Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop which makes personal care cosmetics, was once asked admiringly what special materials her products were made from. 'Nothing, ' she said, with the cynical humour typical of her, 'nothing the Body Shop sells pretends to do anything other than it says. Moisturisers moisturise, fresheners freshen and cleansers cleanse. End of story.' Yet we do know that there was much more that went into her work - research, planning, design and process. There was the philosophy, the conscience of the product and Roddick's belief in it.

Writing textbooks starts with a deep belief in their worth. Many writers of textbooks have to disprove some of the notions that have grown around them, for example, that they are dull, make for mechanical rote learning, and then the one we hear most often - 'A textbook can never replace a teacher!' Of course it cannot. It is not meant to. But a good one can help many processes that assist the teacher's own processes and stir interests that lie latent.
Among the many aspects of textbook-writing are text-presentation and exercises. Some features of both are discussed below.


Tone and the author's voice

The author's voice in a text is not only what she wants to say but how. At its core, it is about explaining a concept, for example, or describing something.

Most texts are layered by their very nature. As readers we are persuaded, suggested to, and influenced in different ways. In the classroom, the teacher's voice has similar layering as it carries her attitudes and beliefs, but it works in a different way because children constantly make 'adjustments' as they listen. They can accept, reject, be enthused or can choose not to bother. But their relationship with a text, especially in the bounds of a classroom, is usually that that of being open to influence. Young learners are in a contract where they do not know they have choices, and as writers we need to be aware of this. The following are some illustrations of how texts can exert their influence on learners.

  • (from an English textbook)
    Robots work for us. In the future,
    they will do more work for us. They will work on farms and in factories. They will do boring, dirty work.

An imagined future in which people are served is believed to be ideal ('…they will do more work for us'). The text also suggests that some kinds of work are boring and dirty and, by implication, that other kinds are 'clean'.

  • (from a history textbook)
    [Name of king]
    plundered India and looted and sacked the temples. Rivers of blood flowed.

The choice of words (plundered, looted, sacked, rivers of blood), high in emotional content, draws us into reactions of disgust and horror. Outlook and fact have got blurred in the process.

  • (from a social studies textbook)
    You must have your bath every day. It makes you feel clean and healthy.
    Ravi has a good bath with lots of soap and water.

The voice is prescriptive, but the deeper problem is the author's assumption that everyone has access to clean water and soap.

Tone is an associated problem. Texts can talk up or talk down to readers where they should be seen as equals. They can also 'bark out' content rather than communicate or share it. Some texts almost say, 'This is how I want to say it, it's up to you to understand.'

However, the issue of how texts 'talk' is not straightforward, partly because it is bound up with the local culture of the classroom. Children, especially at the primary level, are often viewed as receivers of education, and school systems - the curriculum, syllabus, examinations - may serve to emphasize this. One of the problems of 'received' knowledge is that truth has an elusive identity. A lot of information, even when not substantiated, is presented as if it were conclusive and unarguable.

Writers of textbooks need to remember that children do understand, quite soon in their lives, that not everything is proven or established. There is nothing weak about unproven information. Where necessary, the child should be invited into the speculative, tentative nature of things - 'It is often thought that…'; 'Some historians believe that…'; 'We are not certain if life exists on Mars but it seems unlikely because…'

We are familiar with what makes for clarity and that regulating the difficulty level is important. What makes texts unclear is not only 'difficult' words and links between parts of text. Shifting styles and the combination of formal and informal language can also confuse and frustrate. Mistakenly, some of us use these variations to bring what we think is warmth to the text. In fact, as learners, children are not different from adults, and we need to adopt and maintain an appropriately formal style. The following are some examples of shifts in style.

  • What is cytoplasm? The part of the protoplasm outside the nucleus is called the cytoplasm.
  • We do know quite a lot about Mohenjodaro, but we are shaky about some things.

In an effort to create interest, we may also personalise and 'mush' text, as in these examples.

  • Did you know that 5, 000 years ago, there were no wheels, sails or ploughs, and 7, 000 years ago, no metals were used!'
  • Nature is the flora and fauna of the world. Nature feels upset when we force her to do what we want.
  • Children are capable of understanding clear, direct statements and do not want to be patronized.

Perspective and bias

Perspective is about our view of the world, of people, our prescriptions for them and of the positions we take - consciously or without our being aware of them as such. Our views may carry biases, and they can sometimes be so strong that they become norms. Unless we watch out for them, they may translate in textbooks into discriminatory language, and may have assumptions which have not been examined.

It is now standard of course to use labels such as 'humans' or 'people' for 'Man' and 'mankind'. Gender-neutral names of occupations help children respect the purpose of such naming. 'Manager' and 'actor' are now common. Other examples are fire-fighter (fireman), police officer (policeman) and flight-attendant (air hostess). It is important for the writer to believe that such changes are not smart substitutions but are of consequence as otherwise we can have text which has a forced, artificial quality about it.

The most common problem in many books seems to be a view of the world as human-centric. It is as if all life and phenomena exist in relation to us and for our use, as in the examples below.

Cows give us milk.//Snakes can be dangerous.//Every part of the coconut tree is useful for us.//Nature has given us beautiful forests filled with trees.

Using non-discriminatory language is about using language sensitively. Biased expressions can prevent children from seeing that men and women may be different but are equal:

  • Man is a rational animal.
  • The men toil in the fields for many hours in all kinds of weather. The women stay in their houses.

Similarly, language can be used to exclude or include people in a special way. In the example below, Leena's religious identity is not relevant.

  • Leena, who is Muslim, travels to work with me.

Generalisations, common in history and geography, need watching. They are sometimes presented as if they were the norm. They are often inaccurate as well as show a firm disregard for reality.

  • The people of Rajasthan wear colourful clothes. They love to dance and sing.
  • In prehistoric times, the men hunted while the women stayed in the caves and looked after the family.
  • All Christians celebrate Christmas with joy.

Inclusiveness is essential and it is important not to make assumptions about lifestyle, religion, culture and family groups. We need to remember that children come from diverse economic backgrounds and therefore do not live in the same kinds of houses, for example, or enjoy the same privileges, whether in school or at home. Many textbooks present the nuclear family as if that were the norm, and by implication the approved composition of the group. Not all children have or live with parents and we need to recognise this. Lifestyle includes what people eat, household amenities, clothes and aspects such as holidays and parties. Often, privileged contexts are presented to the exclusion of others, as if they were aspirations. Books are windows of opportunity for us to develop in children an awareness of 'others'. This should influence the choice of themes for stories and, for example, contexts in mathematics problems.

Themes and contexts need to be selected in advance, especially for language-teaching and mathematics to ensure that the genders are represented equitably in both texts and pictures. Belief in this representation is important as a basis for choosing as otherwise it is token, and the outcome artificial and un-honest. How people look and dress, details of their surroundings and what they eat deserves attention as this is the origin of stereotypes, in turn indicators of prejudice. Styles of dress and hair, for example are markers of social status. Old people, people in villages, religious groups and ethnic groups (the Chinese, for example) tend to be presented in a particular way. In language textbooks, 'high' food tends to get featured as if it were available to, or good for, everyone.

Presenting history

'Now what I want, ' says Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times, 'is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else.' What a school that must have been!

We know that facts are problematic, especially in subjects like history and social studies. The telling of history in textbooks for young children is particularly problematic because there may not be scope for bringing in points of view. Yet, we have a responsibility to address this issue. In the 'Great Men' approach,

Knowledge consists simply in being able to memorise…lists [of victories and great works] in the fashion of 'Memory Man' or the Mastermind contestant. It is a Trivial Pursuit version of history that provides no help in understanding either the past or the present.
[Chris Harman, A People's History of the World]

History by its very nature is an amalgam of many points of view, hearsay and recorded information. It has become difficult, as Romila Thapar reminds us in The Past and Prejudice, to separate the layers of real happenings from our - possibly biased - perception of them.

However, we do need to take a position about how facts may be presented. We have seen how tentativeness can be expressed about natural phenomena. In history, expressions such as 'it was said that…', 'believed to be', 'known to be' are preferable when we talk about events about which details are uncertain or not authenticated. They reduce the possibility of a biased outlook.

  • In the religious sphere, [name of king] was tolerant.
    It is said that [name of king] was tolerant of all religions.

The Australian Style Manual uses the term 'asymmetrical treatment' to refer to the ways in which people, groups or events are presented. In history books, for example, some ethnic groups are more commonly portrayed as negative forces than others. The answer is not to sanitise or smooth over harsh periods of history. We need to explore ways of presenting them while reminding ourselves that our task - in a textbook - is not to judge the actions of history.

  • The [name of group] imposed [name of religion] through fierce conquests and through trade.
  • The [name of group] traded with many countries of the world such as India, China, Europe, and East and West Africa, and took the message of [name of religion] to these countries.

Rephrase content which has 'judgement' words and words with an emotional tone. Our effort should be to try not to overlay an already difficult subject with words which direct our attitudes.

  • ……………….'s fanaticism (lack of tolerance?)
  • Agricultural land was in terrible ruins. (lay waste?)
  • The ………….. started interfering in the decisions of the rulers who governed the country. (The ………… started to take the decisions of the rulers into their hands.)


Exercises deserve as much of our attention as text. The following questions may be a useful starting point:

  • Does the exercise (primarily) test or teach?
    We need to be clear about this. Examining and testing loom large in many school systems. But a textbook has a responsibility to teach before it tests.
  • What processes do we want children to follow when they work on an exercise?
    Exercises often have a one-step, 'pat' quality. They are something to be finished, and, among other influences, online examining has washed back into making keep-it-short-and-simple an admired criterion. While there is legitimate place for such formats, learning results from engaging with something, changing it, moving it, transforming it. It results from children having to use what they know to work out something that they do not know so well. Building in two or three steps to completing exercises shifts the emphasis from finishing to solving, and from mechanistic work to the business of making meaning.
  • What skills do we want children to use in the exercise?
    The use of skills becomes important when we do not want children to be content with 'regurgitating' information. In history, we may want them to make connections and analyze reasons. In mathematics, we may be looking beyond computation to applying concepts. Reading, listening, speaking and writing are some of the skills used in language teaching, and there are many sub-skills such as reading for gist or between the lines. An exercise can usefully help children transition through levels of these skills so that, taken as a whole across the textbook, children have opportunities to use multiple skills and sub-skills. In examination systems limited to using memorized material, textbooks may be the only opportunity we can give children to develop these skills.

Below are exercises in English language teaching, by way of example. Formats such as multiple choice, blank-filling and matching are used commonly in systems across the world. We will look at some of these. (Most exercises have been shown in part for reasons of space.)


Blank-filling is probably the most used of formats. It has its place but can result in mechanical work or guesswork. However, if we look at blank-filling as completion rather than filling in, other possibilities emerge.

Compare these two versions of a task:


Write the sentences with the correct forms of the words in brackets.

1. She (give) him the books yesterday.
gavehim the books yesterday.

2. I (catch) a cold last week.

Answer the questions with the right form of the words underlined. Copy the answers in your notebook.

1. Did you give him the books?
Yes, I gave him the books, but there was one missing.

2. Do you catch colds easily?
No, but I ______ a cold last week and felt very ill.

Box A has single, unconnected sentences and children may write the correct sentence without thinking too much about it. Box B, on the other hand, provides contexts that have a feel of real communication because there is a question or a statement and a response. B also provides some extra language with added vocabulary (missing, ill) and expressions (felt very ill; there was one missing).

In B, the instruction line divides the task into two clear steps. In the first part, we use the word 'Answer'. This gives the learner a sense of being a responder or answer-er in the situation, and a feeling of being included, not doing a task for the sake of doing it.

Here is another exercise which changes blank-filling to completion, based on making choices. Its aim is to teach rather than test even though it is actually a summary/review of the text the children have just read

Complete this summary of the text on Nellie Bly. Check your answers with Text A after you have finished and make corrections if necessary. A dotted blank stands for one word and a continuous line for a group of words.

Nellie Bly, whose real name was Elizabeth Cochran, first worked with the Pittsburgh International at the …………….. of nineteen. She later worked with the New York World in New York and used _______________ to find out what was …………………… to women who had no rights.


Like blank-filling, matching may have a hit-and-miss quality but we can make changes which encourage the child to focus on the meaning rather than on the grammatical form.

The exercise below is based on a text the children have read. Only one match in each case refers to the text, the others are 'free', a feature which consolidates learning.

Match the first part of each sentence in column A with one of the groups which has the right endings in column B. When you have finished, call out the sentences to your teacher.


1. Earlier,
2. On an average,
3. In spite of many difficulties,


a. each member receives 80 calls a month. I drink eight classes of water a day. my phone bill is Rs 400.
b. They have completed the building. we put up the play. Suraj enjoyed the journey.
c. people used to kill snakes. there were no buses in the village. we were not allowed to go out after dark.

The format below uses a vertical setting. It seems to make a difference that the matches are positioned below the first block and not alongside it.

Match these remarks and responses.

  1. Would you like a cup of coffee?
  2. Are you ready? It's time we were off.
  3. It looks as if the train is going to be late.
  4. Were you late last night?
  1. That's just what we don't need.
  2. No, we got there just in time.
  3. Not just now, thanks.
  4. Right, I'll just get my coat.


Composing answers with guidance is another way of ensuring that children have understood how a grammatical structure works, and it gives them an opportunity to fall back on remembered language. In the exercise below, the learner has to complete (c) by looking at (a) and (b), and is guided into composing a sensible as well as grammatically correct answer.

Complete part (c) of each number in a suitable way.

1. A lot of people can't stand
a. getting wet. b. getting up early.
c. ………………………………………………

2. On hot days most people don't like
a. working. b. eating big meals.
c. ………………………………………………

Experienced writers of textbooks have a file of exercise types they can use and which ease the task of having to look for something each time. Formats that work for language may not work for history, and so the selection needs to be made with care, but once made, it is an invaluable resource.

Beyond the book

A textbook has to work at different levels. One of them is a value framework which addresses, for example, peace, tolerance, non-violence and compassion. Similarly, what people do, say, how they behave and interact with others in stories or biography is of great importance. Heroism and bravery are popular subjects, but are often dealt with in a one-dimensional way, bleached of the texture of real-life happenings. We need to remember that children can understand problems people face and can identify with them.

At all times, teaching is a moral endeavour and books are a part of this. A book is one of the many relationships of trust that children are exposed to. We live in a complex world and to understand it takes a lifetime. But some of the dispositions we need to live in it can be set in motion, for example, open-mindedness, an active concern for the environment, understanding deprivation, community thinking and regulating oneself in an always-there consumerist setting. So too, textbooks can help us learn skills such as distinguishing fact from opinion, enquiring into things and being discussion-ready. Matthew Lipman who started the Philosophy for Children movement, considers 'being consistent' and 'learning to value reasonableness' among the higher order thinking skills we should help children develop.

Transforming is of the essence. 'What, ' asks Krishnamurti in Life Ahead, 'have we understood when we leave school? Most of us are concerned with bringing about a little change here and there, and with that we are satisfied... [We] think only in terms of superficial change; and if you look into it you will find that superficial change is no change at all.'


Nicola Harris' Basic Editing (Book House Training 1991) has been an invaluable resource and many of the terms I have used, for example, 'the author's voice' are hers. I have drawn on a number of books for examples of ELT exercise formats, mainly Implementing the Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis (Language Teaching Publications 1997) and Natural Grammar by Scott Thornbury (Oxford University Press 2005). I am grateful to my editorial colleagues at Orient Blackswan who have helped me locate examples in the sections on perspective and on history books. Their insights are always a part of what I do.