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A textbook case of confusion

Children need to develop vital skills if the textbooks they use are to be an aid to independent learning, and not an obstacle, writes Huw Thomas

Textbooks are supposed to encourage independent learning. As if! My class take no more than a quick glance at the page before they start hassling me - like adults who never follow instructions for assembling flat-pack furniture and can't believe Delia Smith has so many steps for scrambling eggs. The fact is: textbooks are hard to follow.

Textbooks present children with unfamiliar language, complex sentences and page layouts that can throw them off course. And they use complex terms. One maths scheme, for instance, asks children to interpret a graph on newspaper readership. It is simple enough, but the questions refer to people "taking" newspapers. My key stage 2 pupils were baffled by: "How many households take the Mirror?" until I substituted the word "read" for "take".

Textbooks can also switch style suddenly. Children get into a pattern of understanding they find hard to break. So after 10 questions on newspapers, a demand to label graph axes or add up results can prove a switch too far. Many textbooks are written as if they address the pupil although activities are filtered through the teacher.

At a time when numeracy and literacy lessons emphasise the need for independent working to free up the teacher for focused activities, the issue of children's readiness for such independence is crucial.

Working with a textbook is a three-stage process. The first step, decoding and understanding the text, and the last, performing actions as instructed, are fairly obvious. But between lies another stage - translating words into actions. This means recognising the text as worth having a go at. If children feel they are bound to fail they will give up. If they are sure the teacher will explain, they won't even bother looking at the instructions.

To be engaged with the text, children have to believe it genuinely addresses them, and need a good idea of the strategies they can use to make sense of the page.

Children can be taught textbook skills. Instructions can be as simple as:

"Answer the first question first." It may sound obvious, but on pages littered with examples and diagrams, children must be adept at finding what they are being asked and identifying the place to start. They also need a strategy to rephrase questions. I ask children to read the question, then turn it into a "So . . ." sentence. The technology book says: "List the levers you can find in the classroom." They turn it into: "So I have to look around the room and find examples."

Children also need to know the trail they follow through the book. In our maths scheme, all the questions are numbered in boxes of the same colour. No matter how many examples and charts a page contains, you know where you're going if you home in on those numbers. Pupils also need to understand the structure of questions. Question 1 can consist of 1a, 1b and so on.

Teaching these skills requires shared time in which children and teacher focus on the pages of a particular scheme. And this links neatly with the literacy hour, in which children are asked to read and understand features of instructional texts.

Teachers can find ways of introducing and working with the specific page. The key element is vocabulary. The introduction of new words, such as "contours" and "grid references" in geography textbooks, is obvious. But other relatively straight-forward words may be used in new ways - people "taking" newspapers, for example.

Questions can be rephrased. And sometimes the teacher's intonation when reading a question can act as a guide.

Children also need to know what the teacher expects. Should they copy out the question? Answer in sentences or note form? And how far should they go before stopping to have work checked.

A simple aide memoire can consist of a photocopy of a page stuck on to a larger sheet of paper, with notes and explanations. This may seem similar to having the teacher on hand to explain parts of the text, but is actually an important step towards independence.

As children embark on a particular page they also need a clear message about how they are to interact with the teacher. It is no good saying you want something done independently, then hurrying over to the first child who isn't sure what page everyone is doing. If they can ask someone else, they should. If they can reread something, they should. If they can refer to help notes, they should. Independence is an uphill struggle.

Of course, a child who is genuinely stuck cannot just sit there chewing the book. Children need to know the routine, and part of this is being able to approach the teacher. But responses must be geared towards the ideal of independent work.

I have found a significant change in my discussions with stuck children once I level with them. I explain there are problems with textbooks and I want to find out what they are and how to overcome them.

When a child is stuck the teacher needs to incorporate the textbook in whatever help is offered. Explanations should not happen without direct reference to the page. As far as possible, the language of the textbook should be part of the discussion. The teacher shouldn't set the activity in a different way. It must be explained in a way that points to the page, works through its features and uses its examples.

As children progress through school, they can face a mixture of teaching styles, from the teacher who expects to check each question as it is asked, to the one who says: "Here's the book. Hand in your answers in July." A consistent approach across the school will ensure colleagues know what expectations a class's previous teacher had in relation to textbook use. Whole-staff agreement can also provide a forum for discussion of this aspect of work, which can be frustrating. And collective agreement on what staff expect from the way textbooks are used can help those who have to buy the materials.

Textbooks have a place. Using them requires children to develop independent learning skills. It is a teacher's job to look closely at the frustrations that hamper so much textbook work, to make the process that little bit smoother.

Huw Thomas is a primary teacher in Sheffield


Teachers can help children by:

* encouraging them to say "So . . ." and translate the words into actions

* explaining a book's layout

* checking and explaining complex vocabulary

* providing an aide memoire children can refer to

* asking those who are having difficulties to explain them from the textbook

* providing support in a way that relates directly to the textbook

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