Look before you leap in;History;Subject of the week

4th September 1998 at 01:00
A new set of textbooks can cost at least pound;250 so it's important to be able to assess what you're buying. Mark Williamson gives some advice

This month Manchester becomes Glastonbury as history teachers pitch their tents at the city's Institute of Science and Technology to celebrate history (see Noticeboard, right).

The Historical Association has given a festival feel to this year's conference with some new sideshows, but the publishers' exhibition is likely to remain the most popular attraction.

The cost of a new set of textbooks for key stages 3 or 4 can be at least pound;250 so it is useful to carry a checklist with the official order pad.

* How accessible is it? Think about your intake and ability profile and look at the actual text. An information-rich narrative with six or more sentences to a paragraph might suit the pupil already working at level 6 but will deter those struggling with literacy.

Many average pupils, like the less able, comprehend text better when provided with graphic support - sub-headings, short paragraphs, use of bold type for key words and ideas and colour to highlight and engage.

* Does it use enquiry questions? It should. An enquiry approach is encouraged by the national curriculum and required in GCSE. It's the way that pupils learn most effectively - by exploring the what and why of history through evidence, and recalling, organising and interpreting it to answer relevant questions.

* Is the evidence base adequate? There are still too many books that require pupils to draw conclusions from a single source. For judgments to be balanced and substantiated, all pupils need exposure to a range of sources - secondary and primary, visual and written. Questions should require pupils to examine sources closely and think about them.

* Does the teacher's book really help? For GCSE courses, the Schools History Project sets a standard by which to judge the others by providing a clear overview of the course as a whole and good extension and support materials. Does the teacher's book open up new pathways, offer fresh perspectives and help plan challenging but appropriate tasks? If so, it could be good value for money.

* Could this book improve the grades of less able students? Many GCSE texts are intended for a core of average and above average. A good text should help the D and E grade pupil to achieve at least a C by close attention to the requirements of particular boards, the use of exam questions, structured and frequent revision tasks and tips for tackling unseen papers. Memorable diagrams are particularly useful.

* Is chronology taken seriously? In a good text it should be. Change, events and people have a locus. In national curriculum history, chronology is an important key element.

Summaries of what has gone before, indicators of long-term causes and uncomplicated time lines all help to give context to the period or topic and explain why we are studying it.

* Is there a workable index and a comprehensive glossary? Back to basics. Take a topic such as "religion" or "the Poor Law" and use the index to a book on "the Making of the United Kingdom". Could a pupil easily find key information for note-making or revision? And is there a glossary covering general terms such as "democracy" and "Protestant" and topic-specific ones like "suffragette" and "gerrymandering"?

* Finally: is this a book pupils might pick up and read outside your lessons? Appearance isn't everything and stunning covers can hide drab content. Look at a particular topic. Does the page attract the eye? Will the layout stir the emotions and quicken the intellect of 10 Micawber on Wednesday afternoon? We want textbooks to fight on our side.

And if you're still in doubt, do a tasting with a cross-section of pupils. After all, they're the ones who have to live with your decision.

Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and RE in the London borough of Hounslow

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