As we watch the sea-change in publishing caused by ebooks taking place, there is a special element of that conversation that is getting too little attention. Whether you love paper and resent digital or love your iPad and have pretty much left paper behind, or like me just love the "word" and are willing to forgo your personal likes in that regard in favor of promoting whatever form of reading your students will engage with, traditional textbooks are a completely separate question. That they are paper-based certainly brings significant downsides just in the area of cost and heft, but those may not be the most damning characteristics when contemplating their value in the classroom.
Two lines jumped out at me while reading this article. The first, "...the textbook promotes the study of a subject—it does not promote reading. To improve reading skills, teachers need to offer students the kind of books that persuade them that reading can be a joy."
The distinction between studying a subject (literature in this case) and promoting reading is actually pretty significant. I was always honored to hear that a student of mine had decided to become a teacher, and particularly moved when that student had decided to become an English teacher. But, I never felt quite comfortable with the virtual default mode of most textbooks. They seemed to focus much more upon creating English majors than upon promoting an engaged reader who enjoyed reading the stories because they struck home, somehow reflecting "something universal" and therefore intriguing about what it means to be a human being; something that put "reading a good book" on the list of things they liked to do not just on the list of things they were required to do.
That paragraph ends with a rather simple point, "...research shows that reading for pleasure improves reading scores. No student reads a textbook for pleasure."
I've never been one to be too fond of absolutue statements. But, truthfully, my guess would be that textbooks really aren't the first choice for a pleasurable evening with a good book for many.
And I do believe that kids who read for pleasure do just fine on standardized tests. Whether they spend time reading Sci-Fi, YA, ChickLit, or any kind of book based (electronic or otherwise) stories, they are spending imaginitive time in other places, other cultures, other times, and amid other people's trials and tribulations.
I have no doubt that in the hands of a great teacher traditional textbooks can be the source of some pretty pleasurable engaged reading. But, for the most part that success would probably be more a result of the teacher's skill than the textbooks themselves.
And, given the article's excellent suggestions regarding alternative sources for pretty much everything that textbooks have provided, the argument for textbooks is getting harder and harder to make. It really has nothing to do with whether they are or are not paper-based; it really about the old school paradigms for teaching reading upon which they are designed.
And, by the way... those old school paradigms do not magically become new school paradigms when textbooks are digitized without taking advantage of the new possibilities that digital books bring to the table.