Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

What is the natural order hypothesis?

The natural order hypothesis states that all learners acquire the grammatical structures of a language in roughly the same order. This applies to both first and second language acquisition. This order is not dependent on the ease with which a particular language feature can be taught; in English, some features, such as third-person "-s" ("he runs") are easy to teach in a classroom setting, but are not typically fully acquired until the later stages of language acquisition. The hypothesis was based on morpheme studies by Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt, which found that certain morphemes were predictably learned before others during the course of second language acquisition. The hypothesis was picked up by Stephen Krashen who incorporated it in his very well known input model of second language learning.

Furthermore, according to the natural order hypothesis, the order of acquisition remains the same regardless of the teacher's explicit instruction; in other words, …

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…

Using sentence builder frames for GCSE speaking and writing preparation

Some teachers have cottoned on to the fact that sentence builders (aka substitution tables) are a very useful tool for helping students prepare for their GCSE speaking and writing tests. My own hunch is that would help for students of all levels of proficiency, but may be particularly helpful for those likely to get lower grades, say between 3-6. Much depends, of course, on how complex you make the table.

To remind you, here is a typical sentence builder, as found on the frenchteacher site. The topic is talking about where you live. A word of warning - formatting blogs in Blogger is a nightmare when you start with Word documents, so apologies for any issues. It might have taken me another 30 minutes just to sort out the html code underlying the original document.


Setting work for home study

A major challenge for language teachers just now is selecting and sharing work with students to do at home. Here a few suggestions on the issue to add to your own. The sites I mention are the tip of the iceberg and focus mainly on French. I have stuck to free resources, not subscription sites.

By the way, I'm not getting into the use of tech here, as I have no great expertise on that. In any case, I imagine for younger learners especially it may be a question of setting other types of work.

ADVANCED

For advanced learners the job is not so tough. There is a plethora of listening, reading and grammar material they can use, whether it be from their textbooks, other resources shared electronically or online resources. You may have your favourites, but for a selection for French you can check out my links here and here. You may want to stick with topics on the syllabus, or free up students to read and listen more generally to what interests them.

One idea I used was to ask students to c…