Why No Textbooks?

Let’s assume a few things:

  1. You’re a teacher.
  2. You speak Spanish fluently.
  3. You have a good handle on Spanish grammar, and can explain it and correct it.
  4. You have a good-sized vocabulary – you can understand films, news articles, and short stories, for example.
  5. There are particular areas of  the Spanish-speaking universe that interest you more than others.

Is all of this true? Then, congratulations: You have no need of a textbook.

Here’s a list of the things that textbooks are commonly believed to do – and under each, I’ll give my reasons for why these don’t convince me:

Textbooks provide vocabulary.

  • A simple dictionary does the job of providing vocabulary far better than a textbook does. Textbooks do provide thematic lists, organized into chapters – “The family!”, “Travel!”, “Sports and recreation!”, etc. But these lists, these activities, devoid of a meaningful context that students actually care about, don’t reflect the way in which human beings naturally learn. We don’t learn best by rote, but by gaining an interest in, and losing any fear of, new concepts and new contexts. We do this with a new language through using it. Hearing, understanding, and telling meaningful, memorable stories. We use words and grammar as tools to explore, and shouldn’t view them as the goal of the lesson. Language acquisition is an art, and not a science; it’s a skill that becomes innate, rather than a series of data points to accumulate, or a number of trophies to hang on the wall, or boxes to tick. If students gain the skills to (a) recognize new words, (b) talk their way around words they lack, and (c) make words up when they need them, there’s no need to maintain any lists anywhere. Students don’t remember things because they were shown them on a list. They remember things because they’re memorable.

Textbooks provide students with a grammar reference.

  • That’s a lot of money to spend on something the student could have taken (and been required to take) detailed notes on in class. Grammar, like vocabulary, is a process that’s ongoing, and which students ideally acquire without knowing they’re acquiring it. Provided it’s done in the target language, grammar is something you can talk about frequently. In-class usage, lots of input and analysis, refreshers and reminders through using the language are much better than reference books at keeping grammar in students’ heads. Ideally, grammar grows in a student’s mind without the student consciously knowing it’s happening. Having a book somewhere describing the grammar doesn’t help a student use the language any more than having an anatomy book at home helps their lungs to work.

Textbooks break the language down into digestible chunks in a logical progression.

  • It turns out that students don’t need to be protected from complicated language elements in order to acquire the language. Teachers can train students not to worry about what they don’t understand. And teachers are smart enough to only assess their students on what they can do. Textbooks and their artificially-simplified language presentation actually set the students up for extreme frustration later on, when things inevitably get complicated.

Textbooks keep several different sections, taught by different teachers, on the same path, with the same expectations.

  • Schools can pretend all they like that an entire grade level is being brought along at the same rate, but everyone on the ground knows it’s absolutely not so. Individual students excel, or lag behind; some groups form dynamics that mysteriously impede (or accelerate!) progress. When students move from Spanish 1 to Spanish 2, no matter where, no matter the methods, there is simply no way that all of them are on the same page. Many will sigh and roll their eyes through the review that takes up the first two weeks of class, while others, who passed the same course, sweat and fret and wonder when the heck they did this last year. This happens with textbooks, or without them.Why do we keep struggling to deny it?

Textbooks provide fun and useful activities that keep students engaged and interested.

  • I will simply say this: Such was not my own experience with textbooks as a student. I have learned three “second” languages, in both in high school and college. And I learned the heck out of them. If I were to receive an award for my achievement in any of them, I would definitely not include any of my textbooks in my acceptance speech.

Textbooks provide a curated selection of cultural artifacts, readings, films, songs, and poems, all selected to provide a well-curated sampling of Spanish-speaking culture.

  • You know who could do that better? You.