How to Use Textbooks Effectively

Textbooks have a reputation to be boring and far from reality. Probably we all had to use textbooks when we learned a language at school. But textbooks were carefully compiled by people who know much more about didactics than the average teacher, so I’ve never understood why so many people (teachers as well as students) are reluctant to work with textbooks.

When I work with A1 – B1 students, I always use textbooks. I supplement them with some other material but they are the foundation of my classes.

The reason is very simple: When working with a book, you can be sure that all relevant grammar is covered and that the students amplify their vocabulary gradually which is important for the beginning levels.

All successful language learners I know start with a textbook when tackling a new language. In the case of experienced polyglots, it’s often self-learning material like Teach Yourself, Colloquial, or Assimil but the principle is the same: you need to figure out how the language works and understand certain rules, otherwise you will never be able to speak correctly.

Disadvantages of textbooks in teaching

Textbooks are not perfect, of course. Some of their main disadvantages include:

  1. They’re aimed at groups, so you will need to change or adapt quite a few exercises to make them suitable for 1:1 tuition.
  2. Some topics are not relevant for the student as far as content is concerned but may be important because of the grammar.
  3. Completing a lot of grammar exercises won’t enable the student to apply the language in the real world.

On the other hand, avoiding those disadvantages isn’t too difficult, either and when working 1:1 with a student, you have endless possibilities to vary exercises and adapt the book’s content to the student’s needs.

My students have all the solutions and transcripts of the books I’m working with. That way, they can do grammar exercises on their own if they want to and check their results. I’m working with grown-up people who should be able to assume some responsibility for their language learning.

Once again, the student’s personality makes a difference. There will be courageous beginner students who try to talk as much as they can right from the start and there will be those who stick to the exercises and the texts.

Texts are great to make shy students speak, by the way. I often swap roles with students and prompt them to ask me questions about the text. They often come up with totally different questions than I would have thought of and that’s often fun.

Textbooks for advanced level students

As I mentioned above, up to the B1 level, I find textbooks essential. “Big” languages like German, English, French, or Spanish also offer textbooks for the C levels. For German, I work with Mittelpunkt neu C1 and Erkundungen C2. The latter one is the only C2 textbook for German I know and goes very much into detail as far as certain grammatical peculiarities are concerned.

So does it make sense to use such advanced-level textbooks? I’ve worked with C1 Spanish textbooks and although I got sometimes bored, I also learned a lot and was able to look at the language differently again. So, I do recommend that you offer your advanced students the possibility to work with a textbook. When someone already speaks a language at a B2 level, he or she should be able to decide if he or she wants to work with a textbook or use rather a conversational approach.