After teaching college German for over 20 years, I feel like I have some idea of which features are important in a German textbook and what does or does not work in a real-life classroom. Of course, teaching ideology has changed several times in the past few decades, and textbooks always try to jump on the latest instructional bandwagon, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. The integration of newer media can be exciting for both teacher and student, but it can also detract from actual learning when it attempts to turn the learning experience into an entertainment event. I am all for making language instruction fun and incorporating various approaches for different types of learners, but not all German textbooks succeed at finding a good balance between fun and actual, useful instruction. Here are my thoughts on some of the textbooks I have personally used.
1. Deutsch Heute (9th ed.)
It seems that, as teachers, we are forever trying to find the perfect textbook for our classes. At my school, the most recent entry in the quest for the perfect textbook has been Deutsch Heute (9th ed.), which we started using at the beginning of this semester. By now, I think I’m in a position to give a preliminary review of this textbook.
The Good: There is a lot of audio available on the textbook CD, which helps with listening comprehension and pronunciation; each chapter is followed by a “Wiederholung” section and a summary of the grammar concepts for the chapter; each chapter features several brief cultural reading texts in English; different language skills (reading, listening, grammar) are well balanced in each chapter; the vocab flashcards on the publisher’s website are very useful.
The Bad: I feel that the grammar sections are really choppy with a lot of small grammar issues that subsequently are not even addressed on the chapter tests that go with the book; the vocabulary is broken up into two sections, which I feel detracts from the continuity of the chapter; the grammar charts within the chapters are woefully inadequate, although they are more usefully presented in the grammar summary at the end of each chapter; the amount of material covered in each chapter is not well-balanced and sometimes overwhelming. For example, chapter 3 introduces the accusative (definite and indefinite articles, possessive pronouns, personal pronouns, and prepositions), which makes sense, but then it also throws in tiny units on the imperative, time-place word order, “wissen” and “kennen”, masculine N-nouns, units of measurement, the conjugation of three irregular verbs, and compound nouns. I think that dealing with the accusative case in its entirety would have been quite enough for one chapter.
The Ugly: The practice exercises are completely inadequate. For each of the many small units of grammar covered in each chapter, there is usually only one brief exercise, which often is not even helpful to the students. The section dealing with masculine n-nouns, for instance, is followed by one fill-in-the-blank exercise with ten blanks. Six of the ten blanks, however, call for the n-noun to be used in the nominative, which does not do much for practicing the concept. If you expect that the student activities manual will provide additional practice, you may be disappointed as well. Although each chapter contains about eight pages of exercises, they are too complex and complicated to truly allow students to practice the concepts on their own. For example, instead of focusing a specific practice exercise on one thing, such as accusative pronouns, the exercises often combine a number of issues (such as accusative pronouns, definite and indefinite articles as well as possessive pronouns) into one exercise. As a result, the exercises don’t really help the students to master one concept at a time. The textbook tests, on the other hand, are almost insultingly simple at times and either gloss over much of the material covered in the chapter or don’t include it at all.
The Low-Down: Deutsch Heute is not among my favorite textbooks, although it does have some interesting features. If you are planning on using it in your classroom, you had better be prepared to come up with a lot of additional practice exercises on your own (or maybe find some on this site).
Deutsch Heute Student Companion Website: offers some practice materials such as practice tests and audio flashcards (9th ed.). A new edition of
There are various activities on this website that are designed to go with Deutsch Heute (worksheets, online exercises etc.). Use the search function. There is also a separate page of vocabulary activities for Deutsch Heute.
2. Kontakte (7th ed.)
The latest contender in the textbook battle at my university has been Kontakte (7th ed.), and I am almost hesitant to call it a “textbook” because it is really more of a very loose travel guide along an unexplained path to not learning German. It calls itself “A Communicative Approach,” which to language teachers, in the current “it” incarnation of teaching methodology, is supposed to be a good thing. Let’s just get students to talk and not worry about such things as grammar, logic, or repetitive practice. This method is supposed to imitate the “natural” process of acquiring a new language with lots of vocab and audio exposure but very little guidance. Unfortunately, this theory fails to recognize the fact that “natural” language learning does not happen without endless repetitions and that the language learning experience for most college students is anything but a natural process since their exposure to the language is limited to just a few hours a week. To pretend that they are living in an actual German-speaking, sink-or-swim environment is simply not doing them any favors. Moreover, most of them are not able or willing to detach themselves from their hard-earned analytical abilities to surrender to the type of “just-go-with-the-flow” approach that Kontakte espouses. They actually would like to know why things are the way they are and be able to discern some patterns. Unfortunately, that is not high on the priority list in this textbook.
The Good: The book is visually engaging with a lot of pictures, but they also make the learner realize more acutely that there is not much substance to fill up the space around the pictures. Some of the audio and video clips that were produced specifically for Kontakte are quite useful.
The Bad: The amount of vocabulary per chapter is simply excessive, and I get the feeling the authors were actively trying to downplay the overwhelming vocabulary expectations by sneaking in sections which they call “Ähnliche Wörter” (similar words) for which they don’t provide English equivalents and simply assume that the students can figure out what they mean. What’s worse, though, is the fact that, despite the large vocab sections, exercises and sentences often contain words that have NOT been introduced in the vocabulary. I also find the choice of words included in the early chapters quite odd. In almost thirty years of teaching German I have never found words like “Haarschnitt” (haircut) or “Gruselfilm” (horror movie) to be essential vocab in chapter 2 of a textbook. In addition, Kontakte is poorly organized and woefully light on practice exercises. There are a number of oral activities and/or partner activities in the textbook, but some of them are quite useless. For example, any exercise in which students are supposed to ask fellow students a question and have them sign in the book after they answer it are pointless in a situation where students rent the textbook and therefore are not allowed to write in the book. Of course, we could copy those exercises for classroom use, but—alas: that is copyright infringement and, as such, frowned upon in our establishment. Generally, each grammar item that is introduced in the grammar section of the book is followed by 2-3 exercises, but the exercises are of poor quality and do not reflect in any way whether students have actually understood the concept. The workbook that accompanies the textbook offers a few more exercises, but they, too, are not particularly useful or sufficient. For some of the workbook exercises relating to cultural issues, it is very difficult for students to find the answers anywhere in the pertinent chapter. Furthermore, Kontakte is trying to make itself look “hip” and up-to-date by including music videos for each chapter, but the video choices are exceedingly bad. The lyrics of the songs in the early chapters are way above the students’ level of comprehension, and the book offers no relevant exercises that would justify using those videos.
The Ugly: Not only my students, at times, are scratching their heads trying to figure out what is going on in this book. There are sentences and items in the book and the workbook where I immediately found myself asking “Woah! Where did we cover this?” and the answer, after some searching through all the chapter pages, is “We didn’t.” Some of these situations were just editorial inadequacies (such as the inclusion of a chapter 2 workbook section on the movie “In July,” which was removed from chapter 2 of the textbook in the 7th edition), but some leave me with the impression that the authors didn’t really care and were just hoping for the best, namely that students would figure it out on their own. I am not fundamentally opposed to the “figure-it-out-as-you-go” approach, but I also feel that as teaching instruments, both teachers and textbooks are obligated to provide students with the necessary tools to succeed with such an approach. Kontakte as a textbook is only doable with heavy teacher-provided supplementation. The really ugly thing with this textbook, in my opinion, is the fact that students are expected to pay extra for things that should come standard with the textbook, such as sufficient practice exercises. McGraw-Hill offers additional online activities for the textbook, but they, again, cost a pretty penny, even for those students who have already purchased the textbook and the workbook. The Low-Down: I would not recommend Kontakte to anyone unless they have a) a teacher who is willing to provide a lot of extra practice material, b) are willing to use outside sources to find information that is missing in the textbook/workbook, and c) are willing to abandon their desire to know why things are the way they are and what the logic is behind some of the German rules.
There are various activities on this website that are designed to go with Kontakte (worksheets, online exercises etc.). Use the search function. There is also a separate page of vocabulary activities for Kontakte.