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by Erica Fischer on Mar 19, 2014

Common Concerns For Non-Communication-Based Teachers and How to Help Overcome Them

Nihongo Desu Ka by mkhail, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  mkhail 

Traditionally, world language classrooms have relied heavily on textbooks to help teachers organize and share key concepts that are needed to communicate in the second language. With the dawn of the Information Age, language teachers have access to more valuable resources and authentic media than ever before. This, coupled with the recent trend towards proficiency-based language learning, has forced many traditional language teachers to reevaluate the importance of the textbook in language education.

During Thursday’s #langchat, teachers discussed how their colleagues are responding to the rising trend to move away from the textbook at towards more communication-based teaching. Over the course of the night, participants identified 7 major concerns that teacher express when faced with the concept of transitioning towards a more communicative teaching style. Fortunately, they also identified key solutions that will help teachers feel supported and give them confidence as they attempt to rely less on a textbook.

7 Communicative Solutions For Non-Communication-Based Teacher Concerns

1. Concern: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“I’ve been doing it this way for years. Why mess with something that is working?”

@SECottrell said, “Here’s the biggest one I hear: “This is the way I’ve always done it and it worked for me.”” Just because it has a marginal level of success doesn’t mean that it is working for every student. In fact, a non-communication-based approach has data to show that it is much less effective than communication-centered teaching strategies.

Response: Redefine what success looks like.

@alenord said, “We have to find a way to challenge their definition of what success is in their classroom. #langchat” In order to really overcome this obstacle, it is vital for teachers to understand what real success looks like. As @SECottrell suggested, you have to “challenge” this type of thinking, and place the measure of success in a more student-oriented perspective. She said, “Success for [the teacher] doesn’t mean success for all learners or even a majority.”

@SrtaJohnsonEBHS also suggested that you mention the motivation and engagement element of lessons as a large part of what a “successful” world language class entails. She said, “Even if the current strategy is moderately successful, don’t we want our students to be CRAZY successful? And maybe have fun?”

2. Concern: Too Much Extra Work

“I don’t have time or energy for that kind of outside-of-the-box teaching.”

For many teachers, especially new ones, a book is a safe, stable way to learn what you are supposed to be teaching. In addition, rising class sizes mean that there is less time to prepare. That makes a lot of teachers nervous to go “off-book” when they are already drowning in work. @alenord said, “The hardest part is getting teachers not teaching proficiency to step out of their comfort zone. They see it as more work!”

Response: There Are Always Teachers Willing to Help

Transitioning away from a textbook-based teaching style towards a more communicative one is not an easy process, that’s true. Still, there are many world language teachers who have made the journey and are willing to share their inside information with anyone who is interested in making the switch. @SenoraDiamond55 said that she felt teachers making this change need, “…Lots of support and collaboration, and always a willingness to share ideas (or work them out as a team) and materials.” And, as @connolly335 said, even with practice, support from colleagues and administrators and positive feedback from students, it still takes time to create a self-sustaining program. But, all the #langchat teachers agree that the rewards are worth the initial investment of time and energy.

In addition to having teacher support in the building, there are also many teachers online that are willing to share ideas and resources. Through communities like the #langchat PLN, blog networks or even conferences such as ACTFL, it is possible to find other teachers who are interested in moving towards a more dynamic teaching environment, with a minimized emphasis on the textbook. And, if you don’t have a lot of time, you can always find resources online. @MmeCarbonneau said, “Technology allows access to so much more richer content and resources than any textbook ever could.”

3. Concern: Using a textbook is the only way to assess progress.

“My students and I need the structure of the textbook to ensure that we are making progress.”

Again, for many novice teachers, it can be difficult to know whether the class is on the right course without the black-and-white structure that a book provides. In addition, a textbook often includes teaching supports that are scaffolded to ensure that students are learning the skills necessary to perform well on standardized tests. @SECottrell said, “My reality working with 5 teachers in 6 years is that some teachers drown without structure from textbook. What then?”

Response: Use the textbook, but as a supplement.

As @tmsaue1 so eloquently stated, “The textbook is not the enemy.” There is no inherent danger in using the textbook as a resource in a world language classroom. In fact, there are many #langchat teachers who use textbooks as jumping off points for thematic units, vocabulary groups and resource reserves. @srtajohnson13 said, “I still use it for vocab reference and borrow ideas from extension activities.” @SECottrell responded, “So resources CAN mean a curriculum and CAN mean no textbook at all and CAN mean a mix. The key is communication is the ultimate goal.”

Another key point to remember is that proficiency is the most valuable part of the world language classroom, not the textbook. The ultimate goal is for students to be able to communicate effectively in the target language. @crwmsteach said, “Structure is needed for organization. Whether you use a textbook or not, students need a goal and purpose for learning.”

4. Concern: This is the Best Way to Prepare Them For College

“This is the way they’ll be taught in college. If I do something different, they won’t be ready.”

A lot of teachers who are hesitant about moving away from the textbook mention that non-traditional methods of teaching language are not true preparation for college courses that will rely mainly on textbook learning. By delivering lessons directly from the textbook, often in a direct instruction or “lecture” style, they feel that they are preparing students for similar classrooms after high school. In addition, by offering only multiple-choice or essay assessments, they attempt to imitate a very traditional assessment style that they experienced in their own college classes.

Response: Communication is the Best Preparation

The best world language classes don’t simply prepare students for success in an academic setting, they prepare students to interact and have meaningful interactions with the world. @SECottrell said, “Most students who have proficiency can take a stupid multiple choice test any day. Teachers need to tell themselves their high school students do not need any more “practice” taking tests.”

In truth, the world language community is quickly moving away from sterile book-learning to a more dynamic and interactive learning arena where communication is the key goal. Already, many states have adopted or adapted the ACTFL proficiency goals as benchmarks for world language learning. In addition, college courses are reflecting this change, with more and more teachers focusing on communication skills and interaction rather than standardized quizzes taken directly from a textbook. @tmsaue1 said, “In all reality, colleges don’t want our low-proficiency students either. They want them ready for advanced level tasks.”

5. Concern: A Textbook is the Only Way to Keep Parents Involved

“Parents who don’t know the language need a textbook to help their students learn.”

Some teachers insist that parents can only really be involved when there is a textbook for them to follow along with. @mmedobreski said, “A concern I hear a lot is that parents don’t know how to help their child because they may not speak or know the language.” A textbook often offers opportunities for parents to quiz their children, or even participate in the language, as there are both English and second language translations in many textbooks.

Response: Interactive, Authentic Resources with Parents in Mind

There are many ways that parents can be involved with second language learning without having to resort to textbook-only lesson planning. Parents can view or listen to additional resources with their student, or even participate in an extracurricular language and culture event. In the past, #langchat teachers have also invited parents to participate in language projects, allowing them to learn along with their students through interactive projects.

6. Concern: The School or District is Forcing me to Teach a Textbook

“I want to have a more communicative classroom, but the school won’t let me.”

In some districts, common assessments or tracks make it difficult for teachers to go “off-book.” Because the whole school is learning the same thing at the same time, it can put a lot of pressure on teachers that want to include outside resources or be more flexible in their lesson planning.

Response: Inject Proficiency Activities

When it is impossible to avoid a heavy focus on a textbook, it is always possible to change the way you disseminate that information. @AmKay11 said, “Common assessment does not mean common way to get there!”

Many teachers expressed their use of activities like skits, music and projects as ways to add a layer of communication and proficiency to their classrooms. @SECottrell said, “Keep the bare bones that are required and flesh the text out a whole lot with communicative, proficiency-based tasks.”

At the same time, it never hurts to talk with the district or school administration about ways to make the required curriculum more flexible for everyone. You never know when they will re-evaluate the efficacy of the textbook and find that they’re behind the curve. @crwmsteach said, “Work with your department and district. Pick topics and ask for different approaches and all share approaches, strategies and tasks.”

7. Concern: Communication-Based Teaching Isn’t a Proven Method

“Communication-based teaching just isn’t as effective. Textbook teaching produces results.”

Some teachers believe that switching to a communication-based teaching style just isn’t worth the risk of producing potentially unprepared students. With a textbook guiding the learning process, students are able to meet local and state standards more easily, and with clear correlations to concepts that have been taught. In this way, textbooks might allow teachers to “teach to the test” better, and increase the overall scores on standardized tests.

Response: Don’t Convince, Deliver!

Overwhelmingly, #langchat teachers expressed the need to share their positive experiences of communicative teaching and show colleagues that it really does work.

@tmsaue1 said, “If we as a community can DELIVER a generation of highly proficient speakers, the argument will change. If you DELIVER, you also then have students and parents who will demand change. Think about the support that band teachers get. They have an army of supporters because they deliver results. We can’t just talk about communicative, we actually have to DELIVER students that are true intermediates after two years.”

@CoLeeSensei added, “And maybe, just maybe, your unconvinced colleagues will wonder why your classes are so ‘good’ at the TL.”

Ways to Help Colleagues Transition to a More Communicative Teaching Style

Have Positive Interactions. @SenoraDiamond55 said, “The key to communicative teach is collaboration–make sure all understand what communicative means and ALWAYS be willing to share!”
@crwmsteach said, “Pick a topic, and share planning and learning ideas. It’s less threatening than “you are wrong”.”

Be Patient. It takes a lot of faith and trust to completely change the style in which you teach, especially for those who have been doing it a long time. It is wise to be patient as teachers are branching out towards more communication in their classrooms. @CoLeeSensei said, “For most of us, it’s a very slow deliberate journey!”

Help Them Set Small Goals. @spanishplans said, “Start by Helping colleagues set communicative objectives for the unit. How will students achieve that objective?” @msfrenchteach said, “Yes, so overwhelming in the beginning. Small steps can be good all around. Perhaps more efficient, too.” @tmsaue1 said, “Don’t try to change all of your classes at once. Pick one class (ideally level 1), then add each year.”

Teach New Objectives. @SECottrell said, “Setting communicative objectives involves some training on what a communicative objective is.” @alenord said, “Biggest a-ha moment for me after my conversion was the idea of learning targets vs. teaching concepts. Makes so much sense!”

Share Resources and Tips. @tmsaue1 said, “That’s my third advice to teachers: you can’t do this alone. you have to find a partner, locally or online.” @srtajohnson13 said, “Develop curriculum, unit plans, lesson plans together.” @andrearoja said, “Write communicative I can statements for each unit. Share with your department.”

Lead By Example. One of the best ways to show colleagues how to be effective communicating teachers is by providing excellent proficiency-based classes. @CoLeeSensei said, “It comes down to sharing ‘HOW’ you do what you do to hopefully lead others to want to do what you do!” @AmKay11 said, “We should make those who don’t teach proficiency wonder what we are doing and want to do it too!”

Advocate for Commuication-Based Teaching Locally and Nationally. @crwmsteach said, “We also have to fight the reality of those communities who don’t value language communication. It requires 1-on-1 convincing.” @alenord added, “Which means we have to get more involved in our state organizations to get word out and support teachers!”

Avoid Condescension and Judgment. Making the transition from book learning to communication-based learning is a huge and daunting step. It is vital that teachers making transition feel as if they are being supported, not supplanted. @SECottrell said, “I like the emphasis on positive influence. Arguing and condescending isn’t going to get us anywhere.” @AmKay11 said, “We should be supportive of one another, not judgmental.”


Although there are benefits to using textbooks in the world language classroom, there is a growing shift towards communication-based teaching strategies that go beyond the book. In this era of transition, it is vital to meet the concerns of teachers who have been conditioned to rely solely on a textbook, and support them in their efforts to incorporate the vast resources that are now available for world language teachers.

Thank You

Thanks so much to @SECottrell for guiding this very enlightening discussion about how to support our colleagues in their transition to communication-based language instruction. There were many great comments that could not be included in this summary. For a complete transcript of the discussion, read all the side conversations you missed on the tweet archive.

If you have any ideas, comments or questions you’d like to bring to the #langchat community, don’t be afraid to share them. Send us your ideas for future #langchats so that we can make this discussion as inclusive and helpful as possible!

Additional Resources

2014 Resolutions #4: Take a step outside the textbook
PBL while Tied to the Textbook
It’s time for them to use their time
“How do you say __?” Extending beyond “the vocab list”
South Carolina Standard For World Language Proficiency
Continuing the “Vocabulary” Journey – A Quick Update
Story Dice
In Defense of Vocabulary Lists

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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