Welcome to the 1st of a 12-part series on crafting your world language curriculum for proficiency! In our 1st class, I’m diving in with live attendees into the 9 mistakes we most commonly make when creating a world language curriculum for middle school Spanish, high school French, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, German, and any other modern world language curriculum.
You can follow along with the recording of the live class below, or read and save the transcript below.
Free Curriculum Maps and Resources:
- To get the link to the free SC curriculum for all world language levels, click here.
- To get a free roadmap to proficiency for your world language class, click here.
- Click here to get a free editable world language curriculum map.
- To get more help with crafting your world language curriculum, check out these other posts:
- World Language Curriculum Design Tips
- French 1 Curriculum Map
- Spanish 1 Curriculum Map
- Can-Do Statements & How to Use Them
9 Common Mistakes in World Language Curriculum & What to Do Instead
I’ve seen a lot of different things in my experience as a high school world language teacher for Spanish and French but curriculum really became my jam. My first experience with curriculum was being a department of one. I started as a department of one and we had nothing. I had a 20-year-old textbook with pages coming out of the spines. And a few worksheets here and there.
My DIY Spanish 1 Curriculum
Those of you who are on my newsletter know the infamous butterfly story. That’s where that experience comes from. It was all conjugation life all day, every day. So I created my own world language curriculum for Spanish 1 and then later French 1 because my kids were not having it. And I knew that I would not have a good experience unless I did something about it.
It ended up working out really well. Except for that, I worked 70 hours a week, which was terrible. And then I worked at the district level when I moved schools. We had a district-wide curriculum that was transitioning to proficiency, like many people are right now. Everybody knows that proficiency is important, but we’re not really quite sure where to go, or exactly how to make it happen on a day to day basis in our classroom.
Free World Language Curriculum Map
When I worked at the state level, I was one of the consulting teachers for the French team. For the state of South Carolina with the first proficiency oriented instruction curriculum ever, it was really exciting. You can find it here – it’s free to the public and created by a team of SC teachers.
My Curriculum Experience in World Language
I worked on the state level with a large team of talented teachers and learned a lot about what a curriculum really should look like, especially in the whole span of the K-12 environment. Now I create curriculum full-time for my customers on teachers pay teachers and through my PD and resource membership. I also do curriculum consultations and audits to help people get where they would like to be on their proficiency journey. But my favorite? It’s teaching teachers how to create their own world language proficiency oriented curriculum. I think that the most useful skill that you can have as a Spanish teacher or French teacher is how to tweak your own world language curriculum without spending tons of time on it.
Your Most Timesaving World Language Teacher Skill
Because you get asked to do it all the time, you get asked to do it all the time as a world language teacher. So here is our first class out of many to come for our spring series on nine common world language mistakes that I see and what you can do instead. Because the beautiful thing about these mistakes is that surprise – everybody makes them! And you’re probably doing one of these right now. I know I have made all of them that I’m about to show you today. So less of the shame and more getting in the game! Once we identify the most common mistakes in world language curriculum, we can move on and do better. When you know better, you do better.
Here are some things that I want you to keep in mind:
This is a long game. It’s a really long game. You cannot have a beautifully shaped curriculum in one year. How do I know? I tried to do it so many times. And it’s not enough time.
How Long Does World Language Curriculum Take?
You need at least three to five years to see if your world language curriculum in a school setting is going to work for you. And especially if you have a team of teachers. Because curriculum takes a ton of time to outline or write! It takes a few years to refine as well. So you could maybe create it in a small amount of time. However, you can whip up a curriculum map in less than four hours when you start with some guidance. This is what I help the members of the Practical Proficiency Network do – get on the waitlist here.
Why is Curriculum Important?
Why curriculum? It’s one of three big stresses. In a World Language Teacher’s life in the land of COVID. These are the three things that people were really having pain points on in their classroom: engagement, relationships, and curriculum. Curriculum plays out as the daily stress of trying to pull together proficiency oriented lesson plans and not having the materials to do it.
Here’s why I think that curriculum is a smart investment in your precious time and energy.
Better Curriculum = More Time
This is not something that’s going to take a lot of your time. When you invest in the foundational decisions instead of day to day decisions, you rely on good quality systems instead of fleeting day to day motivation to keep things going in your class. Everything about teaching gets easier. The better my curriculum was, the better my teaching was, because I had more energy for daily details and interactions (the stuff that makes the day successful) when the curriculum was strong.
Investing in World Language Curriculum = More Energy for Teaching
Because the more energy I had to focus on the things that are hardest about teaching, managing a safe classroom environment, which means of course, that everybody’s needs are met, emotionally, physically, spiritually, all of the things. And especially in this new environment that we are in that you have so many other extra stresses on your plate.
In my last year of teaching, I was a department of one. And I had a lot of knowledge about how to create a curriculum. So I invested most of my time before my kids got into my classroom, working on curriculum and establishing classroom routines.
Also, I strongly argue that the reason you should put some time into focusing on curriculum is that curriculum lets you focus on what you’re here to do: teach! You’re here to teach. You’re not here to make daily decisions about what the content of your class should be, or how you should be assessing things.
When is the best time to work on your curriculum?
I teach about curriculum throughout the year, because I do think it’s important. And I also think that there are better things to do at certain times throughout the year. I was always a person who was revising my curriculum. However, I wouldn’t advise diving into and pulling apart your curriculum at all times of the year.
Right now, the time of this posting is Spring. For me, this was the time when my department would get together and we would start saying, okay, take notes on everything that’s going on. Start now with reflection. Where do you need to go? When you think about your curriculum, where are the biggest pain points for you?
You might notice a specific pain point – mine was speaking. When you’re especially pressed for time and energy, just notice where the hard spots are. Keep notes for now and make tiny changes as you go, when it makes sense. Then, you can look back at your notes in the thick of things. They will help you more accurately craft a proficiency oriented outline for next year. Because it’s a long game.
Next Steps for Curriculum Map Outline Work:
This helps keep you moving forward into next year and keeps you positive.
Here are some things that you can do:
Work with your current curriculum or your textbook format, whatever you’re working with, adapted to fit your needs throughout the year. If you can swing it, do staggered focus work throughout the year on PD days. Don’t fill it with things like reorganizing your supply closet, like I have done many times to avoid work, work on your curriculum, and stuff. Because what you can do is you can look at each unit, each unit map, and all the things all the assessment. You can do that now even! Take notes for what you want to do. And then when the new year rolls around, you’ll really have something beautiful. The best time to really dig in and sink your teeth into the curriculum is the end of the year.
The 9 Most Common Mistakes in World Language Curriculum
Curriculum Mistake #1:
Obsessing over Assessments
- Oh, it’s our favorite obsession – assessments. You know why? Because it’s easy to control. It’s easy to fix. It’s easy to talk about and it’s easy to standardize. But here’s why obsessing over assessments is not going to make your curriculum as strong as you think it is.
Do this instead:
- Obsess over instruction.
- Obsess over quality contact hours, How much interaction time do you actually have with your students right now in the target language? What can you do to increase it?
- Obsess over your lesson quality which is going to be dictated by your overall curriculum umbrella
- Obsess over resource quality and access to resources.
If you were like me, you would do an assessment maybe once a week or every two weeks in a block class for formative assessments. For example, quick speaking checks, and things like that. Maybe once every three or four weeks, a big assessment to check how students were doing. In a public school setting, it doesn’t happen often enough for it to be the be-all-end-all of your curriculum meetings. It doesn’t happen enough to truly indicate the success of your curriculum, What really reveals your curriculum is the enduring understandings that you have. Or the end goals that your students are going to come out of your unit: the vocabulary, the content, etc.
World Language Lesson Quality over Everything Else
And, most importantly, the lesson quality that gets you there every day. Here’s an example: say you have a goal to get healthy and lose some weight. Your “test” of losing weight is doing measurements and weighing yourself once a week. That’s your assessment. Sure, you can obsess over different ways to do that.
And different ways that get you the most accurate measurement, like maybe getting a new scale or maybe measuring different parts. But that’s not actually going to make you lose weight. What makes you lose weight is the stuff you do every day: the things that you eat, how much water you’re drinking, and your exercise. Your daily practice makes the difference far more than how you assess it, just like in teaching.
Daily Lessons are More Pressing than Assessment
The assessment of progress is still important – if it’s inaccurate, yikes! However, spending all of our precious energy and time refining something that’s already OK means that we miss out on what we really need to fix – daily stuff. If you obsess over system measurement, you’re missing the system itself.
Although assessment is important, it should only be the focus AFTER the daily pieces that are truly the mark of your successful curriculum. Not sure? Ask yourself: do I have enough materials to teach a mostly proficiency-oriented week, with a variety of interpretation and output opportunities, tons of input, engagement, and some authentic materials? That’s what should be our #1 focus before everything else.
Curriculum Mistake #2: Ignoring Culture Lessons
- Don’t put baby in the corner. Stop putting culture in the corner.
Culture is your content. Culture is your world language curriculum. Now before we go any further, let’s just say that this is the number one thing that I was guilty of. It’s really easy to do, because you get so focused on making sure that your students are able to produce language. Almost every world language teacher that I’ve ever talked to has this problem. There’s not enough culture in the curriculum, even though that’s what both you and your students are there for. How much sense does that make?
What happens so often is that your language output goals outweigh the so-called bonus material. There’s too much in your curriculum for what you want your students to be able to do. And you also often forget that the way to get there is not just through isolated, mini cuentas like little stories or whatever it might be, or speaking activities or speaking assessments. Culture is your content and can effectively be the vehicle for you to teach.
Example: How to Use Culture to Teach High Frequency Verbs
The way that I cheated and went around this is I started using songs to teach my high-frequency verbs in my French class. And it was the best move I ever made. Because I was using authentic texts. And all of the verbs were in the actual native speakers’ voice and they were also usually talking about something cool, current, interesting or controversial going on in the Francophone world. So it was a triple threat. And when I started using materials like that, I had to do a lot less work. And I stopped putting culture in the corner, which was also better.
Depends on Quality Resources
This depends highly on the quality of resources that you have available to you. So if this is something going on in your curriculum right now, brush it off, it’s okay. It has a lot to do with the materials available to you. And what’s in your textbook. Whether you’re using a textbook, your package curriculum, or what’s available at your school – this doesn’t have much to do with you. But it is something that we can all work on.
Let Students Fall in Love with World Language through Culture
Why did you choose to teach a language? Probably because you fell in love with the culture at some point. Probably because you fell in love with the language learning process at some point, and your students deserve the same experience. Culture is what makes people fall in love with languages. It’s what makes the work worth it. So don’t rob your students of that experience. I know it’s very much easier said than done. Because I’ve been there. Putting culture in the corner is really easy to do. Look for good resources. Ready for the next mistake in world language curriculum? This next mistake is the easiest one to fix. It’s a simple thing to switch and turn off in your classroom right now. And it’s the easiest pathway to 90% target language. So let’s get to it!
#3: Preparing Students for Future Communicative Tasks
Mistake number three is trying to prepare students for certain communicative tasks. What do I mean by that? Let’s say we need to prepare our high school students for going on a trip. So we need to make sure that they know how to ride a bus, to order in a restaurant, etc. Okay, that’s all valid if your students are traveling. But take a reality check right now.
If you live in America, and you’re teaching middle schoolers and high schoolers, the vast majority of them are not going to travel. I know – shed your bitter tears. It’s really sad. I know. I don’t like it either. But you know what they do have access to? A whole world of cultures right in their immediate environment, as well as, hello, your classroom!
Your Classroom is the Communicative Task
Your classroom is the communicative task. Everything about your classroom and your students’ lives should be expressed in the target language whenever possible. Ideally, 90%. Why are we constantly preparing students to communicate in the future when interesting stuff is happening to them right now? This is their life. This is their experience right now.
You can meet people from the target culture at any time if you want to set up authentic experiences too. But you’re missing the ever present opportunity to talk about students’ lives, their experiences, their opinions about what they’re experiencing right now. That is what makes class relevant and juicy and interesting. Help them experience life in your target language. It’s much more exciting.
#4: Constantly Changing the World Language Curriculum
Mistake number four is constantly changing the curriculum. Stop it. This happens to our language teachers all the time. And we’re so fatigued. We’re so over it. It. Dude, when I came to a meeting in my district to present the new state curriculum for South Carolina, people were not excited about it. They were so over it, even though that curriculum is beautiful. You know why? Because the curriculum had been changed four times in the past five years. How exhausting is that?
You don’t even have time for a good thing when it just keeps changing on you. And you know, as well as I do that, without anything to build on, you’re never going to get buy in for teachers, let alone students. So constantly changing the curriculum, even if your curriculum has flaws is a bad idea.
#5: Trying to Cover Everything About a Topic in Your Unit Design
Okay, so number five, trying to cover everything about a topic. This is really endemic to the world language community. But honestly, just teachers in general. When we’re teaching about clothing, our first instinct is to show students every possible piece of clothing that they could ever come across or need, or at the very least, the most common. However, students will only master about 10 words per lesson. And you still have to review and revise and recycle those terms a lot. So that’s vocab words and functional chunks. So this is the thing I want you to try instead.
Personalized Vocabulary Lists for World Language
What if you personalize your vocab list like crazy and go with the absolute basics to get them started? Ask them to personalize by what they wear every day. You can cut down a lot of your vocabulary list by doing this. Having too much inside of your unit map, your unit guide your vocabulary assessments, etc comes from this need to cover everything. It’s quite the opposite.
Organization, Scope and Sequence – Not Knowledge
We are not the keepers of information for our students anymore. And honestly, we never have been. Students don’t need us for information. They need us for sequence and organization. So release that from your repertoire. They don’t need you for words. They have word reference for that – they don’t need you to be a dictionary. Most likely they’re using Google Translate anyways, they don’t need you for that. What they need you for is how to use those words to talk about what they’re experiencing everyday, like what they’re wearing.
Be the Language Facilitator
What they need you for is ways to facilitate interesting and exciting ways to recycle the same 10 words so that they get it by the end of those three lessons that you’re working on so that you can move on to something else. Add in recycled terms and do more novels, if you can. Novels are really the secret to vocabulary acquisition. They’re amazing.
#6: Becoming an Accidental Tourist Teacher
Mistake number six. Becoming an accidental tourist teacher. Becoming an accidental tourist teacher looks like this. It’s when you are following the units of a textbook where you have surface-level culture that is represented from maybe different countries around the world. And you’re going to Morocco one month and then you’re going to Tunisia the next month and then. The month after that you’re going to look at a specific group. And maybe you’re even following like, the months of the calendar. Since it’s March, we’re going to do Women’s History Month. But here’s what can happen when you become a tourist teacher, and when also your students are becoming tourists.
Representation Matters All Year Long in Curriculum
If you’re only showing women’s history during March, it’s saying pretty loud and clear to all of the young women in your class that Francophone women are only important in March, or that they only really exist during this part of the year. And the same thing occurs during Black History Month, the same thing occurs during Asian History Month. And the same thing will also occur if you’re doing any type of surface level cultural experiences.
The Dangers of Surface Level Culture Lessons
For example, showing students maybe just what cafe culture is like in France, and going through monuments and things like that, when there’s so much more to France (and certainly not all of it is brochure worthy. France like every country on earth has shadowy parts of its history and current culture). Students know that that’s really surface level. That’s very whitewashed and very PC. What students want to experience at all age groups and at all levels is a profound, real, and relatable experience of the world.
Implications of Including Cultural Problems and Pain Points in Curriculum
This has very far reaching and profound implications for your students as humans, as well as your curriculum. It gives you a curriculum, all kinds of depth and interest. One of the easier stepping stones into this is simply acknowledging cultural problems and struggles without trying to solve them – just giving space for students to see and understand that all cultures, like their own, are complex and flawed. Your students want to have conversations about identity.
Justice, Culture, and Identity in World Language
You are teaching about cultures, which is far more than tea ceremonies and holidays. You are uniquely qualified as a world language teacher, to talk about things like social justice and cultural identity, no matter your own cultural identity. What do I mean by that, you don’t also have to be an expert on any of those things. What you have to do is be comfortable with being uncomfortable in providing your students some resources to generate the conversation themselves, and to help guide it, where it needs to go in a way that your students are learning how to think, not what to think. So representation should be your focus every day, for diverse perspectives, and communities and age groups, as well as cultural origins and perspectives.
It’s not just about making sure that different races and ethnicities and genders and sexual orientations are throughout your curriculum. It’s that and more. Far more than that, in that we need to broaden into every single way that a human can be expressed in this world is also seen in your classroom. Because you’re teaching a culture. You’re in an even more important position than I think, than other teachers are. Our class is about cultural tolerance and empathy. So why not take advantage of the unique skills that we have as teachers living in that world every day?
#7: Not Recycling Unit Content
Mistake number seven, I can’t help myself with this joke. But the “teach it and quit it” syndrome. This is when you are looking at content, and you. You teach it, and then it’s gone forever. You have a unit that’s all about transportation. And then those transportation things never come back. You have a unit that’s all about past tense. If you’re teaching Spanish 2, this happened to me every year, every curriculum that I ever taught. You’re doing past tense, and you do it for weeks. It’s grueling, and it’s awful, because that’s not at all how you should teach Spanish past tense. And then they never see it again. Then you somehow move on to prepositions. And somehow it just never comes back.
Recycle World Language Unit Content
So what to do instead? Recycle content. This also comes from the eternal problem of having too much content in your curriculum. If you have too much content in your curriculum, this will be a problem for you, you will teach it and quit it. So make sure that this is not a thing that happens for you. Allow students to reinforce important high frequency verbs in lots of different ways by constantly bringing back the content that you have already taught.
Creating Extra Summers
I mean, just think about what happens to students over the summer that’s happening to them all the time. If you have nine weeks between when you last taught this unit, when you last saw this unit, it’s intense. It will also happen if you over emphasize assessment because if you’re like me and you were in school at various points where you had to just get out those vocabulary quizzes. You’re teaching 40 or 50 words at a time and then they’re just gone. So here’s a way that you can get beyond this.
Ways to Recycle Unit Content
What if recycling content was required? At one school I worked at, we noticed we had large overemphasized vocab assessments all the time. What we did to combat it is, we decided, let’s make sure that recycling content is a required part of what we do. So in our curriculum design – this is how you can help with Mistake number seven – is we recycled certain terms that also were relevant to that unit. So for example, if we’re doing personal care, like morning routines and things like that, we recycled all the clothing vocabulary that we had already taught. And some things about, like where things are in your room for preposition so that all that stuff was coming back, and students would have to demonstrate that they still remembered how to do it.
Another way to avoid overcrowding in curriculums is going at your students’ pace + 10%. Push them maybe 10% faster than they would like to go. Because I don’t know about you, but high schoolers, like they’ll chill all day long. So go a little bit faster than they would like to go. And that will allow for really good ZPD. You’re pushing them a little bit, but you’re at a comfortable pace. This one is really easy to fall into.
#8: Teaching Content-Heavy Words
Mistake number eight is teaching and assessing content-heavy words. What do I mean by that? Content-heavy words are things like nouns. And sometimes adjectives that have a lot of meaning. They are easy to teach things like dog, purple, sweater, laptop, globe, backpack, hair. Those are all content heavy words, and novices love those. But think about what your students actually need to accomplish communicative tasks because it’s not just content words. What they really really need is the list of high-frequency verbs and they need them in all three tenses. They also need connector words: like, in, out, etc.
Teach High Frequency Verbs and Connector Words Instead
To get you started on this, I suggest that you consult the 100 most frequent words list and you can find this by typing in 100 high frequency words 100 high frequency words from any language, if you compare them, they’re almost the same. I know in French and Spanish, they’re almost the same. And in English, they’re pretty close too, but there might be some slight variations, but they’re almost the same, but something that you will find two for number nine. And the last one that we’ve got here is that your 100 high frequency words will also include various tenses.
High Frequency Verb Dictionaries
Here are some dictionaries to get you started. I don’t create any curriculum, unit, or lesson materials without them anymore. All links below are affiliate links, meaning I may earn a small commission at no cost to you if you choose to purchase.
German Frequency Dictionary* – affiliate
#9 : Basing a Curriculum Map on an Inaccurate, Linear View of Grammar
Mistake number nine, basing your curriculum map on an inaccurate, neat, linear view of grammar. This means you’ve got everything organized by Unit 1 – masculine and feminine. Excuse me, Chinese and Japanese teachers, but I’m going from my French and Spanish background here. We’re gonna teach masculine and feminine words. Okay, now that they’ve got that down, even though those are late acquired, by the way, we’re gonna move on to, okay, let’s teach present tense, we’re only going to teach regulars even though they don’t use them as much. The reason that verbs are irregular is because they’ve been used the most in speech and changed the most in speech.
Regular verbs are regular, because they’re not used as much linguistically. Some of your most important irregular verbs are irregular for a reason. Irregular verbs actually should be taught first. So then you go into Okay, well, we need to do past tense. Or you might wait to teach past tense even though it’s needed to communicate and can be deduced from context clues.
SLA Research on Orders of Acquisition
Unfortunately, linear views of grammar topics are all too common despite the abundant research out there in SLA that suggests otherwise. There have been lots of studies that show that people generally acquire certain linguistic forms in a certain order, so we should be following them. because it’s just gonna naturally work with your brain really well. And it has a lot to do with the frequency of how much those words are said.
For example, English language learners, both babies and second language learners, they’re going to pick up past tense phrases. Regular past tense phrases like the whole ‘Ed’ thing, like I picked up, they acquire that before they’ll acquire the word pick, and very last is third-person singular. “Picked up”, with an -ed ending, is more frequent in spoken English, and is consistently acquired before present tense 3rd person “she picks up/he picks up”. This is just one example from one language – look up the Brown study on Orders of Acquisition from the 70s for more information, or jump on the waitlist for the Practical Proficiency Network where we study SLA theory in depth and then translate it into meaningful and practical classroom methodology.
You can see from this example of “picked up” being acquired before “she picks up” that we do not acquire certain features of language in the present – regular – irregular – past tense – regular – irregular – future – subjunctive that textbooks and grammar syllabi often follow. We acquire what we use the most in language. So how can we account for this? Whenever possible, focus on mastering the forms that students will use the most. This has to do more with high-frequency verbs and meaning than it does covering the whole spectrum of time possibilities such as present/past/future.
How to Take Action in Your World Language Curriculum
If you’re not sure where to start, start with the highest frequency verbs in your language’s speech and de-emphasize the grammar units that won’t stick well anyways. Even a small change like shifting your assessment from asking students to produce subjunctive correctly to only recognizing/interpreting forms when they see subjunctive is a huge win, and a change in their favor.
Final Thoughts and World Language Curriculum Resources
In conclusion, crafting your world language curriculum is a long process that takes time, attention to detail, and reflection on current practice. You can certainly adjust and course correct in a few hours simply by revising your map, but doing a curriculum overhaul or writing curriculum on your own is no easy feat. I hope this guide supports you as you work through your world language curriculum and moves you closer to your proficiency goals. Looking for more help with curriculum? You might like these articles:
- World Language Curriculum Design Tips
- French 1 Curriculum Map
- Spanish 1 Curriculum Map
- Can-Do Statements & How to Use Them
Have you ever wished the transition to proficiency were easier to do? Grab the FREE toolkit here to learn the framework for updating your practice to comprehensible input – without all the overwhelm – and prepare for the challenges ahead.
Free Conference for World Language Teachers
If you’re ready to jump in and get started with proficiency and teaching with comprehensible input, I have another resource to help you on your journey below:
Sign Up for the Next Practical & Comprehensible Free Virtual Conference! Every year, I gather together the best and brightest in the field of world language to share with you how to switch to proficiency through comprehensible input. All with practical ideas that you can use tomorrow. It’s a FREE virtual conference – join the waitlist and find out more about the speakers here.
Sincerely rooting for you,