Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

Should the Textbook Determine the Essential Skills We Teach?

We received a question from a district with three high schools that was struggling to agree on the approach to take in answering the first critical question of a PLC: “What do we want our students to learn?” Some English teachers felt the answer to the question should focus on specific knowledge and skills students were to acquire. Other teachers argued that the curriculum should be determined by the newly-purchased textbooks. Teachers in these departments also disagreed over the literature students should be expected to read and when they should read it. This issue often occurs when teachers are called upon to create a guaranteed curriculum that ensures all students will have access to the same essential standards regardless of the individual teacher to whom they have been assigned. Here is how I responded.

Teachers at all three high schools should study the common core standards in English Language Arts. This represents the best current thinking in terms of what students should know and be able to do in terms of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The Common Core should guide your decisions at all three schools. Focus on knowledge and skills, not books. Your textbook should be a tool for teaching the knowledge and skills. It should facilitate the delivery of the curriculum, but it should not determine the curriculum.

English departments often get hung up on specific books: "I want to teach To Kill a Mockingbird and she wants to teach 1984. How do we resolve this conflict?" If you go back to the standards, not one of them says, "Students should be able to identify the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird." They say things like:  "Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text." and "Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience." Teachers could accomplish these objectives regardless of which novel their students read, and the assessment of the skills should not be dependent upon the novel

So, English teachers in my high school agreed that a few specific literary works were to be read at a particular grade level and then gave individual teachers considerable leeway regarding other works they would have their students read. Their common assessments, however, were focused on the skills that students were to learn, not the content of the novel. This meant that the assessment typically called upon students to read and respond to a new passage that had nothing to do with a particular novel. If you go to the National Assessment of Educational Progress website you can find passages and multiple choice questions, short constructed responses, and extended constructed responses that are used to assess student knowledge and skills. You can administer those assessments and/or use them as a model for creating your own.

In short, the people who contend your textbooks should determine the curriculum are wrong. Those who are arguing about what books to read are wrong. Shift your focus to the knowledge and skills your students must acquire and determine how you will assess whether or not they are acquiring the skills. Then, most importantly, use the results to get better at teaching the skills and intervening for students who struggle.



This is my first year as an 11th & 12th grade English teacher. I have relied somewhat on the textbook provided, and I've used other literature, grammar, and writing sources which I felt could be effective as well. I like the suggestion of working with the other English teacher (I say one, because there are only two high school teachers) to see what he might think about aligning literature. The only problem I foresee is that he also teaches in the state testing areas, and is forced to 'teach to the test' to make sure his students pass.

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Staff at

@zeina - Thanks for your question! Here is a response from PLC associate Ginny Mahlke:

There are some websites that you can look at for assessment questions, topics and projects.

1. Nations Report Care Main Assessments
2. Mastery Connect is a common assessment sharing site.
3. Released items from Florida and other state assessments found online at the state DOE websites.
4. Create your own in-county bank of assessments through electronic sharing.

The important thing in using any of the assessment questions/topics/projects that you get from outside sources is that your team carefully analyzes each item to make sure that it matches the needs of your students and your standards. You and your team might consider:

• Whether the level of rigor of the assessment item matches the level of rigor of the standard
• Making sure that you choose different types of assessment items (selected response, created response, product or skill demonstration)
• Whether the assessment item will truly measure what it is you want students to learn.

One of the strengths of the PLC process is that teams come up with their own common formative and summative assessments. These are most clearly understood by the team and tend to be most closely related to expected student learning. Outside assessment items can be a valuable and time-saving addition to a team’s work in assessment, but make sure that your team discusses, analyzes and approves all items/projects/learning activities that will be used to measure student learning.

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I don’t entirely agree with the assessment. I feel that the use of textbooks is still necessary in the school system because they provide a uniform timeline for teaching most subject area. Most Colleges and Universities still feel the need to use textbooks as a foundation for their teaching/learning practices. One reason for this is because the information in textbooks is writing chronologically from basic to advance. In turn they assist teachers with ensuring that students are provided with a solid foundation in the knowledge needed to proceed towards higher levels within a subject area. Doing it this way also makes transitioning from one school to another within/out of their district easier not only the students but, the teachers as well. I think it is important to keep textbooks as the foundation for learning, while integrating technology and active learning techniques to provide students with the best possible learning environment.

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I agree with you 1000%! I feel trapped by textbooks in terms of what to teach. In my district they say teach the standards, but you MUST use the textbooks and stay on the curriculum map, which uses the textbooks like its the Holy Bible. I feel as though the textbooks limits the information presented to students, therefore, the student has a limited education. Some people feel that its the easy way and there is no need to recreate the wheel when someone has already given all of plans on what to do and when to do it, however, I feel that's the lazy way of thinking considering students change every year.

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I couldn't agree more. When my district sat down to realign our curriculum, we had many arguments about how the textbook would fit in. Some teachers couldn't seem to let go of their reliance on the textbook and felt we should place the standards in the order that the textbook placed them. During this argument, we were successfully able to "show" those teachers that the textbook didn't account for all of the standards, and quite often didn't provide much material to teach the standard when it was there. Also, they realized that when you try to sculpt your curriculum around a book, it would have to change every time you switched book series because it is in a different order. In the end, we were able to successfully create curriculum maps for use across our school system that addressed the standards without relying on the textbook.

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I have been part of several curriculum revisions at our school, and the essential question of debate is solidly answered here. The real issue is what skills do we want them to learn, not what books do we want them to read? Our PLC is currently working on re-evaluating our curriculum, and the biggest change this year from previous years is that everyone is finally embracing this idea. We've been doing well with creating common assessments which focus on the skills, not the specific texts. That way, it doesn't matter if my kids red several disparate texts on the focus question "Do people really value individuality?" and yours read disparate texts on "Are the effects of technology predominantly positive or negative?" as long as they can infer the authors' meanings, create their own argument after reading these texts, and use specific examples from the texts to support their own conclusions.

"Marrying" a book is never a good idea. Following the standards instead of focusing on what you want to read also allows you to adjust your curriculum to fit your students that year. Maybe while reading Romeo and Juliet, your students start discussing age of consent. So, you find disparate texts discussing age of consent and emotional maturity in young adults. However, maybe next year the kids really get into discussing the nature of love. Focusing on the skills allows you to adjust your focus to really engage your students.

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We purchased textbooks for our science classes a few years ago, and discovered that while it met most standards, it left a few out. We needed to find alternative sources for the content. It felt as though the lessons had more meaning when I wasn't leaning on the text as a crutch. The book is now only used to fill in a worksheet. We are in the process of defining our units of study around the standards, and not using the book to do so (the old curriculum depended on the book at the time, almost 20 years out of date!)

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During my undergrad, the school where I completed my student teaching adhered to this practice. It made it very easy for teachers to plan their curriculum because they had a list they could choose from and they knew what standards/literature the students had likely read. I found that we were easily able to gague student knowledge because we knew what they had read. The only problems I encountered were when teachers selected books from the wrong list, but other than that it was an incredibly helpful practice.
I do not believe that textbooks should dictate what is taught. Yet they do have a lot of good information and should be utilized when possible.

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2nd Grade Teacher

As I have entered my 14th year of teaching, I have to agree that textbooks should not drive instruction. The district I teach in has recently adopted Common Core Standards for K-2nd grade. Our textbooks do not meet these standards. We are pulling material from many resouses to fill in the gaps.

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That's true,we teach science skills and allow students to search for the content. We follow Florida standards in our core subjects. Is there any assessment guides that would help us in assessing students' learning in accordance to these standards?
thank you

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I agree with you about not solely relying on textbooks to teach the students! For the entire time I have worked with my school district, they have prided themselves on their choice of math, social studies, science, and shared reading curriculum. Up until the end of last school year, we were informed to teach to that curriculum, even though we obviously had established standards and benchmarks for our students. With our State's Department of Education developing Core Curriculum for all the school districts in the state to follow, the administrators at our school seemed to have an epiphany that we, the teachers, can help our students obtain the knowledge and skills needed with more than the manuals purchased by the district for its teachers and that the curriculum could still be guaranteed and viable. This eye opening experience has lended itself to many more opportunities in the classroom!

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I am usually bewidered by non cohesive lessons designed by the district.I was told to use my math guide as supplemental aid,and the reading as my core lesson .The problems occurs when Benchmarks are given,and I find out a third of the material was not covereed and aligned with district's lesson plans.The biggest concern is teaching test materials that has vey little connection with daily mandated instuctions.THe children are usually confused during testing time.This should be a time where professional development and concerns should be addressed.

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I agree that the textbook should not be the sole resource of learning and instruction for your class. My school has a policy that every student should be assigned a textbook for every class. I HATE IT!! I teach middle school science and the district I work for adopted a new science text about 2 years ago. The textbook for my class is awful and has been assessed on a tenth grade reading level. A large percentage of students come to my sixth grade science class, barely able to read on level, so I have to modify my lessons for my students. Knowledge of your students should drive your classroom and instruction, not the textbook...

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I agree that textbooks should not drive instruction. I am entering into my fifth year of teaching. An effective teacher knows the needs of her students. Sometime you have to adjust it the Core Curriculum to meet the needs of your diverse classroom. I strongly feel if you teach the standsrds it doesn't matter what story,play, poem, or graphic organizer you use to help your students meet their individual levels.

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I both agree with and understand this article completely. I am in my 4th year of teaching, and just now becoming comfortable with moving farther away from the texts and finding better ways to teach students the skills. We also have a Core Curriculum that we go by in our state (PA) and those are the skills students need to learn and will be tested on. However, the texts sometimes have inefficient ways of teaching the skills, or methods that just wouldn't cater to my students. I have many English Language Learners in my class, and the text and materials are often not as appropriate or helpful for them. I constantly find myself needing to change up the activities and search online or amongst colleagues for other ideas.

Also, we read a different story each week. In our curriculum, there are NO assessments on the content of the stories, much like the article points out. It is the specific "Focus Skills" each week that they are tested on and must know. You just need to judge for your students what will be most beneficial to them and thankfully, I'm not afraid anymore to stray from the almighty textbooks for the good of my students!

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So often during grade level meetings we focus on having the exact same assessments, instruction, and delivery so that all students are receiving the same information. It bothers me that we are not allowed to go off on our own and choose what we feel would best fit our students. I like your suggestion to the English teachers to choose a few literary works that they agree and use those across the board. From there, let them use their own discretion, but to keep within the standards. The one good thing about having the same assessments and instruction is there are no accusations from parents. Also, teachers can collaborate on lessons and find what works best together.

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I agree with this post 100%. I am a new teacher and when I came into this field last year, I thought they would give me a book and thats what I would go by. But, I was so terribly wrong. I barely ever use my textbook, because there are so many more creative resources out there. On the other hand,my school district adopted the Common Core Curriculum this year, and even tho it has been very challenging, it has also been very beneficial. These standards help children to create and analyze their work in depth. I believe when teachers across the U.S. finally adobt these standards, they will also find them very beneficial toward gaining successful learners.

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Do you know of anywhere I could find examples of essential skills in writing for grades 3-5? (Our school is K-8, so actually all of those grades would be helpful.) My team is working on developing essential skills lists as we begin PLCs, and we're having a hard time knowing where to start. We'd appreciate any help!

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