Why we use real books in our homeschool

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"You don't use textbooks to homeschool? How do you know what to teach?" 

As the parent of delight-directed students in a relaxed homeschool environment, this is a common question. It isn't that we don't ever use textbooks, but textbooks and teacher's editions don't act as our foundation for making lesson plans or choosing topics.  

It's easy to fall back on my own experiences as a public/private schooled student and a college graduate. We want to stick with familiar, the methods that are widely used and generally accepted. But then reality taps me on the shoulder and asks, "How were textbooks used in school?". 

The answer: I read the chapter and answered the questions, which really meant I read the questions and then looked for the bold and italicized words in the text that would provide an adequate answer. In class, the text was read aloud by the teacher and sometimes the students, a few questions were asked and occasionally there was an actual discussion, but not often. Gotta' get through those lesson plans, ya' know.  

In college, textbooks were our main resource for reading, reports, and research. Most students, including me, observed the expectations of each teacher, and did enough to satisfy their requirements.  

But I wasn't really learning anything, and I certainly wasn't excited about the process. 

The things I found exciting were books I read about criminal profiling, crime scene investigation, discoveries in physics and astronomy, veterinary medicine, politics, and the craft of writing fiction. I could spout off information about the modus operandi and signature of assassins and serial killers. I looked at every space as if it were a crime scene and I needed to gather the evidence. I was fascinated by images of playing ping-pong on a train and what that meant for how fast the ping-pong ball was traveling.

Even though I was having fun being an insatiable bookworm, I know I was learning from the books I read because during a checkup with my family doctor, he asked me if I was attending medical school.  

As a homeschool parent, I took a careful look at all of these experiences, and noted that while I was learning all the time, I wasn't taking in the stuff I was going to school to learn. 


Not because I wasn't interested in the topics I was supposed to be studying, but because textbooks were dry, boring, and disconnected from real life contexts. Information in textbooks is parceled out in little snippets, and class instruction focused on mastering this shallow and detached material. Even though I could readily reproduce the necessary factoids for tests and remained on the honor roll throughout high school and college, I struggled to imagine how most of it would ever be applicable. 

Real books, however, sifted information through the real life experiences of the author. I felt like they were talking to me, explaining difficult concepts in ways that weren't at all condescending but still very bottom-shelf where my brain could get at it.  

The hours I spent reading textbooks and studying for tests were frustrating and stressful. I was relieved when finals were over and I could get on with my life. 

After several hours of inhaling real books I was intrigued and inspired. I seldom forgot what I read, and found myself looking at the world differently with every page. 

Why don't we as parents and teachers learn from this experience? We all know it to be true – kids who love to read will love to learn, especially when the reading material is meaningful and memorable.  

We are so afraid of stepping away from textbooks because "That's the way we've always done it". Which is a lousy reason to keep doing something that isn't efficient or effective. Our Comfort Zone shouldn't be comfortable if it isn't truly beneficial to our children.

We recognize that our public education system is fiercely attached to the status quo, and the quo is textbook-based with certain topics being covered at certain times because someone somewhere at a textbook publishing company said so. 

It's time to reconsider our dependence on textbooks, and start looking at real books as a better foundation for home education. 

I mentioned that we do occasionally use textbooks in our homeschool - as quick reference guides and for ensuring we are covering the material commonly found on the standardized tests the kids take each year. When I'm looking over our plans for History or Chemistry, I may make some notes about the order concepts were introduced, and to review topics we haven't yet studied. 

When I think about how all this works for us, I realize most of the time we use textbooks to review technical vocabulary and specifics, such as the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, or the difference between shells, subshells, and orbitals in the structure of atoms and elements. 

And when I think about how using real books has benefited our homeschool, I can recall the many times when the kids have mentioned a book we read together because a relevant piece of information became useful, even though they'd learned it months or years ago.  

  • We use real books because a narrative writing style and flow is more enjoyable to read.
  • Real books stimulate empathy when we feel connected to people, and real books can do that where textbooks can't.
  • Textbooks are heavily edited and information is condensed and even left out altogether. This means the opinions and biases of those who choose the content may affect how certain people and events will be presented and perceived.
  • Even though the authors of real books will also bring their biases to their writing, by comparing and contrasting different books about the same people, topics, and events, we can get a clearer picture of the whole story.
  • We tend to give information in textbooks more weight, as if the information must be accurate and objective in order to be included, but this is not true.

So - what kind of real books have we used?  

You may not feel comfortable with a total substitution of real books for textbooks, but you can greatly enrich and energize your child's education experience by allowing and encouraging them to read widely. 

  • Start by reading interesting books aloud to your kids. Don't overdo it - just read a few pages or a chapter, then stop and talk about the parts that sparked their curiosity or provoked more discussion or research.
  • Regular trips to the local library are helpful, especially if kids are free to roam and check out books in their own.
  • Build your home library with books, both fiction and nonfiction, that will appeal to your kids.

Do you have questions or comments about using real books in your homeschool? Share them in the comments below -