Working with the Textbook: How to Enhance Student Motivation

By McCabe, Patrick P. | Social Education, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Working with the Textbook: How to Enhance Student Motivation


McCabe, Patrick P., Social Education


During the many years that I have taught classes from the elementary to the graduate level, I've had the opportunity to observe various instructor approaches as well as student reactions to the use of textbooks. This investigation, along with my own classroom experience, has helped strengthen my approach to textbooks in a way that maximizes my students' interest and learning. The following are two composite sketches that summarized my observations:

Two fourth grade teachers conducted a social studies lesson. Both assigned an in-class reading from the textbook as a follow up to a lesson. Both classes had the same reading level and were reading the same textbook.

One teacher, Mr. Gates (a pseudonym), instructed his students to open to the pages related to their research project but did not address textbook format. The other teacher, Ms. Rodriquez (also a pseudonym), similarly instructed her students to open to the appropriate pages, but first conducted a discussion about the manner in which information was presented in the textbook. She called her students' attention to text features and characteristics such as advance organizers, font size/white space, bold and italicized words, illustrations, and general textbook appeal. She prepared her students to better understand the material that was presented.

When the students in Gates's class complained that the book was too difficult, he exhorted them to push ahead because, as he told them, "You have the ability and can do the job. You just need to try your best." Rodriguez, however, heard few complaints about the difficulty of the book; the students in her class felt confident that they could successfully read the textbook and complete the assignment. The students in Gates's class were not as confident and were often off task. Some even closed their books and placed their heads on their desks, as if to sleep. Later in the day, Gates complained to Rodriquez about his class's poor attention span during the lesson despite his efforts to motivate them with encouraging words. He explained to Rodriquez that he generally enjoys his students, but he complained that they could be lazy and not interested in reading from a social studies textbook, even though they had the ability to read the material.

Both Gates and Rodriquez are licensed in social studies and are popular with their students. But while Gates appeared to be providing greater motivation through his words of encouragement, the actions of Rodriquez created a stronger motivation where it counted--among the students of her class. Gates did not anticipate his students' negative perspective of the textbook, and he did not address students' expressed discomfort with the assigned pages. His students were distracted by the nuances of the text and this became a barrier to their engagement with the textbook and the assignment.

A number of researchers have identified a connection between student performance and the nature of a textbook; these experts have suggested ways to help students negotiate the textbook and improve comprehension. Authors Rhonda Tyree, Thomas Fiore, and Rebecca Cook noted, "Textbooks are even blamed for children's apathy toward and dislike of subject matter." (1) In the scenarios described above, however, it may not necessarily have been the textbook that was problematic, but students' perceptions of the textbook. Albert Harris and James Sipay warn, "Reading comprehension can be influenced by the ways in which the textual information is presented by the author"; (2) and, in addressing the needs of learning disabled students, Marilyn J. Chambliss stated, "Teaching students with a learning disability strategies for reorganizing paragraph information or for capitalizing on text structure has been shown to significantly increase their reading comprehension." (3) In addition, Jeffrey Bakken, Jeanne Harms and Lucille Lettow, Brenda Moustafa, and Richard Sinatra suggested activities that have improved comprehension by focusing on textbook format. …

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