5 Ways to Learn a Language Using Textbooks

The first thing which comes to mind when starting to learn a language is using a textbook. When you are learning your first foreign language on your own, the obvious choice is to go for a textbook.

However, there is rarely thoughts put on how to use said textbook.

So here are 5 different ways to make the best out of your textbook.

1) Follow Directives

Let’s start with the obvious: you can use the textbook as it was originally planned to be used.

If you bought a textbook for beginners, it will start with the basics, teaching how to read, pronounce and then start digging in typical basic knowledge of the language.

Using the texts, exercises, and audio while following the directives given is a safe but sure bet to improve.

However, you can find yourself in front of the regular problem that is the method not fitting your learning style. In such cases, the below may be good options to try out.

2) Use it for Spaced-Repetition System

Memory works in the simplest of ways: the more you do something, the better you remember it.

For this reason, the Spaced-Repetition System (SRS) has been invented years ago with the goal to make learning easier by bringing back up flashcards are the right time for your brain to remember their content. The more time passes by (and you remember it), the later it will appear again.

The most famous one is called Anki and there are countless flashcard decks available already.

However, the best way to use an SRS is to create your own decks composed of what you are learning, in the way you prefer. For this too, there are numerous types of flashcard you can create to fit your needs but let’s focus on the content for now.

A) Vocabulary Focus

The obvious first choice is to write down words and expressions you come across in the textbook with their meaning on the other side.

For this, you can put the meaning alone in your native language, or the definition in your target language if you are at a higher level.

Some people also add an example on the front side or the audio on one of the sides too. If you prefer learning without translation (as the Rosetta Stone method for instance), you can put an image on the other side.

B) Sentence Focus

Similarly, some people prefer to focus on learning full sentences. That is one of the methods AJATT pushes forward, stating that by learning 10,000 sentences, the connection between each slowly get stronger and thus gives you a natural handle of the target language.

While I am personally not a fan of this method, it has its merits and especially when it comes to traveling. Learning set sentences which will be of use to you directly can allow for a quick use a few weeks or months from now.

If you prefer focusing on sentences, you could set flashcards in three potential ways:

  1. Sentence on one side — meaning on the other
  2. Sentence on one side — answer or follow-up on the other
  3. Sentence on one side — Context on the other

Obviously, those can be reversed as well to allow for a more active study.

Finally, you can create what are called cloze deletion cards which are a more active way of studying, by leaving a blank in the sentence and asking you to fill it.

C) Grammar focus

Finally, if you are more of a systematic learner and prefer to focus on grammar to improve, you can take grammar patterns from your textbook and put them in your SRS of choice.

This can be done in a few different ways but here are a few options I would advise on:

  1. Just put the grammar patterns on one side and its definition/use on the other side
  2. Put a grammar pattern on one side and a few examples on the other side
  3. Put a few examples on one side and an explanation of its use and meaning on the other side

Again, it could be a great idea to also reverse those flashcards to vary the focus.

3) Writing practice

Another way to use a textbook is writing practice. Based on your level this can vary drastically.

Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash

A) Beginners

If you are a beginner, copying words, phrases and/or grammar patterns by hand will take time. However, this time will also be an advantage as you will have more time to let the knowledge of the written system or sentence construction cement in your brain.

I have been doing this daily for Burmese for the past 6 months and have not only seen my handwriting getting better but also my understanding of the script skyrocket.

B) Intermediate and above

From an intermediate level, you can push yourself further through different methods but here a few to start you off.

a) Take a sentence and modify it a 5 to 10 times using other styles.

For this, you can start by just changing a word, then follow-up with adding extra ones to make the sentence longer.

Another choice can be to change its grammatical form. Turning an affirmative sentence into a negative one, or a question, or even a subjective one. The possibilities are limitless.

b) Take a sentence or topic from the textbook and create a conversation off of it

This could be considered as the next stage. Use your imagination to push further and create conversations or monologues about a certain topic.

Obviously, this doesn’t come easy for everyone and starting with a short conversation may be a good idea to trigger your brain around said topic, pushing you to find related words, synonyms and so on.

c) Write a full-on thesis on a sentence or topic

Again, the stage above, which expects more time to work on but can be a great asset to dig deeper on any topic, allowing all your skills to come to fruition together.

You can then ask friends or people online to help correct your mistakes and find regular patterns in your thinking in your target language.

Such a method can be particularly useful for those of you blocked on the intermediate plateau.

4) Improve Your Passive Skills

Why do you think babies born in London have a British accent and not an American one? They listen and listen, constantly, even before they pronounce their first word.

Most textbooks nowadays come with audio which can be leveraged even when you are not in an active learning session.

You can put the audio on your phone to listen to it on the go or put it in the background in your home when doing another task. While this isn’t an action which will provide you with the pleasure of improvement you can get when studying actively, this allows you to improve crucial passive skills.

Listening to a language a lot without speaking it too much will allow you to improve not only your listening skills but also your pronunciation for when you will actually start using it.

It is a great practice which is unfortunately too often overlooked.

5) Create Your Own Textbook

Another way to use textbooks is to use them as a reference and create your own sort of textbook.

Taking notes related to similar topics, combining similar information about the same topic from different textbooks, creating new examples and vocabulary lists are tasks which will strain your brain but also make matters stick better.

You can also use this opportunity to answer questions about nuances and such which bother you.

This is what I have been doing with Burmese, combining and creating my own sort of textbook on this blog by uniting information I get around to answer questions I have about the language and which may be of interest to others too.


Learning a language is a tough task and textbooks are an incredible resource to use.

Be careful not to think there can only be one way to use them. The above are only a few of the countless ways you can make sure you utilize them to the best of your ability.

Of course, combining the above, based on your level and learning style, is an even better solution which I would advise to anybody.

Do you use textbooks at all? And if yes, what’s your style?

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