Textbook Selection


Every semester, students stand in long lines to buy their expensive textbooks, bring them home, then spend the rest of the semester avoiding reading them. If we asked most students, they would probably rather choose to use their textbook to prop up a wobbly table or balance on their head to practice their posture or whomp a passing spider -- anything but open and read!

A common complaint made by teachers is the number of students who obviously do not do their reading or, if they do read, clearly are not understanding or remembering the material. This topic will discuss some of the issues regarding textbooks -- selecting them, using difficult ones and some examples of assignments based on them.

Girls in bookstoreSelecting Your Textbooks

If you have the option of choosing the textbook to use for your course, I recommend the following strategy:

  1. Gather as many books from which to choose as possible. Some sources might be from textbook companies, who are more than happy to send you desk copies for examination; fellow teachers, who have books they have chosen for various reasons; or local bookstores, who might have books that are applicable as well.
  2. Make a list of content criteria that you have for your course text. What are the areas of content that are absolutely necessary for your course? What are areas that you could easily supplement if necessary?
  3. Next, go through the books only looking at the content. Immediately eliminate all of the books that do not cover your minimum content needs. The remaining books should cover the material necessary for your course.
  4. With the remaining books, select the one that is the most reader-friendly for your students. You might consider the following:
  1. What is the readability level of the text?
    • How difficult or easy is it for your students to read? In general, how complex are the sentences and how difficult are the vocabulary words?
    • See the next section for how to do a general readability assessment of the text
  2. How "reader friendly" is the text?
    • What is the overall organization of the text (chronological, categorical, etc.)?
    • Are the sections and chapters organized logically?
    • What is the overall organization of the chapters ? 
    • Does the author use headings and subheadings that clearly reflect the information presented?
  3. What are the learning features in the text? 
    • Are there chapter previews, summaries, review questions, etc? 
    • Does the book have a glossary, index, appendix, maps, etc?
  4. How does the text look visually ? 
    • Are there engaging photographs, charts, comics, etc? 
    • Is there space in the margins in which students can annotate or is it too dense for notetaking?
  5. How is vocabulary handled in the text?
    • Are new words written in bold or color or noted in the margins? 
    • Is there a glossary? Are new words listed at the end of each chapter?
  6. How does the book represent diverse cultures, races, ethnicities, languages, abilities, genders, etc.? This might be reflected in the content or visuals.
  7. Extra Features
    • Does the book come packaged with a dictionary or Internet website for the students?
  8. Cost
    • If you are still debating between texts that seem equal, consider choosing the one that is the lower-priced.

Using Difficult Texts

If you must use a text that you know is difficult reading for your students, this section will discuss ways to assist your students with their assignments.

  1. How difficult is my text?
    While there is some controversy regarding "readability" scales, you might find it helpful to do a simple estimated readability analysis in order get a general idea of the reading level of your textbook. (Please be aware, though, that there are many other components that make a text more or less difficult than sentence length and syllables.)

    Here are two methods you can use to get a quick estimate of a readability level of your textbook:

    1. Microsoft Word
      • Believe it or not, if you go to "tools", then "preferences", select "spelling and grammar" and check off "show readability statistics" Word will calculate the estimated readability of a text.
      • After setting up the step I just listed, type in 100 words of your text. Then, under "tools" select "spelling and grammar." Word will take you through a spelling and grammar check. When the check is complete, Word will display an estimated readability score of the text.

      • I recommend doing this three times for your text, taking a 100 word passage from the beginning, middle and end of the book, then averaging the estimated reading level Word displays.

    2. The Fry Readability Formula
      • Select three 100 word passages from the beginning, middle and end of the book.
      • Count the total number of sentences from each and average them.
      • Count the total number of syllables from each and average them.
      • Plot the results on the following graph for your text's estimated readability.

    1. Teach your students specific reading strategies for approaching your course's textbook.

Please see the ReQuest, SQ3R and REAP strategies discussed in detail in the Reading Strategies section of DREAM.


Assignments for your Textbook Readings

    I like to use the following types of assignments because they help make students accountable for their reading and follow the three stages of the reading process (before reading, during reading, and after reading).

    Note: Each of these assignments requires teacher modeling.

    1. Outline of the chapter
      • I teach students to create a formal outline of the chapter using the headings, subheadings and sub-subheadings of the textbook. Students write a brief summary of each section after they read it.
      • To build on the preview, read, review concept, you can have your students create the skeleton of the outline in a preview, then go back to fill in the summaries in each section as part of the read, then review and re-read all their notes of the chapter.
      • As further motivation, I give a quiz on the chapter at the beginning of class. Students may use their notes while taking the quiz but not their textbooks. The quality of their notetaking usually improves dramatically after students understand their usefulness.
      • Regarding the grading of these assignments, I quickly scan over the outlines and check them off with a score of 4, 3, 2 or 1. As an assessment tool, it is terrific because it is very difficult for a student to make an outline of something she doesn't understand. When reading over the outlines, you will easily see the students who are having great difficulty understanding their text!

    2. Concept Map, Timeline, or Summary of the Chapter

      These can be used as options to the outline assignment or to introduce variety to the assignment. Depending on the individual student, one method of notetaking will be more preferred over the others.

    3. Chapter Responses

      Less formal than an actual outline or notes on an entire chapter, this allows students to make a personal response to their reading.

      You can ask students to make questions, appreciations, confusions, relate the information to another text, write about a memory it triggers, make a collage based on the information, list their favorite or least favorite quotation from the reading, list the sentence that gives the most important idea from the reading, etc.

      These responses also provide you with immediate class discussion materials (Since students have their prepared comments sitting in front of them, it is easier for them to speak up than having to remember the text in class and formulate a comment on the spot.). You can collect the responses and read from them randomly, ask students to discuss their responses with a partner or small group or open it up to a class discussion. (This need not even take more than a few minutes of class time).

Margaret Prothero uses three different types of chapter response sheets to gain feedback from students about their reading of the text.