The Unit Planning Compass


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Teaching in an inquiry-based environment with conceptual teaching and learning practices in mind is a wonderful experience. Nothing empowers learners more than realizing they are handling relevant, real information, and knowledge. As for language teachers, this involvement and practice allows them to see that they are not solely language teachers, but teachers/educators who have all the information of the world at their disposal; instructors who hae the freedom to explore any area of knowledge that the theme they have chosen is connected to.

Planning MYP units has always being a big deal for me; essentially, because if I do not learn anything in the process of planning it and teaching it, I would not consider it to be a fertile unit. Learning conceptually clearly allow students to establish links between different areas of knowledge, and teaching in a conceptual manner definitely encourages teachers to access their strategy and experience (personal and collective) repertoire, and to identify possible opportunities to try something new. Thus, I like the messy thinking process of planning units, because once my ‘wandering and wondering’ around is over, I can choose what is best, I can filter and, hence, create a hierarchy.

I do not like teaching in a way that emulates how I learn. I like to see myself exposed, ready to learn something new if necessary, and that is why I do not think I have a formula for planning. Each new exploration demands a new method and approach for planning, and a different way of looking at things. However, there are patterns that I play with as if they were lego pieces.

Unlike intermediate or advanced language levels, beginning levels require more meticulous planning and scaffolding for students still need to learn and acquire many structures; in other words, this means that some of the great tasks one can plan might have limitations or have very high demands. If one decides to carry out a task that seems exciting and interesting, one might find that more time will be spent helping students engage with the task (assuming that it’s complex), and not becoming sensitized about the vocabulary needed to understand and produce ideas about the topic, which would automatically give them a sense of achievement. Therefore, one needs to find a balance between the complexity of tasks, the language targets, and the information from other subjects that will enrich the exploration, and turn the learning process into a meaningful journey.

One can start the exploration in their units by choosing the Key Concept (KC), Related Concepts (RC) and Global Context (GC) that resonate with the theme they are considering to teach. However, as stated above, many times this can result in many complex learning experinces that may not yield positive outcomes. One can also start the unit by looking at the language goals one has and the linguistic experiences one aims at achieving and then choose the KC, RC and GC that would best suit the purpose. So, for the purposes of this post, I will share my thinking process following a method in between both of the scenarios mentioned above.

For this post, I would like to focus on the early stages of language acquisition, as they are the phases at which it may be hard to believe that students handle big amounts of information. Definitely not. As a matter of fact, I firmly believe that it is conceptual learning environments what can empower students to accelerate language acquisition and consolidation more rapidly and mearningfully. So let me take what is many times the second topic in a foreign language-learning curriculum: school. [Clearly, the first one is always talking (and introducing) about oneself and others]

1As I throw myself into the planning, I like to ask myself:

  • What do I want students to say about my unit once it’s done? And how would I like them to speak about it?
  • How can connections to other subjects be made?

These two questions, for me, are essential, as they help me see the scope of my SoI; they help me measure if it’s doable, achievable, and if I can generate meaningful learning experiences.

4When I write the Statement of Inquiry (SoI), I try to use words that can help me and students unpack its meaning, and hence, establish a connection with language and several subjects.

Choice 1- using Communication as a KC
Teachers and students communicate and structure dialogue differently in school’s environments around the world.
Communicate- relates to KC also relates to GC.
Structure dialogue – related RC form and structure, slightly message.
School environment and nations – relates to GC.

Choice 2- using culture as a KC
Schools around the world have different systems and forms of communication between teachers and students, which depend on cultural values and beliefs.
Around the world- relates to GC.
Cultural values and beliefs- relates to KC.
Systems and forms- relates to RC.

2Once I write the SoI, I highlight the key words and I brainstorm on each first. I do this with students as well, and normally I make a mind map. This helps students visualize how the SoI will require them to utilize information and skills from other subjects.

At this point, I am ready to prepare what I am hoping students will know, understand and be able to do.


Once I know what I want students to know, understand and be able to do, I can consider the summative tasks that I would employ to assess students’ progress and understandings. Likewise, looking back at the SoI, visualizing the words in different colors, when I am brainstorming in my planning, allow me to think of activities that I can do to support the development of understandings, using the language targets I have considered. This is what will be included in LEARNING PROCESS.


The process of sequencing activities gives me an opportunity to determine and map the aspects of the SoI that I am covering. Likewise, this process gives me the opportunity to look at how flexible the learning scenarios are, in case I need to differentiate. Many times, observing how activities are connected as well as their specific featured (type of activity, conditions in which it will take place, materials needed, whether I will be able to use students’ outcomes later on, whether work in it will give room to establish connections) can give way to considering service-led tasks, and to store information that can be used as foundation and reference in the future.

It is also important to note that establishing the connections between the SoI and the summative tasks will now be easier to identify. Besides, one will also be able to see to what extend our scaffolding will truly prepare students for those tasks, while also evaluating the validity of those summative tasks for we will be able to measure the extent to which we have practiced certain skills, formats of work, and language items.

Regarding ATL- while one can target a set of specific approaches to learning for the unit, many times I like to look back at the learning experiences and identify truly authentics ATL practices that are occurring for, at times, the invisible aspects of the learning process cause other ATL experiences to become more evident and meaningful that those we consider at the beginning. Morever, since the MYP planner is also a documentation instrument and a reporistory of ideas that one will reflect upon, it is always a good idea to revisit our thinking process and expand the ATL spectrum.

After this journey, it is difficult to think that reflections will be brief. Anyoen who has worked with me knows that my reflections tend to be a bit lengthy. Yet, I value my planning and it is the journey I put myself and my students through what causes me to look back and evaluate every decision that I made, every adjustment that I attempted, and every student idea that I incorporated. Moreover, when I consider the possibility that a colleague of mine might teach the unit I planned sometime in the future, I try to provide as much information as possible, in order for those who consider my unit to decide what measures are to be taken, how they are to prepare themselves, and what modifications they are able to carry out for their creativity and teaching style will be clearly different to mine.

As I stated in my post ‘Fertile Units‘, this is the stuff that my intellectual sobremesa is made of.


About Rafael Angel

Concept-Based Curriculum and Instructor Independent Trainer. Concept-Based Foreign Language Curriculum and Instruction specialist. Teaching and Learning Director; lives for traveling, reading, learning and tasting new flavours; culture and art lover; passionate about cinema and music. IB MYP, DP Workshop Leader. Mexican YouTuber and Soundclouder.
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5 Responses to The Unit Planning Compass

  1. cjouffrey says:

    Great article, Rafael! Again, your knowledge and insights help so much with my own ‘clarifying’ of information on how to handle the PRESENT CHAPTERS!!!! Thank you!

  2. Rafael, once again you have provided poetic pedagogy. Thank you. I will share this with our MYP teachers.

  3. Casey Creel says:

    Hi Rafael, can you talk about unit planning across the MYP phases?
    By the way here are my thoughts on some of the challenges of implementing the phase system:

    • Rafael Angel says:

      Hi, Casey, thank you for sharing your reflection on the phase system. A lot of the ideas you share are experiences that I come across often, and that are usually solved or worked out when language teaching and learning is conducted as ONE continuum, rather than as an experience broken into 3 programs.
      I have witnessed success when, following the model I mentioned above, bridges in PYP are made by introducing a simplified version of the 4 MYP criteria in order to sensitize students to receiving performance-based feedback, and to begin coaching them to respond to feedback.
      We have found that when students learn to use task-specific rubrics, and we unpack the jargon (such as “recognize conventions”), students do use language at their level to address these matters. How have we managed to do so? Through modelling.
      I am happy to share some ideas on planning across phases with you, Casey. If I do write about it eventually, my opinion will be highly based on the context in which I am teaching at the moment, for context is such a crucial variable in this journey.

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