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Unit plans: Scaffolding linguistic and content goals in EFL teacher professional development
by Tziona Levi and Judy Kemp

Tziona Levi: Tel-Aviv University & Head of English Studies, Administration for R&D and Training, ORT Network, Israel Judy Kemp: Counselor, Access project, ORT Technological High School Network, Israel.


This item describes the process by which teacher unit plans are conceptualized and formulated in a community of EFL teachers working in Arab Israeli high-schools in the ORT Israel Educational Network. While students are preparing for their matriculation exams, teachers are engaged in a framework of professional development.

The design of unit plans incorporates two guiding theories: Backward Design as portrayed by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) and classroom assessment within the larger frame of performance assessment. These theories are implemented by combining content and linguistic strategies selected by teachers. The Advance Unit Organizer planning tool (AUO) integrates the three interlinked aspects of teaching -planning, actual teaching and assessment - into one single process. It presents a graphic demonstration of the instruction goals, classroom activities and assessment tools required for a complete unit of performance-based instruction. Streamlining planning, assessment, and teaching into one process is known as Backward Design (Gordon, et. al, 2002; Wiggins and McTighe, 1999).

School-based assessment is viewed as an integral part of the teaching-learning process (Carless, 2007; Davison and Hamp-Lyons, 2007). It has the potential of promoting learning through assessment by integrating elements of assessment tasks as learning tasks; learner involvement in assessment as peer- or self-evaluators and the use of feedback. Learning and assessment are integrated with the performance-based approach to education by enabling students to use their knowledge and apply skills in realistic situations. Students demonstrate specific skills and competencies by performing or producing and assessing both product and process to provide an accurate profile of a their language ability (Brindley, 2001; Curriculum Development Institute, 2005; Winograd, & Perkins, 1995)

In designing unit plans with an AUO, teachers are required to target a performance-based task by identifying the goals students are expected to reach in the teaching unit, set tasks that will demonstrate which language knowledge and skills have been developed and determine criteria for successful task mastery, all to be determined at the beginning of the planning process. The AUO illustrates how each of the teaching goals is assessed in the unit. In addition, teachers develop a multifaceted view of what comprises mature understanding of the learning material (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005).

Teachers in the project were from the Arab sector in Israel and included experienced, veteran educators, some of whom function as staff coordinators, as well as young, inexperienced teachers. They were taking part in a program sponsored by the American State Department known as the Access program. Program goals include the design of study plans dealing with themes of shared citizenship, civil rights, non-violent resistance, Black-American history and Women's Rights and attainment of a high-quality matriculation certificate. Another very important goal is improving the use of computer skills. The teachers took part in a teacher training course for three years, part of which was devoted to learning new theories and part to implementation of these theories in unit plans reflecting their professional development and empowerment as teachers.

At the beginning of the process, the teachers expressed strong reservations as to the need to change their teaching practices from "teaching the course book" to planning a unit holistically and in advance. To diminish the fear of change, teachers were exposed to AUO models they used in their classes to practice Backward Design. They were also introduced to a booklet of materials selected as the basic textbook. Since the booklet was not specifically geared for Foreign Language students, it was necessary to adapt it to students' linguistic needs. The teachers were then asked to plan a mini-unit selecting their own goals, (i.e., Benchmarks in a certain Domain) and identifying the necessary steps to reach these goals (prerequisite skills and assessment tools) by designing a performance-based task. These mini-unit drafts were sent to the group's Internet forum for discussion and feedback by peers and counselor.

The teachers gradually realized the distinction between content and language goals and the need of students to practice both. For example, vocabulary relating to the content had to be taught as well as grammar and reading skills related to the language goals. The need for continual reentry of these enabling skills became obvious. Teachers learned not only to introduce new language skills and reading strategies, but also to practice them on more than one occasion, choosing appropriate texts to practice the same skills over and over again, turning the mini-units into a rich plan of instruction. This was made easier by sharing materials among the teachers on the Internet forum and at the workshops, thus forming a teacher community. Since the units mainly dealt with accessing information from written texts, (one of the main demands of the Israeli matriculation exam), it became apparent that the exploration of what it means to comprehend a text was critical. At this stage Wiggins and McTighe's (1999) concept of the Six Facets of Understanding was introduced. Teachers were required to modify their units by including questions on the different texts that incorporated these facets. The in-service course required teachers to present their units on a virtual forum in order to receive feedback from peers and counselor and modify their units accordingly. They taught the units in their classes, adding their reflections on their students' responses and cooperation. In addition, teachers taught each others' units to expand the range of language topics and content, related to the Access program themes.

The unit plans are the outcome of the above scaffolding process displaying the teachers' deep understanding of the theories lying behind the design of these units. The following are sample units.


Brindley, G. (2001). Outcomes-based assessment in practices: some examples and emerging insights. Language Testing. 18 (4) 393-407

Carless, D., (2007) Learning-oriented assessment: conceptual basis and practical implications. Innovations in Education and Teaching International (44, 1), 57-66.

Curriculum Development Institute (2005). Task-based assessment for English language learning at secondary level. Hong Kong: Curriculum Development Institute. Free download, retrieved Oct 17, 2005, from the World Wide Web: Retrieved February 1st, 2009.

Davison, C (2006).Views from the chalkface: School-based assessment in Hong Kong. Language Assessment Quarterly, 3(4).

Davison, C & Hamp-Lyons, L. (2007). You mean we are the assessors now? Changing ESL teacher assessment practices in Hong Long secondary schools. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 20pp.

Gordon, C., J. Kemp, T. Levi & D. Toperoff,. (2002). Assessment Guidelines for the English Curriculum. Jerusalem, Israel: Ministry of Education. Access and Shared Citizenship, Merchavim, the institute for the advancement of shared citizenship in Israel, 2007. Pilot version

Spolsky B., Ben Meir, D., Inbar, O., Orland, L., Steiner, J., & Vermel, J. (2001).English Curriculum for all grades: Principles and Standards for Learning English as a Foreign Language. Jerusalem, Israel: Ministry of Education.

Wiggins, G. and J. McTighe. (1999). The understanding by design handbook. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Wiggins, G. and J. McTighe. (2005). The understanding by design handbook. Expanded 2nd. Edition. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Winograd, P. and F. D. Perkins. (1995). Authentic assessment in the classroom: principles and practices. In A handbook for student performance assessment in an era of restructuring, edited by R. E. Blum and J. A. Arter. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Appendix 1:
Advance Organizer for Unit Planning
Backward Design

Unit ________________Theme ____________________ Source______________

Targeted Domain(s)Targeted Benchmark(s) Performance Task(s) Assessment Tool(s)
1. Access to Information


Prerequisites of knowledge (Enabling Skills) for Benchmark 1

ObjectivesActivities Assessment Tools

Appendix 2:

The national English Curriculum for Israeli schools (2001), which is based on the assumption that English is solidly entrenched in Israel as, the 'first foreign language' (English Curriculum, 2001:1), and that more and more students are exposed to extensive contact with English before beginning formal instruction. Any simple listing of items, structures, or skills would therefore, be arbitrary and over-rigid for the language needs of students with prior exposure to the language. With these considerations in mind, the new curriculum proposes a new classification of language ability and knowledge. This classification departs from the previous classifications of language instruction in terms of separate competencies in the four language skills and in terms of a sequential list of grammatical structures (The English Curriculum, 1988). Instead, it emphasizes the acquisition of four inter-related communicative domains of language: social interaction, access to information, presentation and appreciation of language and literature, each of which integrates all four language skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) in light of the purpose and function of the particular communicative act. "The four domains are viewed as a tapestry of interwoven areas of language learning; that is the four domains are inter-related and do not operate in isolation" (English curriculum 2001:2).

In addition, the curriculum is defined as standard-based, and as such it sets overall standards and benchmarks for each domain, establishing levels of progression and criteria for assessing language at three levels of performance. It also incorporates a set of principles that focus on what constitutes effective language learning, language teaching, and choice of materials, topics, tasks and assessment.

Appendix 3: 'Understanding Understanding'
a multifaceted view of what makes up a mature understanding was developed by Wiggins and McTigh comprising a six-sided view of the concept. True understanding may include the ability to

  • explain: provide thorough, supported, and justifiable account of phenomena, facts and data.

  • interpret: tell meaningful stories, offer apt translations; provide a revealing historical or personal dimension to ideas and events; make it personal or accessible through images, anecdotes, analogies and models.

  • apply: effectively use and adapt what we know in diverse contexts.

  • have perspectives: see and hear points of view through critical eyes and ears; see the big picture.

  • empathize: find value in what others might find odd, alien, or implausible; perceive sensitivity on the basis of prior direct experience.

  • have self-knowledge: perceive the personal style, prejudices, projections, and habits of mind that both shape and impede our own understanding; we are aware of what we do not understand and why understanding is so hard.

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