As a new Spanish teacher focused on providing comprehensible input to my students, I always found planning for the year to be one of the most difficult parts of my job. My first year of teaching was a real struggle, as I was expected to teach Spanish and French to grades 7 though 12. As if this wasn’t enough of a struggle on its own, I was just starting to learn about a new teaching method too. TPRS, or Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, was never mentioned in my University classes, so everything I knew about it I learned from following various blogs and asking lots of questions on the moreTPRS listserve.
Although I was very interested in the TPRS method and wanted to implement it in my classes, it is and was a difficult method to use without any formal training. If possible, I really recommend that teachers just learning about it attend a major conference like NTPRS or iFLT before fully committing to using it in all their classes.
My first year was a bit of a mess, but I quickly learned that part of the problem was that I didn’t have an overarching plan for the year. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted my students to be able to do by the end of the year and I didn’t even know how to plan that far in advance. We just kind of jumped from story to story. And although I was able to find lots of material to work with, I remember lots of students asking me why we were doing silly stories and what the point of it all was. I didn’t really have a good answer for them, which always bothered me. Although I always tried to focus on teaching them high-frequency words in the target language, some of the stories I chose to use often had some really random words in them. Since I didn’t have the training I needed, I didn’t know how to fix this problem.
The solution was presented to me when I found out about backwards planning! I initially read about it a several years ago when I came across a blog post written by Carrie Toth in 2012 about her UbD Bullfighting Unit.
This, combined with a later post by Martina Bex in 2016 on how she develops her curriculum, gave me a way to backwards plan with a goal in mind – that my students would be able to read a specific novel.
I have moved schools, and I teach Spanish at a middle school now, so I have to make four different curriculum plans for students in grades 5 though 8. They start taking Spanish in grade 4, but by the time they get to me, they really only know how to introduce themselves, and they have basic vocabulary in the typical areas of colours, numbers and animals.
When planning, I now start by choosing a level-appropriate novel that I want each grade level to be able to read by the end of the year. Over the past couple of years I have refined my novel choices to narrow it down to the very best, most interesting novels that are at the right level for my students. There are lots of good novels out there though, so it is definitely hard to choose just one per grade level! Next year we will be reading the following novels:
- Grade 5 – El capibara con botas by Mira Canion
- Grade 6 – Brandon Brown quiere un perro by Carol Gaab
- Grade 7 – El Ekeko: Un misterio boliviano by Katie Baker
- Grade 8 – Esperanza by Carol Gaab
Once I have selected the novels, I start the planning process by reading through the novel and making notes on the structures that appear repeatedly in the story. From this list, I narrow it down further to structures that are actually important for students to know based on their frequency in the language. A good resource to help you determine which words are more frequent in your language is a frequency dictionary, like those published by Routledge. They exist in just about every language and you can purchase them easily from Amazon by clicking on the appropriate language: Spanish, French, German, Russian, Japanese, and Mandarin.
Next I start grouping my chosen structures together in sets of 3 or 4 by thinking about which ones could be best used together in a story. Sometimes a story idea jumps out at me, and other times I read through various story scripts that I have collected over the years to see if I can use one of them as-is or adapt it to use slightly different structures. Some of my favourite story script resources include:
- Martina Bex’s storytelling units – Spanish I and Spanish II
- Anne Matava’s story scripts – Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, and Story Scripts For Houdini
- Jim Tripp’s story scripts – Tripp’s Scripts
- Scott Benedict’s Immediate Immersion curricula – Spanish I and Spanish II
Once I have chosen the units or story scripts that I plan to use or adapt, it is time to add in some more vocabulary. I use the following categories: Thematic, TPR, Cognates, and Other. Under the ‘Thematic’ category, I include words from the curriculum that I am required to teach according to the Alberta Program of Studies. However, I only select and use the most important words from each theme. The ‘TPR’ category includes the action words that I know I can teach through Total Physical Response and ‘Cognates’ includes the words that share similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation in both languages. Any other important words or structures (often prepositions or adverbial phrases) get categorized under ‘Other’.
With a detailed year plan, I can finally start planning each individual storytelling unit. Martina Bex inspired me to create units based around stories with her own storytelling units. I liked how she includes culture, MovieTalks, activities, and more in her units, so now I do the same!
I write or adapt the story script first, and try to include as much of the vocabulary from each category as I can. Then I start thinking about resources that I can use for the unit. I try to include a song or MovieTalk whenever I can find one that relates to the structures, and sometimes I will create an Embedded Reading as well. I love it when I can include culture in the unit too, although it is sometimes hard to find something that can use the structures from the unit in a natural-sounding way. Finally I plan a reading activity or two and an assessment for the end of the unit. My assessments are divided into four categories: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Usually each unit will have a reading assessment and/or a listening assessment, but I only do one writing and speaking assessment per term due to the sheer number of students I teach (about 270 students). The idea is that these end-of-term assessments cover the storytelling units we have completed during the term.
That’s it! This is quite a long process, but you can make it easier on yourself by creating the year plan and then planning the storytelling units as the year progresses.
Do you use novels to backwards plan your year? Feel free to brag about your success or ask any questions you might have in the comments!