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Teachers, You Don’t Have to Use a Textbook

Textbooks….to love them or to lose them? Twenty-first century teachers are privy to many changes in the educational system. Textbooks are one of them. As teachers across the country – even the world – begin to abandon textbooks, still others argue for their worth. 

Welcome to “This or That,” a monthly chat where the authors of Reading and Writing Haven and Language Arts Classroom cover different ways of approaching common decisions in the ELA classroom. This month, we’re discussing textbooks in the classroom. Read our differing points of view, and leave your ideas in the comments.

Have you been thinking about tossing the textbooks in your classroom? For some people, they are a comfort piece. For others – a staple. If you’re anything like me, textbooks are a convenient frame of reference, but when it comes to designing curriculum for your own students, it’s easier to do without one.

Educators often feel pressured to use textbooks because they are research-based.

Still, teachers are professionals. We can design engaging and rigorous curriculum that doesn’t incorporate textbook use. It’s possible! For instance, my department uses the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing framework. We are able to incorporate the research-based aspects of these writing categories and rubrics without utilizing the textbooks themselves. We have attended training sessions that have equipped us to teach these concepts. We’ve worked tirelessly for countless hours to align our curriculum maps and make sure they meet the rigors of the Common Core Standards.

Sometimes, teachers prefer to use literature textbooks because they come with most of the supplemental materials necessary for teaching the texts.

Personally, I’ve always run into engagement issues when utilizing products sold by publishing companies. As a certified reading specialist with a second master’s degree in C & I, I know what types of activities will be meaningful for my own classes. Those assignments are generally not found in pre-made teacher materials from textbook companies. Regardless of who creates the textbook, that individual has never met my students.

They’ve already read the stories!

Another issue I’ve experienced when trying to use textbook stories is that not only do I find most of the options lacking, but also I find that many of my incoming freshmen have already read those texts. There’s nothing wrong with asking students to read a short story twice, but if you’re trying to go for an engaging, suspenseful, thematic approach, textbooks are restricting.

I’ll concede…

Teachers who have little training in grammar sometimes prefer to use textbooks as a guide. Certainly, textbooks can be a good place to start with, for instance, sequencing grammar instruction, but it’s important that we move beyond them to lessons that will resonate with our students. Textbook companies don’t know our students. How can they possibly account for the wide array of background knowledge or differentiate appropriately? While we may begin with a textbook, we shouldn’t end there.

Do teachers need to use a textbook? While they can be a nice frame of reference, textbooks are more restricting than they are beneficial. In this post, read about why it's okay to abandon the textbook.

They can’t replace the expertise of a classroom teacher.

Even in terms of designing my reading instruction, I use my educational background and professional development training to create minilessons and differentiation options that I can’t find in a textbook. High school literature textbooks rarely offer sound guidance for how to address gaps in reading comprehension at the high school level, which is an ever-increasing issue.

Textbooks have the potential to create a vacuum of complacency.

Most teachers I talk with enjoy making changes to their curriculum each year. Staying fresh with current educational trends and literature keeps both teachers and students from boredom. When we use textbooks, it’s tempting to fall into a funk of doing the exact same thing year after year. Is that really what’s best for students? I’ve always found a need to adapt and change with each group. Textbooks have not helped me to achieve that end.

Sometimes it might seem like we don’t have a choice…

Understandably, some educators feel tied to the textbook because it’s what their grade-level teachers use. It is difficult to be the one who deviates from the standard path, but it’s certainly possible to stay in alignment with other teachers’ curriculums without using the same book. If this is your situation and you desire to break free from the mold, have a heart-to-heart with your department head or administration. They might support your decision to do what you feel is right for your students.

I’m not saying teachers who find textbooks successful in their classroom should stop using them.

Not at all! Textbooks can definitely be useful, but the extent of their implementation often depends on course content comfort level and teaching style. To illustrate, one of the few times I use a textbook is when I teach a Shakespearean play. My students benefit from the margin notes and context explanations. Additionally, it’s extremely valuable to teach students how to read a textbook so that they can approach one successfully when they take a high school or college course that relies heavily upon them. While some people prefer to use a textbook, take heart that it’s okay to be a teacher who chooses NOT to use one.

Of course, a certain level of responsibility comes with the territory.

If we choose to ditch textbooks altogether, we have a duty to our students to make sure our curriculum is aligned with standards, that it builds on previous grade levels, that it’s grounded in best-practice research, and that it effectively prepares students for success in college and in life.

Textbooks can be limiting and even crippling to a teacher’s creativity. Educators do not give themselves enough credit. We know our students best. What’s more research-based than a highly-qualified classroom teacher with multiple years of experience, graduate degrees, numerous formal or informal action research studies, and countless hours of professional development? If you’re thinking about detaching yourself from the textbook, don’t be afraid to take the plunge. Using a textbook for guidance or inspiration? That’s commendable. However, it’s okay to be a teacher who chooses not to use one at all.

Don’t agree? Lauralee at Language Arts Classroom sees it differently, too. Read why she suggests teachers use the textbook and supplemental materials.

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