Nothing beats a good book. And when you are revising, especially, a range of intelligent, comprehensive, and relevant history textbooks are indispensable. Because whilst the new technologies offered by the internet are hugely helpful – with some excellent apps and podcasts designed to aid your studying process – all knowledge is contained in a book.
But the key words in that second sentence above – ‘intelligent, comprehensive, and relevant’ – are key, as it’s important to know the best, most helpful, and most interesting texts that you are going to take with you into the examination season. Because revising wrongly can be as bad as not revising at all.
So, on that thought, we have compiled a list of some of the best history texts available for GCSE and A Level revision. We have books that will introduce you to the central themes and ideas in your syllabus, texts that you will certainly find in your classroom, and tomes that will encourage you to read outside of the curriculum.
At whichever stage you are in your secondary school history journey – whether you’re preparing for an International Baccalaureate (IB) or an iGCSE – you’ll find the texts here that you need, on modern history, early modern Britain, or world history from across the centuries. Let’s get started.
Let’s start with the textbooks designed by the examination boards themselves – the examiner company responsible for writing, marking, and setting the specification for your exams. These companies contribute to the production of textbooks for schools and, as you can imagine, they know the content that needs to be included.
Learning your subjects from these books is the perfect way to study the basics of your course – as you know that they are going to have precisely the correct framework required by your exam.
Get studying – with your own pile of history books!
As one of the main exam boards for A Level and GCSE, AQA produces a lot of history revision books itself – with the help of Oxford and Cambridge University Presses.
The AQA A Level courses start from the eleventh century and the board offers a choice of topics to engage with up until the present day – from the rise and power of Hitler to the American and Chinese twentieth centuries, from the religious rebellion in the sixteenth century to revolution and civil war in the seventeenth.
They are written in such a way as to make them engaging and they are often crammed full of images, tasks for homework, and primary source exercises. This makes the experience of reading them a little livelier than most other textbooks. And, approval by the exam boards means that you’ll know that you are on the right track.
AQA, of course, have GCSE textbooks too – on courses including Health and the People and Elizabethan England.
The educational publisher, Pearson, provides the bulk of the textbooks for Edexcel – another major UK examination board. They are great for pictorial analysis and for representations of the events that you are studying – as we all know simple text alone can be rather dry. But the images along with the clear and precise timelines – with concise and memorable annotations – make this a really readable series.
Like the AQA series, Edexcel stretches across a huge time-span, engaging with medieval history and movements for civil rights in the modern day. Each module has its own textbook – which is developed under the supervision of academics at universities.
The GCSE series is just as popular – with an incredibly popular Key Stage 4 course in the Tudors – and Pearson writes the textbooks for this too. Note that you’ll need to buy the book for teachers if you want to find the answers to the questions in the book for students.
Hodder Education offer the resources you’ll need for an OCR history GCSE, whichever modular programme you are studying for – Explaining the Modern World or the Schools History Project.
These texts are immensely readable and, in taking important quotations and perspectives from historians, are authoritative and informative, giving you a broad selection of viewpoints and ideas. They are very strong on conceptual clarity and explanation, and they provide you with exactly the information you will need to know for your exams.
Put away that laptop and get your books out – if you really want to crack history revision.
The Access to History series, also by Hodder Education, is a hugely successful range of textbooks exploring all the A Level history topics – and ultimately getting students across the country to achieve their desired grades.
The books in the series are usually written by secondary education teachers, by historians, and by members of the Royal Historical Society – so they are authoritative, deep in their analysis, but properly accessible and even enjoyable to read!
Whilst these texts cover the content of courses by Edexcel, OCR, and AQA, they also cover other history syllabuses, including the IB.
Every student – whether they are studying maths, geography, or English Literature – should know about CGP revision guides. The chances are that you actually do know about them already.
Recognised and used across the country for their fun, interactive strategies for the learner – from quizzes and essay questions to lesson plans – they are designed to teach and to test you with as little pain as possible. The series are split into two with one with the information to be studied and the other with the quizzes.
You should recognise the logo with the little man holding the CGP book, yes. But beyond that, they have everything to get you through your GCSE exams in historical subjects from the industrial revolution to imperialism.
For those across the world studying the Cambridge International A Levels, you’ll probably know already that Cambridge University Press offers the best-published material for guidance through the course.
These courses are designed for those applying for university and the textbooks provide the rigorous preparation that you would expect. The coursebooks on International History 1871-1945, European History 1789-1917, or History of the USA 1840-1941 walk you through the topics straightforwardly, engagingly, and in all the detail that you would ever need.
What’s incredibly important about studying history at school is that you shouldn’t depend entirely on your textbooks. Whilst they are crucial in providing the organisation and perspective required, it cannot be recommended enough that you read around the subject you are studying – and that you read in general!
So, just as a taster, here’s a handful of books which might prove handy if you are hoping to get a taste of the history world outside of the course textbook. It’s well worth doing – and it will give your grades a boost for sure.
If you’re the sort of person who reads the words ‘Cambridge academic’ and thinks they all must be stuffy and boring, John Guy is here to prove you wrong.
If you study the Tudor modules at GCSE or A-Level you are sure to come across him at some point, as his two books Tudor England (1998) and The Tudor Monarchy (1997) are heavy-duty, super-readable studies of one of the most fascinating dynasties in English royalty.
If you don’t believe that it is indeed readable, be assured that this Guy is a broadcaster too – so he knows how to avoid the heavy academic lingo. Oh, and his biography of Mary Queen of Scots has just been made into a film.
For those studying the history of Russia in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, you should probably look at Robert Service’s career-long investigation into the subject.
He’s written biographies of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, as well as histories of twentieth-century, Tsarist, and post-Soviet Russia. And whilst the books are pretty long, they are perfect introductions to the world of Communist Russia.
Robert Service’s book on Stalin is an incomparable guide to the communist dictator.
You’ve probably heard of this historian already – as, these days, she is probably the most famous one around. Mary Beard works on the ancient world, meaning the Romans and their contemporaries, and she has written plenty of excellent books alongside her frequent appearances on TV.
Maybe the best ones are Classics: A Very Short Introduction and the new SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. For her impeccable reputation and her incredibly no-fuss writing style, she is a must-read for history students.
To end on a similar note, you can find shorter texts to read to support your secondary school studies in academic journals. Again, these needn’t sound intimidating, as they are hugely helpful resources – and some academic writing can actually be quite fun!
JStor is the place to start, which is something like a database for academic articles. Search for the subject you are studying and it will return hundreds of different articles. This one’s the way to get ahead of your schoolmates.