What’s the best thematic unit design to facilitate language acquisition and proficiency in CI teaching? If teaching with comprehensible input style and methods, how can you best organize materials to use the most language in your world language classroom? This class goes through the different options you have and how to decide what will work for your French lesson plans and all world language classes.
I am so excited to talk to you about your best thematic unit design for world language. These are five keys to more proficiency, more culture, and less planning in your units. It is an introductory overview of best practices for proficiency-oriented thematic unit design that will apply to all world languages.
This one is for those of us who have always struggled with our world language curriculums. You feel like there are a lot of things that you’re trying to make fit together in sort of a hodgepodge and your unit plan just doesn’t feel like it’s coming together.
It’s working against you instead of helping to make your journey to proficiency easier. That’s what we’re going to talk about here today. How a good unit plan can mean:
- less planning for you
- more proficiency for your students
- and better culture lessons.
How does good thematic unit design lead to less planning?
Because if you’re asking me to talk about thematic unit design, isn’t that more work? We’re going to talk about how it does lead to less planning. Then we’re going to talk about the five keys of your best unit ever. And then I’m going to give you the link to some ready-made unit templates if you’d rather just get started with your lessons. Let’s get into all the juicy pieces of world language thematic unit design.
The Struggle of World Language Teachers and Lesson Planning
Okay, so let’s talk about the first deal here. And that is how does unit structure save your planning? Why are we here? While I was student teaching, I didn’t realize this was abnormal until I talked to other teachers working with other subjects. I didn’t see a single cohesive curriculum while I was working through my student teaching. And that was in multiple different observations working in with my incredible student teacher, not even kidding you, incredible.
Every single teacher I was lucky enough to learn from in my area was trying to pull things together and make French lesson plans – that didn’t fit together – work. And I work with hundreds of teachers now through several different programs. And it’s still the number one complaint I get. “I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow.” “I feel like I’m building the plane while flying it.” A great deal of that has to do with not having enough French lesson plans, Spanish teacher resources or support to do what you are trying to do every day in the world language classroom. That’s hard. I’m 100% with you on that.
What Every CI Teacher Is Thinking
But a huge part of it too is that we as world language teachers systematically are lacking in curriculum development because we just don’t have the materials that we need.
I mean, for real – do you know any German teachers who actually have the lesson plans they need to teach every day? I don’t.
Here’s the number one thing that I think every teacher trying CI is wondering right now: So wait, I’m supposed to make this myself?
When? With what time, right?
When are you supposed to make time for curriculum development?
How am I supposed to focus on thematic unit design on top of everything else?
People have masters in this. It is a really specific, highly developed skill. So what’s going on? What’s happening here? What do we do about this lack of curriculum?
Well, there’s also the option where you can get a curriculum from an outside source. And there’s a lot of really good ones out there. But even if you have awesome French lesson plans, Spanish teacher resources or things that you are pulling to create your curriculum yourself, it’s not going to fit all the missing pieces that are currently going on in your classroom.
Every World Language Teacher Needs to Understand Unit Design
You need to understand the foundations and the fundamental pieces of a good unit. Why? Because when you are equipped with just the basics of thematic unit design, you can make every single resource work for you and still reach your goals. Even in my PD membership where they are showered with my French lesson plans and combine them with other resources from great sources, they still say this:
“I had to make this change from the Spanish culture project here and there.”
“This part of the French lesson plans didn’t quite work for my students.”
“That part of the German unit didn’t quite work for our schedule.”
Everybody says the same things even if they are working with high-quality stuff.
So there are two different camps on this.
How Thematic Unit Design Makes Lesson Planning Easier
Here’s what a good unit plan and even a simple understanding of thematic unit design can help you with.
- It makes sure that you’re only spending precious time and energy on what moves the needle in your class.
- It fills in the gaps that we just talked about when you have a conglomeration of all these different world language teacher resources that individually shine. But when you put them together, feels very disjointed.
- It gives you structure, especially when you’re new to the fluidity of CI classes.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard this before: The only reason that I use scripts is because I need that to feel like I know what I’m doing. That comes from a lot of different things. For people who are working with stories or do activities that require a great deal of speaking, this is common. When you are working with proficiency-oriented French lesson plans that are drenched in CI methods, it’s a lot of fluidity, flexibility, and back and forth with students. The whole idea is based on conversation and community.
Let’s Make Proficiency Easier to Achieve
There’s not a great deal of structure if you are new to how this works in a classroom. That is why many people will still put on a cozy blanket of legacy methods to comfort them from the shock of a very open-ended classroom structure.
What can you do instead of putting on a legacy methods blankie is you can have an amazing, hella awesome unit plan. This gives you that structure you crave instead of having to revert to methods that don’t work that well. Hello, thematic unit design!
Unit Design Saves You When You Don’t Have Time for Detailed French Lesson Plans
I would say for me, units help you sleep at night. Having a unit plan used to help me sleep at night because there’s that sinking feeling that you when you leave work on Wednesday, knowing that Thursday’s plan is not ready. And even if Thursday’s plan is ready, you know that next week is gonna look exactly like it did this week where you’re scrambling each day to make things work. And it’s not your fault. Let me reiterate that it’s not your fault. You have too much on your plate and not enough French lesson plans to get it done. Having this quality unit plan and these tips will help to alleviate that for you.
Better Culture Lessons with Intercultural Goals
It also, which is the goal for all world language teachers, is it moves the needle with our intercultural goals and leads to greater Spanish culture lessons (or any language). We’re gonna move today from abstract goals for I want my students to have a respect and deep understanding of the cultures that they interact with. That’s very abstract and you can’t measure that. But we’re gonna talk about today a way that you can incorporate a piece into your unit plans that does make it measurable, concrete, and specific, which means guess what? They’ll make progress on it.
Great Thematic Unit Design Centers Your Class Around Proficiency
And the last thing, which is the most important, is it centers your world language class around proficiency with a lot less work from you. So you’ll be working with skills and topics and moving forward with your class, even if you’re working with a fluid conversation mode each day. Still, it will push your students to new levels in a way that works with your flow, works with your teaching style, and with the French lesson plans (or Japanese, or Hebrew lessons) that you already have so that you don’t have to find new ones.
You’re gonna hear five ideas from me today and one of them is gonna jump out at you as, ooh, that’s something I can do tomorrow. That’s something I can work on next week, or that’s something that I can flag for May when my department sits down to talk about our curriculum plan for next year. I’m gonna pull up that exact topic and we’re gonna discuss it. That’s what I want you to think about.
And please let go of the idea that it needs to be perfect or that you need to work on all five. Two percent better every day over time leads to incredible results when you add it up, rather than 100% for the next week, and then it falls off.
Consistency is magic and it does the work for you.
What is Thematic Unit Design?
But first, what is thematic unit design? There are a couple different ways you can organize French lesson plans in world language. You can do skill-based units (which are awesome, but less common.) You can also organize content and Spanish lesson plans based on your assessment style. Most teachers in North America at least are using thematic unit design.
Thematic Unit Design: content, lesson plans, and functional chunks are all based on a certain conversational topic such as housechores, common afterschool activities, happiness, climate change, etc. The topics and skills taught vary on the performance indicators, but the communicative content is all based on a certain topic.
Elements of Thematic Unit Design
We’ll talk about each of these in more depth, but here are the essential pieces of a unit:
- Essential Question
- Enduring Understanding
- Performance Indicator
- Can-Do Statements
- Functional Chunks
- Vocabulary and content
- 5 Cs
- Planned lessons
- Planned summative assessements
- Planned formative assessments
I would like to ground our session today though, with this very important message, This is why I’m called to give this topic to you today. Because I do believe that when we all have quality curriculum, which is in part, us also having access to resources, but us taking a very critical look at all of the aspects of our curriculum, including representation, interculturality, proficiency, the skills in the Can-Do statements, the performance indicators, the enduring understandings.
Curriculum is the Structure of Your World Language Class
When we have critically examined all aspects of our teaching in our curriculum, best practice will be commonplace because the curriculum is the spine. It’s the structure of your whole class, and you won’t have to work so hard to make best practices happen every day.
The value of language and what we do in class will be crystal clear to everybody around us, because those gains that students are making will be easier, and you’ll be much more likely to see progress happen in class every day because it will just be easier to get them. And this is the point of today’s class, make the curriculum that you want easier to achieve. Boom, so let’s get into them.
Key #1: Cut
Five keys to your best world language unit ever, for thematic unit design. Number one, which is my favorite, and that’s why I’m starting with it because the thing that you hear is the thing that you’ll remember most, is cut, cut, cut. Okay, so let’s jump right into cut, cut, cut, my fave. This one is my absolute favorite, because this one alone will make your units so much better, and it’s also the easiest one for you to do. It is, it doesn’t feel easy, but it is.
Be Concise in Your Vocab Lists
The reason why is because it’s simple. If you do absolutely nothing else with your units, cut material, I mean everything. Cut the topics, cut the length of time that you’re going to be working on a specific topic. Cut all of your vocabulary and functional chunks, until it fits down into only the things that truly matter.
World Language Vocabulary Lesson Guidelines
To give you a guideline for how much you can take out, I would say it’s everything except the bare minimum of what students need to function that day in your French lesson plans. Because if you’re working in a proficiency-oriented environment, then 70% of what students here should be comprehensible, or things that they already know, that’s the guideline. And 10 new terms is the average learner’s limit in a session.
So that means because we don’t shelter grammar, we shelter vocabulary. If you are focusing on teaching vocabulary for this unit, then 10 new terms is the limit. And what I mean by session is that it’s not necessarily a lesson. It’s when your students have learned those 10 new terms and feel familiar with them, that’s when you can move to the next set of 10.
So it’s many people in TPRS stories. I’m not a TPRS person myself, ’cause I found it to be exhausting, and I never got training on it. But if you are, you know how powerful that practice is. Many people only use three to four new terms in a story, and there’s a reason for that, and there’s a reason why that practice works so well. So 10 new terms is the absolute max for a two- to three-day cycle of how often your learners see you.
The magic of proficiency lies in how naturally personalized and adaptable it is. The students naturally become the center of your French lesson plans.
So how does that work? Well, let’s make a mindset shift for cut, cut, cut. Instead of covering content, don’t cover content, let’s personalize content, and let’s equip students for exactly what they need to be able to do the skill that you’re looking for.
What I mean by that is instead of, we’re gonna use the example of meal times and breakfast, because breakfast is my favorite meal time!
If you’re talking about breakfast, instead of covering all of the different things that you could put on a breakfast table to say, like, I need to cover breakfast. They need to be ready for everything that might be on a test about breakfast.
Try this instead: Switch your mindset into saying, how can I equip students to talk about what they eat for breakfast?
Key #3 – Use Enduring Understandings for Rich Culture Lessons
Cultural gains, which is my slang for intercultural competency are not abstract. This is the main purpose of our classroom, so let’s remove any ambiguity from it. When the end of the unit comes, can you measure if the student has this understanding of the world? If the answer is no, then we need a tool to measure it and you have it, the enduring understandings. Are they still in their more limited worldview than before the unit happened?
If so, if they still have the same perspective as when you started the unit, then your unit didn’t achieve its goal. Or maybe your student, you know, didn’t do what they needed to do to learn that enduring understanding. There’s that too. But now you have a way to measure it like you should have everything.
This is a big topic, so I have a full guide for you on both essential questions and enduring understandings.
What to Include in Your Units and What to Cut
Let’s dive further into how you can use your units to equip your students. When you are deciding on what materials to keep and what to cut, that can be a hard task. Here is what I have for you to help you decide. When deciding what to include, ask yourself this critical question.
What do students need to…?
Ask this magical question and fill it in with a skill. Ideally, it will match a can-do statement. For our example of breakfast, I’m going to give you a couple of can-do statements and one of them will be, “I can understand when others describe their favorite breakfast.”
When you have that statement, you know, “Okay, what do students need to understand other people describing their favorite breakfast?” They’re going to need some basics from the breakfast vocabulary column, but they’re also going to need knowledge of what people usually eat for breakfast.
#4 – Use Can-Do Statements to Guide Unit Functional Chunks and Lessons
So there’s interculturality here because if you’re talking about that target culture, they’re going to need some knowledge about that. They’re also going to need the word favorite. They’re also going to need “my”. They’ll need some possessive language, and so on. That will fire off for you very specific answers. Instead of the question, what’s important to include about breakfast? The quality of your questions will determine the quality of your answers. So if you’re asking that question of, “What should we include in this unit about breakfast? What’s important?” It’s a very vague question, so it’s gonna give you very vague responses.
When the name of the game is cutting, to make sure it’s clear that your students have room to show off their brilliance in class, then we need to be very intentional about the questions that we’re asking about what goes into our units. Everything that dares to take up time and space in your classroom better be there for a reason. It better be taking up space, and it better be doing great things for your class. So make sure that it is there for a reason, in everything that you’re doing with students.
#5 – Use High-Frequency Verbs and Structures
Okay, are you ready for the next one? This one is fun. This is high-frequency everything because usually, we talk about high-frequency verbs, but we do expand into high-frequency everything. I’m talking about all of the beautiful conjunction words, all of the connector words, Let’s all read the top 100 words that your students need to know in the specific target language that they are studying. High-frequency everything! English teachers have been doing this for ages. Let’s start putting them into our French lesson plans and Spanish lesson plans!
High Frequency Words = Sight Words and More Reading Comprehension
It’s the same concept as sight words. For example, my seven-year-old is watching TV in the other room right now while I’m working. And he’s assigned sight words every single night to practice, to learn how to spell. Before he had all of the phonics capabilities to read, he was able to read a lot of stuff just based on the 150 high-frequency sight word list that he’s memorized. It’s an incredible credit to his teachers. But this is something that English teachers are doing already with our reading learners. So why can’t we jump on that train? Instead of themes being the top priority for your units, focus first on the top 100 most used terms in your language. This is very easy for you to find the researchers out there. It is ready for you.
I also have linked for you a place where if you want to get a more reliable list than just literally Google 100 high-frequency verbs and French 100 high-frequency words. Chinese, all of those, are readily available to you for free on the interwebs. But if you would like a more reliable list, I have linked for you here in this presentation books the high-frequency dictionaries of the top 5000 terms. And it is so useful to me. I do not plan a unit without it.
So here’s an example to drive this home for you. How many times does this happen to you? Because it used to happen to me a lot. There is a desk in the corner of this room. You say that as part of your whole spiel for the day. Your students somehow know the word desk and they somehow know the word corner, but they look at you like there is like this used to happen to me all the time before I started using proficiency-oriented methods. What does the phrase, “hay” mean? What does that mean? And I would look at them like, we’ve I’ve used this every sentence. What do you mean?
And it’s because even if I say it a lot, we’ve never actually talked about it. And when I started doing stories that changed. But I’ve never actually given them the toolkit because when you’re focused on doing thematic units, like school and lunch menus and my favorite things and all that stuff if you forget about this important thing, the actual fabric of language itself, you’re missing out on hugely empowering your students.
Instead of Teaching More Vocabulary – Do This
So think about this. Instead of teaching more vocabulary, like adding the word desk into your into your school unit – teach the fabric of language itself. When you have to make cuts, make sure that “the”, “there is” and “over there”, are part of what students master in your class. So I know it’s out there for others as well. Make sure that the fabric of language, like the word “donc” for French, “ya tu sabes” for Spanish, like those things like the little phrases that are actually in the top 100 things that your students need and will hear quite a lot. Teach the fabric of language itself so students can pick up the vocabulary themselves.
If they know the words “there is”, “in” and “a”, let’s pretend that we never even covered the word “desk” or “corner”. We never even covered it. There is a blank in the blank of this room. There is a blank in the blank of this room. And guess what? I’m going to use my teacher skills to point to the desk and then point to the corner and guess what? They’ll figure it out instantly. There is a desk in the corner of this room and they will know exactly what I’m talking about and how many other times will they hear the sentence? There is a blank in the blank of this room. They will use that sentence far more than the word desk or corner in their language journey.
Use Can-Do Statements to Switch from Scenarios to Language Goals
Okay, we’re on the last one. Y’all ready? This brings it all home. This is a good one. Switch from scenarios to language goals. What do I mean by that? Oh, it’s a good one and it’s probably your favorite because you probably know this one well. If you’re familiar with proficiency or maybe you’re starting down that journey, you may know these are can-do statements. Many times when we are sitting down to plan a unit, we are thinking about specific quote-unquote “scenarios” :
It’s time for us to talk about breakfast.
It’s time for us to talk about meals.
Let’s make sure that they know everything that they need to know for breakfast.
That leaves a lot of variables open and it’s going to make your unit planning a lot longer, a lot more stressful, and lack a lot of structure because now you’re thinking about, well, okay, meal times.
Is that at a restaurant?
Is that meal times at home?
Is that my breakfast?
Is that a typical breakfast?
Is that eating breakfast with others ordering fancy breakfast?
You get the gist. It’s too much!
Can do statement skills vs. scenarios
If you’re focusing and set on can-do statements and where you want your students to be on the proficiency spectrum, that hones in on everything that they need to achieve that skill, to master that language goal. Things like:
I can understand a local when they list their breakfast items and I can identify it as typical or atypical.
Boom, I know exactly what they need to do what type of lesson I need to show them, and even what I need to search on YouTube to talk about that type of lesson.
I can list what I usually eat for breakfast.
That can- and do statement is much easier to plan for.
I can describe the difference between my weekday and weekend breakfast.
Much easier to plan for. I can list what kids in my neighborhood often eat for breakfast. Way easier to plan for.
Resources for thematic units
Okay, are you ready? Yay, it’s resource time. These are what you’re about to see are a sample of what somebody requested in the practical proficiency network. In this network, you get to request resources and this came off of that request and then became a full-blown deal.
Ready-Made Unit Templates
So I’m excited to show this to you. If you’d rather have some done-for-you unit templates, look no further! I have Spanish and French in several levels. You can easily take out the Spanish and French and just use whatever target language you need to because most of this guide is in English and completely editable.
It has all of the things that I ask you to have as your five keys: enduring understandings, can-do statements, the works! They even have a loose lesson plan guide for you to follow.
The language functions and a nice suggested outline for maybe what are some things that you could do to make this happen in your class. So it gives you the guide here and the functional chunks.
The other way is the practical proficiency network. Come and join us if you wanna hang out with us all the time and do classes just like this. I have a full in-depth unit course and a curriculum workshop for my students in there. We get together often to talk about ideas and to make sure that nobody feels like they’re ever teaching on an island when it comes to proficiency.
Free French Lesson Plans
I also have here for you a bunch of free Spanish and French teacher resources to get you set up. There’s a lot of stuff on there, so check out that link.
Click on this for the DIY curriculum template if you’re looking for something to help set up your entire curriculum in a few hours instead of a few weeks. This will take you to more information about it.
You can download the map in advance and look at the blog post here to see what this is all about. But this is the whole framework for the practical proficiency network. This will help make proficiency work for you instead of working so hard for proficiency. Because proficiency, the way that it is set up should make your teaching experience more joyful.
World Language Teacher Toolkit
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.
In Conclusion & Thank You!
Thank you so much for being here with me and for hanging out for this crash course on thematic unit design. Please, please reach out. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
I would love to hear your thoughts on how this session was for you and your questions about thematic unit design.
Thanks y’all. I’m so grateful that you are here.
Rooting for you,