Building a compelling, comprehension-based curriculum is both a rewarding and a tremendous undertaking.
But the satisfaction of creating something tailor-made for your students is well worth the effort and is so much better than any of the cookie-cutter textbook options that are out there.
So if you're up to the challenge, here are the 5 steps I use to build a compelling CI curriculum.
1. Build Foundation
When building a comprehension-based curriculum, you will need to start with a solid foundation. Most commercially-made textbooks base their foundations on a specific grammar syllabus and thousands of thematic vocabulary words.
This methodology hasn't worked. Grammar rules and tons of low-frequency vocabulary frustrate students and slow their path to proficiency. Instead, I advocate for starting with a strong, core vocabulary that is not only high frequency but also gives the most bang for the buck.
Terry Waltz gave us the very first of this type of core vocabulary with her Super Verbs: there is, is, wants, has, likes, and goes. Not only are these verbs high frequency, but they go a long way in being able to express a wide variety of thoughts and ideas.
Mike Peto expanded this list with his Sweet 16*: leaves, does/makes, puts, can, gives, says, knows, returns, and sees. Again, not only are these among the top verbs in most languages, they are impactful.
Basing a curriculum on these verbs in a variety of tenses would give students the proficiency they need to be successful in a variety of situations and contexts.
On top of a language foundation, you'll also want to consider important culture to also include. When most people think of adding culture to a curriculum, they typically think of holidays and food, but I challenge you to think beyond these superficial cultural elements. You'll want to go deeper and truly examine a people's culture and what makes it rich and interesting.
*There are only 16 verbs in languages that differentiate between is and is located— Spanish and Mandarin being two examples.
2. Collect Activities
Activities are the core of any curriculum. We want enough activities to keep our students engaged with the language without having too many that make it unmanageable.
Typical comprehension-based activities include songs, conversations, story-asking, readings, story strips, movie talks, picture talks, write & discuss, among others.
The key is to come up with a typical lesson cycle that is your go-to and then spice it up with additional activities that may pair better with different lesson goals.
For me, my typical lesson cycle starts with conversations, moves to story-asking, and ends with extended readings. So I take my foundational core verbs and write conversation topics, story frames, and readings that include a variety of grammar while moving through my goals for the class.
I'll then choose songs that my students will enjoy. I do not choose songs to "teach" anything specific. I just want a catchy tune so that my kids will want to sing.
I use movie talks and picture talks to change things up. Again, I don't choose a video clip or a picture to teach a set of thematic vocabulary or a particular grammatical structure. I choose these solely for their high-interest factor for my students. As long as we're talking about them in the target language, students are acquiring language and there's no need to "target" anything specific with these.
I like to use story strips to review anything my students need to work on and I love write & discuss activities to summarize a chapter, review a story or a reading, or to practice writing as a group.
When choosing activities, keep it simple, find what works for you and your students, and keep it fun.
3. Write Story Frames & Readings
This is by far the most time-consuming step. You'll need to write a story frame and a reading for nearly every lesson you're planning on teaching for the school year.
To make this step easier, I highly suggest that write your story frames and readings as you go being only a week or two ahead of the game. This way you're not overwhelmed by the task and won't burn out so quickly.
Once you've gone through your first year using the curriculum, you'll have these already created and only need to make minor tweaks along the way.
When I set down to write a story frame, I start with which of the core, high-frequency, high-impact verbs I want to focus on. This can be anywhere from one to three verbs. If it's a particularly difficult verb or it's a verb that I've identified that my students are struggling with, I'll write my story frame focusing only on that one verb. Otherwise, I generally stick to three main focus verbs per story.
When I write my story frames, I use my simple framework as shown below:
I write one sentence for each part of the story frame. I introduce the character in the first sentence. I introduce the problem in the second sentence. In the third sentence, the character tries to solve their problem but fails and in the final sentence, the character tries to solve their problem and succeeds.
I want to keep it simple so that I can keep it in my head without using a detailed script. But, if you're more comfortable using a detailed script, then by all means, do so.
Remember, this is just a jumping off point. The story is co-created with your students. So if they have a better idea, then go with their idea and leave your frame behind, keeping in mind the general format that you want your story to follow:
character > problem > failure > success.
Once I've created my story frame for the lesson, I will then write an extended reading of at least 300 words and usually not more than 500 words. I like to have these readings already created for each lesson, but I will also write up the different class stories for additional practice.
When writing these readings, be sure to include culture and dialogue! Dialogue is key to showing students how verbs work and if you never include dialogue in your stories and readings, students will never see how verbs work and will never fully acquire the verbs beyond their meanings.
4. Create Assessments
After you have your lessons created, the next thing to tackle is assessments.
I create four types of assessments with any curricula that I create: listening comprehension, reading comprehension, writing, and speaking. I use these four main types of assessments because they will tell me how much and how well language has been acquired.
To create listening- and reading-comprehension assessments, I generally write new, previously unseen, or unheard stories using the same core verbs and vocabulary we have been working on. I want these to be fresh stories to really assess if they've acquired what we've been working on.
I will write comprehension questions in English to assess whether or not they understood the listening or reading prompts. This is important because it reduces any variables of why a student may have gotten a question incorrect to just one: they didn't understand the language. If the questions were also in the target language, I don't know if they didn't understand the prompt, the question, or both.
For writing and speaking assessments, I have them write or tell stories or engage in conversations using the focus structures.
I may have the prompt be pictures, a topic, a list of a few vocabulary items in English (to see if they know how to express those in the target language), or a "show me what you know" open-ended prompt.
Whichever prompt I choose to use, I will be able to tell the most about their level of acquisition through their speaking and writing assessments. I can see the level of communication, accuracy, and complexity that a student incorporates into their samples and that gives me a much better indication of their level of acquisition.
5. Add Novels
The last step in building an effective CI curriculum is finding novels that are at the students' ability, are of high interest, and that can deepen and enrich the curriculum.
I prefer to focus on stories that emphasize the culture from the inside rather than as an outsider looking in. This means I generally gravitate to those authors that are coming from and writing about a particular culture rather than an outsider's perspective of a different culture. I find if I use these authors and stories, my students get a better, non-stereotypic view of the culture and the people.
Following advice from Adriana Ramirez, I try to incorporate a holistic approach to teaching a novel. I look for music and art that comes from the same culture to enrich what we are reading. I write questions that will not only explore the novel, but also the culture and the ideas expressed in the novels. These will be a combination of simple, comprehension-based questions (who, what, when, where?) and questions that delve into the meaning of the novel.
Of course, all of these discussions are conducted in the target language.
So that's how I build a compelling CI curriculum for my students. What do you do to build your curricula? Please share in the comments! I would love to read what you may do that is the same or different.
And please download my "building curriculum" cheatsheet below for future quick reference!