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August 17, 2022

Optimizing Your Textbook to Meet Students’ Needs


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When I was a teacher, the textbook was my main source of instruction. Particularly as a new teacher, I was given an entire pack of materials, and told it would answer all my questions. Now, we typically use textbooks as one of a variety of tools, although at times, we still rely mainly on textbooks. Let’s look at three ways to optimize your textbook.

three ways to optimize your textbook

Textbooks Are Only a Resource

First, textbooks should be viewed as a resource, not the driver of all instruction. Although textbooks and other curriculum resources are designed for your subject and/or grade level, the authors don’t know your students. The textbook is a base—something to be used as a springboard for your instruction. It shouldn’t drive every decision.

I worked for two textbook companies and one technology company that provided computerized instruction for students. One of my first workshops with teachers was an eye opener. There was a feature in the social studies textbook that profiled famous people. A second-grade teacher was very agitated because the profile on George Washington was on page 40. She wanted to teach her students about Washington on his birthday, and that didn’t fit with the book. It took me several minutes to convince her it was OK to rearrange the book. She kept telling me, “But we bought this book, and it must be right.”

Your judgment matters. Review materials in your text, prioritize what matches your standards, and use the textbook appropriately. The same applies to the additional materials and teaching suggestions. These can provide effective strategies to scaffold learning, extend instruction for advanced learners, and give you specialized ideas for students with special needs and other groups. Again, don’t feel like you need to use everything that is provided. Choose what you believe will work best for your students. Then, consider the others as backups when you need other ideas.

The textbook is a base—something to be used as a springboard for your instruction. It shouldn’t drive every decision.

Supplement Richly

When you view your textbook as a resource, you realize the importance of having other resources in your toolkit. If you start with a chapter or story in the book, you then need to consider what else you need. For a nonfiction text, do you need something to help students build prior knowledge? Or do you need different levels of text to meet the readiness levels of your students? Perhaps you want to use a video to extend the knowledge at an application level.

Maybe you are using a reading textbook with stories and poems. Some of those same considerations apply. Perhaps my students have never seen the ocean before, so we might take a virtual trip to an aquarium to augment the reading. Or, if the structure of the poem is too complex, we will read a simpler poem on the same topic as preparation for this poem.

Notice that, in each of these examples, you would continue to use a part of the textbook. You simply move beyond that to create a lesson that best meets the needs of your students.

Teach Students How to Use the Textbook

I’ve taught a wide range of students, from 3-year-olds all the way through graduate students. I spent several years teaching at-risk students in grades 7 and 8. They were typically reading three or four years below grade level. They had a wide range of challenges, but one was reading the textbook. The students didn’t know how to effectively use the features in the text. For example, they didn’t realize that if they put the headings of the chapter together, it created an outline. Once I taught them that, it was easier for them to take notes throughout the chapter.

Some students were also confused by vocabulary. Boldfaced words were especially frustrating for them, until I explained the boldfaced type meant that was a new word. I told the students that because those words were new, they weren’t supposed to know them in advance. Once they realized that, their frustration level went down.

These may sound simple, but they aren’t to some of your students. It’s important to teach them key text features and concepts.

key text features

A Final Note

Textbooks can be a useful resource in your classroom, but you want to optimize their use. First, realize a textbook is only a resource. Second, supplement your textbook richly. Other resources will enhance your instruction. Finally, teach your students how to use the textbook for optimal learning.

More Resources for the New School Year

Get the new school year started off on the right track with more resources on topics such as classroom management, social-emotional learning, family engagement, supporting English-language learners, building successful community schools, and more.

Barbara Blackburn

As a teacher, a leader and a university professor responsible for graduate training for educators, Barbara Blackburn has used her knowledge and experiences to write over 30 best-selling books.

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