GPA versus traditional textbook approaches

How does GPA compared with traditional textbook approaches? Is it possible to combine the two? Is it confusing and inefficient? Or is there synergy and mutual benefit?

When I first began Mandarin language study, doing 50/50 traditional textbook and GPA classes, I wasn’t entirely sure how it would pan out. In theory, I expected the two approaches to work well together, rather than conflict. Now that I’m almost 1 year in, I can say for certain – it works well. There is lots of synergy and no conflicts. The strengths and weaknesses of each method balance each other out, and they mutually reinforce each other.

To help explain why this is so, here’s a loose comparison of the two methods.

ListeningNot a big focus. Most of the time in class you will be listening to your teacher read content from the book, or discuss the themes in the lesson. You will be expected to (somehow) find listening opportunities at your level outside the classroom.The #1 focus in GPA is to constantly grow your listening ability, by exposing you to natural content in your Growth Zone. There are also specific classroom exercises to fine-tune your ear.
SpeakingBig focus, but mostly on producing correct speech, relating to the textbook content and themes. Limited free speaking time.The #2 focus in GPA is to grow your natural (unscripted) speaking ability.
ReadingMajor focus (may vary for diff languages). None — GPA doesn’t cover this.
WritingProbably some opportunity to focus on this – perhaps via homework & getting feedback.None — GPA doesn’t cover this.
VocabMedium amounts of vocab, provided as lists of words to be rote learnt outside of class time, with English definitions. Often sightly out of date compared to current usage, sometimes slightly formal, and sometimes with unhelpful English translations. Limited exposure to idioms and figures of speech, since they’re not so neat & tidy to translate.Thousands & thousands of vocab, all learnt interactively during class time without the use of any English. Always up to date and reflecting current natural usage, since your teacher supplies the vocab naturally on the spot. Naturally includes lots of idioms and figures of speech.
SentencesScripted. Small range of artificial sentences written by the textbook author to illustrate grammar. Unscripted. Thousands of natural sentences spoken on the spot by your tutor, and recorded.
GrammarLearnt by explicit instruction. Big focus on producing correct grammar, with lots of English explanation and grammatical terms.Learnt through constant exposure and opportunity to practice. No formal grammar instruction and no English definitions. Fun & interactive techniques provided to practice areas you find hard.
PronounciationMajor focus on PRODUCING. Lots of drills, lots of instant on the spot correction, and probably some explicit mouth & tongue instruction. Usually very little focus on hearing.Major focus on HEARING. Lots of activities to tune your ear to distinguish correctly. Not much focus on doing lots of drills and explicit instruction.
Mental IntensityMedium/High. Usually you’re trying to use multiple skills (listening, reading, speaking) all at the same time, and facing strict correction of your mistakes.Low/Medium. Your goal is simply to communicate naturally with whatever language ability you have, and correction is gentle.
Prep & HomeworkUsually textbook prep required before every class, and lots of review required afterwords. Sometimes homework and written tests etc.No textbook. Just hours and hours of listening to your recordings (e.g. when doing chores, exercising, or on the bus).
Lesson contentActivity based, trying to help adult learners complete adult tasks in their new culture. Often means you learn (in theory) how to go to the post shop and follow a script to post a letter, but don’t know how to say ‘walk’, ‘jump’, ‘crouch’, since those are considered unimportant words for completing adult activities. Frequency based. Begins with the basic vocab every child should know (actions, body parts, common life objects), and progresses to stories and then discourse. P1 also includes activity based scripts by simply helping you memorize them, even if you don’t know the grammar.
CultureVery low. Language textbooks are designed by language nerds to teach language. There will probably be token small amounts of culture discussion, and you’ll probably have small discussions with your tutor, but the curriculum is mostly all about language.Very high. GPA is unique in this regard. You discuss dozens of life stories with people, you learn all the local cultural stories kids grow up with, and all of this doubles up as a language learning tool. It’s brilliant.
Laughter level
(I couldn’t resist)
Low. Since the content is artificial, you are at the mercy of the textbook author, and language nerds are not known for their humor. Plus, your teacher has probably been through the same content 50 times already. So most of your class time the content itself will be rather dull.High. Expect to laugh lots. Since all the content is live interaction between you and your tutor, every GPA class is a unique experience. You & your tutor get to enjoy learning each others personalities, playing games & inventing stories together.

Note #1: Obviously, I’m generalizing about textbook approaches to language learning here, so each particular language and textbook might vary, but generally speaking most textbook methods will be similar – lesson content based on predefined vocab, grammar patterns, and sentences.

How GPA helps your textbook classes

Because my vocab and natural language exposure was so high from my GPA classes, I usually found that at least 50% of each new textbook lesson was already familiar to me. I would know 50-80% of the vocab already. And most of the grammar patterns were already slightly familiar, and not completely foreign. This means:

  • Textbook progress is much faster, compared to people just doing textbook only.
  • The mental intensity of the textbook classes is much lower, since the amount of completely new content is lower, making for a less tiring and (slightly) more enjoyable experience.
  • More time can be spent focusing on new content – especially grammatical structures.
  • More mental energy is available to focus on pronounciation as well.
  • Your GPA classes provide you with an easy regular opportunity to practice the new content you’ve been learning in your textbook classes.
  • Some of the techniques you learn in your GPA classes can be used to in your textbook classes to make learning more interactive.

How textbook classes help your GPA progress

From Phase 1 onwards, GPA has no set lesson plans or vocab lists to learn. Instead, every GPA hour, you start with your existing language ability – wherever it has come from, be it textbook classes, previous GPA classes — and move forward from there. Basically, whatever you learn in your textbook classes — whether it’s vocab, grammar structures, or pronunciation — can immediately be put to use in your GPA classes. From a textbook point of view, your GPA classes function as conversational practice.

There is one slight exception here, and that’s GPA Phase 1. I did GPA P1 in parallel with textbook classes. This wasn’t my preference, it was a comprise in order to reassure my supervising organisation, since they were unfamiliar with GPA and had existing textbooks they really liked using. Overall it worked fine, but, it would have been a better combination to do GPA P1 first on a full-time basis, and then commence some parallel textbook classes from GPA P2 onwards. I’ll probably write more about this in another post. It’s not a major issue, and there’s certainly no negative impact.

How has this worked for me?

Overall, it’s been great. I started with 12 class hours per week – 6 textbook, 7 GPA, roughly 50/50. Right now, I’m doing 14 hrs/wk, 10 GPA and 4 textbook, which is a better ratio I think. Because of my family situation, I fit my classes into 3 days a week, Mon/Wed/Thurs, and do 4-5hrs each day. Normally, if they were all textbook classes, this would be exhausting, but because of the relaxed nature of GPA it’s actually quite doable.

In my textbook classes, I’m selective in what I focus on. Since GPA is giving me heaps of grammar exposure, I can ignore all the English grammar descriptions in the textbook, and use class time to practice speaking and using grammar structures with my teacher. Often I might have met a grammar structure once in GPA, but the textbook will provide a bunch more examples of how it can be used, filling out my knowledge a bit. The other main benefit of the textbook classes is to progress my reading ability and pronounciation.

Also, as noted above, the GPA grammar activities (e.g. input & output flooding with picture books) can be used to practice and revise textbook content. So, sometimes during my textbook classes, when we encounter a new grammar structure which I’m struggling with, I’ll use the GPA grammar techniques to revise it on the spot. I find this a lot more productive than trying to rote learn at home. You can do the same for vocab – record your textbook tutor creating lots of sample sentences, all in the target language, to give you rich content to review.

Who would this be good for?

I can think of a few different reasons why you might want to consider this combination:

  • Visa requirements for the country you hope to live & learn language in.
  • Policies from your supervising organisation (my situation).
  • Your target language has a complex writing system, and you want to start learning it early (also my situation).
  • Your own personal learning style – rote learning and grammar instruction does work well for some people (or so I’ve heard).

You can also consider this even if you’ve already started language study, since GPA is a fairly flexible method. For example, if you’re already 6-12 months into language learning using textbook methods, you can easily pick up GPA, test which Phase suits your level of language ability, and get started.