will test the student growth in the collaborative nature of the standard. It is also the ultimate step in the gradual release of responsibility model. Finally, the in practice section of the textbook is completed and then corrected by partners. This will help with the collaborative nature of communication but also push students to build on each others’ ideas and modify their views when appropriate.

Using backwards mapping is an innovative and powerful tool that will help teachers focus each and every activity, task, and structure to help students reach the growth they desire to see in their students.

Common Core Standards Initiative (2017). English Language Arts Standards: Speaking and Listening: Grade 7. Retrieved on January 19th, 2017 from

 Wiggins, Grant (2005). Understanding by Design. Retrieved on January 19th, 2017 from

McTighe, Jay (2012). Common Core Big Ideas 4: Map Backwards From Intended Results. Retrieved on January 20th, 2017 from:

The Glossary of Education Reform (n.d). Backward Design. Retrieved on January 19th, 2017 from:

McTighe, Jay (n.d) Essential Questions for World Languages. Retrieved on January 19th, 2017 from:

The Teaching Channel (n.d). Modeling Strategy: I Do, We Do, You Do. Retrieved on January 20th, 2017 from:

Stokes, Lori (2015). Creating a High Performance Learning Environment. Retrieved January 20th, 2017 from:


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