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.

Assigning a Final Course Mark

Some instructors create elaborate points schemes for determining final course marks. These schemes might include, attendance, participation, homework, and lab attendance in addition to quiz, test, midterm and final exam grades. That’s a lot of record keeping and calculating for an instructor, especially for an instructor who is teaching 15 units or more. What criteria do you use to assign students their final course mark? What do you think of basing final course marks solely on proof that students have learned the material and the skill or using it for communication. Might the averaging of Scantron (true/false, multiple choice) unit tests with their objective little purple score in the right hand corner of the form be a much simpler way of assigning a final course mark? Consider this: I have had students who have been absent many times prove to me that they have somehow learned the material and the skill to use it for communication. Should I penalize them for having been absent? I have had students with psychological conditions never say a word in class and have a hard time doing group activities but come up with stunning results. Do I lower their grade for not having participated actively in class activities? Some of my students rarely do their homework, seeming to soak up everything they need to be successful in class. How about students who never go to the lab because their class and work schedules conflict with the lab’s operating hours? I have learned to be flexible and and base final course marks on results, not points. What are your thoughts?


Is homework absolutely necessary? What kinds of homework assignments produce the best results? Do you have time to correct homework the students write out on paper and hand in to you for correction? Do you assign homework from the web site so you don’t have to personally correct much or anything? (Ooh!) How can you make sure students are not having someone else more knowlegable do their online assignments? Do you assign compositions? At what point in the term? How many drafts? Do you give the students prompts for their compositions? Do they follow them? Do you suspect that some students may write their compositions in English and run them through Google Translate? Do you grade based on points or on results? Have you heard students asking “Professor, do we get points for this?” and then mumbling to a classmate, “If we don’t get points I’m not doing it.” Do you detest the word ‘points’ as much as I do? A good book to read on the topic of points is Punishment by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

Current Textbooks

What is the organizing principle behind this new wave of textbooks? Why are the big publishing houses cranking out tome after tome of textbooks that force instructors to flip their classrooms and depend on publishers’ web sites? Who told them that would be a good idea? Are publishing houses jumping on the bandwagon just to make a fast buck while the fad lasts? (Is it a fad?) Have you used a textbook that requires a flipped classroom and student-centered learning? How has that worked out? Were you able to tweak it if it didn’t work out? Are textbooks designed for university students always (or ever) appropriate for CC students? How have publishers’ computer web sites worked out for you? Would you prefer a flexible textbook that would allow each instructor the freedom to conduct her or his classes in a way that is of greatest benefit to the students? I would.

The Language Laboratory

The language lab was conceived in the 1950’s and gained popularity in the 1960’s mainly because most students didn’t have personal tape recorders, and anyway the pre-recorded tapes were not readily available to students for take-home use. The Audio-Lingual method was in vogue, and the lab was a place where students could go to put on headphones, listen, repeat, memorize, and drill, drill, drill. Sometimes an instructor would sit at a console in front of a group of students wearing headphones and peering through the plastic windows at the front of their carrels. (If you google the Wikipedia article Language Lab you can see a picture of such.) You never knew when he or she was listening in on you and what they would say or do if you messed up. My first experience with a language lab was as a freshman at UCLA in 1967-68. I was taking Russian for majors because I wanted to be “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Each week the assignment was to memorize a new dialog of ten to twenty lines from the book Modern Russian. The dialogs were “real language” and right from the start contained different verb tenses and noun and adjective cases. Russian grammar is extremely complicated for an English speaker, so it was impossible to make generalizations from the dialogs so you could formulate your own original sentences. There were also repetition drills, pattern drills, singular to plural drills, pronunciation drills, and more drills. (I must admit I didn’t really mind the drills.) The Russians had beaten us in the space race by putting the first satellite—“Sputnik”—into orbit, and we were frantic to learn Russian so we could compete better in the Cold War. The Russian language lab seemed to be modeled on a communist dictatorship and we were like prisoners in a gulag being brainwashed. Seriously, what I wound up doing was going to the lab once for each chapter so I could see how to pronounce the words of the dialog sentences for that chapter (Russian has a lot of vowel reduction). Then I would go home and study and memorize the dialog so I could get an A on the test. I never used a language lab for any language after that. L.A. Mission College didn’t have a campus for the first sixteen years of its existence; our classes were scattered all over the northeast San Fernando Valley. So we never built a language lab. Instead we got permission from the publishers to copy their cassettes for student home use. During a conversation at UCLA in the mid-80’s Tracy Terrell, principal author of Dos Mundos, told me that listening to recorded material was useful only to practice aural comprehension. Some people use the lab for testing. One advantage of that is that students are in carrels and can’t copy other students’ answers. What kinds of items are on such tests? T/F, multiple choice, matching, fill-ins, writing sentences from dictation, answering written questions with original full sentences, or? It has been said that a lab is a meeting place for language students. For what purposes? In a lab they work alone in carrels with headphones on. With the advent of PCs and the net, are language laboratories a relic of the past? Many students say they go to lab only because they are forced to. They prefer to use their personal computers on their own time. Also, it is hard to justify staffing the language lab when very few students ever go there. Somebody please tell us how to make the language lab fun so students will want to go there.

The Role of the Computer in Foreign Language Learning

I taught my first FL class—Spanish 1—at UCLA, Fall 1972. Of course there was no such thing as a personal computer at that time. I got my first IBM PC with 64K RAM and two floppy disk drives in 1983 because I had been typing text materials on a typewriter and had had it with changing text with liquid white-out and those rolls of narrow strips of white paper with sticky on the back that you could type on to replace a whole line. I also used my first PC to write my dissertation on. Obviously, computers revolutionized word processing early on. I didn’t get a computer with a modem until 1995. So I learned to teach way before computers with online capabilities became popular. At that time, all of classroom language teaching/learning was human to human, textbook to human. Homework was handwritten. And the eager students learned easily and well. And the not-so-interested students passed the course and seemed satisfied. Fast forward to the early 2000’s. I’m still teaching without recourse to the computer but starting to feel insecure about it. In one class I had an amazing computer geek (I use the term lovingly). One day I asked him after class if I was way behind the times and should be using the computer in class and requiring that the students use the computer outside of class. His answer went something like this: “What we do in class is great. Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re on the computer so much that a course like this is refreshing. If you want to incorporate computer use I would suggest only that you put practice exams online so we can see the types of things we need to know for the unit exams.” I recently taught Italian 1 using the textbook Sentieri, which requires extensive use of the computer and the publisher’s website. I myself did some of the computer activities that I had assigned to the students, mainly fill-ins and matching as I recall. My impression was that the students really needed to compose sentences, both oral and written, as soon and as often as possible. The sorts of things the site was having them do was kind of like teaching a person to do crossword puzzles instead of write essays. Fun (maybe?), but definitely not necessary. Also, I know from having done private tutoring that students can have a more advanced student or a native speaker (or their tutor!) do their online homework for them so they can get all the answers right and get the maximum number of “points.” In the class in which I used Sentieri students would complain that they couldn’t do their homework because the site was down or wouldn’t respond to their clicks. I myself was having trouble finding out if they’d done their homework or had even paid the fee to use the publisher’s site. Once I asked several students why they had not done the online assignment. They replied that they had indeed done it. I later found out that the site had put most of my students on one list but that little group on another list that I didn’t know existed. The whole experience was intensely frustrating for me and the students. And in the end it’s all about points, points, points. Points mean nothing to me. The question is “Did they learn more of the language, something useful for communicating real-life thoughts and feelings?” I’m not sure a machine can make that happen. End of rant! What are your thoughts? Is this sort of use of the computer superior to interaction between instructor and students and between student and student? Is extensive use of computers dehumanizing? Do students appreciate a “rest” from computer use? Should computer and video be used during classroom presentations? How about Power Point (what is Power Point?)? Constantly or occasionally? What do you think of using cyber-sources such as Wikipedia and YouTube for enriching and enjoyable online input? I think they’re awesome (Even though I resisted for a long while, I have finally included the word “awesome” in my personal vocabulary). My students can see beautiful travelogues of Italy and watch videos of Italian songs and sing along. The students can be assigned to do a report on any facet of Italian culture that interests them: motorcycles, the Renaissance, fashion, architecture…anything Italian! You want to inspire a student to study Italian? Let them investigate what they’re passionate about! Now that’s the best use of the computer for our purposes I can think of. What do you guys think?

Online and Hybrid Foreign Language Classes

I’ve never taught online. What goes on? I’ve heard a few things, for example that it works OK for Classical Latin, a language that you don’t have to learn to speak or understand when spoken. But I don’t see online classes being appropriate for living, spoken languages. Don’t the students need immediate feedback from the instructor? How can the instructor teach or correct pronunciation? What about using the language for communication with other students? Via chat rooms? Via Skype? A few students have said that they appreciate online classes because it’s difficult or impossible for them to get to a campus. Please tell us what you know about online classes and what you think of them.