Authoring Foreign Language Textbooks/Useful tricks

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The intention of this page is to share the tricks that authors of foreign language textbooks have employed / developed / come up with. Writing a wiki-book is obviously not the same as writing a hard copy book or teaching someone a language in school and this provides both challenges and opportunities.


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An unknown audience

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Wikibook authors never know who will read their product, what their reader is after, what his/her background is, how many languages they already know, whether they know any grammar etc. The challenge is then to provide content that is attractive and useful for as broad an audience as possible. A high school teacher or teacher at an immersion class faces many challenges, but not these ones. In that sense the page How to Teach a Language is rather useless in our situation or at least not of direct use. No, we cannot break the ice in our class by doing a game with our 12 students[1], but we do have ways to try to involve our students interactively and this is educationally a very desirable thing to do.

Oral versus visual

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Written text is in general a rather poor way of teaching a language. Children learn languages by ear long before they can even read or write. This means that our main means of communicating: written text is a limited tool. This even holds for languages that are pretty phonetic in their orthography. People simply learn better by ear and by context than from symbols on a screen.

Register, regional differences etc.

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Which version of the language should be taught? All languages have different registers; that is, the style and tone of a language can change by situation or location. The language of the boardroom is not the same as the language of a back alley.

Similarly, most languages have regional differences. The Dutch spoken in Antwerp is not precisely the same as that spoken in Utrecht, and the same goes for the German of Köln as opposed to Vienna.

There is also the challenge of language changing over time. The English of Dickens is not that of Obama. We probably want to teach language as broadly as we can, sometimes highlighting one variety, sometimes the other. We cannot be partial because that violates NPOV.


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WikiMedia offers many opportunities that classical books do not have.

  1. First and foremost those are the ability to link to other pages, to Wikipedia, Wiktionary etc., to put in footnotes, references etc. This helps in making the same content useful to different types of readers, as long as we make sure they can find the specific content that they are after. We must make sure it is retrievable. If we do a good job at that, that partly remedies the "unknown audience" problem.
  2. Secondly there is wikimedia commons with all its visual media and an increasing amount of sound files, mostly of individual words ,due to wiktionary. (For Dutch e.g. pretty much any word -including word forms- that WikiWoordenboek contains are available as sound file (May 2015). Of varying quality, but they are there).
  3. Thirdly we can link to outside sources, e.g. videos on YouTube that might teach language more as children learn it: playfully and surreptitiously.

The question is how best to exploit those opportunities to make our language textbooks more attractive and more effective for our varied audience.


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Tricks may very well be personal and style dependent. Teaching is something we all do in our own way. (wrong[2]) So I will sign each trick and hope others will add theirs as time goes on. The key word is interactivity. Anything we can get the reader to get involved into interactively is a strengthening of our wikibook.

Practicing tricks

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Hover trick

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There is a small template called "C" that allows what I call the hover trick. Just try to put your mouse on the underlined word. The syntax is

{{C|some word|whatever you want to pop up when they hover}}

I use it in new conversations or other text, but also for the blanks in fill-in-the-blank tests.

E.g. do you know what the Dutch word worst means?


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To train vocabulary as well as practice some grammar or syntax just taught I use fill in the blank tests, like:

These tests are use to train ____ as well practice some ____ or ____

A variation on this theme is to create, say ten, sentences each with a blank and give the missing words in arbitrary order for people to fill in, like:

Put these missing words in the appropriate sentence: create, missing, tests.
I use fill in the blank ____.
A variation on this theme it to ____, say, ten sentences.
Give the ____ words.

Recycling words

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I try to keep track of the words (in Excel) introduced in each lesson and use them in e.g. fill-in-the-blank tests in the next lesson.

Word swapping

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In Dutch pronouns for subjects and objects are different. I construct sentences and ask people to swap subject and object, like:

Yesterday I saw him in the rose garden
Yesterday he saw me in the rose garden

Color coding

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For word swaps or changes in syntax I sometimes use color coding. The syntax is:

<span style="color:blue;">something</span>

It yields:


There are also templates that do the same like {{blue|something}} gives something.

Collapsible text

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I use a doubly collapsible box to give an exercise and give the answer key as well. Open the box to see the exercise

YOUR TURN - UW BEURT!! • Useful tricks • Open the box to see the exercise

Put the [given verb] in the past tense and in the correct position in the phrase

[to practice]: Hopefully he enough.
SOLUTION • Authoring Foreign Language Textbooks/Useful tricks • Open the box to see the exercise
Hopefully he practiced enough.

Tricks involving sound files

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Audio word files

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Of course the availability varies for the different languages. Making them yourself is an option, but a tedious one and you do want to make good ones, preferably from a variety of mother tongue speakers. But suppose they are there: how to use them? IMHO there are a number of ways.

First of all: there are different ways of putting them on the page. I like two of them. The full one is:

  • [[file:nl-lijnrijderij.ogg]]. This gives:

But for embedding in tables and such, I prefer a smaller one:

  • [[image:nl-lijnrijderij.ogg|noicon|20px]]. This gives:

As simple additions to words discussed

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E.g. when discussing the primitive forms of a Dutch verb like breken, I give the pronunciations on the right of the page:

breken - brak - braken - gebroken

The syntax is

| {{knp2|breken}} || {{knp2|brak}} || {{knp2|braken}} || {{knp2|gebroken}}

With visual images

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Whenever there is space on the right hand side of a grammar story or a conversation I try to include an image of a particular word that occurs in it with an audio link in the caption. I wrote some small templates (knop and knp2) as a shortcut for that to make generating these things easier. They can easily be adapted for other languages The syntax is:

[[File:Richard Riemerschmid Stuhl 1905 Dresdner Werkstätten für Handwerkskunst 1.jpg|thumb|100px|de {{knp2|stoel}}]]

Obviously this works fine for concrete nouns but not so much for verbs, adverb etc.

Visual vocabulary practice pages

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These are simply collections of audio+visual images around a certain theme, say fruits, see Dutch/Vocabulary/Fruit for an example Of course the danger of such pages is that they get too long or that commons delinker will wipe out the image or that they will be ignored. I therefor use them as assignments for some of the exercises. For some I have added self-test pages for those who want ot test themselves on their Dutch vocabulary of fruits, see: Dutch/Vocabulary/Fruit/Selftest. I use the hover trick to facilitate checking their answers.


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Finding suitable images for a word like between is a challenge and so I have started to dabble a bit more into inkscape and vector graphics to make some simple icons that depict such a concept. As these files are .svg it is possible to open them simply in notepad, use ctrl+f to 'find' the Dutch word (tussen) and replace it by whatever it is in Punjabi or whatever your language is.


Vocabulary boxes

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I have been putting collapsible boxes with vocabulary on the right side of the screen for some of the conversations, so that people can open these while trying to figure out the new material. I ask them to do that by by hovering, but I usually also give them a translation in a box they can open under the text.

Translation • Useful tricks • Example

Here the translation would come

The syntax for the collapsible box is:

{|class="wikitable collapsible collapsed" style="float:right"
|de {{Nlwikt|stoel}}||[[file:nl-stoel.ogg]]||chair

Rather than putting the table on each page I have switched to using a template template:Dutch/Vocab-box for that.

Unfortunately, for some reason I cannot put the small arrow icon in these tables and the full one also runs into trouble when there are too many sound files on a page. If anyone knows how to fix that I'd be very happy.

Practice lessons and Example lessons

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People need practice. Some more than others. I am now in the process of creating two parallel lines of lessons to the 22 lessons that mostly deal with grammar and syntax, although they do already contain conversations and various assignments / tests etc. The practice lessons simple give more practice without expanding the scope of the grammar. It is a good place to send people to the visual vocabulary pages and increase their vocabulary, usually on a certain topic, say landscape or vegetables or so. In the example lessons I try to present something cultural like a song or a poem. For the first couple of them I discuss a children's poem, nursery rhyme etc, preferably one that YouTube has a video about. Children's stuff is wonderful because its vocabulary is limited. E.g. do you know this song? And after watching it can you tell me what the Dutch word for sheep is? (If you scroll down a little the full text is right underneath the video)


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Outside sites like Memrise and Quizlet provide an interesting way to boost the acquisition of vocabulary. I have made Quizlet data sets for the vocabulary contained in each lesson and added a link to the pertaining Quizlet set at the bottom of the lesson. Jcwf (discusscontribs) 20:36, 16 July 2015 (UTC)

Keeping score

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I have created an Excel spreadsheet in which I keep track which term/word is introduced in each lesson. This serves two purposes:

  1. being able to tell readers how much vocabulary they are supposed to learn from a lesson and giving a cumulative count of terms.
  2. being able to construct exercises and quizzes in later lessons in which the material is revisited.

Jcwf (discusscontribs) 20:36, 16 July 2015 (UTC)


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The quiz tool is active on this site and facilitates the introduction of quizzes.

There are a number of ways they can be used.

1 this is an example of filling in the blank

What is the name of this site

2 but you can combine it with audio or video

What is this word?

3 It is also possible to construct multiple choice questions. Which words belong together?

weatherfoodtransportationdwarf planet


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  1. I usually have more like 198 or so
  2. As my grandfather would have added.