Foreign Language Textbooks (a crabby post)

Now that I have decided to actively make foreign language classes a space of relaxation and anti-tension, I have also decided to care about the textbook. I do not like foreign language textbooks because they are not in black and white. They are very busy, filled with all of these distracting boxes and drawings. I also dislike animation and video explanations of anything, and all of this makes me dislike almost every language textbook I see.

I know we should like communicative textbooks but this is a broad category. I also think I know what kind of communicative textbook I should like, but it is not the easiest to teach with. What should one like? Is communication and expression with somewhat weak accuracy enough? I know the answer is yes, but in this post I am giving myself the freedom to say no, for a few paragraphs.

As children we had the audio-lingual method. We got the direct method in high school and college, and the natural approach a little later on. In Latin we had grammar and translation. I was happy with all of these methods but I am most comfortable with what the classes I took in several languages did the most often: first read a text or see a piece of film that had some old and some new grammar and vocabulary in it, then define the words or associate them with their pictures, then work with the grammar in the foreign language, figuring out by context how it worked and what it meant, then get a more formal grammar explanation which in French was given in French and that is why my French got so good, so fast, then work with the grammar and vocabulary in a more advanced way, then read something more complex, then enter a conversation group about it, then write something, then give a presentation, then have a panel discussion relating it to the earlier reading.

When I became a professor, I was told that this had been old fashioned and destructive. Only people like me could learn that way. We must now be more communicative and do more work in groups, and I should not try to share my own ways of learning because they would not be applicable for most people.

In fact it seemed to me that the newer communicative methods had fewer communicative features than I was used to, less input from the target language, and also a tendency to present grammar as vocabulary almost, as a result of which students would learn structures but think they were only words, which is disempowering. It still seems to me that by not sharing my own language learning techniques I do the students a disservice.

Right now we have a textbook which is, thankfully, coherent. Very coherent and based on real research in second language acquisition. My subjective reason for voting for it was its size and margins — it has margins and a relatively calm layout, so I can look at it without getting the headache most textbooks give me.

But it is composed almost entirely of communicative activities, which work well for teaching if a group does them all together and in order. Yet we do not have time to do all, and the book does not work well as a reference book, and I can invent activities as good as these off the cuff myself, and the code is so heavy in the e-workbook that many cannot use said workbook with the ISPs they have, and its cultural content is incredibly weak … so although I recognize that this is a good book of its type I do not like it at all.

The last book I liked had content based instruction. I have always been slightly embarrassed not to like these ultra-communicative books, and I can say right now that my students do not get as much out of small group activities as the proponents of these claim. (But then, I have always done some group work.) I think also that I can say with confidence, for college I want more accuracy and different skills than the super-communicative books seem to encourage, and once again, much more depth in terms of cultural content than almost any textbook has.

What books do you like?

Axé.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Foreign Language Textbooks (a crabby post)

  1. Z

    Hoy no ha venido nadie, nadie responde (Vallejo)
    La coronela no tiene quien le escriba (GGM)

  2. Z

    And/but maybe I do like this kind of book. They train your brain to acquire language. But, you have to make students work with them and your staff has to be working with and not against them.

  3. I remember going through this. I needed some kind of structure for a class, but I could never find anything that really fit.

  4. Z

    I can totally handle any kind of book on my own but the bear is interfacing with faculty in multisection, multiterm courses. If you can’t all agree on an approach, you don’t have a program…

  5. hattie

    What a headache that must be. I can’t even imagine…

  6. Z

    Add to this that some people have agendas like: make it as easy as possible to grade, so they can teach as many sections as possible and make the most money possible, but they present this in terms of best teaching practices; others’ motivation is that they want to continue to teach as in 1960 so as not to have to change; others want to have their friends’ textbooks adopted and possibly get kickbacks, and a least get strokes; others seriously want to do as good a job as possible but also have other responsibilities and cannot spend 100% of their time on this issue; others need good teaching evaluations for tenure and their enemies are teaching the students that what they do is bad, so they are feeling very beleaguered. And then there is more. So the whole thing is extremely fraught.

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