What To Teach When You Don't Have a Textbook

It seems like more and more teachers are having to find their own curriculum materials. In the past, post-testing always needed careful planning because teachers had often finished the materials provided by their school. That can still be a problem, but it's getting better as standardized tests are moved closer to the end of the year. However, many teachers have posted on social media that they do not have social studies materials or a reading program. So what materials can teachers use if they don't have a textbook?

What To Teach When You Don't Have a Textbook

1. Novels

I have always preferred reading books to basal readers. I remember being bored with basal stories as a kid - or irritated that the chapter ended and I never got to find out what happened next. Novels aren't just for language arts either! There are many great novels that social studies teachers can use for different topics. In my elementary classroom, I also used historical fiction books or nonfiction to integrate my standards.

Books can get very expensive to purchase. If teachers do buy books, I recommend using clear contact paper to cover them - the books last a lot longer. However, teachers can also gather sets of books from others sources.
  • School Library - The librarian may also be able to borrow books from other schools in the district.
  • Public Library
  • Parents donations
  • PTO 
  • Teacher Grants
  • Donors Choose
It's important to read the books that students can select for their literature unit. Teachers can better address students' questions about the books and help steer students to books that best fit their interests if they are familiar with the novels before using them.

I also prefer to write my novel guides ahead of time. Having the questions and other standards already mapped out prevents me from stressing during the unit! I have a number of novel units ready to use in my store. The books vary in reading level, but generally cover 3rd - 7th grade reading levels.

2. Projects

I loved using projects in my classroom. A well-organized project can really pique students' interest in a subject, and it gives teachers an opportunity to make a topic relevant to their class with a real world application. These projects are also a great way to integrate standards from multiple subjects.

One word of caution is that teachers need to coordinate with other teachers if they are teaming to make sure students are not overloaded with homework. I provided some class time to work on projects, as well as a recommended timeline for having pieces of the project completed. Many students need help with their executive function skills, and long-range planning is a weakness for a lot of kids in upper elementary and middle school.

For materials, teachers can again check out books to create a class "reference library." If teachers have access to the internet, websites can also be used as resources. Teachers should think outside the box and ask for resource from other places, too. For example, I received a lot of free resources from state tourism agencies and even embassies to use with my geography classes.

Some of my favorite projects (and my students') I published and are available in my TPT store:

3. Poetry Units

Poetry is actually a lot of fun to teach. Students tend to moan and groan, but I allowed my students to work with a partner - and then suddenly everyone had a great time. They especially enjoyed sharing their poems (voluntarily, I never forced them to share.)

To teach poetry, I focused on both reading and writing poems. I checked out a lot of poetry books and anthologies from our school library and the public library. Each day, I read a few poems as our read aloud. I also gave students time to select a books and read poems on their own, and they had to select three poems to copy for their own anthology of poems.

Martha from The Owl Spot has wonderful poetry analysis units on well-known poets. My students enjoyed her Emily Dickinson Author Study. We used that unit to analyze poems and discuss what made a poem interesting.

For writing poems, I would teach students how to write a particular style of poetry, then have them write a poem on their own or with a partner. We learned eight forms of poetry by the end of the unit and bound the poems in a book with the published poems they had selected. This works best if you select easier poetry forms for the first few poems and slowly increase the difficulty level.

My Poetry Writing Unit is available in my store if you are interested in a print and go resource.

What To Teach When You Don't Have a Textbook

4. Primary Sources

Primary sources are a wonderful way to teach students about a topic. Primary sources are not always formal government documents either - they can be diaries, works of art, newspaper articles, or photographs (to name just a few examples!)

If your school has access to DBQ units, I highly recommend them. They require students to dig deep and analyze primary documents. If you have not had training on using DBQ units, I recommend going to a session if you can.

Otherwise, there are many primary sources available on the internet. Teachers need to select a source or document that fits their students' ability levels. (Some documents are much more difficult than others.) An easy way to make primary document more accessible is to focus on an excerpt instead of reading the whole document.

The Rosetta Stone History and Translation resource is available for free in my store.

5. Research 

Research can focus on so many different topics - and it doesn't have to have a set final project expectation. Instead, the project can depend upon what the student chooses to research.  This is also another great way to integrate your standards. Students might research a topic from any subject, but they practice their reading, writing, and speaking skills throughout the project.

Many teachers have discussed using a Genius Hour in their classrooms. Genius Hour allows students to research a topic of their choice. Teachers do need to provide well-defined expectations for behavior and academic goals. The Genius Hour might be held throughout the year, or held during a particular time frame. Students present what they have learned to the class at the end of the Genius Hour.

Another research idea is to have students investigate issues in their school and community (great way to integrate civics.) What problems or needs are there? Students research an issue/problem and brainstorm possible solutions, then select a one to develop into a formal idea. Students can formalize their findings in a written paper, or present it at a town council meeting or to the principal.

What suggestion do you have for teaching without a textbook?


  1. Hi - Just hit the email button at the top of my blog.


Back to Top