Homeschool Curriculum Review: Breaking the Barrier

*Note: I was provided with a copy of Breaking the Barrier’s Spanish curriculum and compensated for my time in order to write this review. All of the following opinions are my own. 

Are you searching for a French or Spanish curriculum for your homeschooled high schooler? Have you been disappointed by the lack of options for older kids? If so, this review is especially for you.

Today, it is my pleasure to introduce Breaking the Barrier, an curriculum company with a proven track record that offers effective and age-appropriate language curricula for the high school crowd. 

I’ll get to my review of the curricula in a minute, but here’s a quick summary of what you need to know about Breaking the Barrier.  

Breaking the Barrier was founded by John Conner, a language teacher with over twenty years of classroom experience. When I got a chance to talk with John about why he wrote this curricula, this is what he told me: 

I originally wrote Breaking the Barrier after years of frustration with approaches that I felt tried to throw in "everything but the kitchen sink" to teach a language. I feel strongly that the fastest path to fluency is on a road paved with great vocabulary, simple explanations about the structure of the language, and ample opportunities for practice. All of these can be done in a rich cultural environment, where countries and their peoples and customs are presented to students. 

And guess what, readers? Great vocabulary, simple explanations and ample opportunities for practice? These are exactly what your child will get with Breaking the Barrier’s curriculum. 

Breaking the Barrier: How it Teaches Foreign Languages 

Whenever I review a curriculum, the first thing that I look at is the curriculum’s design. Is it designed with a sound methodology? Is it logically sequenced, in a way that will help students gain increasing skills in the language that it teaches? When I evaluate any given curriculum from a pedagogical standpoint, I use the following questions to help me give it a full, 360-degree review. Here’s how Breaking the Barrier stacks up: 

Does this curriculum use best practices in language teaching? Yes.

Breaking the Barrier teaches French and Spanish through a combination of two solid methodologies: direct grammar instruction and the audio-lingual method. Students receive an all-in-one textbook and workbook, which introduces new material and practice activities, and audio materials, which includes pronunciation and listening comprehension activities. These are available in hard copy or in a digital format, depending on your preference, and together they help students develop reading, writing, listening, and basic speaking abilities in the language that they are studying. 

Is it developmentally appropriate for the ages that it is marketed to? Absolutely.

Cognitive research indicates that older students—particularly high schoolers and above—learn languages most effectively if they receive direct instruction in the grammar rules of the new language. Naturally, language learners need to understand how a language works before they can put it to more sophisticated uses. Furthermore, because students at this age (hopefully) have a good grasp of the grammar of their native language, they can learn more efficiently than younger students by comparing the two languages to each other. 

The kind of clear, direct grammar instruction that allows for such efficient language learning is the backbone of Breaking the Barrier’s entire approach to teaching foreign languages. Each lesson presents simple, clear grammar rules for students to learn and then provides them with many opportunities to put hose rules into practice. The practice activities in each lesson progress from simple fill-in-the-blanks to more cognitively advanced questions, such as correcting grammar mistakes, so that students have a chance to practice using each rule at increasing levels of difficulty. Moreover, the lessons naturally build upon themselves—so students are constantly reviewing older skills even as they practice new ones. 

Finally, I appreciate that Breaking the Barrier clearly takes into account the preferences of its target audience. The examples in the practice activities are age-appropriate and the curriculum does try to incorporate (within reason) teenagers’ natural interest in pop culture. 

Does it have realistic expectations for student learning throughout its course of study? Yes, with some caveats. 

Although Breaking the Barrier has many, many practice activities, homeschool students using this curriculum may find that they need additional practice—outside of what is contained within the book itself—in order to memorize new vocabulary and conjugations. This isn’t a flaw of the curriculum; it is simply reflective of the fact that language learning requires a great amount of practice. If your student finds that he or she needs more reinforcement, I recommend checking out my free online resources for French practice and free online resources for Spanish practice, where you’ll find tools that complement this curriculum nicely. 

I also need to note that homeschool students who want to become truly conversational in either French or Spanish will need to pair this curriculum with an outside resource such as a language tutor or conversation group. Although the audio resources that Breaking the Barrier includes will help students master basic pronunciation rules and common phrases, additional conversation practice is essential to get students actually communicating in the target language. 

Is it logically sequenced? Yes. 

The grammar concepts presented in Breaking the Barrier are sequenced exactly the same as the college-level Spanish courses that I taught at the University of Virginia, so you can rest assured that this curriculum has been very carefully designed. At each individual level and as a whole, the curriculum is very comprehensive. If you purchase this, your child will have a solid foundation in French or Spanish, equivalent to what he or she would receive in a typical high school classroom (and perhaps even better). 

One thing that Breaking the Barrier does not include, however, is a study schedule for homeschool students, so some families might wonder how quickly their children should be moving through this curriculum. I, along with the curriculum’s creator, recommend that homeschool students spend 2-3 weeks on each lesson, assuming a 4-5 day school week. And remember: students may finish the workbook activities quickly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have mastered each concept presented. Encourage your homeschool students to seek additional practice by: using the resources that I mentioned above, creating and playing games with vocabulary flashcards for each lesson, chanting new verb conjugations, and listening to music in French or Spanish to help her get comfortable with pronouncing new words. Also be sure to have your child listen (repeatedly) to the audio materials that accompany each lesson and, most importantly, repeat all phrases aloud. That kind of practice is key to developing good pronunciation skills, as it will help train your child to hear (and make) new sounds. 

Does it introduce new materially clearly and provide adequate practice opportunities? This is one of Breaking the Barrier's greatest strengths. 

What I like most about Breaking the Barrier is that it doesn’t underestimate the amount of practice that is required to learn a new language. As you know, if you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, I often stress the importance of regular, deliberate practice to language learning—and this same principle is the foundation of Breaking the Barrier’s curriculum. In each lesson, students are provided with many, many opportunities to practice new grammar concepts and vocabulary, in a variety of ways. Importantly for homeschooling families, Breaking the Barrier also includes an answer key to these practice exercises. If you use this curriculum, I recommend that you have your child do her own corrections and then go over the corrections with her. If you have knowledge of the language yourself, you can help your child work through his mistakes—which are normal, by the way—and come up with the right answer on his own. 

Are the assessments included in the curriculum aligned with its teaching? Yes!

Breaking the Barrier includes lots of ways for students to assess their progress, which, as a teacher, I think is fabulous. Clear and focused assessments are especially important to homeschooled language learners for two reasons. First, they allow students to see what topics (either grammar or vocabulary) they have and have not mastered—and study accordingly. In the absence of a fluent teacher, it is essential that students have this kind of information! Second, they show students how to measure their own progress at later stages of language study. Ideally, we want older students to move from using teacher-administered assessments to assessing their own language abilities, so it is really key that they see this modeled in the curriculum that they’re using. Breaking the Barrier includes this kind of assessment at various points in each lessons, and these serve as checkpoints to help students catch misunderstandings before they cement an error in their minds. Each lesson includes a review quiz that measures students’ understanding of the basic grammar and vocabulary taught in the lesson, and Breaking the Barrier also includes formal exams (and an answer key) that can be easily used by homeschooling families. 

Is it engaging, from a student perspective? Yes, and you can choose a format to suit your student’s preferences. 

Breaking the Barrier can be purchased in two different formats: either as a black-and-white workbook with audio companion, or as a full-color, graphic-heavy digital curriculum with audio component. The latter is certainly more visually engaging, so if that is important to your homeschool student, it may be a factor to consider. Additionally, if you have a child who prefers to type rather than write, that might be another reason for choosing the digital curriculum. On the other hand, if you have a student who is prone to distraction, or you want to reduce screen time in your home, you might opt for the workbook instead. The material is exactly the same, so this is purely a matter of preference.  

Does it include cultural learning to help students put language in a broader context? No.

There are a few very basic elements of cultural learning included in Breaking the Barrier’s workbooks, but this is certainly the weakest area of the curriculum. Each lesson includes a profile of a Spanish-speaking country, along with some quick facts about that country, and there aren’t any readings from Spanish literature or activities about Hispanic culture included in the first two levels of the curriculum.  

I believe that studying the culture and history of other countries is a key part of language learning. Not only can cultural learning help motivate students, but it also helps them to develop empathy for other people (which is actually one of the top reasons that I am raising my own children bilingually). 

If you’re looking for build a cultural learning component around Breaking the Barrier, you might want to start with my post on how you can ease into cultural learning for homeschoolers

Breaking the Barrier: Using It in Your Homeschool 

When I review any given curriculum, aside from testing it out on pedagogical grounds, I also want to ensure that it is usable for homeschooling families—not all curricula are! I am happy to report, however, that Breaking the Barrier is not only well-designed for the specific needs of homeschooling families, but it is also incredibly affordable. 

What level of language proficiency does it require of the teacher (i.e. homeschool mom)? None!

Breaking the Barrier is designed for self-study, so homeschooling parents are not expected to teach any portion of it. The curriculum does, however, include the tools that you will need to measure your child’s progress. 

What level of preparation and teaching does it require from mom? Again, none! 

None—other than ensuring that your child has a solid study plan in place and is completing his lessons consistently. You should also be ready to help your student find additional practice resources, if necessary—as you would with any language learning curriculum at this level. 

How much instruction is provided via screens? None or all, depending on which format you use. 

If you choose the digital curriculum, then all of your child’s instruction will be delivered via screens, but as far as screens go, the platform that Breaking the Barrier uses is about as streamlined as you can get. The e-book, though colorful, isn’t flashy or distracting, as you can see in the below example: 

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Can it be used for multiple children (either at the same time, or reused later on)? Yes. 

If your child does not write in the print workbook, it may be reused later on. The digital curriculum requires a separate license for each student. 

Does it align with any particular homeschool philosophy? No.

This isn’t a “Charlotte Mason” or “Classical” curriculum—it just takes solid principles of language teaching and puts them to use, and that gets a thumbs up from me.

Does the cost reflect the value offered in the curriculum? Absolutely—this is a steal. 

Both the print and the digital curricula are very reasonably priced. If you choose to purchase each of the three print levels separately, you’ll pay $109 per level (including workbook-textbook, audio CD, testing packet, answer key, and a travel dictionary)—or, if you purchase the three levels together, you’ll pay only $269. Here a link to the pricing information for you. 

The digital curriculum is even more budget-friendly, at only $29.99 per level, per student. It includes all of the same materials, in digital format. Click here for more pricing details.  

My Final Opinion on Breaking the Barrier  

I am glad that Breaking the Barrier is now available to homeschooled high school students—I think that it’s a great option! Its thoughtful design, emphasis on practice, and usability make it an excellent choice for children who want to learn French or Spanish.

If you’re interested in winning your very own copy of Breaking the Barrier, head on over to my IG account, where I’m giving away two copies each of their French and Spanish curricula (Level One).