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| August 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

Textbooks: not just for memorising anymore

By Terie Engelbrecht

If I ruled the educational world, my first decree as the Queen of Education would be that all new teachers would be banned from using textbooks for their first two years of teaching.

You see, when I was in teacher training school, my course assignments as a student teacher were to do with US history, government and sociology. I was handed a textbook for each one, modelled how to teach from each textbook by my cooperating teacher, and left to my own devices for 16 weeks.

Teaching from the text

I learned a lot during that student teaching experience. I learned that students don’t always want to learn. I learned that students appreciate it when you make learning rigorous but fun. I learned to be myself with the kids, instead of a know-itall in the front of the room. But one of the most important lessons that I started to learn was how not to use textbooks. Except for sociology, I spent a lot of time reading the book the night before and creating fabulous and informative US history and government lectures for the students straight from the textbook. But every time I stood up and started putting information in my students’ heads, one thought kept popping into mine: “Why am I telling them things that they could have read about themselves?” It was the recognition of the need that students need to create their own meaning from text.

Set yourself free

Because I had been taught to teach from a textbook, I didn’t have many resources and strategies in my teaching ‘toolbox’ to help students create their own meaning from reading. Thankfully, I have been lucky enough to work in two districts that take continuing professional development seriously, and I was allowed to go to various workshops and conferences in order to put more tools in my toolbox.

I’m not blaming anyone for my lack of reading strategies coming out of my teacher preparation programme; that’s just (unfortunately) how teacher preparation programmes were run and how most are still run today. However, new teachers have to recognise that good teaching is more than just opening the textbook, repeating everything that’s in there for the kids, and then handing out worksheets for students to do until the test is ready in the photocopy room. I have seen many student teachers and novice teachers pass through our high school, and not one wanted to veer too far away from the textbook. Sure, they wanted to do activities, but they were leashed to that textbook like a dog in a yard. And their reach beyond the textbook only extended as far as their leash (read comfort zone) let them go.

How to create sound strategies

This is why I wouldn’t let new teachers use textbooks if I was in charge. New teachers need good mentors and instructional coaches; ones that will help them put resources and strategies into their instructional toolboxes so that they can help students create their own meaning.

In my opinion, textbooks should be used in two main ways:

1. Textbooks should be used as just one of many resources for knowledge acquisition. Because I am piloting a 1:1 netbook initiative1 this year, I am insisting students use web resources as well as the online version of the text whenever they need it. This has resulted in several accusations of me assigning ‘impossible’ assignments (translation: requires higher-order thinking skills and synthesis of information from many sources) without giving students a textbook to look up the information (translation: I’m a jerk). It takes some effort to overcome these traditional viewpoints concerning textbooks, but it’s worth the struggles in order to give students needed thinking skills and practice using other resources beyond the textbook.

Tools for the toolbox:

  • Before teaching a unit, lesson or topic, research a variety of available sources of information. These could be articles, stories or online sources that provide not only basic information about the topic, but also those that have the potential for enrichment or extension.
  • Develop activities and learning strategies that incorporate the use of these other sources of information, so students must use sources other than just the text to create their own meaning.
  • Another consideration is only making a classroom set of textbooks available if your students have access to the online version of the book.
  • Further, there are some projects and activities where I ban the use of the textbook altogether. Students must instead pull from a pile of resources that I have collected over the years, or search the internet to find valid sources of information. (Yes, we must teach them how to find reliable sources after they use Google. In fact, I have had to teach classes how to do a proper Google search in the first place.) Students don’t like this, but I tell them that I don’t want them to become an educational ‘one-trick pony’; they need to be aware of and use the multitude of resources available to them, including webbased resources. I also point out that life doesn’t come with a textbook, and they should get used to using the resources that actually will be available to them as adults.

2. Textbooks should be used to help students learn how to read and understand informational text. My students always tell me how boring it is to read in science (and social studies) and how they just want to read stories, because they’re easier to understand. While I’m not knocking the art of reading a good story (being a science-fiction nut myself ), I do tell them that, in an adult’s life, it’s pretty rare we have to read stories to do anything. For example, when putting together a bookcase, it’s highly unlikely the instructions for assembly will be in story format. When trying to decipher how to do your taxes, the government is not going to translate those directions into a nice, pleasant story for your reading pleasure. I feel that students think reading informational text is boring because they have never been taught how to properly engage with this type of text during reading.

Tools for the toolbox:

• During the first weeks of school, make it a priority to teach students how to read the textbook. Teach them about using headings and pictures to predict what the reading will be about; teach them to develop questions (not answer the questions at the end of the chapter or section) during reading by modelling it through the use of think-alouds, and have them summarise and connect their new knowledge to old knowledge through a synthesis or summary activity after reading. (Rick Wormeli’s Summarization in Any Subject2 is a great source of these during/after-reading activities, along with the book Applications of Reading Strategies in the Classroom by Frank, Grossi & Stanfield.3) However, don’t fall into the trap of ‘I showed them all how to do this one time and they aren’t doing it so it didn’t work and I’ll never do this again because it didn’t work the one time I tried it’. Teaching them to read complex informational text takes repeated modelling and practice, by both teachers and students.

• Model and teach students several different ways of making meaning out of information text in the first term. You must have students use a reading strategy at least three times before they develop a feel for it; view the first term as your reading strategy ‘proving ground’. Then, in the second term, start giving students choices about which strategies they want to use both before, during and after reading, to allow them to develop their own reading tools to put in their student toolboxes.

Note: If you have struggling readers in your classroom, make friends with your librarian and see if he/she can get you some lower-level texts on the same topic. But don’t go too low – the goal is still to challenge students by making their own meaning. Picking new textbooks that are too easy wipes out any chance you have of them learning how to make their own meaning from text.

Unleashing potential

While I have many pet peeves about textbooks, the suggestions listed above are what absolutely must change regarding their use (or misuse) in the classroom. Using textbooks in the traditional way doesn’t promote true student understanding, or help put students in charge of their own learning. So let’s start using textbooks in a way that makes sense, and in a way that helps students grow as learners.

Even more importantly, let’s start teaching novice teachers how to properly use the textbooks for learning. Let’s start teaching them that they don’t have to be ‘leashed’ to a text, and thereby unleash new teachers’ potential to improve student learning.


1. By definition, in a 1:1 technology-rich classroom, all students are assigned or have access to a mobile device to enable research and collaboration at any time. (Source: Practical_Guidelines_EN.pdf.)

2. Wormeli, R. (2005) Summarization in Any Subject: 50 Techniques to Improve Student Learning. Vermont: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

3. Frank, C.B., Grossi, J.M. and Stanfield, D.J. (2005) Applications of Reading Strategies within the Classroom. Bloomington: Pearson.

Category: Spring 2014

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