Origin of ordinary things: Textbooks

Textbooks were designed to lead to literacy. / Net photo.

A textbook is a comprehensive compilation of content in a branch of study. Textbooks are produced to meet the needs of educators, usually at educational institutions. 

According to Wikipedia, the history of textbooks dates back to ancient civilisation such as ancient Greeks who wrote educational texts. The modern textbook has its roots in the mass production made possible by the printing press.  Early textbooks were used by tutors and teachers (e.g. alphabet books), as well as by individuals who taught themselves.


The revolution in the field of books came with the 15th-century invention of printing with changeable type. The invention is attributed to German metalsmith Johannes Gutenberg, who cast type in molds using a melted metal alloy and constructed a wooden-screw printing press to transfer the image onto paper.


Gutenberg’s first and only large-scale printing effort was the now iconic Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s — a Latin translation from the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. Gutenberg’s invention made mass production of texts possible for the first time. Although the Gutenberg Bible itself was expensive, printed books began to spread widely over European trade routes during the next 50 years, and by the 16th Century, printed books had become more widely accessible and less costly.


While many textbooks were already in use, compulsory education and the resulting growth of schooling in Europe led to the printing of many more textbooks for children. Textbooks have been the primary teaching instrument for most children since the 19th Century. Two textbooks of historical significance in United States schooling were the 18th century New England Primer and the 19th century McGuffey Readers.

According to authors Wakefield and John F, textbooks developed out of the need to teach reading and writing to children who had learned to read and write the Latin alphabet, syllables, and even words, but who were not yet ready to read extended passages. Long before they were called textbooks, the first schoolbooks were probably a mixture of grammatical rules and popular maxims designed to lead to literacy. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word textbook did not have its modern meaning until the end of the 18th Century, when such books were commonly in the hands of students as well as teachers.

Textbooks were designed to lead to literacy. Their style tells us how they were used. One very popular style apparently invented by Aelius Donatus in the fourth century A.D. - was question and answer in the form of a catechism. A teacher would read a question and the students would recite the answer, both of which were found in the text. The catechetical style of writing was not limited to the medieval period, as evidenced by grammars well into the nineteenth century. Noah Webster (1758- 1843) was perhaps America’s most successful author of the last half of the 18th Century.

Today, many textbooks are published in both print format and digital formats. Recent technological advances have changed the way people interact with textbooks. Online and digital materials are making it increasingly easy for students to access materials other than the traditional print textbook. Students now have access to electronic books (“e-books”), online tutoring systems and video lectures.


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