More from Robert Harrell on Textbooks

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12 thoughts on “More from Robert Harrell on Textbooks”

  1. Excellent! Thank you, Robert!

    Anyone have a rough estimate of how many words could be acquired in level one, 100 hours of TCI? Let’s say it’s a freshman in high school. I realize there are a lot of factors.

    “Starting at the age of three and probably up to 25 years old or so, native speakers add on average 1,000 word families a year to their vocabulary.” (Nation, 2013, p.13).

    Obviously, that’s a native speaker in a first language situation, one that has had three years to build the L1 mental representation and vocabulary recognition.

    Here’s the numbers for SPOKEN English coverage:
    95% – 3,000 word families, 98% – 7,000 word families (p.16)

    Note: “A coverage of 98% is chosen as the goal because a small amount of research supports this figure.” (p.14)

    I’ve heard Paul Nation say that the idea has a little support that vocabulary acquisition can speed up as we reach higher levels of proficiency.

    I’m reading “Learning Vocabulary in Another Language” by Paul Nation and it’s full of fun stats like these 🙂

    This gives us numbers to quantify just how BIG the language is and these are the minimums to get by. So, for instance, if students averaged 500 words acquired per year, then in 4 years they’d have only accomplished 2/3 of what it takes for 95% comprehension and only about 1/4 from 98% comprehension. And I think 500 words acquired (acquired = production vocabulary and long-term storage) per 100 hours in a foreign language class is probably way too high, especially for true beginners. Our goal may be more like 250 words per year. How ’bout them apples, Mr. Textbook?!

    Developmentally, vocabulary and fluency are our main goals. Grammar and accuracy depends on these and will be the natural product as the 2 goals develop. For too long, I think textbooks and traditional teachers have mistakenly expected that their job is to teach enough language to get by in the real world. Traditionally, way too much vocabulary and way too much grammar has been explicitly taught and “learned.” And as Robert’s post shows us, talk about the “wrong stuff”

  2. And what about part of speech?! The extensive lists of thematic vocabulary words taught in a traditional class are mostly nouns. Would be nice to see those percentages analyzed from a traditional textbook. Davies (2006) points out the importance of verbs, since they compose about 20 percent of all words in a language (p. vii).

    Here’s some more frequency data from Davies. . . Take the numbers in Spanish, for example. Numbers are typically taught in the first month, if not the first week of a traditional class. The number nine has a rank frequency of 786. There are more than 300 more frequent words than the numbers 6 through 10, and the numbers 13 through 19 are not in the most frequently used 1,000 Spanish words. In fact, only the numbers one and two are in the most-frequently used 100 words.

    Below are the MOST-frequently used words per theme and also the extremely LOW-frequency words typically taught in that theme. The numbers in parentheses are the rank frequencies. Words are translated to English.

    Animals: (780) horse, (4,945) elephant
    Body: (150) hand, (2,407) ear
    Clothing: (1,710) suit, (4,427) t-shirt
    Colors: (250) white, (8225) orange
    Days: (1,121) Sunday, (3490) Tuesday
    Family: (166) son, (5,071) niece
    Food: (787) meat, (7602) carrot
    Months: (1,244) August, (2,574) September
    Sports: (2,513) soccer, (28,388) hockey
    Weather: (989) heat, (5493) breeze

  3. I love statistics, so thank you for this, Robert. My district just spent a bundle on new Spanish textbooks a couple years ago, and I wish I could have had that money to spend on novels, story script collections, and resources like Textivate and SenorWooly. Instead, I cobble together grant money and BEP money to spend on worthwhile curricula while those textbooks gather dust. (Luckily my favorite resource, my students, are free of charge.)

    This post also reminds me of arguments I am hearing from my FL and English colleagues in my school, that foreign language is good for teaching students about grammar. I have a colleague that brags about how her students don’t know what an indirect object pronoun is until they get to her class, and I wonder whether or not they are actually using those pronouns incorrectly in their native language. I wouldn’t think so. I seldom hear a high school student say “Give she the ball” instead of “Give her the ball.” Does it really matter if they know the terminology? And my English colleagues praise foreign language classes for teaching discrete grammar, to which I have to tell them that it’s no longer best practice to do that!

  4. This is a great thread and it really makes me want to have a “list” of words in order to target for each level. On the other hand, that is very much antithetical to the idea of flow and relaxing in the language and letting the learner stear the vocab ship to some extent.

    I absolutely agree that this is why I didn’t like the textbook. There was TOO MUCH! It was overwhelming and unfair to me to ask the kids to attempt. The ordering of numbers and greetings first killed me. Yeah I wish I could have the money that our textbooks are worth.

    To relate this to something I’ve been wondering about, I feel like one piece of the puzzle missing for me with using CI are the real-life tasks students “should” be able to accomplish when in the TL country. Or is this idea/expectation laughable? Examples: Buy a transportation ticket, order a meal at a restaurant, buy a movie ticket, interact with clerk in clothing store, ask for/follow directions. Last year I spent 2+ weeks on directions with level 2 and some students said they really liked it (a break from CI, with worksheets, more English). I would like to incorporate these real-life situations as more CI based instruction. Maybe create stories that “teach” 3 structures to accomplish the task. This would have to be at least level 2 or probably 3 for me. I could imagine scaffolded story scripts for different levels for the same task. So, the task would be spiraled a couple years, getting more advanced. Does this make sense? Anyone do something like this? Is it not CI? Would this not work? Is it unnecessary?

  5. I, too, love this thread! I am really interested in the statistics and the arguments for NOT spending money on textbooks!! I will be checking out that book you are reading, Eric…and thanks, Robert, for your insightful thoughts.

    Let’s keep this thread going 🙂


  6. Leah, I would say any task you wish them to be able to do should be embedded in and used in many stories with a good deal of dialogue. I do this a bit mostly with purchasing items and interacting in a restaurant, but I don’t believe I returned to it enough. It was probably my formerly traditional life, but I loathe teaching directions because it always seemed to precede their ability to do the task in my old textbook.

    1. I teach directions in my level 3/4/AP class. As one activity (after doing a lot with turn left, turn right, go straight, etc.) I have the 4/AP students write down directions on how to get to certain places in the school. Then we put out stamp pads and stamps. Third-year students receive a set of printed directions, and we have a rally. In groups of 3 or 4 they have to find all of the stamps and stamp their sheet (preferably in the right order). The winning team is the one that does it closest to the “ideal time”, not the one that does it the fastest. Of course, students don’t know what the ideal time is, but I have walked the course with a stopwatch to determine that time. This is what makes it a rally rather than a time trial or other “race”. We then apply this to our visit in Vienna and practice being able to understand directions to various places in the city. It isn’t just directions for the sake of giving directions but for the purpose of being able to navigate the city when they go there some day.

      4/AP students are doing output (which I correct, if necessary), but third-year students are receiving input, and this seems to work pretty well for me.

      1. Sounds about right. I will start reintegrating this. It really bugged me when it showed up in the Komm Mit I book (I think) It may have been in the second. It caused much frustration before I knew better than to force them through it so early.

  7. Robert – Great explanation. Thank you! I definitely think directions is better for 3 and 4/AP and I love who you organize it with level 3 receiving the information and processing the input.

    Eric – Yes, directions shows up in book 1 and 2 in our textbook Deutsch Aktuell that I used not so long ago. Even though giving directions was still too challenging for level 2 when I did it last year, they seemed to “enjoy” much of it (I made a huge map with streets on the whiteboard and posted pictures and had them move a magnet along like a car as a whole class activity). I definitely agree such real-life tasks should show up many times in the venue of stories.

    Do either of you know of any compelling readings/dialogues/stories that would be good resources to serve as examples for such tasks?

  8. Excellent Robert!

    Re Leah’s question, I agree with Blaine and others who say that our main goal for a first year class, in terms of what we really need to hammer for verbs at least, are the big 8 (have, want, need, go, be, can, say, give), plus *maybe* a few more frequent ones (eat, look, buy, think, know, bring, sleep, hurt, speak, call etc). But those main ones, taught in different contexts/tenses/persons over the course of the entire year, should be the goal IMO. (This list was quickly made by me without looking at any reference material, and I might have missed something important, so perhaps someone can direct us to a better verb list to follow.)

    Of course, we all need to connect the material as much as possible to our students, which is why we teach other less frequent verbs like: play, listen, read, throw, fish, ride bike, etc.

  9. Michael Nagelkerke

    I love this PLC blog. Outside of you guys I really don’t hear any FL teachers talking about research that they have been reading that guides their instruction. Hardly anyone I know outside of this blog has any real solid basis for why they teach the way they do. We do, and that’s what makes the difference!

  10. Jim – Your lists were just what I needed to keep my focus with level 1 right now and plan better. Danke!

    Michael – So true! No one is talking about the research where I teach. I’m not either, because I’m just trying to lay low, make myself and students happy, and increase enrollment as a byproduct of enjoying learning and our successes. I don’t want to stir the pot.

    But, when I pass the halls of other classes and hear the grammar instruction and English explanations I wonder how one could continue on like that. And I feel bad for the kids who will think they can’t learn the language. I guess we change the world with ourselves and our classes first!

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