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According to Wikipedia, retrieved 19:57, 8 August 2007 (MEST), “a textbook is a manual of instruction or a standard book in any branch of study. They are produced according to the demand of the educational institutions. Textbooks are usually published by one of the four major publishing companies. Although most textbooks are only published in printed format, some can now be viewed online.”

Textbook is a teaching tool (material) which presents the subject matter defined by the curriculum. A university textbook is required to contain the complete overview of the subject, including the theories, as well as to be of a more permanent character.(CARNet, retrieved 19:57, 8 August 2007 (MEST)).

In this overview article we just will try to explicit a bit the textbook genre and provide a few major links and references. For further reading, see the related articles below.

Related articles

What is a textbook ?

Textbook and instruction design

We'd like to argue that textbooks are generally an element in a larger instructional design (e.g. a course). Therefore one must start by looking at the function(s) of a textbook.

In other words, use and production of a textbook is related to a "normal" instructional design problems and one can rely on various design methods and instructional design models, based in turn on underlying psychological and pedagogical theory.

Textbooks are usually part of a pedagogical design, i.e. it can be the center piece of a course syllabus, it can be used for self-study (students and professionals), teachers can assign just parts for reading. According to use contexts, functions of a textbook are not the same. But we do argue, that one can identify particular functional and structural questions related to production, structure, function, use, etc. of textbooks.

Cultural differences

Functions of the textbook and ways they are written differ a lot within the few cultural systems Daniel K. Schneider is somewhat familiar with:

  • In the US, in particular in so-called teaching universities, the textbook is at center stage. It duplicates in a way the teacher since it it has a lot of built-in pedagogy and since chapters must be read in linear fashion.
  • In Germany, Switzerland and France in the "normal" university systems there are few textbooks. Students are exposed to more lecturing and therefore many more teaching hours/week. Supplementary reading is often optional and concerns both introductory books or academic literature. There is a tradition of the "pedagogical manual" or "instructional book". Interestingly, the Wikipedia textbook translates in french to school manual or "pedagogical manual" (manuel scolaire) and in German to instructional book (Lehrbuch, "lehr" refers to teaching).

Let's have a look at the German definition of "textbook" in Wikipedia (retrieved 16:39, 10 August 2007 (MEST)).

A "Lehrbuch" (textbook) is a special form of a non-fiction book used for teaching. It contains didactically prepared learning matter and materials.

I wonder if there is a difference between "Lehrstoff" and "Lehrmaterial". Authors then further state that such books present dominant theory in simplified form, but also sometimes on-going debates. Furthermore the authors then define two special cases:

  • Repetitorium, i.e. manuals that help to prepare exams
  • Schulbuch (school books), i.e. textbooks used a school level.
  • To this we can add lecturing scripts (in french, "polycopiés" in reference to the production process), i.e. a text written by professor and that contains his lecture.

The French translations are also interesting.

Traité (treatise) is an instructional manual or a standard book in any branch of study. They can be different according to target population and subject matter. "Traités" are usually edited by specialized printers [...]
The Manuel scolaire (Pedagogical manual) (from latin manus, the hand), was considered in the XIX century a book that summarizes all other. It is didactic [instructional] book that has handy format and includes the essential knowledge of a given domain.

It is also funny to see how different language versions are linked:

en.wikipedia.org Textbook  -> de.wikipedia.org Lehrbuch
en.wikipedia.org Textbook  -> fr.wikipedia.org Manuel_scolaire

de.wikipedia.org Lehrbuch  -> en.wikipedia.org Textbook
de.wikipedia.org Lehrbuch  -> fr.wikipedia.org Traité (littérature)
de.wikipedia.org Schulbuch -> en.wikipedia.org Textbook
de.wikipedia.org Schulbuch -> fr.wikipedia.org  -

fr.wikipedia.org Manuel_scolaire -> de.wikipedia.org Lehrbuch
fr.wikipedia.org Manuel_scolaire -> en.wikipedia.org Textbook
fr.wikipedia.org Traité (littérature) -> de.wikipedia.org Lehrbuch
fr.wikipedia.org Traité (littérature) -> en.wikipedia.org Textbook

Finally let's have a look at Textbook in simple English Wikipedia. I like that definition almost better than the "normal" one because it is functional, not structural.

A textbook is a book someone uses to learn. It is usually supplied in classrooms form primary school to post secondary school. People use it to learn from it about a certain subject. They might also teach other people about that subject.

This short an informal discussion of Wikipedia definitions tells us the following: In the eyes of probably not so informed Wikipedia authors:

  • (US) English only has one major genre: The textbook
  • Germans and French make a distinction between university books and schoolbooks
  • French consider university books to be expository (no built-in pedagogy), whereas the German authors just mentioned "didactically prepared contents".
  • This difference between the US and German/French definition does not exist for schoolbooks. I.e. it is expected that schoolbooks look quite a bit like their US counterparts.

There is also a difference in format. I noticed in particular that most German textbooks (at least for the humanities) are usually cheap and small pocket books, whereas in the US it is the opposite: Textbooks are huge (large and fat) and expensive. In France most textbooks (I believe) are sort of mid-sized softcovers, but there is also a series of Que sais-je, about 1200 little (128 pages) didactic books without illustrations for almost every domain that exists. They are usually written by a leading domain expert. On the other extreme (both in France and Germany) there also exist huge and large textbooks, but mostly restricted to domains like medicine or law.

But then it gets more complicated, there is not just a difference between language cultures, but between national cultures. E.g. Belgium textbooks (e.g. DeBoek) are much more based on instructional design principles and do have a structure similar to typical US books, but in Daniel K. Schneider's opinion much less verbose and made in way that information can be found again (see the Depelteau example) I discussed.

The dumbing down question

There is also a debate in the U.S., but in some European systems belief that students should be exposed to "real literature" (academic or technical manuals) is very strong and just in France or Germany. E.g. “The general sentiment, in Britain at least, seems to be that the knowledge in textbooks is in some way second-rate knowledge and that the teachers, the writers and the learners who engage with them in their different ways are somehow doing something second-rate”. (Issit, 2005: 690)

I.e. personally (Daniel K. Schneider) in my technical courses, I leave it open to the students what books they want to buy and rather suggest O'Reilly books. Only when I am teaching at a local American teaching university I use these 600-1500 books, but then I noticed that students do no really work trough them as they should ... (there is whole literature on that).

Use of textbooks

The question is how teachers and students make sense of the textbook within the context of wider learning environments and what function it has in relation to other teacher materials and other learning activities.

See the textbook writing tutorial and textbook research for more.

From the teacher's point of view


  • As major teaching aid with a lot of built-in pedagogy, e.g. review questions, self-assessment and workcases.
  • To help the teacher prepare a class (and also to recover from not so efficient lecturing)
  • As reading assignment to cover specific concepts
  • As supplementary reading for various purposes (e.g. to help with term projects, to help preparing an exam, as references ...)
From the student's point of view

Daniel K. Schneider has the suspicion that a typical US student enrolled in a typical teaching university does not read and work through the textbook as the authors planned it, i.e. they rather use as complementary reading or reference and skip activities that don't seem to have a direct relation to quizzes administered by the teacher. But I'd have to dig into textbook research to be sure about this.

It is also argued that textbooks, if available cheaply, would have bright future in the third world. However, one study made in Namibia found that textbooks are very much underused, i.e. “The major uses of textbooks in class were for diagrams and data, and to verify factual information. Occasionally, questions in textbooks were used as homework to test and/or consolidate knowledge.” (Lubben, 2003).

Textbook genres


Advice on writing textbooks

See textbook writing tutorial

Examples of (technical) author guidelines
Electronic textbooks


See various writing tools for a longer list of tools and a discussion of various writing tool categories.


  • Feynmann, Richard (1985). Book chapter in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Hoskin Keith (1990) he Textbook: Further Moves towards a Definition, Paradigm No. 3 (July, 1990), HTML
  • Issitt, John (2005) Reflections on the study of textbooks, History Of Education, November, 2004, Vol. 33, No. 6, [DOI
  • Jones, Alan (2005) Conceptual Development in Technical and Textbook Writing: A Challenge for L1 and L2 Student Readers, Proceedings of the International Professional Communication Conference, Limerick, Ireland, 12-15 July, 2005. PDF - Abstract
  • Johnsen, Egil Børre (2001), Textbooks in the Kaleidoscope, A Critical Survey of Literature and Research on Educational Texts, Translated by Linda Sivesind, Digital Edition Tønsberg: Vestfold College, 2001 HTML (This on-line text also includes a good bibliography, up the early 1990's).
  • Lepionka, Mary Ellen (2003), Writing and Developing Your College Textbook, ISBN 0-9728164-0-2. (This practical book gets good reviews. I bought it and find it useful - Daniel K. Schneider)