Sunday, 24 May 2009

Tired of foreign language textbooks - again

Ever felt frustrated at set series of foreign language textbooks? It seems that this frustration hits me every year during the last weeks of school before summer. I still largely have the same concerns as almost exactly a year ago when I last blogged about this. Personally, being one of the 4 English teachers in my school, the rest of whom wouldn't even dream of letting go of their protective armour of beloved textbooks, leaves me in the minority and I simply have to conform and accept the chosen textbooks. The reason is that in our high school system the composition of the groups you teach changes five times a year, and so we four end up teaching some of the same students. If I could teach the same group all through the 3 years of high school, I could improvise more.

Nevertheless, having tested some more outside-the-book work online this year, I am inclined to start designing new units for each course to substitute parts of the book. Systematically aiming at covering all the massive contents of the textbooks is a burden and soon turns into a deadly routine for both teachers and students. Good and carefully compiled by a team of enthusiastic teachers and professors as our books are, they still tend to follow a set format and approach that is repeated in each course. What's wrong with a logical build-up of units , you may ask. In fact, shouldn't it be considered an asset in a course book series? Possibly, if you are lucky enough to share the pedagogical choices of the author team and want an easy life with everything spelled out for you in the teacher's manual. All you need to do then is to walk into the classroom, open the book and manual, and put the record on.

One of my problems with our textbooks is that they are filled with endless gap fill exercises, usually in the form of translating from Finnish to English/French or vice versa. Of course, learning new vocabulary actively requires numerous times of coming across and using the words in different contexts, so I can see the point. Yet, in reality what happens is that many students use already filled in books of their siblings or friends, and, as is human nature, don't bother to erase the answers and consequently, totally miss the benefit from these well-meaning exercises. For those who make the effort to do them, the problem I blogged about before remains - that of trying to memorize words selected by somebody else. It makes little sense for a very low level user of English to try to learn by heart highly academic and formal vocabulary, for example. I can hear colleagues arguing it's better than nothing, and in a big heterogeneous group, as they mostly are in our school, you have to pitch what you teach somewhere in the middle, you can't possibly please everyone. I know, but still I dream of more personalised language classes where students try to understand and produce the foreign language at a level appropriate to them personally at the time. Some could have positive learning experiences with more simple, everyday colloquial language, while others could aim at a more formal, academic style. One of the essential goals for each learner, in my dream class, is to learn to express who they are and what they believe in in a foreign language as well as possible, and with enough intercultural awareness and skills to be active participants and collaborators in any situation they will find themselves in.

To this end, I see a lot of potential in the use of social media, especially for the more advanced students. Having an authentic audience is paramount to really develop their communication skills. I have now set my mind to spending part of my summer holiday designing new units for each course I will be teaching next school year. I need to skip something in each course book by incorporating social media and online profiling and literacy skills, or more spoken practise and presentation skills. My argument is the old adage of 'learning for life' and not only for the final exams. Why not be brave enough to scrap the books altogether and be a real rebel then? I must admit I am still too frightened of students suddenly underachieving in their final exams, the results of which may be critical for their later studies. No matter how much I dislike preparing students for mastering the technicalities and avoiding the pitfalls of these exams and maximizing their grades, I still feel it is my duty to do it. Luckily, I have the freedom to be at least a part-time rebel in designing my courses.


Sui Fai John Mak said...

I like your points about books. For me, books are just another set of artifacts. If you have got a better tool, or a better set of artifacts, why would you rely on books only? When I started off as a teacher, I was "told" to use the standard text, as I was "educated" that standard texts were the "golden rule" to follow. Though I am not a language teacher, I share your views in challenging whether textbooks are the best tools in teaching foreign language. May be it all depends on the learners, their learning styles and the context where learning occurs. For me, I have been using on-the-job training and assessing for nine years. The "best Textbooks" is the work and associated communication and interaction with colleagues, customers and supervisors. The experience and skills gained are based on an authentic environment. Would it work in the learning of foreign language? I have seen people picking up language skills when they communicate frequently with others. Is a "life experience text" an alternative learning experience for your learners?
Thanks for your sharing.

sinikka said...

Hi John Mak,
Thank you so much for your ideas. "Life experience text" sounds intriguing. There still seems to be such a reliance on books in my country at least. Many people seem to doubt the value of anything else as a reliable source of information. I totally agree with you about the importance of an authentic environment for foreign language learning, otherwise you will never gain the fluency and ease needed for real-life communication.
If I was a freelance adult educator I would never think twice about abandoning textbooks, but unfortunately, I am rather caught in the 'machinery' of the school. Luckily, I can improvise to some extent.

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