Are these the best English subject textbooks you’ve ever seen?

Textbooks have been in the news this past academic year. We’ve been told by Nick Gibb to shed our “anti-textbook ethos”, whilst U.S. education advisor Richard Culatta has said that British schools should scrap textbooks because they “are outdated, they are in a format that it’s not adaptable, and for students learning in other languages, they can’t press the word and get a definition.”

I’m more inclined to side with Gibb than Culatta on this one. It’s not my intention in this post to reason why, so I’ll point you in the direction of Tim Oates’ paper ‘Why textbooks count’, as well as David James‘ excellent response to Richard Culatta.

Saving those arguments for another blog, this post is merely an attempt to share with you one of a set of excellent English language and literature textbooks that I have come across this year (all done with a deferential nod to Bodil Isaksen, whose excellent blog on Singaporean Maths textbooks I aim to imitate here).

I have been looking for good English textbooks for a while and earlier this year I came across this set published by Mcdougall Littel (click ‘High School/Language Arts’ > ‘International’ if the link takes you to the homepage):

booksThere are 13 books according to the website linked above, and they concentrate on either English language or literature. They are incredibly comprehensive books. The ‘Language Network‘ book (targeted at Grade 10 pupils in the U.S.) in the left of the picture is 704 pages long and covers the following areas over 32 chapters:

boookNot only that, it also includes 100 pages of exercises, model writing, etc.1111

The content of the language books is excellent, however it isn’t these that I wish to write about today. Rather it is the mammoth literature textbooks that I want to share.

The Language of Literature: British Literature‘ is an incredible piece of work. It is 1,470 pages long for a start! But I think that the quality matches the quantity. However, rather than listening to me eulogise, I’m going to show you its contents, and let you tell me what you think. Here’s the cover:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.28.53

The book is a chronological presentation of British literature from 495AD to the present day, giving between 250-300 pages to each of the seven periods it covers:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.07.14

Each period covers various authors and gives a range of texts (poems, short stories or extracts from novels) from each. Here are the contents of the first two units, on The Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Periods and The English Renaissance:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.07.21Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.07.25Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.07.28There are also other features in the book, including language features on vocabulary building and sentence construction:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.08.16

Every unit begins with a timeline of the period, as well as a few pages on the historical background, which includes how language developed as well as the literary history:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.11.02Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.11.05Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.11.08

With each text, there is a bit of background as well as suggestions to focus pupils’ reading. There’s support with notes on the language throughout and, post-reading, there are questions for comprehension and critical thinking, and a variety of tasks for extension, vocabulary, exploration and writing responses:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.12.10 Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.12.36 Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.12.45 Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.13.00

Some of the sections are incredibly in depth. The 9-page author study on William Shakespeare brings is followed by a focus on Macbeth which is over 100 pages in length, and is mostly made up of scenes from the play with supporting materials:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.14.05

The final 100-or-so pages focuses on support for English language, with sections on reading, writing, communication, grammar, as well as a glossary of literary terms and a vocabulary builder (presumably the use of Spanish here is due large number of Spanish speakers in some U.S. states):Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.07.57Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.24.48Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.25.55Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.26.42Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.27.01Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.27.51Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.28.13As you can see, at nearly 1500 pages this book is incredibly comprehensive. It covers the history of British literature largely through texts, and the editors have selected those texts judiciously. The fact that the book is so heavy on content – poems, short stories and extracts from longer pieces – is a real winner for me.

At some point, I’ll blog about some of the other titles in the range – which are all equally as comprehensive – but I’d be interested as to what other English teachers make of this book.

They can be picked up from auction sites or Amazon Marketplace for fairly reasonable prices. Most of these I got for less than £10 plus P+P – some I managed to get for just a few quid including postage. I wouldn’t advise spending too much over the odds for them – be wary of shipping costs from the States.

If anyone has used these or manages to get hold of one, I’d be interested to know what you think? Or even your impressions based on the tiny peak I have shared here?

Edit: a quick Google search can turn up PDF versions of some of these books. Here’s the one literature one I’ve just discussed.

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12 thoughts on “Are these the best English subject textbooks you’ve ever seen?”

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve actually ordered the British lit version right now! I feel like I am discovering history and literature for the first time as an adult because my own education was so awful (at a state school, that is). I would’ve loved to see medieval literature as a teenager, but was forced to do To Kill a Mockingbird ad infinitum, for example.

      1. I do love a good read! This will sound cheesy, but if I don’t learn something new every day, I feel like my brain hasn’t been fed properly. This summer I am revising chess and calculus whilst also learning norwegian, for a laugh. I will also be tutoring one of my offspring in level 6 maths and English so that he ACES the new SATs. It’s all good.

  2. This looks brilliant. You’ve done a great job of selecting the parts an English teacher really wants to see before buying.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to use textbooks, because it’s silly to reinvent the wheel when more learned people have put so much effort into creating well sequenced courses of study. The problem I have had has been finding textbooks I actually want to use. All the textbooks published for the British market which I have seen have been rubbish – dumbed down and fun-for-kids, and lacking proper chronological sequencing or sufficient serious content. It looks like American publishers are the way to go. After all, I used the Norton anthology when I was at university.

  3. These are undoubtedly impressive and fairly typical of US publishing. In my view they tend to ‘over-publish’ and leave no room for the teacher. My other caution is that whilst these offer a comprehensive and insightful coverage we must ask how they would be used within the teaching time available in the UK and … how they help you to meet the requirements of the exam system (sorry to mention that).
    I do agree, however, that a more rigorous approach is required and that there is a need for text books to be upgraded, but that has to be worked out synchronously (or at least mindfully of) with the curriculum demands and exam systems.
    Off to order these now for a closer look… maybe these should become ITT texts? Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I agree that there needs to be a push on producing better textbooks in this country to meet the needs of the curriculum.

      On your first point though, I’ve read these through and don’t really understand the “they leave no room for the teacher” argument. They are text-based so are exactly what we should be focusing on. I don’t mind if I’m edged out in favour of quality resources – the learning is the most important.

    2. I can’t see the issue with curriculum matching, given the vagueness of the national curriculum regarding actual specific content. Also, a thorough grounding like that provided by textbooks like this is just what is needed for the new, totally unseen English language GCSE, given that it is general knowledge that builds general reading ability.

      One could use a textbook like this all the way from years seven to ten. Obviously one would have to depart from it when preparing for literature GCSE, and A level, but by then one’s pupils would have just the kind of broad grounding they need to prepare them for further study.

  4. Slightly technical question, James. What is the ISBN of your copy of ‘The Language of Literature: British Literature’? There seem to be two slightly different versions of the book on the market.

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