Are school textbooks really so bad? Yes, they are!

How I deal with disappointing textbooks. How freedom becomes addictive. And some ideas for easy supplementation.


Recently, I was part of a Facebook discussion over how "dreadful" English textbooks in public schools really are. And, according to many, they are outdated, unnecessarily complicated, disconnected from reality and from one another and, all in all, relatively useless. While I definitely agree and recognize the shortcomings, I expressed the heretic view that "they're not really that bad..."! Having survived the (understandable!) backlash, I stand by my opinion for mainly one reason: a good textbook is a useful tool, but a bad textbook is absolute freedom.


And trust me, public school English textbooks are bad. Most colleagues I've met or talked to end up using about 30-40% of the material compiled, and that includes both student's books AND workbooks. First of all, they are next to impossible to finish, unless you're willing to plod through without your students following. There are whole pages of irrelevant or inapplicable activities explained in excruciating detail. Several units lack practice for one or more skills. And, worst of all, they usually fail to capture the students' attention or interest.


example of 4th grade project

Has there ever been a 4th grader who could follow such detailed instructions and write such an extensive project? I'd like to meet them!


Even so, I have never totally abandoned them and not because I felt some sort of obligation. My devotion stems mainly from two factors: they represent work and resources, it took months of work and tons of paper and ink so that students in the whole country have a free resource. This commands some respect. And I consider a complete rejection of the textbook unnecessarily traumatic for the students. Several times, I've had students wonder why we skip so much if the book. I feel it makes them uneasy trying to accept the idea that their "official" textbooks are worthless.


That said, I would like to invite you to consider this: when we have a good textbook, organized and packed with activities, how often can we stray from it? How easily do we decide to? Most of us have at least some experience working in private language schools before getting tenure. I'm sure we can all remember the feeling of "running behind the book", trying to get everything done. This feeling isn't based on some actual rule or prohibition, but I know we've all felt guilty for skipping a couple of exercises or even a whole section! This is not the case with school textbooks. When you are (justifiably) convinced that your book isn't serving yours or your students' needs, you are free to roam! Skip activities, skip pages, go all the way and skip a whole unit, why don't you?


It's up to you. You decide how to supplement and complement your material. And no expensive and well-reviewed coursebook or student pack is there to hold you down! When I realized the freedom that this entails, I started viewing my textbooks from a different perspective. They became more like guidelines and starting points, something to organize a syllabus around. So, I would like to share with you some of the things I usually do to supplement the textbooks of the primary school grades 3-6.



3rd grade


I've often said that the Magic Books 1 & 2 were a very refreshing change in public schools, even if they eliminated the possibility of ordering from selected publishers, which had been the case up to their publication. Even the first, pilot version in black and white was generally well-received by students and eventually by teachers. Since then, it has received two updates, which are two more than all the other textbooks have had! Still, it is important that we adjust it to our personal teaching style. I like to organize language info in boxes. A square tipbox reminds us of useful phrases, a triangular grammar box helps us visualize the structures and a round soundbox teaches us new sounds and combinations.


Apart from this, I tend to emphasize writing and spelling practice at this stage as I think it is the time to lay foundations. That is why I created a "copy practice" template with selected phrases and words from each lesson that I usually publish on e-class and have students copy in a special Writing Notebook. (members can download a presentation with examples of these in our library: shοκολατάκια)


4th grade


This book is my personal red cloth. It makes my blood pressure spike! I could go on and on about all the things I feel are wrong about this book, but I will focus on one: Strategy corners at the beginning of every chapter. You know which ones I'm talking about, right? For years, I've tried to figure out how they are supposed to be used and what the intended gain is. I have failed. This year I decided to get rid of them altogether. I printed my own strategy corners and have students glue them on top of the original ones in the book.

Another thing I do is try to introduce reading and writing skills as early as possible. But even though I find most of the topics in the book usable, I don't particularly like the layout. So I print out my own writing templates and then store the finished assignments in a special folder for each student. At this stage, we usually practice guided writing in class.


5th grade


Huge parts of the 5th grade textbook need updating. It is possibly the one I use the least. I stay close to the topics but supplement extensively. I employ external sources, such as videos, listening activities and texts to achieve the goals I perceive as relevant at this stage, but two practical things I do are introduce the numbered-pages notebook and writing assignments of two kinds: pure writing and art.


The decision to skip or replace large parts of the textbook comes with a small price: students find it difficult to register their progress or organise their notes. That is why I started using a notebook with numbered pages and a "contents" page. I make sure that our notes always have a characteristic title which is then recorded in the contents and we basically construct our own textbook in our notebooks little by little. The choice to include two kinds of writing reflects an effort to motivate weaker students to write by adding a strong artistic component to the project.


6th grade


This textbook is probably the one I am most faithful to. Having worked on individual skills extensively over the past 3 grades, at this final level I focus on content and integration. Starting from the topic, I try to build my students' vocabulary and have them employ their language for practical purposes, for instance, we learn how to shop at a supermarket or a clothes shop abroad, we try our skill as fiction writers, we improve our knowledge of science and history. The problem of vocabulary is solved in many ways, but my most helpful tool is a vocabulary booklet that I distribute at the beginning of each year (you can read more about it and members can download it here!)


As you may have guessed, a lot of speaking and writing goes on at this level, and in order to motivate them to do a good job and still follow the guidelines, I came up with the concept of #challenge. When I give an assignment, I relate it to a special challenge that they have to complete (ideas can be found in the presentation in the library). When we recently learnt how to write a biography, for example, instead of just asking them to write about any famous figure, I related it to the International Women's Day with a #specialdaychallenge. Now they have to specifically find a woman who changed history and write her biography!


These are some of the things that help me cope with the limitations and problems of the textbooks and motivate my students to participate! What about you? How much do you follow your textbooks and what do you do to supplement them? Tell me your opinion and your suggestions in the comments!


Update! You can find resource materials for the first three units of Magic Book 2 in my TPT store at a special price! You can also buy every unit separately. Click here to get the special offer!

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