5 ways to make ‘textbook lessons’ more interesting

The Teacher's Toolkit

Update: I’m no longer in the classroom but would highly recommend Paul Ginnis’ Teacher’s Toolkit: Raise Classroom Achievement with Strategies for Every Learner. I’ve found it extremely helpful to my own practice and when mentoring student teachers!


When I started my teaching career I worked myself into the ground. Determined not to just use textbooks as a prop, I did ‘proper’ lesson plans for every single lesson and didn’t use more than a single page of a textbook (tops!) per lesson. I’ve come to realise that textbooks can be your friend. Here’s some suggestions to make lessons based around them more interesting…

  1. Add an element of randomness to the lesson
  2. Give students a choice
  3. Link the content of the textbook to current events or give very bizarre/memorable examples
  4. Use a resource that gives the lesson ‘wow’ factor
  5. Get students to work collaboratively

The majority of the above can be achieved quickly and easily by a) experience, b) having a bank of resources that you build up (preferably sharing them with others – see the historyshareforum, for example), and c) making sure you have a good working relationship with your students.

1. Add an element of randomness to the lesson

There’s many ways to do this. One of my current favourite ways is to use something like the Random Name/Word Picker at Russel Tarr’s excellent ClassTools.net. You can use this to pair up students, for them to have to do a mini-presentation on a given topic, or just to ask them a question. Rewards, coupled with an element of randomness, go down very well – especially with younger students.

2. Give students a choice

This works well on so many levels. Not only does it make students by definition active participants in the lesson – after all they’re having to make a choice – but it allows differentiation by task on a more subtle level. It can also support different ‘learning styles’ (if you believe in such things) as you can allow students to represent/record/manipulate information in various ways. For example, if you were looking at the outcomes of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (I’m a History teacher!) you could give students the option of:

  • Creating a mindmap
  • Writing a diary as if they were one of the victorious soldiers
  • Coming up with a newspaper front page (a bit anachronistic, but it works…)
  • Designing a Powerpoint-style presentation – on paper if no ICT access
  • Planning and acting out a role-play (you can record this using a digital camera)

3. Link the content of the textbook to current events or give very bizarre/memorable examples

This is important in any lesson, but especially important in my subject – History. I try to make sure that I tell students why we’re studying what we are and try and link it to a recent event. If I have to give an example, I make it very memorable through storytelling. Today, for example, I gave an example of the difference between primary and secondary sources by telling students a made-up story about what I would do to one of them if they didn’t hand in their next homework. The story involved chopping their legs off, etc. 😉

4. Use a resource that gives the lesson ‘wow’ factor

So long as you’ve got a resource bank upon which to draw – either your own personal one or a collaborative one – then you can pull something relevant out very quickly. A quick example from last week when I was having to speed-plan a lesson for various reasons just before school was finding a Google Earth resource showing Hadrian’s Wall. The students found it amazing, enjoyed the lesson, and it added to their understanding of the topic.

Other favourite examples of resources for adding ‘wow’ factor:

  • Relevant music to the lesson topic: I use this at the start of lessons whilst students write down the date, title and objective.
  • Short video clips: the best, from experience, are 3-5 mins in length followed by some Q&A. Download YouTube and Zamzar, for example.
  • Games: find a site (or several) that offer quality games you can use in the classroom. Try Andrew Field’s ContentGenerator.net – examples at Schoolhistory.co.uk and ReviseICT.co.uk

5. Get students to work collaboratively

Working by oneself is a very lonely experience, even if surrounded by others. A bit of collaboration – even if only just for a starter activity – can work wonders. Get students to discuss a topic. A favourite of Roy Huggins, Interactive Whiteboard Supremo, is to ‘Go For Five’ on a picture: what can they see? Get students to ‘diamond rank’ causes or effects of events, etc.

What ideas have you got to ‘spice up’ the standard textbook lesson?

Image CC BY Alan Levine


Add yours →

  1. Thanks for the comments Dan and Russel:

    @Dan: You’re absolutely right about textbooks being full of errors. I can’t go into specifics for obvious reasons, but it’s something that I’m wrestling with at the moment. Students really do need to have a range of stimulii. To rest on one ‘definitive’ resource provides them with a distorted view of the world in the 21st century.

    @Russel: Glad you’ve found the post helpful! Have you any tips to share? 🙂

    • One of the things I learnt very quickly when I started working alongside established authors was that very few people ever seem to use the textbook in the way it was intended to be used…

      Based on that:

      Read the teachers guide and accompanying notes, if its a decent enough prodct it will include variations and ideas for incorporating the materials into a more intereesting lesson.

      Dip into the content and use engaging methods to ge kids wanting to read / find. For example, have a research race… pupils in groups. 10 introductory questions… they can only get number 2 once they’ve shown the correct answer to number 1… box of choccies for the winning group…. all of a sudden, you’ve got a class using the index / contents page and wanting to find out what happened etc…

      As Doug suggests, move from the textbook to something else, then back again. Using sources as stimulus for an active learning exercise works well – another history example – see thinkinghistory.co.uk for a pile of exercises devised to work alongside textbooks.

      The move towards digitised textbooks is bringing in lots of potential for supporting IT based activities. Certainly in history this makes it really easy to differentiate and there’s scope to make really easy but effective use of relevant video clips, podcasts etc…

      If you’re lucky enough to have more than one textbook on the topic you’re teaching, have all of them available. it allows more flexibility; can lead to activities being created that aren’t reliant on one book and opens up opportunities for a) double checking of facts (they often disagree!) b) interpretations and it also allows pupils to select the text that they feel most comfortable with.

  2. Back in August 2008, a mere month after the iPhone was released, I published my list of apps that I used. I had quite a list back then and still have the personal rule that I won’t have more than 4 pages of apps since it’s too hard to find them. I try to organize them by most used kept on the front page, http://www.chase.com especially now that the iphone allows you to use the home button to flip to that first page. Here is what I currently have on the iPhone, other than the included apps. You’ll find that there really aren’t any games on here. I prefer my games full screen on my PC or plasma TV rather than shrunk down, but to each his own.

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