Changes in German Language Education, Blog Post #2: The Textbook Survey

First off, I apologize for this blog coming so late – if there is one thing I have learned from this process, it’s that doing things when you have the time to do them is important; otherwise, you may have to put off what you are passionate about to make room for the passions of those who are either paying or grading you. That all said, let me share the main chunk of what I have done with my research since I last checked-in: my textbook survey.

The main purpose of my self-designed textbook survey was too see if I could notice any chronological changes in the structure, content, instructional methods, etc., of a relatively small sampling of German textbooks. The sample I chose consisted of three books each from the three decades I am covering with my study (80s, 90s, and 00s). While I would certainly consider this survey small and amateur in comparison to that of a long and in-depth research project, I am still both proud of what I accomplished in the time that I had and looking forward to possibly continuing/reformatting this project for future research.

Below are the “answers” from my textbook survey. Following the advice of my advisor, Dr. Jennifer Taylor, I came up with a list of questions to “ask” each textbook. Using this method, I was sure to treat each text equally and keep my notes organized by topic. Below I have sectioned my findings according to each “question” I asked the books (they were rather polite, to tell the truth, and each one was punctual to his/her interview :D).

Question #1: How is each book structured? How is the core material organized/sectioned? What information does it give in its introduction and/or appendices, if it has them?

The structures of the textbooks I surveyed did not have notable chronological changes, although no two textbooks had the same exact structure. To make some generalizations, every textbook was broken down in some manner into the sections containing the core material, which I will call chapters (Kapitel auf Deutsch!). All of the books before 1998 broke the material first into “units,” which were then broken down into chapters, such as German Today 1 (Moeller, Liedloff, Kent; 1982), while the later ones, such as Wie Geht’s?, 9th ed (Sevin, 2011) simply had chapters. This could possibly be a shift in textbook organization over time or simply the result of having a small sample set. Every textbook except one had thematic chapters – in other words, every chapter was centered on a theme such as family, food, or friends (and they did not all begin with “f,” I just like alliteration). I have seen books that also center each chapter on a city, state, or country too; they usually also take a theme to treat within that location, though. The books from the late 80’s and early 90’s had themes based on functional and conversational situations, aiming to show students “This is what you do/say in this situation in life.” The one book in which the chapters were not thematic in this way was German: A Structural Approach (Lohnes, Strothmann, 1980), which, as the title suggests, had chapters centered on certain grammatical structures of the German language. Some books, such as Deutsch Aktuell 1, 3rd ed. (Kraft, 1993) and Geni@l (Langenscheidt, 2003), had chapters dedicated solely to review of the material between these chapters, spread evenly throughout the material. Other texts, like Treffpunkt Deutsch, 4th ed. (Widmaier, 2003) and Wie Geht’s?, 9th ed. (Sevin, 2011), had introductory chapters before the main material to cover topics such as the German alphabet and numbers; since none of these books were published before 2000, I would be willing to hypothesize that this concept did not appear much before then.

As far as introductions and appendices go, I did not find anything too exciting. Some books had Prefaces, Introductions, maps, and/or reference sections before the material, and some simply provided a Table of Contents and then leapt straight into the material. The books for the most part agreed upon what to include after the material, though; most had two glossaries (one for each direction of translation) with high-frequency terms defined, an overview of the grammatical structures covered in the book, and indexes of where to find anything you could think of in the book. Other common post-material sections were principal parts of strong verbs, English translations of certain materials, and credits for media used in the book.

Question #2: How are the chapters of the book structured? How is the material presented? What is the student expected to do with the material?

The structures of the chapters of each textbook I examined were overall rather similar. Almost every book began its chapters by introducing the new material (words and phrases) as well as the theme, usually through the script of a conversation, but that could be substituted for a letter or short reading as the book went on. This section was consistently followed by a series of comprehension questions, usually short and to the point, and the section also repeated itself in many books if more introductory material was presented. From this introductory section, though, each book took off into the material in its own unique way; however most books’ chapters contained some semblance of the following: a vocabulary list and exercises working with those words, a grammar section introducing one or multiple structures and practice exercises for that, a reading in German based on the chapter’s theme, a section describing some aspect of German culture involving the theme, and a practice section using the material introduced in the section in various exercises and assignments. The first four of these will be discussed in answers to other questions, while the last will be discussed later in this answer.

Other interesting sections in textbooks I would like to mention were “Aussprache” (pronunciation) sections, communicative sections, small review sections, and media sections. I found an Aussprache section in most books’ chapters; in each chapter, the section would take one or two phonemes (the smallest sound segments) of German, show the student where these sounds occur in words, and have the student practice producing them. In communicative sections in chapters, books had students read, listen to, and/or produce their own conversations about the theme of the chapter. Small review sections were as they sound: they have students practice and review the material introduced in the book up to that point. Media sections (and by media I mean authentic media) were interesting because they showed a definite change in instruction – they did not appear in the books I examined until Deutsch Aktuell 1, 4th ed. (Kraft, 1998), which included a comic strip called „Willi und Milli“ that was not entirely authentic, but still made the first attempt along my timeline. All books after this point did have one or multiple sections devoted to media after this point, except Geni@l (Langenscheidt, 2003), though this book certainly had media in its online resources.

The practice sections at the end of each book’s chapters were mostly the same from book to book. Many were simply a series of different exercises, each with different directions, and all dealt with the material. The most common exercises were “fill in the blank,” syntactical rearrangement, picture identification, conversation completion, and listening exercises when an audio tape/CD accompanied the book. After the books published in the 90s, this section changed significantly, with these “simpler” exercises moving and being tailored to the sections described above, and this section transforming into a more “project-based / wrap-up” section, with the assignments pertaining to writing, role-playing, and more-involved listening activities. I hypothesize here that there is some influence here from Bloom’s Taxonomy here, as these exercises are more based on “Creating” and are at the chapter’s culmination.

The books that differed the most from what I have used to answer this question were German, a Structural Approach (Lohnes, Strothmann;  1980), Allerlei zum Besprechen (Teichert, Hahn; 1998), and Geni@l (Langenscheidt, 2003). These three books had rather unique approaches to the material as compared to the others. The chapters of Structural contained pattern sentences, analysis, conversations, a reading, and vocabulary in each chapter, in that order for every chapter; the book truly was a book to teach grammar to the college student. Another college-level book I dealt with was Allerlei, whose chapters consisted of “Gespräch” (conversation), “Aus der Presse” (from the press), and “Aus der Literatur” (from literature) sections containing am authentic conversation, news article, and piece of literature, respectively, and various exercises surrounding them. I will discuss the book Geni@l in my summary blog, but for now I will just mention that it uses the Natural Approach and is thus extremely unique.

Question #3: How is grammar presented in the book? Are structures used before they are taught? Specifically, how are topics not normally taught in American students, such as gender, adjective endings, modal auxiliary verbs, and the subjunctive mood, presented to students?

This question was without a doubt a difficult one, yet also one that was in a way central to my study and that I will continue to emphasize as my research continues. The grammar in every text (except Allerlei and Geni@l) was explained in English, but the structures were introduced in some fashion in German. The grammar-specific sections would start with a quick English explanation of what the topic was, then give charts and examples in German. Following this would usually be a deeper explanation of the structure in English, with comparisons to and translations into English where necessary and applicable. The depth of this second explanation varied between books, with some going into great detail and others only giving a generic idea of what was happening within the structure. Following the explanations and presentations of the structures were always grammatical exercises to practice the new structures. This whole sequence would repeat for each book if multiple structures were introduced in the chapter’s grammar section.

All I must say to the second question here is: YES! The grammatical structures covered in each chapter were consistently used and presented in context before being explained. The notable difference here, though, was how obvious the books were about it. For example, German Today 1 (Moeller, Liedloff, Kent; 1982) had a section labeled “Übungen” placed directly before the “Grammatische Übersicht” section in each chapter devoted specifically to using the will-be-new grammatical structures in context. Other books slyly used the new structures in the introductory material for each chapter. In either case, the students are forced to use the grammatical structures before they even understand what they are, which is a theoretically natural approach to grammar acquisition, and very interesting to see in books as early as 1989.

I really do not want to bog this blog (yay for rhyming!) down with nitty-gritty discussions on every grammar topic I examined, so I will just say this: every book had its own style. I unfortunately have not yet noticed anything very exciting in my notes as to changes in the presentation of specific topics, but will revisit this before my poster presentation in October.

Question #4: How did the textbook present the vocabulary for each section?

Lists, lists, lists…well, of course my explanation will be better than that, but that gives you the main idea – every book (except for Geni@l) had at least one list of vocabulary words for each section. Those with one list placed it after the chapter, while those with two per section put one list about two-thirds of the way into the chapter, covering the vocabulary of the chapter up to that point, with the remainder of the chapter’s vocabulary being covered in an additional and usually shorter list at the end of the chapter. Vocabulary in every book’s chapters was thematic by chapter, with the words being introduced in context through the opening sections, readings, and other sections involving the theme of each chapter. Other, additional vocabulary would be defined under the readings including them, but not included in the main vocabulary lists. Basically, the authors included primarily high-frequency words and phrases pertinent to being able to communicate information concerning each chapter’s theme in the vocabulary lists, and defined other, less-important and probably unfamiliar words when they appeared in context to avoid effecting comprehension. The primary vocabulary words also appeared in the glossaries (briefly mentioned above) at the end of the books.

All books proceeded to use the vocabulary in short, simple exercises after it was presented. For the most part these exercises had the student use the words in context, sometimes through a “Lückenübung” (fill-in the blank), other times through a word-matching exercise.

The main difference I found between books when dealing with vocabulary, besides how many lists the books’ chapters contained, was how the lists were constructed. Some books, mostly ones from the 80s and 90s, listed the vocabulary in alphabetical order; others, mostly the books from after 1997, first listed them by parts of speech, then in alphabetical order. I am guessing that this change I have seen here is not simply the result of a small sample-set, but I have neither seen nor heard about it in any of my sources, so it would be interesting to find out if it is actually a change in textbook formatting, and if so also research why that change occurred.

Question #5: How did the book present information on the German culture?

My findings in answer to this question actually surprised me to some extent. When I first proposed this project, I had expected to see a great increase over the years in the amount of German culture discussed in texts, as I did not think that culture would have been viewed as important in the 80s due to the fading presence of the Audio-Lingual Method. While I did see a large chronological increase, the increase was from a “great amount” of culture in the texts to “a ton” of culture in the texts, rather than from “very little” to “a lot,” which is what I had been expecting.

These results did, though, agree with a lot of what I found in my interviews (see previous blog post), so I guess I should not have been very surprised when even German, a Structural Approach (Lohnes, Strothmann;  1980) used pictures and texts portraying contemporary German culture and infused culture into its pattern sentences.

As I mentioned earlier, almost every book’s chapters contained at least one section that dealt with culture, and if it did not, there was some culture infused into the sections it did have. For most books, this section would be in English, though most that had a second section dealing with culture, such as those texts that had reading passages that concerned themselves with contemporary German life, would have the second section be “auf Deutsch” (in German). Usually the culture section in German grew longer as the chapters progressed, and these specific sections provided some extra vocabulary for the students. The cultural material always concerned itself with the theme of the chapter, and comprehension questions commonly followed cultural material in both English and German.

The most interesting item I discovered concerning cultural instructional material in the textbooks was the appearance of short cultural “blurbs” in textbooks, placed randomly in chapters. These blurbs were almost always in English and in some books were accompanied by pictures. These blurbs appeared in the books in the 90s and continued to appear after that, so this is a potential chronological textbook-format change. Other than this, though, I did not notice any changes over time in the cultural material of textbooks besides the magnitude, which I hypothesize is due to technological advances in the 90s and 21st century.

Question #6: How does the textbook develop the four skills of communication – reading, writing, speaking, and listening? Is this development balanced, or is the textbook lacking in the development of one or multiple skills?

I will speak of each of the four skills individually:

Reading –> Being that I evaluated textbooks, which are printed in order for students to read them, there was a rather consistent presence of reading material in the textbooks over time. I did notice an increase in the development of reading skills in the 21st century texts, as Treffpunkt Deutsch, 4th ed. (Widmaier, 2003) had pre- and post-reading exercises and Wie Geht’s?, 9th ed. (Sevin, 2011) had short “Lesetipps” (reading tips). Some of the books I examined, though, were introductory books and thus did not include readings in the material until later chapters. Overall, though, the development of reading skills was generally consistent over time.

Writing –> Writing-skills development was a different story when it came to the textbooks, in that there was a definite shift in the textbooks somewhere between 1997 and 2003. In every textbook published up to 1997, the only writing exercises were short and insignificant, such as sentence completions and the occasional formation of a conversation. In the books published in 2003 and later, though, there were actual writing activities in each chapter, given as either written responses to a reading or listening activity or a composition of some sort, such as the scripting of a dialogue. Wie Geht’s?, 9th ed. (Sevin, 2011) even had “Schreibtipps” (writing tips) alongside each post-reading writing activity.

Speaking –> Speaking was similar to writing with respect to the timeline; the emphasis seemed to change around the same time as the centuries, but it was the quality of the emphasis, not the magnitude, which changed. One can tell that there is definitely an emphasis on speaking the textbooks I examined between 1980 and 1998; there are plenty of given conversations and pronunciation exercises for students to use to speak and speak correctly. However, the development of fluency and more robust/natural speaking skills is absent; it is up to the teacher to be sure that the students are speaking in class and formulating their own sentences when they speak. Starting in one of the texts published in 1998 (Allerlei), I noticed the presence of roleplays, open-ended conversations, discussion topics, and other creative ways to force students to speak, while creating their own sentences and attempting to put their own thoughts into speech, which is essential in the development of speaking skills.

Listening –> The development of listening skills through the use of the textbooks I examined increased over time with the advances in technology at the time. Before audio-cassettes, development of listening was up to the teacher. After that advancement, most books used the audio-tape as a source of many listening comprehension exercises, and most of these tapes used native German speakers. Once the 21st century hit, though, the books I examined began using CDs and videos for listening skills fun, having students listening to and watch everything from pop music to sitcoms. The most important facet of these tapes, CDs, and videos, in my opinion, is the use of native German speakers, which I believe was the case in all of the books I examined.

I understand that this blog is obscenely long, but this is my outlet to communicate and record all of my findings. I will include a bibliography with all of my published sources with my summary blog, for those of you who are wondering where that is. I thank you profusely if you have read the entire post.  🙂