What a TEFL Course Won’t Tell You About Lesson Planning

Have you heard of backward mapping?

Of course if you’re a relatively new US certified teacher, you’ve heard and might be required to use backward mapping. But most English foreign language certification programs that I’ve previewed or attended do not cover this aspect of lesson planning.

Backward mapping starts with gathering country/city standards or the school’s standards of where they want their students to be in their language skills by the end of the year. Hopefully the standards would already be logically ordered from standards with easily acquired skills to longer-process skills.

Once these are gathered, a teacher will take a standard or two and use the standards to plan a lesson or a unit. This effectively gives teachers an end goal in mind. Planning a lesson or unit with a goal makes lessons logical. At the beginning of each lesson, teachers can even use these standards to let students know what they’ll be able to do by the end of the lesson. Lesson planning should be easier when using backward mapping and standards. Lesson planning based solely on a textbook or curriculum is disorganized and foundationless.

Once a standard is selected, unpacking the standard into bite-sized chunks is most effective. Not all standards can be taught with one lesson. Some lessons need an entire unit. The standard I’ve chosen would be taught as a unit first, but then the skills taught in the lesson would need to be used in all subsequent ELA units. While at school, ELA students will always be asked about characters, settings and major events in novels and stories once they know what these concepts are.

The standard I selected for example is a Common Core State Standard for Kindergarten.



With prompting and support, identify characters, settings, and major events in a story.

Unpacking the standard shows there are three main parts to this standard that support understanding the foundational elements of stories and narratives. More about unpacking a standard here.


With prompting and support, identify characters in a story.

With prompting and support, identify settings in a story.

With prompting and support, identify major events in a story.


From here we should look at what should students be able to do by the end of this unit. Notice that this standard points out students would need prompting and support from the teacher, so they aren’t expected to be able to independently elicit the three elements of characters, settings and major events.


Students Would Be Able To:

  1. Read or listen to an age appropriate story completely from start to finish. (Students cannot identify the above elements without being able to do this.)
  2. Through questions developed to lead students to the right answer, recall general details about the story. Teachers should affirm students when they are on the right track of answering correctly.
  3. Through support from the teacher, starting with major support and eventually minimizing the leading, students should recognize that people, animals or things that speak or act in a story are classified as characters.
  4. They should be able to distinguish between characters and objects of stories.
  5. Through major support and eventually minimizing the support from the teacher, students can point out the times (day, night, et.) and the locations of the story.
  6. Again, starting with major help and eventually minimizing the support from the teacher, students should be able to distinguish between minor events and major events to identify major events.


– Activities:

  • Character Imposters – Students could work together to make cup and construction paper figures of characters and objects in a story. Students could set up the figurines and then throw soft balls at the imposter characters (objects) to separate them from the right characters.
  • Timeline – Students could each be given different premade coloring worksheets that depict different scenes in a story. Students would color the worksheets and then put the sheets in order on a large construction paper roll or bulletin board. Together students would put pom-pom balls or glitter or other colorful borders around the main events of the story so they are distinguished from the other events in the story.
  • Reconstructed Settings – Students could reconstruct settings using other materials. For example, students would construct the three houses of the three little pigs for the story about “The Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs.” The three houses could be made out of yellow construction paper “straw,” brown construction paper “sticks,” and red construction paper “bricks.”


– Assessments

  • The skills learned in this unit would need to be used in all future units so students continue to have practice with the skills learned. One assessment that could be used in every subsequent unit would be a worksheet where students draw the characters and locational settings in the story.
  • Students could be given a pre-constructed order of events and students must circle which events are the most important.
  • Students could work on a project where they make portraits of each character and students must make up a sentence where characters argue they are the most important character of the story.
  • During the “Character Imposters” activity, the teacher should pay attention to if students are correctly knocking down the right imposters. Teachers should make the cups placed close enough so there is no room for error.

The benefit of backward mapping is that my activities only need to meet at least the standard. If my students aren’t able to tell which character is the most important – that’s OKAY. The focus of the standard is not that students can distinguish between static or dynamic characters, or a protagonist or foil character. They just simply need to know that the pigs and big bad wolf are all characters even though they’re not people. They also need to know the houses are not characters but are settings. They should also know that the houses being blown down are major events.

Backward mapping is a very useful tool that many ESL and TEFL teachers overseas just don’t know anything about. If you’re interested in backward mapping, here are more resources:

Greatest Lesson Learned

Backward Design

Common Core Big Idea 4: Map Backward From Intended Results

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