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by Erica Fischer on Jan 28, 2013

The Great Textbook Debate: The Role of Textbooks in World Language

Is the textbook an antique or a necessary part of world language curriculum?

The importance of the textbook in the world language classroom has become a heated discussion rather than a reliable staple of the language community. During #langchat on Thursday, participants discussed the benefits and drawbacks of relying on textbooks as the primary source of language learning, and provided some excellent alternatives to a traditional textbook.

World Language Teachers Moving Away from Textbooks

Although a number of #langchat teachers learned their love of language with the use of textbooks, it is clear that many teachers are de-emphasizing or eliminating textbooks altogether. @Darcypippins, @LauraJaneBarber and many others described their joy at “throwing out” the textbooks in favor of more authentic resource materials in their classrooms. @Lclarcq stated, “30th year of teaching [and I] have never used a book.  Not sure I could, but I am listening…”

Still, many world language teachers learned from textbooks and find that there is still value in using them. @Emilybakerhaynes summed it up excellently: “[Textbooks] are how I learned Spanish and I don’t feel that my learning experience with them was negative.” Other teachers described “fond memories” of using textbooks to learn, but were clear in their overall feeling: Textbooks don’t have the capacity to reflect the constant motion of language learning.

Benefits of Using Textbooks in the Classroom

Even though it was clear that most #langchat –ers did not recommend using textbooks all the time, there were some benefits for incorporating them into the classroom. @HCPSLanguages stated, “I think many FL teachers jump on the 100% anti-textbook bandwagon when in reality it’s just another tool they could potentially use.”

Many people chimed in with the benefits of using textbooks:

  • Teachers like @ProfesorM and @EmilyBakerHaynes use textbooks to supplement their curriculum.
  • @LauraJaneBarber described the safety of using a textbook instead of untested outside resources. “Textbooks provide age-appropriate audio and video materials and will never surprise you with swear words.”
  • @HCPSLanguages spoke of the collaborative benefits of using textbooks. “It’s easier to collaborate by agreeing how many chapters to cover than to create and share resources.”
  • @MSKBordner said, “I never use [textbooks], but sometimes I’m surprised by great snippets of culture [or] explicit grammar practice.”
  • @Yeager85 was emphatic: “Good textbooks do exist!” She cited Revista as “…an amazing textbook with a focus on authentic, contextualized Spanish.”
  • Some teachers commented on their students’ reticence to give up the textbook. @SenoraCMT said, “Sometimes kids say that…they like the comfort of a worksheet! [It’s] easy to jump through that hoop!  [It’s] hard to own the learning!”
  • @CoLeeSensei mentioned the value of using textbooks for supporting new teachers. “For many who need to ‘find their feet’ first, it gives them a place to stand on – but then they get stuck!”
  • @Lisajmch said, “I find textbook activities helpful for students who struggle with organizing the language. The structure is a good starting point.”
  • @HCPSLanguages promoted comprehensive structure by using textbooks. “Textbooks have the best and most complete thematic ancillary materials, and that’s the main thing I like about them.”

Drawbacks of Using Textbooks

Still, many participants agreed that the benefits of over-reliance on textbooks were not worth the drawbacks. There were a number of reasons that the members of #langchat overwhelmingly advocated against using them as the primary teaching tool. @Klafrench said, “I think textbooks are comfortable for many because you can just do the same thing over and over, but world language changes constantly!”

There were a number of similar reasons why #langchat –ers discouraged overconfidence in textbook teaching:

  • @Jas347 said, “My students noticed too easily how their e-book had mostly white faces, when that doesn’t represent them nor the francophone (French-speaking) world”
  • @ProfesorM opposed textbook learning due to its lack of real-world subject matter. “We follow the textbook topics at my [middle school]. Crazy topics! Skiing and parasailing, two things I hate!” @Darcypippens agreed. “I knew the textbook had to go when one of the vocab words I had to “cover” was ‘calandria’! Really?!”
  • @Tmsaue1 agreed, and added his concern that textbooks don’t allow for differentiation. “[Textbooks create] artificial order of structures, vocabulary and functions that don’t take into account [the] proficiency levels of students.”
  • @CarolGaab had mixed feelings about the amount of useful material in textbook teaching. She said, “There are some useful resources in a textbook. Unfortunately, you pay BIG money for 5% use.”
  • A number of teachers said that they use a textbook to get an idea of themes or concepts, but generally build their own units with more authentic, relevant resources. @SrtaRad said, “We also use it as a starting point and pull in other materials to strengthen the unit.”
  • @Klafrench expressed a thought that was supported by many teachers: textbooks’ general lack of relevance. “My major frustration is that they are outdated (except for VISTA). My French 3 book has vocab for getting your shoes repaired?”
  • Some teachers, like @darcypippins, cited the improved test scores of students who moved away from textbooks and towards more authentic resources. “Without the textbook, my students improved from 30% pass rate on AP test to 75% [using] TPRS, reading and CI.”

Creative Solutions to the Textbook Problem

A surprising number of teachers at the #langchat session were clearly attracted to the concept of creating their own solution to the textbook problem. Some, like @cadamsf1, are required to use textbooks in the classroom and want to have options for incorporating more authentic resources without losing the structure of a book.

Some of the alternative ideas to a traditional textbook-based environment were:

  • @Krueger: “Maybe the textbook could simply be a reference book of tips, info and links that could be updated.”
  • @LauraJaneBarber: “…you can buy curriculum that is not textbook based. It’s research based [and] upholds [ACTFL] standards.”
  • Instead of purchasing textbooks, some teachers have convinced administration to purchase Ipads to create a more interactive learning experience.
  • @Klafrench and @Srtalisa suggest using e-books that students can carry with them on mobile devices.
  • @SenoraCMT and @CarolGaab spoke of the benefits of using full-length novels in the target language for building cohesive units.
  • Several teachers talked about gradually replacing textbooks with outside resources. This way, new teachers can have the structure and support of the textbook, but are encouraged to try new ways of teaching with authentic resources. @Eonsrud said, “You do one or two units a year until you’ve changed your whole curriculum. Doing it all at once is too hard. [There’s a high likelihood] of burnout.”

Writing the Book on Language Learning

Regardless of whether teachers were for or against using textbooks in the language classroom, it was clear from the discussion that a broad array of strategies is the most effective way to engage students. #Langchat participants agree that through a combination of ACTFL-aligned lesson plans, authentic resources and a strong emphasis on communication, students will become more confident speakers and more likely to continue language studies.

Additional Resources


TPRS Novels (TPRS Publishing)

11 Real Ways Technology is Affecting Education Right Now (Edudemic)

Driving Questions for High School Spanish (@SraSpanglish)

Revista (Vista Higher Learning Publications)


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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