Breaking the Barrier offers rigorous high school programs in either Spanish or French. These courses teach both grammar and practical, conversational usage. The three levels available for each language are labeled Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. The advanced level is often used to prepare students for Advanced Placement (AP) exams. I reviewed only the Beginner level for Spanish, but the format is similar for all levels.
These courses cover all the major structures and topics typically taught in three years of study. Completion of each level qualifies for one credit for high school students. These courses move quickly and are best for those who already have had some exposure to the language. Nevertheless, the Beginner course starts with "First Steps" to cover the basics for those without prior knowledge of the language.
There are a few different ways you might purchase and use each course. A core worktext is the main component for each course, but it is greatly enhanced by the features of the new online version. You can purchase a physical book, subscribe for online access, or get both packaged together at a discount. In my opinion, the worktext really needs the auditory resources that you get with online access—a 12-month subscription, accessible on most devices.
A more-comprehensive homeschool package is available for each level of both languages. It includes one year of online access, plus the worktext, an answer key booklet, the Teacher Test Program booklet, and the Oasis Travel Dictionary in either Spanish or French. (The dictionary is the only item that is identical each year.) You might want to save some money by investing in the three-year program that includes everything for all three levels as well as three, year-long subscriptions for online access.
How It Works
The worktexts contain both instructional material and student exercises to be completed in the book. After ten introductory lessons in the first course for Spanish, each lesson opens with a map and information about one of the many Spanish-speaking countries in the world. However, nothing within the lesson ties to these, so students might skip over them. Following the map page is a list of the vocabulary to be taught in the lesson. Pronunciation is taught along with simple, commonly used phrases and words such as un, una, and hay.
Lessons are divided into three or four sections. Students will probably complete just one or two sections of a lesson per session.
Each section concentrates 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 make this more interesting than standard 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 who are (or have been) famous in culture or politics, such as Penelope Cruz, George Lopez, Benjamin Bratt, and Evo Morales—all highlighted in the first Spanish course. I think most students will appreciate the real-life connections. Each lesson concludes with a quiz, and the answers are in the answer-key booklet.
The worktexts are printed in black and white and are illustrated primarily with graphic designs rather than pictures. The font is relatively large and easy to read—larger than you find in most high school textbooks. These features make Breaking the Barrier worktexts less intimidating than others. Nevertheless, the worktexts are still substantial; the one for the Beginner level of Spanish has about 300 pages, and it introduces a great deal of vocabulary and grammar. At the end of the worktext are conjugations, dictionaries, and an index, making it easy for students to find and restudy words or concepts as needed.
The online access subscription has all the content of the physical worktext and more. It includes audio pronunciations, video clips, readings about Spanish-speaking cultures, interactive exercises (that are scored immediately by the program), and interactive flashcards with sound files. Audio-visual explanations of key grammar points help students master the grammatical details.
Students can work independently through most of the lessons, either in the worktext or online, but conversational activities are also included for students to practice the language by asking and answering scripted questions. (Extra conversational questions for each lesson are available online.) A pacing guide is provided for parents and teachers.
Audio files (accessed online) accompany the lessons so that students can listen to the new vocabulary and conversations as spoken by the author and various native-language speakers. They speak clearly and are easy to understand.
Other audio files are organized topically as you might find for a conversational course. Pronunciation in these audio files seems faster and a little more difficult to understand than in the vocabulary files, but they still provide excellent listening practice with time allowed for students to respond or repeat. The conversational content is appropriate for both teens and adults, with vocabulary about travel, shopping, restaurants, hotels, doctors, the pharmacy, emergencies, numbers, colors, food, telling time, the calendar, greetings, and everyday activities.
Students have plenty of opportunities to practice speaking the language in response to prompts, but if no one is there to understand what they are saying, it will be difficult to judge how well they are speaking. If someone who knows at least some of the language can partner with the student for conversations, it should be very helpful. To address this issue, Breaking the Barrier has partnered with Time2Talk to offer a coaching option with native Spanish speakers. Currently, this is only available for Spanish.
The publisher has created an iPhone®/iPad® app for Spanish that provides some help with voice recognition. The app, titled Essential Spanish Vocabulary Flashcards, includes voice recognition technology for practicing vocabulary and pronunciation. However, it is useful only for individual words, not sentences. (An app for French is under development.)
Breaking the Barrier courses seem like they should be most useful for the student who wants to learn to read and write either Spanish or French. It's well designed to accomplish those goals. Those who want to develop conversational fluency will need to find their own conversational opportunities for practice.