Breaking the Spanish Barrier is a rigorous high school level Spanish program, available for three levels. The third level is often used to prepare students for AP and SAT II exams. I reviewed only Level One, but the format is similar for all levels.
Breaking the Spanish Barrier might be one of the most affordable options for those looking for a course that teaches both grammar and practical conversational usage. A “self-learner” set for each level includes a worktext, answer key, handy phrase reference booklet, and two sets of audio CDs. You may purchase tests for an additional $20. Students can work independently through most of the lessons, but a number of conversational activities are included where students are supposed to practice asking and answering the scripted questions provided. Extra conversational questions for each lesson are available for free on the publisher’s website. A teacher, parent, or another student should interact with the learner for these activities. However, if this is not practical, students may listen to the questions on one of the CDs then write their responses. Audio CDs and interactive exercises are meant to ensure that students can understand the spoken language and that they get plenty of practice speaking it themselves, so I would encourage you to find a way to have students complete these exercises orally.
The first ten lessons, called “First Steps” and labeled as steps rather than lessons, are not much different than what you might encounter in a conversational course. Pronunciation is taught along with simple, commonly used phrases and the words “un, una,” and “hay.” The rest of the book is divided into twelve lessons, with each lesson comprised of sets of activities that should take a number of sessions to complete. Each lesson concludes with a quiz. For traditional classrooms, there is a teacher edition of the worktext that has overprinted answers. To lower costs for home educators and others doing independent study, they created the “self-learner” sets which have an Answer Key Booklet that comes as a set of loose pages in a page protector rather than a teacher edition.
Each lesson opens with a map and information about a Spanish-speaking country. However, nothing within the lesson ties to them so students are likely to skip over them. Following the map page is a list of the vocabulary to be taught in the lesson. Lessons are divided into three or four sections, with each section concentrating on a grammatical concept such as verbs in the present tense. Instruction is followed by examples and practice exercises. That sounds rather prosaic, but the layout and style of the exercises makes this more interesting than other textbooks. Exercises might be fill-in-the-blanks, matching, translations, completing conjugations, or “editing” by identifying errors in a paragraph. The content is very practical, but it also includes many references to people famous in the popular culture and politics such as Penelope Cruz, George Lopez, Benjamin Bratt, the Chicago Cubs, and Evo Morales, president of Bolivia. I think most students will appreciate the “real life” connections. Because of these references you want to make sure you get the most current edition of each worktext. Those are 2011 editions as of July 2011.
The worktext is printed in black-and-white but it is nicely illustrated, mostly with graphic designs rather than pictures. The font is relatively large and easy to read, larger than you find in most high school texts. These features make Breaking the Spanish Barrier less intimidating than others.
At the end of the book are conjugations, Spanish-English and English-Spanish dictionaries, and an index, so it is easy for students to find and restudy words or concepts as needed.
One set of CDs follows along with the lessons so that students can listen to the new vocabulary and conversations, spoken by the author and various native language speakers. There are two CDs in these sets for Levels One and Two, and three CDs for Level Three. These are quite easy to understand.
A second set of CDs, with two CDs per set, comes with each level. Those CDs are organized topically as you might find for a conversational course. Pronunciation on these CDs seems faster and a little more difficult to understand than on the lesson CDs, but they still provide excellent listening practice with time allowed for students to respond or repeat. The latter CD set is appropriate for both teens and adults, with vocabulary about travel, shopping, restaurants, hotels, doctors, the pharmacy, and emergencies in addition to vocabulary for time-telling, numbers, colors, food, the calendar, greetings, and activities.
The book has about 300 pages, so it is substantial. However, a teacher using the teacher edition would be providing more learning activities than are provided for a student studying independently. Independent learners might need additional hours devoted to studying Spanish. If you or someone else is teaching the course, you should review the author’s “The Ideal Lesson Plan: Ten Step to Total Fluency,” a teaching plan that includes the use of literature along with other steps for lesson presentation since the use of literature would be one easy way to enhance the lesson content.
The publisher also offers a free quarterly newsletter called Breaking News to all users (and non-users) of the book, full of teaching ideas, cultural articles and grammar tips. You can sign up for it on their home page www.tobreak.com.