Part of it is that Marugoto mainly teaches the polite language, which tends to be more stiff in general. Sure, there are a few very stiff expressions used, like 結構です to decline an offer, but other than that, I don’t think Marugoto does an especially terrible job, if you take this into account.
Marugoto’s pacing is slower in general, that is true, and the て-form is a good example of that. They don’t even start to teach how to connect sentences with it until lesson 14 in the Starter book where you have to use it to give directions. But then, in Elementary 1, they teach ～ています in chapter 1, ～てください and how to use the て-form to connect a sequence of actions in chapter 6, using it to give a reason in chapter 7, ～てくださいませんか in chapter 9, ～てみます in chapter 10, ～てきます/～ていきます in chapter 11, and using it to show how much time has passed (～て◯年になります) and ～てもいいですか in chapter 14. As far as I’m concerned, this is all within expectations for a beginner textbook. It sounds more like your classmates could use either a review of the lessons in the previous book or more real world experience with Japanese to see the different て-forms in use. A lot of the things textbooks don’t teach, people can acquire on their own. It’s not like they are little hapless chicks waiting patiently in a nest until the teacher comes to drop morsels of knowledge between their open beaks.
On the subject of Marugoto doing a bad job at connecting different lessons and contextualising, I’d have to disagree, though. Marugoto does this thing where it keeps circling back to certain topics and introducing grammar points in increasingly complex scenarios, so if you look a grammar point up in the index at the back of the book, you can see which lessons it has been used in. And it also gives example sentences right there, so you can see at a glance all the different contexts it is used.
And yes, the essays should be free form. But I have found the example essays at the beginning are very good for giving guidance to people who fear the blank sheet most of all and just don’t know what to write or even how to begin.
Any tool can only be as good as its user and textbooks aren’t really meant to teach you the language in full, but act (together with other learning materials) as a springboard to launch you into engaging with the language, so you can then start acquiring it for real. In my view, it is not by learning grammar rules, etc, but by internalising the language through repeated engagement where language ability comes from. And I think Marugoto’s role-playing exercises are a very good first step to get learners more comfortable with certain situations before they start putting it into practice in real life. And the material chosen only further encourages that.
Let’s take a look at a chapter in the book you’re using currently, for example. The second topic is 店で食べる and the activities of the first chapter are:
- Say the number of people in your party and where you want to be seated in a restaurant.
- Read a menu vertically in Japanese.
- Talk about your recommended dish at a restaurant you have taken someone to.
- Say in simple terms what things you cannot eat or drink and why.
- Order a meal, saying what dishes you want and how many of each.
Yes, all of these are easy tasks and might not feel very inspiring, especially if you already know how to do all that, but this is what textbooks are all about – teaching beginners very simple interactions that you can put into use in the real world and also learn a few basic things about the culture, like how the restaurant staff speaks differently and some formulaic expressions they might use.
To be fair, I haven’t really used other textbooks extensively, but in my experience, Marugoto does a better job than most in keeping the students engaged and it is very easy to tie the lessons to real world experience. And for a teacher it is also very easy to bring in outside real world material to use together with the lessons.