Why Use a Textbook to Teach Reading

  • 23 August, 2008

As a young teacher, I was aware that reading professors in colleges of education tended to be anti-textbook. They imagined a world in which all teachers would construct their own individual reading lessons every day, rather than following what they saw as the dismal guidance of the basal reader. Such views reigned during the “whole language era” (the 1980s and early 1990s) when textbooks were replaced by trade books, decoding instruction received less emphasis, and the idea that kids should just read and write rather than receiving explicit teaching (except for the occasional mini-lesson) became predominant. That was also the period when reading achievement declined in U.S. schools, and the racial achievement gap widened, according to NAEP.

During the past decade, the anti-textbook sentiment has receded quite a bit. Districts have been ditching the “book room” for the “program,” but there are still those who are aghast that I think textbooks are a good idea. I have said that if I could have, I would have adopted a reading program in Chicago, and I am now a core program author myself. There were times in my career (like when I was a beginning teacher), that I was anti-textbook, and over time I have increasingly come to believe that textbook programs are necessary (not a necessary evil, but necessary).

Here’s why:

1. Quality textbooks tend to offer more thorough and explicit instruction than many teachers can provide on their own.

  I recognize that textbooks vary in quality and some are better than others. But, generally, a well-designed textbook program tends to support a greater amount of well organized, systematic, explicit instruction than teachers do on their own. For example, studies suggest that texts encourage higher level questioning than teachers ask, and my own observations suggest that textbooks offer more thorough coverage (such as explicit repetition) than teachers provide.

  Research says that explicit instruction is good for kids. Teachers can certainly provide such teaching without textbooks, but they are more likely to do so when they have supporting materials. Look at all areas of language arts instruction: oral language, phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension including critical reading (of narrative and expository text), writing, etc., and I think you’ll see more explicit systematic lessons than the average teacher offers on his or her own.

2. Greater continuity of content coverage from class to class and grade to grade.

  Bob Marzano documented how disorganized the curriculum is when teachers make it up themselves, often even having kids reading the same books year after year. A textbook program is organized across several years, so there is a clear effort to make sure that the learning experiences build one on another, to help kids to develop greater levels of sophistication. Even in something as straightforward as vocabulary or spelling teaching, textbooks make sure that kids are getting a progression of instruction.

  Also, kids move around a lot, especially in low-income areas. The average mobility rate is about 35% in high poverty schools, and I have worked with some schools with greater than 100% mobility. The idea that every teacher has an individual curriculum is a disaster for such kids because they are certain to move (often to a different school in the same district) and with each move, they truly have to start over. There is a real benefit to having content coverage that is consistent across classrooms and even schools, and that builds over time into something greater than what an individual teacher can do on his or her own.

3. Reduces the amount of planning/searching time for teachers making it possible for them to put more attention on the kids.

  Maybe those who argue for teachers to make up their own lessons, identify and select their own literary selections, and so on just don’t understand how time-consuming such work is. Teachers have complex lives: they go through marriages and divorces, childbirth and child raising, and the need to care for elderly parents—all while trying to take care of their homes, finances, and other aspects of their lives.

  Teacher work time is better spent focusing on the needs of kids rather than trying to hunt up a story that they can use in a lesson. It would be foolish to have surgeons grinding their own scalpels rather than operating on patients in need, and it is foolish to have teachers trying to do all of this kind of work themselves when their attention is needed for the students.

4. Standardization of practice in a school or district increases the possibility of powerful professional development opportunities.

One thing I learned in the Chicago Public Schools, is that having 26,000 teachers working with so many programs and combinations of programs, makes it hard to create any kind of systematic change. If everyone had been working with a single program (or even if there were a few programs of choice), we could have better used our professional development opportunities to focus on improving common areas of weakness, than is possible with such a hodge-podge of supports and weaknesses.

5. Allows for greater inclusion of content area specialization on a school staff.

  As a reading guy, I guess I should support the idea of all teachers should be specialists in reading. Of course, that means that we won’t have too many who have a depth of expertise in science, social studies, math, the arts, or other subjects. Textbooks allow even those without a great depth of expertise to do a pretty good job. We can hire more diverse staffs and expose kids to people with a wider range of expertise if we use textbooks.

6. Reduces the temptation to illegally photocopy.

In many schools that eschewed textbooks, it was common to accomplish this by having teachers violate the fair use laws, photocopying other people’s intellectual property. That’s a bad example for our kids.

7. Increases the chance for equal opportunity.

I have often heard the claim that it is the poor, inner city kids who get stuck with textbooks, while their more advantaged suburban counterparts get to do fun stuff in children's books. Yeah, right! (Reading Jeanne Oakes analysis of data on this issue and I think you'll see that poor kids have less textbook access.)

  Our nation is still struggling to offer kids equal opportunity to learn, and textbooks are part of the solution. The standardization that textbooks provide gives us the chance to equalize opportunity across a broad range of barriers. Individual--idiosyncratic--teaching, ultimately, is inherently unequal.

  Textbooks can't guarantee that all kids learn—only good teachers can do that. Textbooks do, however, support teachers in accomplishing that goal. That's why I think they are a good idea; they increase the chances that our kids will succeed.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Georgia Nov 20, 2017 02:46 AM

Thank you for your insight on this. Our district has moved away from basal reading and invested in book rooms. There is no longer any scope and sequence happening. We are to spend an inordinate amount of time on interactive read alouds, stations and guided reading. There is no continuity between buildings and grade levels. It reminds me of a tweaked whole language approach. We are to use the Fountas and Pinnell Continuum. Which frankly feels like I am back in college in my graduate level courses.

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Why Use a Textbook to Teach Reading


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.