In Praise of Textbooks

Don’t you just love a good lit-based curriculum? What could be more thrilling to the heart of a homeschooling parent than the promise of snuggling on the couch, reading all those beautiful books with your children? Imagine teaching not just literature but also history, science, and even math through engaging narratives rather than boring, dry textbooks. Charlotte Mason’s vision of learning from what she called living books has captured the imaginations of many homeschoolers, and with good reason. In order to qualify as a living book by Miss Mason’s definition, a book must be written by a subject expert and convey the author’s enthusiasm for the subject in good, literary language. Since homeschooling parents are often avid readers themselves, the prospect of giving children access to ideas through excellent books holds an undeniable appeal.

In practice, however, lit-based curricula can be challenging to implement. First, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: they’re expensive. Beyond the cost of the curriculum guides themselves, there are books to buy. Lots and lots and lots of books. Unlike Miss Mason’s program, in which students read slowly through a limited set of core texts, today’s lit-based programs may include dozens of titles per level. Some of those books may be out of print and in high demand on the used market exactly because homeschoolers need them for their lit-based curriculum. (A friend recently told me that she spent almost $300 on books for a two-month-long, lit-based unit study and still couldn’t source all the required titles.) Responsible curriculum developers try hard to avoid this problem, offering alternatives and updating their programs when key volumes become scarce, but it’s a perennial issue nonetheless. Of course you can get some of these books through your local library, but trying to coordinate interlibrary loan wait times and return dates with a weekly reading schedule is enough of a challenge that homeschoolers often throw up their hands and shell out the money to buy the books they need.

Speaking of the curriculum guides, they vary widely in overall quality and in the level of detail they provide for your money, making less-than-helpful guides a common frustration. Some guides are little more than a collection of Pinterest-style arts and crafts projects of dubious educational value, or what Jennifer Gonzalez calls Grecian urns. Others contain links to fun and relevant YouTube videos and Spotify playlists, but provide little direction for busy parents on how to incorporate these things into their homeschooling day, so the resources go unused. Some, in the name of flexibility, expect parents to do all the work: “Look at the number of pages in the book, divide it into readings of approximately equal length over the course of a term, and add it to your homeschooling schedule.” These flaws are all the more concerning for new homeschoolers, who may lack the experience to recognize a poorly designed or academically lightweight curriculum.

Avoiding gaps poses another challenge. It’s nearly impossible to put together a manageable list of historical novels and topical nonfiction that provides students with a comprehensive overview of a historical period. The problem is even more acute with elementary science, which already feels disjointed due to the vast range of topics to be covered. The language arts, ironically enough, often get short shrift in lit-based programs, which provide little or no formal instruction in grammar or composition. And I’ll admit that I have never understood how math can be taught through literature. Apparently I’m not alone, as many lit-based programs don’t even try; parents need to add in a separate math curriculum.

A related challenge, and one that I wish more homeschoolers would take seriously, is sequencing. Each academic discipline has an internal logic, a structure that experts recognize and that helps them order the many, many facts and concepts that form the content of the discipline. It’s easy to lose sight of that structure—or never to discern it in the first place—if your exposure to the discipline comes in the form of books dedicated to individual topics, no matter how engaging and well written. A good curriculum will not only provide appropriate content but will also arrange that content intelligently. (This is what professional instructional designers do.) A scattershot approach to knowledge acquisition does students a disservice and makes the teacher’s job harder as well.

For all of these reasons, I recommend that parents consider using a good, mainstream textbook as a spine, at least in history and science. Like the physical spine that holds up our bodies, a curricular spine is a single book, often a survey, that structures your child’s learning in a given subject area. Spines were popularized by The Well-Trained Mind and represent a practical way to avoid curricular overload and keep costs low.

To be effective as a spine, the text should provide an orderly overview of the topic at a level of detail appropriate to the student’s age and their existing understanding of the subject. It should contain up-to-date information: no public domain books from the 19th century, please! Spines need not be dull; a well-written and engaging survey like Story of the World or History Quest makes an excellent spine. A solid spine, whether narrative (in history) or more topical (in science), can actually increase student engagement by making the content more accessible and its overall place in the student’s learning more obvious.

The less you, the teacher, know about a subject, the more useful a good textbook will be to both you and your student. Homeschoolers worry about the gaps I mentioned earlier while repeatedly assuring each other than “everyone has gaps in their knowledge.” Although this is true, some have more gaps—and more concerning ones—than others, and that includes homeschooling parents. We can’t all be experts at everything. One of the best ways to avoid gaps and the related problem of poor sequencing is to use a textbook written by subject experts who grasp the inner logic of the discipline and are able to present information for beginners in a clear and organized way. The table of contents of a good textbook is effectively an outline, a mini scope-and-sequence for the course. Unless your lit-based curriculum developer is a subject expert in every field their curriculum covers—an unlikely scenario—and unless they can source the perfect array of in-print titles, they cannot possibly provide a booklist that matches the range and clarity of well-written and -arranged textbook. (This is why even Charlotte Mason used some textbooks, especially for science.)

Is there a place for the kind of rich, engaging books you’ll find in the best lit-based curricula? Absolutely. Use them as supplements to flesh out your child’s reading and to add literary quality. The activity books that accompany Story of the World provide an example of how to do this, and the better lit-based curriculum guides do the same. Look for programs that divide their booklists into required and optional titles. The required books often function as spines, but if the required list runs to more than one or two books per subject per year, consider using a dedicated textbook and saving the lit-based curriculum’s booklist for supplemental reading.

Don’t be afraid of textbooks. Used intelligently, they provide solid content and helpful structure to your homeschool, and they can help correct for potential gaps in lit-based curricula. Save those glorious booklists for free reading, or use them judiciously to supplement your chosen spine. Your children—and your wallet—will thank you.

Copyright 2021 by Drew Campbell, PhD. All rights reserved.

Drew Campbell is the author of  Living Memory, I Speak Latin, and Exploring the World through Story, and co-author, with Courtney Ostaff and Jennifer Naughton, of How to Homeschool the Kids You Have. Dr. Campbell is a veteran homeschooler and has worked as a classroom teacher, private school administrator, and independent tutor.