Q & A: What’s your idea of an ideal textbook?

—Should a textbook be grammar driven? Could a textbook possibly be culture driven?
—As a linguist I shudder at the thought of a textbook being culture driven. What a mess!
—Should the presentation of grammar topics be logically sequenced?
—Definitely. I couldn’t believe it when I heard Stephen Krashen once say not to teach each verb tense separately but rather to use forms from any tense at any time for any purpose. Can you imagine the confusion and frustration most of our students of Indo-European and Semitic languages would experience if we did that? (I am told that Chinese verbs have neither conjugations nor tenses. Yes!)
—Do students prefer that every section of a textbook be in the same format or do they prefer that the formats of presentations and activities be “changed up”?
—I don’t think it really matters. I say use the format that best makes the grammatical structure clear and easy to learn
—How important is contextualization, i.e., enabling students to use what they’ve learned to converse or compose at length on a given topic?
—I think contextualization is a great way to present grammar interwoven with vocabulary. I look back at textbooks in which every example sentence in a given section just illustrated the grammar at hand. If you read the sentences one after the other they are all separate thoughts; they don’t tell a story. I think contextualization makes more sense.
—What topics do first-year students find interesting and fun to talk and write about?
—Here are some topics I use to introduce the grammar—especially verb tenses and modes—to elementary-level students: describing their language class, instructor and classmates; describing family and friends and their activities; student life; plans for the future; their house or the house of their dreams; everything about food; interpersonal relationships; the daily routine of an adult; what they did over break; their family history; how they feel about things in the present; what people want or don’t want to happen now or in the future; how to tell people what to do and what not to do; how they feel now about things that happened in the past; how they felt in the past about things that happened in the past; daydreaming about the present and future; hindsight about things that happened in the past; what a person could, would or should do, what a person could have, would have or should have done, etc. If you teach a Romance language you can probably sense that these themes follow a logical sequencing of the verb tenses and modes.
—Should there be lots of example sentences and mini-conversations in a textbook?
—Definitely. Some of our students that have trouble seeing patterns in language have compensated by becoming awesome memorizers, and they have to have something to memorize.
—How important are photographs?
—I love them. As a student I was inspired to go to Europe by the black and white photos in my first French book, Le français, by Frédéric Ernst and Sylvia Narins Levy.
—How important are drawings? When I used Dos Mundos and Deux Mondes for the first time back in the mid-80’s I found artist Sally Richardson’s line drawings charming and amusing and sometimes useful for in-class activities. But artwork should never be so extensive that it draws attention away from the language.
—What kinds of activities do students find interesting and fun?
—Interviewing each other, i.e., asking each other personal questions seems to be the most direct way of stimulating conversation. I’m not sure they like a constant diet of it, though.
—How important is personalization, i.e., enabling the students use what they have learned to talk to each other about themselves, their families and their friends?
—Well, since that’s what they know and care about and what they’re probably going to talk about a lot in the future, I think it’s very important and a great medium for the learning of vocabulary and grammar
—What should an end-of-book vocabulary contain and how detailed should it be?
—I think there should be both a The Language-to-English vocabulary and an English-to- The Language vocabulary. Some books exclude the latter and I find that irritating. I think the vocabularies should include example sentences in cases where further clarification of meaning is necessary
—What should the appendices contain?
—Among other things, well organized but compact listings of regular verbs, regular verbs with spelling changes, frequently used irregular verbs like ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, and irregular verbs, and instead of showing all the tenses and modes of any given verb on one page, the divisions should go tense by tense. Do all verbs in the present tense first. In another section do all of them in one of the past tenses, and so on. And since these lists are going to be used for reference and not for teaching they can be listed more compactly by stringing the forms rather than putting them in the traditional boxes. Here’s an example of a perfectly adequate listing of the forms of the present indicative of the Italian verb andare (to go): andare: vado, vai, va, andiamo, andate, vanno
—Does having to turn the book sideways to read the tables annoy you?
—Big time! And the tiny sans sérif type is hard even for young people to read.
—Should topicalized “Extra Vocabulary” be included in the appendices?
—I think so, because, for the food chapter especially, lists of meats, fowl, fish, vegetables, fruits and other foods can go on interminably. So to have more complete lists grouped by category in one of the appendices for reference purposes would shorten the food chapter to a more manageable size so you can get through it in less time.

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