In my last post, I talked about my journey to understanding how language instruction fits into the Understanding by Design (UbD) world. I resisted, I doubted, I denied their relationship, but ultimately I discovered that they were soulmates, meant to be together. Now that I have embraced their union, it is time to look more closely at Stage 1 of the backward design process. This blog entry will focus on two parts of Stage 1, Essential Questions and Understandings, and how language teachers can begin to use UbD in their unit planning. Essential questions are the overarching questions that provoke thought and lead students to inquiry, meaning making and finally transfer, while understandings are the concepts and skills that students will use to be able to gain and draw inferences, make connections and apply the learning to new situations (Wiggins & McTighe, 2011). 

Even though we should be moving in the direction of teaching for the 5 C’s (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities) and for proficiency, some school divisions still use traditional themed units as a starting point. Don’t be discouraged — you can identify your big idea understanding from those traditional themes and generate a list of essential questions. For example, most level I language classes have a unit on “school” vocabulary. We teach the vocabulary for school supplies students use and for the classes they take, we teach students how to say the time in the target language so they can answer questions about their schedule, and we review how to describe their teachers and classes. Why do we teach our students these things? What is the purpose? If the end goal is transfer of knowledge and skills, memorizing a list of school supply words is not going to do it. To identify what I want my students to understand from a unit, beyond just the content, I consider the overarching goals of the 5 C’s. How does learning about school tie to those goals? 

The understanding behind a school unit may be: 

Students around the world share similar school experiences although differences may exist due to geography, resources, and/or culture (adapted from this curriculum framework). 

Consider the following Essential Questions: 

  • What is my school day like?
  • What do I need to be successful in school?
  • How do I prepare for a new school year? 
  • Does school look the same in every country? 
  • What geographical or cultural elements influence a student’s school day? 
  • How can we find out more information about each other? 
  • What is the best way to say what I need to say? 
  • How are we the same? How are we different? 

Some of the questions above are topical Essential Questions due to the nature of a themed unit. Topical questions can still be essential for understanding the core content that we are teaching. The last questions are more overarching Essential Questions that may be used in different units  (ex. describing people, expressing likes/dislikes, etc.) and move students toward more general, transferable understandings. While I would likely ask all of these questions throughout a school unit, I would focus on one or two guiding questions as our key questions. For my level I Spanish class, I would choose “How are we the same? How are we different?’ as a key Essential Question because it allows me to continually refer back to my understanding as we learn. Also, as forming questions is a transferable skill, “How can we find out more information about each other?” would be a second key Essential Question. 

Let’s look at another typical themed unit in most language classes, food. When we teach students about food in our target language, what do we want them to understand? What is our purpose? 

The understanding behind a food unit may be: 

Food and its related culture can give us insights into a culture’s identity, priorities, values, and needs.

Some Essential Questions for that unit may be: 

  • What are my food preferences? 
  • Why do I like or dislike certain foods? 
  • How do my food habits compare to those of my classmates and students in other countries? 
  • What do meals look like in other countries, and why?
  • What does good nutrition mean to me?
  • How does geography influence food options and choices?
  • How might context help me understand words I do not know? 
  • How do I tell others what I want or need?

In this unit, a guiding Essential Question would likely be “What do meals look like in other countries, and why?” or “How does geography influence food options and choices?” I would incorporate “How might context help me understand words I do not know?” as an additional key Essential Question as it helps students learn how to interpret things they don’t know in unfamiliar situations, supporting transfer of skills and knowledge!

If you are one of the school divisions that still uses traditional themed units, here are some general tips for writing Essential Questions: 

  • They should be open-ended. 
  • They should not have a final or “correct” answer.
  • They should stimulate thinking or raise additional questions.

After determining the Essential Questions and Understandings, the next step in Stage 1 is to address the knowledge and skills goals within the planned unit. My next blog post will discuss “unpacking” the World Language Standards to find the knowledge and skills students will need to master their learning. Until then, have fun “transferring” your traditional units into Essential Questions and Understandings! 


Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2011). The understanding by design guide to creating high-quality units. ASCD.  

5 Responses

  1. We are using the book from Santillana and have the 5 C included in every unit. The book is not very new but works well!

    • That is awesome! It makes it so much easier to plan using a textbook when the 5 Cs are referenced!

  2. If the goal is for the student to learn the TL, how do you incorporate the learning of the language with those merely cultural questions?

    • The next step in UbD is to consider the knowledge and skills that students would need to know to be able to meet the standards and answer your essential questions. For example, if I am working on the school unit and my essential questions are “How are we the same? How are we different?” students would need to know vocabulary for types of classes (knowledge) and how to say what class they have, when the class is, ask what classes someone else has, etc. (skills). Later, when I am planning assessments and learning activities, I would bring in the comparisons to other countries for practice. I hope that makes sense and helps a bit- my next post will be about unpacking standards and identifying knowledge and skills needed to meet standards, transfer goals, and essential questions! Please let me know if this raises more questions than it answers!

  3. Jillian, I am so excited about applying UbD to World Languages that I wrote a book about it! My background is in linguistics, so my essential questions address the language itself rather than cultural topics like food. The resulting book — “Bringing Linguistics into the Spanish Language Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide” (Routledge, 2021) — is specifically about Spanish, but the EQs can be applied to any language:

    1. How is the target language different from other languages?
    2. How is the target language similar to other languages?
    3. What are the roots of the target language?
    4. How does the target language vary?
    5. How do people learn and use the target language?

    As an example, the Spanish past tense relates to all five EQs. Compared to most other languages, Spanish actively uses a greater variety of constructions (conjugations and auxiliary structures) to talk about the past (Question 1). As in other languages, frequent verbs like ir and ser are the most likely to be irregular in the past tense as well as other tenses (Question 2). The roots of Spanish explain specific irregularities such as the identical preterite forms of ir and ser (Question 3). In Spain, speakers use the compound past (like “He hablado” [‘I have spoken’] ) in some contexts where Latin American speakers use the preterite (like “hablé” [‘I spoke’]) (Question 4). Finally, children’s errors as they learn the past tense, such as *saló instead of salió, resemble those of students learning Spanish as a second language (Question 5).

    Insights like these add intellectual interest to a language class because they connect the target language to other languages, to general linguistic principles, and to other fields, specifically, history, sociology, and psychology. Historical insights can in particular lead to major ‘ah ha’ moments when students understand that apparently arbitrary features of a language have a logical historical origin. For example, the preterite forms of “ir” and “ser”, such as “fui”, are different from other forms of these verbs because they come from a different verb root (a Proto-Indo-European word meaning ‘to become’).

    My book gives specific techniques for incorporating linguistic insights into classroom instruction and take-home projects, and includes a set of 300 PowerPoint slides that can be use in the classroom. The slides are also available for free (no purchase required) on the book’s Routledge webpage.

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