The Learnables approach to foreign language works well for homeschooling families for at least four reasons:
- flexibility for different age learners from elementary grades through high school (and even adults!)
- does not require the parent to know or teach the language
- multisensory format works for many different learning styles
- inductive, experiential methodology is a more natural learning method than traditional approaches to foreign language acquisition
The Learnables feature an immersion approach that uses illustrations and pictures with no text to build good listening skills that are essential in conversation. This type of learning happens prior to any reading in a foreign language.
Lessons are presented either in books along with audio CDs or on CD-ROMs. This approach builds vocabulary and teaches sentence structure from extensive listening. The methodology aims to develop understanding and comprehension first then follow with reading, speaking, and writing skills in that order. This is similar to the way most of us learned English, except a child learns to speak before reading. The Learnables emphasis is on vocabulary and understanding and, most importantly, learning to think in the foreign language.
Books and CDs are gradually being replaced by versions that are completely computer-based. For some languages, only book and CD versions are available, for some only computer-based versions, and for some both versions are available. The cost is the same whichever version you select. (Computer versions have CDs specific to either Windows or Mac systems, so be certain to order the correct version.)
For the most part, the same picture books and computer illustrations are used with each language. However the sequence of sentences and some of the illustrations are specific to the language. All ages should start with Level 1 (either the computer version or a book with four CDs). Lessons begin with words and short phrases whose meaning is obvious from the pictures. Translation is not given. If the student is in doubt, repetition of a word in another picture will likely clear things up. Sentences gradually become more complex as do the pictures. Pronunciation is very clear. There are similar sets of books with CDs for three levels in French, and five or more levels in Spanish or German. English for ESL students has six levels. Fewer levels are available for Russian, Hebrew, Chinese, and Japanese.
This approach is more enjoyable than typical programs of either the textbook variety or the audio CDs that have you simply repeat the foreign language phrases after the speaker. The learner must think about what is happening in the pictures to understand the meaning. The illustrations used in The Learnables also add visual memory association to the words students hear, increasing vocabulary retention.
The computer versions work just like the book and CD versions, but they also feature some games, photographs, and movies that enhance the learning process.
It is sufficient for children in the early elementary grades to work through the picture books and CDs or computer programs. Older students need exposure to written forms of the language and its grammar. The Basic Structures and Grammar Enhancement programs from The Learnables add these elements.
Basic Structures programs are designed as companions for each level. Thus far, Basic Structures is available for four levels of Spanish, three levels of French and German, and one level of Russian and Hebrew. Advanced level (a fourth level) for French uses a different type of book that includes paragraphs with pictures. The number of CDs for each Basic Structures course varies depending upon the language.
Basic Structures books include pictures with phrases or sentences plus a very few reading and writing activities without pictures. The primary goal with Basic Structures is learning to read the language rather than learning to write it. Vocabulary in each Basic Structures program is very similar to that of the corresponding picture book program. Students listen to the CDs, read the phrases and sentences, and sometimes do matching, fill-in-the-blank, or similar written exercises. These can be done on separate paper so you are able to reuse the same book with more than one child. However, additional books are available without CDs if you need them. Basic Structures might be used with students from about fourth grade and up. Junior high and high school students definitely should use Basic Structures after completing each level of The Learnables picture books.
Grammar is not taught directly within either the picture books or Basic Structures programs, but students do acquire practical grammatical knowledge from actually using the language. At elementary levels this does not present a problem as it does for high school where students are expected to study the grammar of whatever foreign language they are learning. This is where Grammar Enhancements come in.
Grammar Enhancement programs are available for Spanish, French and German. Each Grammar Enhancement set includes a book and four CDs or a computer version for Spanish or French ($75 each for either version). These are designed to be used after completion of Level 1 of a language, both the picture book program and Basic Structures. Thus, you could have young children work through only the picture book, intermediate children adding Basic Structures, and teens continuing through Grammar Enhancement. Alternatively, you could have students complete both Levels 1 and 2 before tackling Grammar Enhancement.
The publisher sells a package of Grammar Enhancement with Level 2 materials, suggesting it be used at the beginning of Level 2. However, if you are trying to create something comparable to a typical first year high school language course, Grammar Enhancement is essential alongside the Level 1 resources. Grammar Enhancement uses vocabulary from Level 1 and adds a great deal more. For example, in the Spanish course, the preterit tense is introduced in Grammar Enhancement but not in the other Level 1 books. Yet, the preterit tense is typically taught in a first year course. However, the order of teaching grammatical structures differs in immersion programs from grammar programs. In the end, students in an immersion program know not only the grammar, but how the grammar is used in sentences to enable them to talk automatically without reference to grammar, just as we speak English.
Grammatically, Grammar Enhancement focuses on prepositions, pronouns, plurals, and verbs. The second-year Basic Structures books continue teaching grammatical forms. Should a student wish to become fluent, there are advanced books in German and Spanish that cover all of the advanced grammar concepts in context with a sufficiently large vocabulary. The Grammar Enhancement book contains the words from the CDs as well as pictures, but no instruction is given in English and no grammar rules are provided. Instead, many examples are given so students learn the sometimes subtle distinctions as they look for patterns and listen to the correct usage. This method might be more effective for some students than traditional instruction about grammar rules.
None of the components requires any significant amount of writing, and there is no built-in requirement that students actually speak the language, although this is likely to happen naturally. If students really intend to learn to speak the language, there is really no substitute for immersion where the student listens to and converses with native language speakers.
The program is set up with four levels for most languages. Most of the time each level follows a similar plan. Spanish students have available to them many levels as well as specialized vocabulary books on verb usage that teach the modals and all the tenses in the context of interesting stories. There are also specialized books on eating, transportation, walking, and placement (use of Spanish words for place, put, lift, reach, etc.). German students also have many optional advanced books that teach in depth the important components of the German language.
It is impossible to correlate levels of this program directly with traditional language courses, although the combination of Learnables 1, Basic Structures 1, and Grammar Enhancement could be considered a first year course. The publisher claims that the four levels of Spanish are equivalent to four high school years, while four levels of German and French are equivalent to 3.5 high school years. High school students should aim to complete the four levels (and probably the fifth level of Spanish as well) using all basic components available for each level. The specialized vocabulary books would be optional elements.
The Learnables are continuing to update their courses by adding games, movies and advanced books and digital versions. Christians might want to use the supplemental Bible Stories in Spanish, French, or German (includes a book and CD for $25 each) after completion of Level 2. These incorporate all major biblical terms.