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The textbook family

There was a time (the 160s and 70s) when pretty much every Y7 and Y8 MFL textbook featured the amusing adventures of a family. Veteran teachers familiar with the audio-lingual and oral-situational approaches, will recall the Lavisses, Lenoirs, Bertillons and Marsauds. Families with a mum and dad and 2.4 children were a staple of every child’s language learning experience. The nadir of this textbook trend may have been the German Wurst (sausage) family, with their son (or was it dad?) Willy. You can imagine that this book was an open goal for the keen grafitti artist.

Then, the advent of the communicative movement was accompanied by the demise of the textbook family. This was probably due more to a social change than a methodological one. Writers and teachers became uncomfortable with presenting students with a stereotyped family unit when society was in flux. (I read yesterday that the ‘traditional family’, married with children, is now the minority in France.)

Methodologically speaking, the family was a very handy device for writers and teachers. Just as sitcom writers use a family or friendship group as a rich source for stories, so MFL authors were able to milk the family unit to present and practise vocabulary and grammar. Conveniently, the family’s daily lives were able to feature high-frequency vocabulary (tick), with contextualised grammar, selected and graded for difficulty (tick). Thus in book 1, the family operated in the present tense, one verb group at a time, while in book 2 they were allowed to do stuff in the past. In the best examples, such as Marc Gilbert’s Cours Illustré de Français, language would be meticulously recycled from one chapter to the next.

So the modern textbook has pretty much ditched the family, although the loosely communicative course Tricolore did continue to feature family experiences for years after its disappearance. Who could forget Monsieur and Madame Corot, his forgotten sandwiches and a visit to hospital? Have contemporary textbooks such as Studio or Dynamo paid lip-service to the tradition?

Maybe contemporary textbook writers are missing a trick. Peppa Pig and The Simpsons have shown you can get away with chichéd lazy dads and ‘girly swots’, while the family remains a go-to for sitcom writers - think of the safe Not Going Out, the dreadful Mrs Brown’s Boys and the triumphant return of Gavin and Stacey. The point is this : families, or friendship groups, home guard members, dinner ladies, doctors, starship crews, all provide the context for stories. And stories are often lacking in textbooks.

The narrative story, accompanied by pictures, is a gift to the language teacher. It provides high-frequency vocabulary, lots of common, everyday verb structures and the opportunity to tap into children’s imaginations. Simple narratives were my favourite bits in textbooks and I would have liked more. I felt in the comfort zone when a story came along. In Tricolore it might have been about cheeky Tom et Jojo, hapless Inspector Louis Laloupe or absent-minded Monsieur Corot. In each case the text was an opportunity for reading aloud, choral repetition, question and answer, mime and gesture, acting out, story retelling, translation, pairwork, gap-fill, grammar practice, you name it. Pupils usually enjoyed the corny humour in the recurring characters and situations too.

I’m sure there is a good book to be written about the history of families in language textbooks. One chapter could describe in detail the methodological benefits they provide. So here’s a creative challenge: if your course book doesn’t have a family (or other friendship group), try writing a short text or several short texts about one, Just imagine how much you could do with material like that.

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