Rethinking the role of the language textbook

This entry is part 8 of 48 in the series Teaching Transparently


This semester I am teaching the second semester, second year language class  for Spanish.  You know the class… the one that has all of the gnarly bits of grammar  that were left over from the first semester of the second year sequence.  The class where you will finally learn how to say “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”  but not without reviewing (over and over again) the grammar and structures and forms and conjugations from the PREVIOUS semester or semesters.

The students coming into the class have already purchased the textbook, or textbooks (because there were THREE different books for this class, vs one huge textbook, all of which together cost each student about $150).   Some of them may have already purchased access to the online components (videos, audio, more kill-and-drill exercises than you can shake an empanada at) The access to the online materials is good for three semesters.

I am expected to use the text, not because my department feels it is the best thing out there, but because we missed the window of opportunity to do anything different., and half the class bought the book for the first semester of the Intermediate sequence.  (I believe that window of opportunity was open somewhere around March.  In Ohio in March, it is really hard to think about anything other than “when will the winter END?!?!” … so  here we are.)

I am not here to lambaste the textbook, nor the textbook industry.  Lord knows I don’t want to write my own and I have tremendous respect for those who do.  But textbooks, and the way they are  structured, should not dictate the course’s or the students’ learning objectives.

The question is this: where do we want to end up at the end of this 16-week learning journey and how the heck are we going to get there?

As a way to organize my thoughts, I made a list of the chapter topics  and a list of the grammar points each of those chapters covers. This is what I came up with:



By the time we get to Chapter 12, it seems, there is nothing left to learn (!) What is more, the bulk of the semester seems to be about recycling and reusing knowledge acquired in previous semesters.   Not surprisingly, students often complain in this class about not being challenged and how “we did this last year” or “we know this already” and now I can see why… there is more recycling happening this semester than actual new material to be learned.

So why not be upfront about this with the class from the get-go?  Why not say: hey, look at this grid…here are the forms we have yet to learn, and here are the things we need to make sure we haven’t forgotten… but more important than that…(and here is where I move away from the textbook) here are some topics/themes that might be an interesting way to put those forms and functions into a useful context so we can use them to talk about things that matter, vs subjects the book hopes we care about.

There is this little event called a US Presidential election happening this fall and while I am teaching the class.  That most certainly could lend itself to some active uses of the Present, the Past and the Subjunctive (“I want to vote for a candidate who…”)  Some of the vocabulary that is (supposed to be covered) at the end of the semester should be incorporated sooner (the Hispanic Votes, issues involving Hispanics in the US, etc).  The issue of same sex marriage is showing up on ballots more and more…. what better way to incorporate vocabulary about gender, relationships than here?

My point is this: Rather than going through the text in a sequential fashion (Chapter 1 must precede 2 which is always before 3…), I am going to think about larger, overarching topics that can connect the content of the chapters  in more meaningful ways.  Let’s take some vocab from chapter x and chapter y  in order to talk or write about z.  Let’s use the topics from the end of the book at the beginning of the semester and tie it into something that is going on in the world… that sort of thing.

Speaking of making things meaningful: I am also going to ask the students to tell me what they might like to do /say /accomplish with vocabulary that touches on Art, Work, The Environment, etc.  How can this class make those topics more meaningful for them, and in turn for all of us as well?  How can the grammar we are learning and re-learning be used to do that?

The text  (and assorted ancillary materials) is as a resource….one of many resources, but not the only resource.  This is not an either or kinda thing. More than anything I want my students to see that their own interests (as well as current events) can be woven into a language classroom, and if need be the text can take a back seat for a while.  But it will be there…as a security blanket for some and a “justification for spending all this money” for others.

I welcome your thoughts and comments!

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Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Joseph Kautz · October 4, 2012 Reply

    I enjoy your reflections on teaching. It does seem strange that we would not explicitly state what we expect students to be able to do as a result of the work we assign. Until I gained more familiarity with OPI proficiency guidelines, I used to think that textbooks, by definition, were the work aid that made such expectations explicit. By introducing dimensions like text type, circumlocution strategies, and functional taxonomies into the syllabus, I think we provide a more “active” matrix in which to integrate lexical items, syntactic stems, etc.

    Other language programs could learn A LOT from ESL practitioners.

    I like the Stanford SpanLang website because it offers up a detailed picture of what is expected of students at each phase of instruction framed in ACTFL’s “modes of communication” model.

    There is a lot at stake, frankly. I think misconceptions about language learning not only hinder learning, they also feed the “Learn it in an Hour” software market threatening language programs everywhere. Thanks for the thought post.

  2. Midsemester meltdown · October 16, 2012 Reply

    […] is the very same class that I wrote about here.  Sure, I could have just done what has been done before and forced the students to pay $200+ the […]

  3. Barbara · October 16, 2012 Reply


    Apologies for the delay in my follow up comment. And thank you for the link to the work that Stanford’s Spanish Language department is doing. I am intrigued and will explore further.

    Indeed, we have a lot to learn from ESL practitioners and how they prepare their students for the language that awaits them just outside the classroom. I have also wondered if this kind of language teaching might be found in Community Colleges and places where students learn languages for very practical purposes. And if they don’t, I wonder if they also are having a hard time breaking free from the “you need a textbook to learn” mindset.

    I have a post in perpetual draft mode (it seems) about what you call the “Learn it in an hour” software market. Seriously now…why would someone assume you could learn a language in an hour…And why would they not assume the same, let’s say, for Chemistry or Calculus? Does anyone else see how erroneous this line of thinking might be? Not to mention how demeaning it is to those who DO know how hard it is, because they have out in the hard work and have done it…

    Keep the comments coming!


  4. #RAintheClassroom @ #ACTFL2015 | Language Lab Unleashed · November 17, 2015 Reply

    […] know: I am not here to bash textbook companies.  But as I have written before, they are problemmatic for numerous reasons. I continue to be worried about the image our texts portray of Hispanics and the hard work we need […]

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