Jill Carter: Textbooks – the wheel already invented

hamster_wheelTextbooks – the wheel already invented

I recently responded to a tweet asking if anyone knew of any decent textbooks to use at KS3. When I tweeted ‘Ignite English from OUP’, one reply seemed surprised that textbooks meeting the new curriculum requirements existed. Ignite English was written to coincide with and support the new curriculum (and the new GCSEs too). Now this may all sound like a bit of advertising for OUP but there are other reasons for resurrecting the textbook in English lessons. Textbooks and their accompanying packages of additional resources have not stood still during these past years when we have all been thinking that it’s cheaper to produce our own materials and I can safely say in favour of textbooks and from first-hand experience:

  1. Students love them.
  2. The content has been through several expert pedagogical mills.
  3. They relieve the staff of writing SoW/detailed lesson plans.
  4. They look much more appealing than worksheets.
  5. They eliminate the need for (costly) photocopying/printing.
  6. They include added extras such as digital resources/teacher companions.

When the first copies of Ignite appeared on my kitchen table, one teacher I know glanced at them and said, “Oh, we don’t use textbooks at our school – we do our own worksheets.” Her tone suggested that textbooks were not good or apposite enough for her department. I remember the rise of the worksheet, which coincided with the availability of word processors. It was genuinely exciting to be able to produce and adapt your own worksheets, designed for your classes and differentiated where appropriate. When the Internet arrived, the whole process went berserk and it became evident that trainee teachers were not learning to teach so much as to download and press ‘print’. Students are now heartily sick of them. Recently, I worked from a new GCSE textbook with a friend’s son and his first reaction was, ”Wow, I like this book – I wish we had books like these in English. All we ever get is worksheets. They all look the same and we always lose them anyway.“ Quite. Worksheets have their place in the learning curve but variety is its spice. The Ignite digital resource incorporates editable worksheets but, again, they have been edited and designed by experts to increase their effectiveness.

Teachers at the school where I work have found using a new series of textbooks enjoyable. They know the curriculum is covered, the students apparently love them and, if we have any absence, teachers find it very straightforward to organise cover work. Instead of spending the holidays rewriting SsoW, they spent some time familiarising themselves with the Ignite English system. This includes unit overviews (medium term plans if you prefer), student books, digital resources and teacher companions. And although a teacher companion sounds like some kind of staffroom armchair, it is in fact pages and pages of tiles (very modern) suggesting starters, plenaries and additional activities for every single lesson in the textbook. As a result, our team quickly realised that they could develop their own tangents and use resources and texts they already valued to complement Ignite materials. The bonus was that they had a safety net for those times when they were so overworked that planning a scheme or even a lesson felt like the proverbial straw. I am sure that the same will apply with the new GCSE courses. Since I started writing parts of textbooks, I have realised that they resemble one of those 19th century samplers on the Antiques Roadshow – the closer you look, the more you are amazed by the detail and the sheer volume of thought contained therein. Teams of experts do not work on these tomes for no reason. We should be more willing to put our trust in the people who have spent a year writing this material and getting it accredited by the boards.

Yes, textbooks cost money but so does the torrent of paper that pours out of photocopiers and printers daily, only to be binned or glued awkwardly into exercise books at the end of each lesson. So do the hours teachers put into searching the Internet or writing the worksheets. And many of the websites offering these materials now charge subscription or download fees. Textbooks put an end to that mayhem at 7.45 a.m. when the copier is either broken or monopolised by panic-stricken NQTs.

I admit I have always loved textbooks – I am that person who stalks the Head of Department begging to take home any, and preferably all, inspection copies. I spy on her pigeonhole. I loiter nearby just as she empties it and groans, so that I can brightly suggest that I relieve her of at least some of the burden. One of the only perks of being a Leader of English myself was that these packages were addressed to me. Perhaps it is because I love books that I love textbooks – they are books but bigger. And for that reason, if no other, English teachers should ask themselves if they and their ‘client group’ really do prefer worksheets and powerpoint presentations…