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Backward Design


Backward design is one of the core practices for effective language instruction that relies on thinking purposefully about teaching and learning.

For language educators, backward design provides a road map as a framework for identifying where the learners are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there. Similar to a GPS navigation system, educators have flexibility in planning with students’ needs and interests in mind by considering multiple pathways for arriving at end goals.


Backward design begins with the learner and focuses on the real goals for learning a language: deeper cultural understanding, connections with multiple disciplines and building language proficiency. Through deliberate planning, educators guide learners to use the language to think critically, solve problems, and interact with one another and with the educator to meet desired unit goals.

Unlike backward design, traditional planning begins with the educator who selects a series of learning tasks and then evaluates the resulting learning. This is problematic because learning may be limited to memorizing vocabulary or grammatical structures with little focus on developing language proficiency or using language to explore engaging content.


Educators utilize key concepts of Backward Design as they:

  • Set proficiency targets for programs, levels, and instructional units.
  • Design assessments for each program, levels and instructional units.
  • Use the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements and/or ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines to inform unit outcomes.
  • Use the World-Readiness Standards to design and guide instruction.
  • Design instructional tasks that move students toward the learning target.
  • Embed the three modes of communication (Interpersonal, Interpretive, Presentational)
  • Communicate the targets and proficiency outcomes to students, parents, administrators, colleagues and others.
  • Guide students to set and self-assess their own learning goals.

Find Out More:

Abbott, M., & Swanson, P. (2016). Building Your Core - Effective Practices for Language Learners and Educators [Presentation]. Retrieved from

ACTFL, & NCSSFL. (2017). NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements. Retrieved from

Moeller, A. J., & Yu, F. (2015). NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements: An Effective Tool for Improving Language Learning Within and Outside the Classroom. Dimension, 50–69. Retrieved from

Shrum, J. L., & Glisan, E. W. (2015). Teacher’s handbook, contextualized language instruction (5th ed.). Boston, USA: Heinle, Cengage Learning.

Wiggins, G. (2014). Backward Design or Designing Assignments from Learning Objectives [Video]. Retrieved from

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

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