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 words, with vocabulary, through use – hearing, understanding, and telling meaningful, memorable stories, using words as tools to explore, and not treating them as the goal of the lesson. Vocabulary acquisition is an art, and not a science; it’s a skill that becomes innate, rather than 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 for any lists. 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 should be talked about frequently. If a student needs to go back and look up a grammar point, it’s likely they aren’t cycling back around to it frequently enough. In-class usage, lots of input and analysis, refreshers and reminders are much better than reference books at keeping grammar in students’ heads.

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

  • <sarcasm>Of course! Which is why everyone teaches children to speak their first language by restricting all input and output, first to the present tense using regular verbs, then to the present progressive, and then to the past tense, being careful not to complicate things by presenting both the preterite and the imperfect at the same time.</sarcasm> Students don’t need to be protected from complicated language elements in order to understand the simpler concepts. 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.

  • <sarcasm> Which is why variation among sections, and among teachers, are utterly unheard of when textbooks are used. Thanks, textbooks!</sarcasm> 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 learned three languages, 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 great 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.