Professional Development Opinion

21st-Century Students Need Books, Not Textbooks

By Colette Marie Bennett — August 08, 2012 4 min read
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My mailbox is stuffed with brochures showing glossy pictures of the brand new literature textbooks available for grades 7-12 in English/language arts. This generation of new anthologies will incorporate the same old materials newly packaged with activities aligned to the ELA Common Core State Standards. Many of the big names in education have contributed to the development of these textbook materials and offer expert advice in implementing objectives. The textbooks are stuffed with literary pieces, discussion questions, suggested topics for essays, and so many supplemental activities that no one teacher could teach all of the material contained in a single school year. However, if these textbooks are waiting for my endorsement, they’ll be waiting forever.

My English department has old textbooks, and we drag these tomes out to read two or three pieces during a school year. These 160 textbooks, according to price checks on Amazon, represent roughly a $20,000 investment. The literary pieces in these textbooks have not changed over multiple editions; most of the titles are in the public domain. They came with cartons of supplementary materials; however, at my school we not use these worksheets or canned quizzes. These materials are aligned to outdated educational standards and are not a resource for teachers interested in developing 21st-century skills. These issues highlight a central problem with textbooks: standards change, assessments change, and teaching methods change. The textbooks cannot keep up.

In addition, these textbooks are outrageously heavy and claim a great deal of shelf space. The reality today is that the materials in textbooks need only take up digital space. Most stories, poems, essays, plays, and novels currently offered in these textbooks can be found online and linked on teacher websites or class wikis. Some public domain stories are available in audio formats such as the texts at LoudLit. Teacher-generated materials can be uploaded to teacher websites, wikis, or other platforms like Google docs, and linked to an online table of contents or syllabus. Sites such as Quia and Quizlet offer platforms where quizzes and tests can be prepared and delivered. There are Web 2.0 tools such as LiveBinders that allow teachers to collect websites for research. Platforms such as edmodo allow teachers to collect, correct, and share student work in secure environments. In the 21st-century digital world, hardcopy textbooks or workbooks for each student are no longer necessary.

Textbooks Limit Teachers

There are school districts that argue that teachers must use an approved textbook—hardcopy or digital—in order to deliver a consistent curriculum. However, textbooks are only tools, whether they are in print or online, used to deliver content outlined in a curriculum.

Other districts may argue that new or novice teachers need the sequence and content that a textbook offers: writing prompts, questions and answers, suggested project-based learning activities, worksheets, and related readings. The rationale is that a textbook’s prescribed script can help a teacher learn how to teach materials. However, this thinking limits new and novice teachers who need to develop skills in preparing and assessing content on their own. A textbook’s prescribed script also limits a creative teacher, new or veteran. And it may be just a little insulting to those experienced teachers who are constrained to stick to the four corners of that text.


In this age of serious budget cuts and underfunding of education, 21st-century technology makes the textbook an outdated relic. Teachers can prepare the exact same materials and organize them according to a curriculum developed with the ELA common-core standards. While this might seem like a daunting task, there are a multitude of sites on which teachers share lesson plans and materials, such as the English Companion Ning. Twitter offers numerous opportunities for teachers to connect and share materials, especially through the increasing number of #educational chats. Aggregating and curating content is also a form of professional development. Moreover, teacher involvement in organizing content could result in an evolving curriculum that is differentiated or modified in a timely manner for students and their specific needs. But, perhaps the most obvious difference it that teacher-developed materials can be prepared at a fraction of the cost of the exact same materials developed and published in a textbook.

Finally, the textbook promotes the study of a subject—it does not promote reading. To improve reading skills, teachers need to offer students the kind of books that persuade them that reading can be a joy. By cutting out the huge sums spent on literature textbooks, school districts would have the economic means to create literacy-rich classrooms and school libraries that encourage students to read. There could be “book floods” of independent book choices—digital or paperback—for students at differing reading levels. There could be the adoption of more contemporary books for whole-class reads. Teachers could expand the use of literature circles and before- and after-school book clubs. There would be an increase in the informational texts that complement interdisciplinary studies. Students could read what interests them, and research shows that reading for pleasure improves reading scores. No student reads a textbook for pleasure.

Today’s new textbook anthologies are already outdated. They do not support a 21st-century classroom, they are expensive, and they stifle teacher development. But the most serious charge against any textbook, new or old, is that it does not foster a student’s love of reading. School districts should let the tradition of the textbook waste away and instead feed a student a book.

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