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Do you need a text book?

Many years ago an HM Inspector came to Ripon Grammar School to look at our department. One thing I recall from the visit was his remark that he was pleased to see us using a text book. He came across other schools which used lots of worksheets and must have felt, I assume, that the text book gave us a more solidly grounded scheme of work (curriculum) and reference point for students.

These days I hear of many schools choosing to do without text books. Is it because, with their accompanying digital content, they are just so expensive? Or is it that teachers feel they can design their curriculum more effectively without one? 

In many cases, it’s the latter. Apart from cost, common complaints are:

1. There is too much material in the books. They encourage ‘coverage’ ahead of ‘mastery’. Teachers sometimes worry about finishing the book and risk rushing through content. Instead of building a repertoire of well-rehearsed language, they leave students feeling overwhelmed and confused. Too much gets quickly forgotten.

2. The spacing and recycling of words, chunks and grammatical structures is too haphazard - not thorough enough. This is partly due to the first point above. This might mean, for example, that a verb tense is practised thoroughly for a few weeks, then left behind until it comes up next year - the so-called spiral curriculum model. (The skilled teacher fills in these gaps.)

3. The material is not interesting enough or not relevant to students’ needs and interests. Teachers need to judge what will be of interest and what won't, what is 'teachable' and what isn't.

4. Tasks are not well matched to the aptitude profile of classes. Most likely they are too hard, but they can be too easy.

5. Listening activities are largely focused on comprehension (true/false, matching, questions in English), and not enough on building the ‘micro-skills’ of listening, such as phonological awareness, phonics (sound-spelling links), lexical retrieval and grammatical parsing.

6. Exercises lack examples and seem superficial. So the amount of receptive input and practice (e.g. drills, questions, gap-fill) is not sufficient. A written text or listening comprehension passage with a few comprehension questions does give the intensive contact needed with the language for proficiency to develop. This is often a question of space, which is why supplementary workbooks are provided.

7. The material may lack diversity and promote cultural stereotypes. Progress has been made in this area, no doubt, but from what I read, more needs to be done. Some argue that the content is a bit too 'middle class' and unreflective of many learners' daily experience - think of texts about skiing holidays.

8. Text books at KS4 are often so tightly focused on GCSE preparation (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland), that they practise exam-style tasks at the expense of other more motivating material and activities.

9. They are usually designed around a ‘topics + grammar’ curriculum design. The traditional grammatical syllabus, as promoted by NCELP, for instance, has come under a lot of fire from researchers, and experience with mixed-aptitude classes suggests it doesn’t work well. Research is clear that some grammar is more difficult to acquire, i.e. internalise for spontaneous comprehension and use. Text books do not always take this into account.

(Topics are fine. You have to organise a curriculum around something, so topics and communicative goals are reasonable options. You just need to watch out for neglecting high-frequency vocabulary if you get into too much detail with a topic. For some classes a grammar-based may work if there is lots of good language input, but not for most, in my view. I would not organise a scheme of work around sound-spelling correspondences (phonics).)

10. This last point is entirely practical. Some schools prefer not to issue text books because students lose them or mistreat them. This adds to the original cost of purchase.


So, does this mean ditch the text book? What would the alternatives look like?

Many schools are happy with text books and the accompanying digital material and workbooks. Teachers usually adapt the content to their classes, leaving out material which they find too easy, too hard, too boring. They usually supplement the book with their own in-house resources or materials found elsewhere. Typical paid-for resources include The Language Gym, Languagenut, Atantôt, This is Language, frenchteacher, Textivate or graded readers, if you can find them. Free resources are plentiful too, for example Quizlet, Lightbulblanguages and languagesonline.org.uk. You can check out the numerous links on my website.

Defenders of course books also say that they need the audio material supplied with the course. They need a variety of 'authentic' voices and ready-made assessments. If the teacher, who may be a supply teacher or non-specialist, has weak oral skills, then the audio material provides the input needed. They may also say that the text book supplies good cultural input through images and texts. The book also offers a ready reference for students, including word lists and grammar explanations.

As far as alternatives are concerned, there are several.

Some schools opt for knowledge organiser booklets, especially at KS3. These take a variety of forms, but often feature example sentences with parallel translations around which all sorts of exercises can be designed.

A rapidly growing number of departments who favour the EPI (Conti) methodology make their own sentence builders, narrow listening and narrow reading tasks, along with the multitude of activity types which accompany the approach. They may use these alongside online resources such as The Language Gym or sentencebuilders.com. These have the advantage of offering listening resources with a focus on the micro-skills I mentioned earlier. There is a good range of workbooks to support the approach and other providers, including myself, design resources in this style. Teachers who like this approach often share resources on Facebook groups.

A few schools have taken up the resources offered by NCELP, notably the hub schools who are part of the initiative. These lessons contain listening and reading material, phonics exercises, grammar and cultural input, although I have serious doubts about the level of difficulty and interest in the lessons. They try to cover a lot of ground very quickly, it seems to me.

I don't hear of this much in England, but another option is to go for a task-based, communicative approach, where the 'task' becomes the unit around which the curriculum is built.

At A-level it is very easy to do without a text book. Indeed, when I was teaching I rarely made use of a book, and relied largely on my own frenchteacher.net materials. These (shameless plug) offer everything an A-level teacher needs, apart from specific support for individual books and films. Other good sources for A-level French include GrabandGoLanguages, LaProfdeFrançais and resources from TES.

As a Head of Department, if I had suggested to my team that we ditch the text book, I would have encountered resistance. It so happened that my colleagues were skilled in using and adapting a book well matched to our classes: Tricolore. Exam results were great, take-up at A-level unusually high. Colleagues would have missed the listening resources in particular. But even in our context, that book was too hard for many students, so we used it more sparingly at KS4.

Another factor in this concerns the personal beliefs of the teacher. It really helps if you believe in the resources you are using, text book or otherwise.

In addition, if you abandon the text book, you need to plan your own curriculum with great care, since the job has not been done for you. The advantage is that you can fine-tune this scheme of work to the needs of your classes, your timetable and teacher preferences. You'll need to incorporate cultural input too, but this is easy to source. The process of curriculum design allows you to think through your basic principles.

Above all, it's these principles which should come first - fundamental SLA principles such as using comprehensible input, opportunities for interaction (communication), along with sensible notions from cognitive science such as repetition, memorability, spacing and retrieval practice. 

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