Using the Textbook as a Doorstop

When parents come to hear about my class at Open House in September, one of the things I always tell them is not to be too concerned if their precious child doesn’t bring their second language textbook home too often. “In my class, the textbook is more of a guide book than a road map,” I tell them. What that means is that I use the textbook sparingly, and usually only if I can use it as a way to create comprehensible input in the classroom. The rest of the time when I am not using the textbook I am doing comprehensible input (CI) activities such as free voluntary reading, movie talks, and class stories.

The reason why I shy away from using the textbook is because every one I’ve ever used in the twenty-two years I’ve been teaching has been designed to teach language explicitly instead of helping students acquire language implicitly. A typical chapter will have introductory vocabulary, often  presented with a video and/or audio component, followed by activities to reinforce those words. Then grammatical concepts are presented with activities to reinforce them, and then the chapter ends with readings using the grammar concepts and vocabulary presented in the chapter. A cultural topic is usually introduced as well, usually revolving around a certain country where the target language is spoken (at least, that’s how it is for Spanish textbooks. For French textbooks, it’s almost always all France or Quebec until third year).

All textbooks come with ancillary activities in a workbook, but usually the majority of exercises in the book do not focus on meaning. Students can complete many of those activities without having to understand the sentences’ message. Moreover, many of the workbook exercises do not require students to do any original work, which means it is easy for students to complete workbook exercises dishonestly.

Then at the end of the chapter students take a test on material in the chapter. Most of the time, students just need to memorize words and grammar rules for the test. On tests, students are tested on their explicit knowledge, showing that they can name objects pictured on the page or conjugate verbs to complete a sentence. But then once the test is over, most students will forget at least 75% of what they were tested on.

When I taught with a textbook, I was continuously unhappy with it. Sometimes the stuff that I was supposed to teach was really, really boring. It was also really frustrating to teach a grammar rule, have the kids practice it, have them all take a test where they applied the rule correctly, but then completely forget that rule a week later. Now that I know more about second language acquisition (SLA), it is obvious to me why that would happen (according to SLA theory, explicit information never becomes implicit knowledge), but at the time I was very frustrated and blamed it on my students’ lack of effort.

Since I’ve ditched the textbook and have started teaching with CI, most of my frustrations have disappeared. It is nice to be able to teach vocabulary that is not grouped by theme. It is also good to let grammar instruction take a back seat to the message I am trying to convey and to let students acquire language more naturally. It has done wonders for my morale and I think my students are happier too as a result.

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