Textbooks vs historical fiction, novels and biographies

Which would you prefer?


"I've taught at the college level for 25+ years. Let me tell you that students who ONLY know how to read textbooks have no experience with a variety of viewpoints or extended arguments. They do not know how to evaluate whether or not an author has actually supplied evidence for his conclusions. They're so used to having everything predigested for them, with boxes pulling out the important points and colorful graphics on each page, that they have no idea how to read an actual book when there's no one to do their thinking for them! It's no problem whatsoever to switch from real books to textbooks; it's going the other way that's the issue. I'd say that not using textbooks is a real plus for students. And when they run into textbooks in college they'll be several steps ahead of those who have no other background."

-2j'smom, June 2005


A lot of homeschoolers follow the methods with which they were taught in classroom schools. They use textbooks. But are textbooks the best way to teach?

Take a look at this excerpt from a seventh grade history textbook used by many homeschoolers:

The shot heard 'round the world. On the morning of April 19, 1775, the first shots of the War for Independence (sometimes called the Revolutionary War) were fired at Lexington, Massachusetts. It is not known for sure who fired the first shot, but it was a shot heard 'round the world, for it was to change the course of human history.

After killing eight Americans and wounding ten others at Lexington, the British marched on to Concord, destroying the military supplies stored there. The Battle of Lexington and Concord was not quite over, however. As the British troops headed back to Boston, patriots fired on them from behind trees, shrubs, and barns. Although 93 Americans died that day, the British lost 273 men. For a brief moment in history, little Massachusetts stood alone against one of the great empires of the world.

The Second Continental Congress. Less than a month after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, on May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. John Hancock was elected president. The assembled representatives of the American people decided emphatically that they would fight. The Continental Army was established, a call was issued to the colonies to raise troops and funds, and George Washington (1732-1799), who had distinguished himself as a lieutenant colonel in the French and Indian War, was appointed commander-in-chief.

[Source: Jerry H. Combee, Ph.D., Kurt Grussendorf, Beka Horton, Brian Ashbaugh, Susan Etheridge, History of the World in Christian Perspective, Third Edition (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 1995), 310.]

Context, Drama, Story?

Surprisingly, this particular American history textbook says little else about the Revolutionary War. It gives us four more dense paragraphs in which we find the following climactic statement:

In 1781, five years after the Declaration of Independence, the last major battle of the War for Independence was over — an American victory, a British surrender! [Ibid].

I don't know about you, but despite this book's obvious attempt to present as many facts as possible, I'd expect a little more depth in a 7th grade textbook. I'd expect more than seven paragraphs of names and dates to cover the Revolutionary War.

I'd expect a little more context, too, in which to anchor all that information. So "John Hancock was elected president": Who cares? The text doesn't tell us a thing about John Hancock, how he came to be president, or why it even matters.

Even more important, why did the Revolutionary War happen? What were its consequences? How does it affect us today?

Alas, this "popular" Christian textbook addresses none of these questions.

Do you want more than dates?

A seventh grade world history textbook published by another major homeschool provider devotes all of seven paragraphs to World War II. The literary style is more vigorous than the last text from which we quoted. (It includes more active verbs, more exciting descriptions.) But truly: do you think this is the kind of material that will help a seventh grader to remember what s/he ought about World War II?

After five paragraphs that "explain" the Nazis' rise to power, read what this textbook says:

Slowly the Russians began to turn back the Nazi forces in the east. In the west, the United States and Britain began to chip away at the Axis empire. They landed in North Africa in 1942, then in Sicily in 1943, and then on the mainland of Italy two months later. Finally, on June 6, 1944, known as D-day

[Source: Terri Koontz, B.S., Mark Sidwell, Ph.D., S.M. Bunkder, M.A., World Studies for Christian Schools, Second Edition (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998), 432-433.]

Again, the textbook lists many names and dates, but provides almost no context. With all its beautiful vocabulary and vibrant sentence structure, it provides no story in which to anchor the information, no drama to make the information memorable.

Living History

Here's just a short segment from Sonlight's Third Year Read-Aloud, Johnny Tremain. It describes Boston citizens watching British soldiers return from their defeat at the Battle of Lexington:

Although no townsmen, except only the doctors, were permitted on the wharf, Johnny knew that hundreds of them stood well back and in the darkness, gloating. They were not saying much, only watching. Then one man began to whistle and the next took it up and the next and the next. The whistling was shrill as a fife. They had not forgotten the prophecy of that morning, "ËThey go out by "Yankee Doodle," but they'll dance to it before nightfall!'

"Yankee Doodle' filled the darkness. . . . Four more boats were coming in. Johnny dared move out onto the wharf, but he still kept well in shadow. More wounded. Could these be the very men who had started out so confidently? Bedraggled, dirty, torn uniforms, torn flesh, lost equipment. Faces ghastly with fatigue and pain. Some were twisting and crying out.

The first boats were filled with privates. They had been packed in, and now were being tossed ashore, like so much cordwood. Most of them were pathetically good and patient, but he saw an officer strike a man who was screaming.

Johnny's hands clenched. "ËIt is just as James Otis said,' he thought. "ËWe are fighting, partly, for just that. Because a man is a private is no reason he should be treated like cordwood.'

[Source: Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain (New York: Dell Publishing 1943), 240-241. Sonlight item #DA04.]

Sonlight's approach to homeschool curriculum, in which we use historical fiction, novels and biographies, provides the context; it communicates information in the midst of a story. You can't miss the drama because "you are there." You feel the pain. You grieve the losses. And you understand and remember. Maybe not the exact dates. But you do remember the general places and times in history. Because you understand the broader context. This is one of the many benefits of homeschool.

As Shary in Virginia wrote:

Yesterday I decided — just for fun — to ask my 10-year-old son, "What year did Franklin Roosevelt take office?" The book from which I got the question provided three choices for answers: 1933, 1903, 1973.

My son's response: "Well, let's see. The 1920s were when the US was doing really well and people were making lots of money. Then the stock market crashed and we went into the Depression. So it had to have been 1933 when he took office."

My response: Thank you, Sonlight!

Do I care that he remembered the exact date? No. Do I care that he knew enough of what was going on that he could figure it out? You bet.

Are you ready to experience the benefits of a literature-based homeschool curriculum for your family?