Practices in Pedagogy

"To Teach is to Learn Twice Over"

What’s the Problem with American Textbooks?

There are countless reasons why the America textbook—no matter the subject area it covers—is helpful. Because of their enormous size, textbooks often offer a tremendous amount of information on a variety of areas pertaining to the subject for which they are written. Textbooks also offer an exhaustive amount of sources, research, and perspectives (at least for the most part). Textbooks in the modern American education scene even offer extensive, clear correlation to state and federal standards—making them ideal for teaching to standardized tests! However, even with all of these positives, textbooks stand most clearly as detrimental to the academic, cognitive, and even physical development of our students. Because of their unhealthy size, extortionate costs, and improper formatting, American textbooks are outrageously undesirable.

Harvey Daniels and Steven Zemelman offer an entire chapter to this very argument in their book: “Subjects Matter: Every Teacher’s Guide to Content-Area Reading.” They point to textbooks’ physical issues first, noting that, “textbooks contain too much material” (39). By aiming to jam each and every chapter with as much information as possible, as much detail as one can ever hope to know, textbook publishers have made their product increasingly cumbersome. Not only will little Tiffany’s five-pound science book break her back, but it will overwhelm her with useless information! Daniels and Zemelman then focus on the ill-advised formatting of these books. They argue, “They’re [textbook publishers] trying to make it [their textbook] feel like a computer or video game where the kids feel some control. But those pages end up just being confusing and overwhelming…students can’t make sense of those pages at all” (41). This clear shortcoming in textbook formatting, along with the many other examples—the scholarly/formal language that students cannot access (42), the falsely authoritative tone (42-43), and even the superficiality of the text (38-40)—all showcase how detrimental textbooks can be to learning. Finally, Daniels and Zemelman offer the simple, yet pertinent fact that textbooks cost way too much money (46) to finalize their argument.

In all of these examples, I cannot help but observe the obvious truth: American textbooks are not doing their job. Classroom resources should only be in place and used if they prove effective and accessible to the common student. I myself can remember growing up in the American school system and constantly attempting, and failing, to learn from the textbooks I was assigned. I would read and read and read only to come away frustrated and more confused. The language was beyond me, the enormous size was intimidating, and the formatting was just plain inaccessible.

I can only hope that in the coming years, more and more teachers will see the benefit in using supplementary texts as opposed to one, single textbook for the classrooms. If this pattern does not occur, I genuinely fear for the American education system. I fear for the small 6th grader stumbling around the school hallways because his textbooks weigh more than he does; I fear for the 9th grader who can’t afford her textbooks and therefore decides to leave school altogether; I fear for the 12th grader who still cannot understand the scientific method because his textbooks are too busy focusing on details and pretty pictures to actually teach the subject.


Reference List:

Daniels, Harvey, and Steven Zemelman. Subjects Matter: Every Teacher’s Guide to Content-Area Reading.           Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. Print.


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2 thoughts on “What’s the Problem with American Textbooks?

  1. Kris Gritter on said:


    So what are the alternatives to large textbooks? Let us not forget that secondary teachers must support their students in reading for multiple points of view which requires multiple sources of information to be evaluated and interpreted. Textbooks rarely offer multiple points of view.

  2. your honesty is refreshing, as yes, many teachers rely on texts, thank you for pointing out the real yet sometimes shameful benefits to teachers’ use of it. I think it would help if you defined “useless information” because while I agree, you don’t expand on why it is lost or comprehensible, thus, the nature of the failure of the text book. you sound like a teacher who may be a writer of text books or even a publisher! i think you should consider this in your career at some point!

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