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Efficient and Effective Use of the Textbook

by Mike Bruner

Selecting A Book
Textbook Survival
How Are Textbooks Most Often Misused?
How Do We Get Students to Read Their Assignments?
How Do We Get Students to Think?
Samples of Textbook-Based Assignments


Using a textbook to its best advantage seems to be overlooked when we prepare for teaching. I believe there is a place for textbooks, facts, and even lectures in the history classroom. The standards movement has resulted in state standards for United States history and world history which are quite content specific, requiring students to develop higher-order understanding based on a foundation of factual knowledge. Textbooks are an important source for that content.

I have worked with new teachers in recent years, and I have noticed that many really don't know what to do with a textbook. They have learned a great deal about cooperative learning, using technology in the classroom, and designing rubrics. While those are good things to know, some traditional classroom techniques are also important. It is my belief that a significant amount of time in a world history course should be highly structured, teacher directed, and making use of a good textbook.

This essay will concentrate on just a few topics: selecting textbooks, textbook survival, misuse of textbooks, getting students to actually read their assignment, and using textbooks to promote higher-order thinking. I hope that my ideas will provide an appropriate starting point for a discussion with a wide variety of ideas and viewpoints.


Selection of a textbook is serious business. It involves an expenditure of considerable funds, and you will be "stuck" with the book you choose for years. It is worthwhile taking time to make a good selection.

Teaching Style, Curriculum, and Philosophy

Most books on the market are really pretty good, about the same price, and comparable in quality of binding. That doesn't mean that they are all the same. It is important to choose a book that fits your needs. Some schools purchase only classroom sets and others purchase a book for each student. Such uses may require different sorts of books. Some very good books have relatively few graphics; others make extensive use of illustrations, graphs, charts, and maps. The book which is best for you depends largely on your teaching style. It may also depend on the curriculum and philosophy of your school. In my state, all schools must have a school improvement plan, which includes reading as a target area for improvement. Since my school improvement plan includes teaching students specific reading strategies, I look at potential textbooks in terms of how well they lend themselves to teaching those strategies.

Standards and Objectives

State standards and district curriculum guides are becoming increasingly important in driving instruction. Many textbook publishers provide a correlations guide to individual state standards. It is not difficult to do this on your own. Simply select a dozen or so of the major standards you are responsible for teaching and read the appropriate section of the books you are examining. And don't stop with the book. Look at the resource materials. Many teachers ignore the resource packages that come with textbooks. That's because they remember when that stuff was useless. The newer books, however, often have excellent supplements, including outstanding transparencies.

Appropriate to Students

When choosing a textbook, we should remember the real audience—the students. We want a book that students can feel comfortable with and can understand (not too easy and not too hard). If I don't understand the vocabulary or the definitions of the concepts, my students certainly won't. Are the explanations clear? Are new words related to concepts students already know or to their own experiences? Are there lots of ways to learn and use the new words?

The same thinking should be used when reviewing the organization of the book. When topic sentences are hidden in verbose descriptions, it is more difficult for students to know what the paragraph is about. As you review the text, ask: can students find the main ideas easily or are they buried? Is the organization clear? Make a quick outline of headings and subheadings in several chapters. Then, check for logic, consistency, clarity, and so on.


Don't forget to check out the sample videotapes and CD-ROMS that accompany the text. Is the product interactive? Does it engage the user? Check out the textbook Web site if there is one. Explore the links. Are they organized by chapter and section? Are they useful? Do they have appropriate content? In many cases, the Web site will have discussion groups for teachers and/or professional development pages.

Visuals, Features, and Side Notes

Textbooks often have many added elements that enhance student interest and comprehension. "A picture is worth a thousand words." This philosophy can work extremely well in a book that already is 700–800 pages long. Visuals are an important aspect to understanding and retaining information. They need to be appropriate to the content, clear, and located near the points of reference. Labeling is crucial to comprehension.

Special interest features help students relate to or apply the information. However, too many of them disrupt the flow of the story. Side notes can check comprehension. They may add additional information or clarify what is presented. In any case, see if they add to or detract from the students' understanding.

Student Input

I've always found it worthwhile to have a committee of students examine and comment on textbooks I am considering for adoption. We often forget how much we can learn from our students. Ask the students if the book is visually appealing. Do the illustrations help or distract? How readable is the book? Do the suggested activities and assignments seem interesting? I am interested if there is anything they are very negative about; I do not expect them to evaluate content.


Once you have bought the books, you have to find ways to help them last for a few years. It has become obvious to me over the years that students can discover an infinite number of techniques to destroy or lose a textbook. My favorite happened to a friend who teaches sixth grade. A student informed her that a goat had eaten his textbook, and he produced the remains as proof. When she suggested that he not lay his book down outside, the student assured her that he wouldn't do that—the goat was in the house. My students are usually not that original; they specialize in water damage. Students really need some in-service on how not to destroy or lose a book.

Advice to Students

It may seem silly, but I give students the following advice, sometimes in writing, when they get their books.

  1. Books are not filing cabinets. Do not stuff papers, notebooks, pens, or your lunch in the book. It will destroy the binding, and you will have to pay $15 for a new binding.
  2. Books are not locker-proof. Be careful not to close your locker on your book and cut the cover. You will have to pay $15 for a new binding.
  3. Do not leave your locker unlocked; someone will steal your book. It will cost you $50.
  4. Do not loan your book to other students. If they can't keep track of their books, they can't keep track of yours. If they damage or lose your book—you pay.
  5. Do not make any unauthorized marks in your book, including on the edge of the pages. You will be charged for the damage.


In addition to educating students on various hazards to textbook health, you need some incentives and disincentives designed to encourage them to follow your advice.

I use a variety of approaches. I use grades and detentions. I have a responsibility grade, which is basically a free 100-point test grade. Each time a student comes to class without materials I deduct 5 points. A more positive approach is to offer an incentive for taking care of the books. I conference with each student near the end of each quarter. At that time, I take a quick look at their book, mostly to make sure it hasn't been lost, but also to check for damage. If the book checks out okay, I give the student credit for a couple of free test questions.


The best argument against textbooks is that they are often poorly used by classroom teachers. I have visited, in recent years, classrooms in which teachers were trying to "get through" the world history textbook in one year, and in one case, in a semester! This "rocks to Reagan" approach is insane. No student can absorb that much information in a year. Running through a textbook, "covering" material at a century a day, is torture not teaching.

Then there are the section reviews, worksheets, and tests supplied with the textbook. In many cases these are quite good, and to an extent, can and should supplement the course. However, they are often overused and can turn the classroom into a chamber of horrors for an otherwise intelligent and inquisitive student.

The most difficult task for most world history teachers is making choices of what content to teach. Most of us want to do it all. We can't. With time out for state-mandated testing, proms, intercom interruptions, and all those other essentials of modern high-school education, we can teach about fifteen ten-day units. We have to make hard choices as to what are the most important topics for our students to study. Probably, our local curriculum guides and increasing state standards will help us make decisions. In any event, we must limit our curriculum.

Indeed, it is a reasonable but demanding curriculum that should drive our courses. Teachers too often allow the textbook to drive instruction. My local curriculum, state standards, and personal biases dictate that we study the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution in some depth. My textbook does a good job of presenting much of this relevant information. It is just that I think that it is too much for one unit of instruction. This is not a problem. I simply use the two sections on the Renaissance as one unit, the two sections on the Reformation as another, and add the Scientific Revolution to the Enlightenment unit I teach several weeks later.

I do the same thing with the chapter "The Age of Absolutism." The textbook includes a section on the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution right in the middle of the chapter. I've made a decision that this topic should stand as an independent unit and I adjust my curriculum accordingly. In fact I keep a classroom set of a resource book around because it has an excellent chapter on this topic.


When one of my daughters was in middle school, her English teacher informed me that students wouldn't read outside of class so he didn't assign reading homework. His students loved him, but I was less impressed. One of the things that endears me to parents more than students is that I usually insist that students read their textbook assignments outside of class. I have developed a few tricks that improve participation, and I would welcome any new ideas.

The textbook publishers are really quite helpful. Most new books have short quizzes for each section. The quizzes are easy and are in no way a meaningful assessment of student learning. That's okay. Giving one to students every week or two is a nice reward for those students who read their assignments and provides real motivation for those who would rather not.

Another trick is assigning students to read a section and prepare a graphic organizer of the material. I recently previewed Prentice Hall's World History: Connections to Today ©2000 and noticed that the publisher has a pre-reading box for each section. In the box are focus questions, key words, and a "Taking Notes" component, which encourages students to take notes as they read the section. This includes format suggestions, whether it be a traditional outlining, a concept web, a cause-and-effect chart, a Venn diagram, or whatever makes sense. While students will get bored if they do this all the time, they will actually enjoy it if you don't overdo it. Last year I discovered my freshmen didn't have very good outlining skills. We spent a productive day learning basic outlining, and the students responded rather well.

Using other pre-reading strategies will increase student comprehension and recollections. If the text has features for each chapter, such as chapter objectives, outlines, preview, and reviews, use them to have students focus on key points. (For other reading strategies, see Reading in the Content Area in the eTeach archive.)

A useful tool in helping students organize textbook material is the use of color. Most books have main topic headings and subtopic headings in different colors. One teacher in my building supplied students with red and green pens and had them develop rough color-coded outlines. The students enjoyed it, and it matched the school improvement plan on reading strategies.

My personal favorite tool for getting students to read is to write my own guided reading questions. I label them study guides and make sure that a significant number of questions are found on the unit exam. Students appreciate this, and parents love it. Sometimes the guided reading in the supplementary material or even the section review questions in the text will work, but usually I prefer to write my own. I write a series of very easy questions, which can be answered by reading the section. Each question can be answered in a sentence. They are also in the order that the information is presented in the text. This doesn't sound like higher-order thinking and it isn't. The purpose of this assignment is simply to get students to read the assignment. If you have too many difficult questions, the slower students will give up. Instead, you provide a simple assignment that almost all students can do quickly, successfully, and without help from their parents. When they arrive in class the next day, ask them the more advanced critical-thinking questions. Since a majority of the students will have at least read the material well enough to complete the study guide, you have a core of students who can participate in a meaningful discussion.


One of the dangers in teaching history is that we may leave out "thinking." There is so much factual content that we can get bogged down in detail and trivia. Again, textbooks can help. When I do ask students to answer section review questions, they always ask "Even the critical thinking question?" I usually respond that the quality of the questions is an important part of the criteria I use when selecting a textbook. For the most part though, I find the critical thinking questions better for class discussion than as a written assignment.

Let us look at an example from World History: Connections to Today. Each set of section review questions (called "Assessment" in this book) ends with two questions labeled "Critical Thinking and Writing." The questions lend themselves to both writing and discussion. At the end of a section on Greece during the Peloponnesian War, we find the following two questions:

Critical Thinking and Writing

  • Linking Past and Present Compare Athenian democracy during the Age of Pericles to American democracy today. (a) How are they similar? (b) How are they different?
  • Recognizing Causes and Effects (a) What were the reasons that the Athenians and the Spartans formed their rival alliances? (b) Do nations today form alliances with one another for the same reasons? Explain.

Good textbooks will provide this type of skill practice.

Another critical thinking activity is having students do authentic assessments. Again, textbook publishers are trying to meet this need. World History: Connections to Today has a performance activity for each textbook section and a four-point rubric with which to evaluate it. Most of these activities are short but require real thought. For instance, the following activity is suggested for the section on the Protestant Reformation.

  • Read some obituaries, or death notices, in a current newspaper. Then, using the same style of writing, prepare a brief obituary of Martin Luther. The obituary should list key events in Luther's life and explain why he will be remembered. Try to avoid bias.

Finally, most textbook publishers are doing a good job of incorporating primary sources in their supplemental materials and even the text itself. Review the selections to see if they meet your needs. Is there a selection for each unit? Are there any lesson plans for teaching students how to read and/or use primary sources?


Textbook assignments can be more interesting than answering the questions at the back of the chapter. While research-based assignments are important, teaching students to get every last bit of information from the textbook is also useful.

Two examples are provided.

  • Grade the King
    In this assignment, students were divided into groups of two or three. During the previous two class periods, students had been assigned to read and complete a study guide over a chapter section on absolutism in France, and we had discussed the assignment.

    Each group was to develop a grade-card for Louis XIV, choose appropriate categories, and make specific comments explaining each grade. Students had one class period to complete the task. The next day, we viewed the enclosed examples on the overhead and discussed them.

    Assessing the King
    Louis XIV's Report Card

  • Death of a King
    In this homework assignment, students were to write a mock newspaper account of the death of Frederick the Great. They were to emphasize his rule as king of Prussia. They were to use only their textbook as a source. They could be creative, but papers needed to reflect Frederick's rule. This student (ninth grade) chose to write from an Austrian perspective.

    Newspaper Report

    From these simple assignments, students see examples of how different historians can evaluate the same facts and come away with different interpretations.


While textbooks have their limits and can certainly be overused, they can also be underused. As I have worked with teachers developing curriculum, it has become obvious that many have not adequately examined all of the features of their own textbooks and the support material available to them. In fact, some teachers are almost as bad as students at ignoring maps, charts, illustrations, and diagrams in the textbook.

The following statement is from Building a World History Curriculum, published by the National Council for History Education. The values of a textbook are clear and vital.

"… an engaging chronological history book provides students with a framework within which to place the particular questions, topics, episodes, and personalities that teachers choose to stress. It serves as a detailed timeline that can arise from over-use of 'postholing' and unconnected lesson units. It allows student to roam at will in history's long and complicated story and to discover for themselves other matters they can decide to explore in depth. In sum, a high quality survey textbook can help students maintain perspective and also help them exercise their intellectual freedom."


McWhorter, Kathleen T. Academic Reading. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 2001.