from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1998

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Essentials of Biology
1998. 486 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-03-095006-6.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.,
1120 South Capital of Texas Highway, Austin, Texas 78746.
(This company is a division of Harcourt Brace & Company,
which is a part of Harcourt General Inc.)

This Badly Botched Book
Is a Mess, Not a Miracle

Anne C. Westwater

Reading the promotional material for Essentials of Biology would lead a teacher to believe that a miracle has occurred, because Holt's claims are astonishingly broad.

The company's 1998 catalogue tells the teacher that Essentials of Biology is a book for use in "heterogeneous classrooms [that] include students who have a wide range of learning needs" -- a textbook "designed to help you meet the needs of English language learners, poor readers, and other students who need extra help in your biology classroom." Holt also declares that Essentials of Biology can be used "as a bridge to or in conjunction with" Holt's text Biology: Visualizing Life, because the sequence of topics is the same in both books. Then Holt goes all the way by claiming that Essentials of Biology can serve "as an alternative to any standard high school biology text" and that it "addresses all major topics found in standard high school biology curricula."

Such extensive claims (which are echoed in the company's promotional brochure for Essentials of Biology) are warning flags, and they should cause the teacher to ask a few questions. In this review I will focus on two of those questions:

A Formula for Confusion

To consider the first question, we have to know the meaning of "heterogeneous." In the current jargon of professional educators, a "heterogeneous class" is one created when students who vary widely in their academic capacities (perhaps including their English-language proficiency) are scheduled into the same course and classroom. This practice apparently has achieved some popularity -- although I myself do not know of any classroom teachers who favor it -- and some textbook-publishers have introduced specialized, simplified books that are said to be appropriate for "heterogeneous" groups of learners. The publishers claim that these books can be used by all the students in a heterogeneous class, including students who have great difficulty in learning from traditional texts.

That is how Holt is promoting Essentials of Biology, as we have seen. In reality, however, Essentials of Biology is strictly a book for students who suffer from learning or language disabilities, or who are still struggling to learn English as a second language. In a heterogeneous class, Essentials of Biology might be useful to the slowest learners, but the rest of the students would have to use a more advanced book -- a standard biology text, in other words -- and the teacher would have to segregate the students into two (or more) groups who not only would use different textbooks but also would perform different activities and meet different assessments. Though teachers can sometimes work miracles, we should not expect them to teach different material to different groups of students at the same time. That situation can only produce confusion in the classroom and a very poor learning experience for all the students involved.

One of the first things that I noticed about Essentials of Biology was its unusual appearance: It has a soft cover, and all its pages are 3-hole-punched and perforated. Thus it appears to be a "consumable" book, intended to be used one time by one student, though Holt's promotional literature does not explicitly say so. Each chapter is divided into short lessons, with each lesson comprising two or three pages of text plus a "Check Your Understanding" page that provides some questions and some blank lines which students are to fill with answers. Each chapter also has an "Activity" and a chapter-review section.

The book's only full-color illustrations appear on its front cover. Inside, the pages are printed in black and a murky blue-green. Many of the illustrations are too dark, too small or too blurry to be useful.

Holt is nearly correct in stating that the sequence of topics in Essentials of Biology is the same as the sequence in Visualizing Life. A minor discrepancy arises because chapter 30 in Essentials of Biology has a section about alcohol abuse, drunk driving and cigarettes, but there is no matching section in Visualizing Life.

The 35 chapters in Essentials of Biology fill 464 pages, which are numbered from 2 through 465. (The book has no page 1.) The total number of pages is misleading, however, because the chapters are poor in information. Chapters 14, 15 and 16, constituting the book's unit about ecology, are typical examples. Together, these three chapters have 36 pages, but half of them are occupied by "Check Your Understanding" tasks, activities and reviews. Only 18 pages are used for actually conveying information through text, photographs and diagrams.

Essentials of Biology, then, is a low-level textbook combined with a workbook, meant to be used once and thrown away. Holt's claim that Essentials of Biology is "an alternative to any standard high school biology text" -- like the claim that this book is suitable for all students in a heterogeneous class -- doesn't hold up.

Contradictory Claims

Now let me turn to my second question: Is this text useful for teaching any students who have special learning needs? Here too I begin by pointing to some of Holt's promotional claims. Holt's catalogue says Essentials of Biology is "a new biology program that uses proven sheltered-English teaching strategies as the foundation of the text," and Holt's promotional brochure offers the teacher this assurance: "Even if you have never taught students with limited-English [sic] proficiency before, you'll find all the support you need in our complete instructional package." Further reading discloses that the teacher who wants to use the "complete instructional package" must spend $812 for video disks, an audio program, and a testing program.

Other claims seem to be contradictory and confusing. For example, the advertising at the front of the teacher's edition says that Essentials of Biology not only uses the sequence of topics seen in Visualizing Life but also employs "similar terminology." This claim is quickly followed, however, by the claim that Essentials of Biology uses "sheltered English" and a "controlled" vocabulary. Together, those claims imply that Holt's writers have achieved a miracle in the manipulation of language. But when we read a few chapters, we see what the writers truly have done: They have continually used simple, choppy sentences which are densely loaded with standard biological terms.

Effective sheltered-English instruction depends heavily on the use of visual and kinesthetic aids: eye-catching graphics, demonstrations and activities that engage various sensory pathways to enhance the learning of terminology and concepts alike. References to such teaching techniques appear in the preface to the teacher's edition of Essentials of Biology, but opportunities to use the techniques are lost amid the book's inflated and sometimes arbitrary scientific vocabulary, its overly simplistic activities, and its murky illustrations. Here are some more comments about these matters:


Essentials of Biology attempts to extend the student's understanding of English by providing "Building Vocabulary" exercises in end-of-chapter reviews. These exercises typically emphasize information about the roots of English words or about prefixes, suffixes, abbreviations or spelling. Such information can be useful to a student who is trying to learn English as a second language, but Holt's writers often go too far. For example: In the teacher's edition, in the pedagogic notes pertaining to the chapter about genetics, the writers tell the teacher to give a lesson on "the following forms of the terms: homozygous, homozygote, homozygosity, heterozygous, heterozygote, and heterozygosity." This sort of verbal overkill, inappropriate for students who are still trying to find the handle on English, is common throughout Essentials of Biology.


The activities appear to have been designed so that none would fill more than two pages (including the space devoted to questions and to blanks in which the student must write answers). Many of the activities seem more suitable for use in elementary schools, and some of them are, in my opinion, insulting to the student -- regardless of whether the student does or doesn't have "special learning needs." In the activity dealing with osmosis, for instance, the student drops a raisin into a beaker of warm water, watches the raisin swell, and then (in response to a question) writes the word "osmosis" as the name of the process that "causes the change in the raisin." (In the teacher's edition, a pedagogic note suggests that this activity can be embellished through the use of "a variety of dried foods in addition to raisins"!)

The activity titled "Observing Diffusion" is both conventional and wrong. The student drops food dye into beakers of water and watches the dye spread through the water -- by convection, not diffusion. It is disappointing to find this false demonstration in a book that allegedly is modeled after Holt's Visualizing Life, because Visualizing Life contains a legitimate demonstration of diffusion (based on the movement of a dye through a mass of gelatin). Please see the review by Lawrence Davis in The Textbook Letter, September-October 1997.

A few of the activities in Essentials of Biology are interesting and useful. These include Activity 13-1 (using a finger-maze to illustrate learning rates), Activity 14-1 (making and analyzing climatographs), Activity 28-1 (comparing down feathers and contour feathers) and Activity 34-1 (interpreting labels on food).


I already have remarked that many illustrations in Essentials of Biology are too dark, too small or too blurry to be of much use as aids to learning. All in all, the illustrations produce a dull, depressing visual effect that is especially unwelcome in a book which supposedly will be used by students who have special learning needs. A book for slow learners should use plenty of bright, clear pictures, but Essentials of Biology does not have them.

Some of the illustrations in Essentials of Biology seem particularly poor because they have been poorly conceived. I defy anyone to get anything out of figure 19-4, which allegedly shows the flow of cytoplasm in an amoeba, or figure 25-2, supposedly showing a part (not all) of the life cycle of a parasitic worm. And what will students make of the two meaningless photos on page 339? The one on the left shows a "Saltwater fish" that has no name and comes from nowhere, while the one on the right shows an incognito "Freshwater fish" that is equally mysterious. I hope that the students will not infer that all marine fishes and all freshwater fishes conform to these inane pictures.

To make things worse, certain pictures have captions that are silly. For example, the caption for figure 7-2 says, "The characteristics children share with their parents are inherited traits," but the figure portrays a father and three children, with no mother in sight! The caption below figure 15-4 says, "The birds and the cow in this figure have a relationship called commensalism," though the figure actually shows some birds accompanying two African buffalo! Figure 19-7 looks like a child's sketch of Jack's beanstalk, but the caption says "Giant kelp." The caption under the photo on page 279 is obviously wrong, because the plant shown in the photo is obviously not "ivy."

In several places, the Holt artists have made cartoon strips from photos of people who supposedly are having conversations. Dialogue balloons show that the people are repeating things that already have been told in the text. The photos are muddy, and the dialogue is stilted.

Some of the diagrams in Essentials of Biology are well labeled with scientific terms, but others aren't. One that isn't is figure 29-7, called "Human skeleton," in which no anatomical terms -- like humerus, femur, sternum or patella -- are used. Instead, labels designate certain bones as "upper arm," "lower leg," "knee," "fingers," and so on. It seems to me that it is much more important for students to learn the proper names for major bones than to worry about the distinctions among heterozygous, heterozygote and heterozygosity.

Another defect of the illustrations is their continual failure to indicate size or scale. On page 328, for example, a deer tick and a marine crab are depicted at roughly the same size, with no indication that the crab actually is vastly larger than the tick.


In the final analysis, all of Holt's claims for Essentials of Biology fail, and the features that allegedly make this book suitable for students with "special needs" are poorly executed or entirely absent. Viewed from a classroom teacher's perspective, Essentials of Biology does not seem to offer effectiveness as an instructional tool.

I would not recommend this book for use in any biology class.

The Idea Seems Timely,
but the Product Is Poor

Lawrence Davis

Some politicians and modern architects tell us that less is more, but we all know that sometimes less is not more. Sometimes, less is simply inadequate.

Holt's Essentials of Biology is being sold as a lesser version of Holt's successful high-school text Biology: Visualizing Life. Holt asserts that both books cover the same topics but Essentials of Biology presents them in "sheltered English," using a "carefully controlled" vocabulary, to make them accessible to "English language learners" and poor readers. The company's advertising repeatedly makes claims that link the two books, including the claim that Essentials of Biology can be used "as a bridge to or in conjunction with" Visualizing Life.

Having worked with Southeast Asian refugees, I recognize the difficulty of explaining the more abstract aspects of high-school biology to persons who have little English. A book in plain English would undoubtedly be useful -- particularly now, when California's bilingual-education program is on its way out. In that sense, Essentials of Biology appears timely. The question is: How well does it fulfill its stated purpose?

Black and White and Green

Unlike most biology books, Essentials of Biology is meant to be used as both a text and a workbook. Its pages are perforated (so they can easily be torn out) and punched (so they can be put into a 3-ring binder).

Essentials of Biology may be fine as a supplement to Visualizing Life, but it seems inadequate as a substitute. The essential inspiration of Visualizing Life -- the massive use of full-color illustrations -- is gone. Essentials of Biology is basically black and white, with an overlay of green. This book also lacks many of the other strong features of Visualizing Life (such as the vignettes about real scientists, the articles about scientific careers, the critical-thinking exercises, and most of the illustrations), and it has far less text. I estimate that the amount of text per chapter in Essentials of Biology is only one-third as much as the amount of text per chapter in Visualizing Life. That would be enough, however, if the words were well chosen.

Even though Holt's writers have tried to use simplified English, there are places where the prose is still too complex. For instance, a safety note says: "Before starting an activity, put all materials not needed for the activity away." It would be much better to say, "Before you start an activity, put away the stuff you don't need." Holt's catalogue proclaims that one of the writers' tactics consists of "limiting the use of idiomatic expressions" -- but why? English is a language of idioms. The most common ones really must be learned, and beginners usually pick them up quickly.

Essentials of Biology repeats the usual eyewash -- or is it hogwash? -- about scientific method, with the usual rigid formula for testing a hypothesis by performing an experiment (pages 6 through 8). Visualizing Life recognizes that biological science does not really work that way, but the subtlety of Visualizing Life is missing from Essentials of Biology. Sometimes the writers even forget their own formula, as in this description of investigations into human evolution:

In recent years, more and more hominid fossils have been found and their ages determined. The fossils are like parts of a puzzle. Some parts are missing. As the missing parts are filled in, we can better understand the stages of human evolution. [page 150]

Is anyone testing any hypotheses here? Or does this work fail to qualify as science? Get real, folks.

Essentials of Biology needs to find its own voice -- an' lemme tell ya, it sure better not be the passive. Look back at those stilted, passive-voice sentences in which "fossils have been found" and "the missing parts are filled in." Holt's people need to learn a lesson that is understood by everyone who is good at communicating with unsophisticated audiences: Write like you talk -- don't talk like you write.

And this brings us to the adventures of Tran and Carla, two (apparently foreign) students whom we meet in several illustrated vignettes. Both speak perfect textbook English that is almost idiom-free, even though Tran seems rather rustic and doesn't know as much as Carla knows about science or about how to use computers. (Give Holt's people some credit for avoiding the savvy-male and naive-female stereotypes.)

Teachers who try to use Essentials of Biology in the classroom will have to present the essentials of each lesson in plain conversational English, rather than using the stuffy language preferred by Tran, Carla and the Holt writers.

Erroneous "Information"

In trying to simplify scientific concepts, the writers often become simple-minded. For example:

There is no justification for introducing falsity in the name of simplification.

New speakers of English need the best biology textbook that can be produced for them, not just a dumbed-down condensation. Though Essentials of Biology is based on a timely idea, it will need careful reworking to make it both timely and useful.

Anne C. Westwater retired in 1997 from a twenty-year career as a science teacher, including some fifteen years as a teacher of biology, earth science and environmental science at Napa High School (in Napa, California). She now lives at The Sea Ranch (in Sonoma County, California) and works as a consultant in the application of brain research to educational practice.

Lawrence Davis is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas). He specializes in the biology and chemistry of nitrogen fixation.


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