Posted by: jockmackenzie | December 10, 2011

Reading Skills – Use the phone book

There’s a rolling cart stacked with new phone books in the Eastview Middle School staffroom. Brand new phone books mean a boatload of soon-to-be problematic old phone books in the school . . . not to mention all the other old phone books in the city. What to do?

I’ve been in the habit of snagging about 15 – 20 of the old books to keep as a classroom set. Thank goodness the shelving at the back of the room accommodates lots of books. Why do I want so many phone books?

1. Local research – when we write essays, I want my students to write about things of immediate interest. Many of the topics chosen involve some local person who can act as an expert. The phone books usually act as a resource to find a person or business who can shed light on a particular topic.

I’m a local boy – born and raised here in beautiful Red Deer, Alberta. Most often, when a student wants to know who to ask about a topic, I know who to contact. But not always. A student wanted to write about playing pool. Well, I was stuck behind the eight ball on that one. So we went to the phone book. The student and I used the long cord on the classroom phone, stepped into the hallway, and I called a local billiard parlor. The student was too shy to do it himself so we tag teamed and made a connection. The parlor patron was a wealth of knowledge.

The phone books are only a year old and most often contain sufficiently up-to-date information. As a resource source, they’re great.

2. Skimming exercises – I often say we don’t exercise the brain. Gym classes do warm-ups and cool downs; the math people have their Mad Minutes. What do Language Arts classes have – weekly spelling tests? Please.

Skimming is a life skill. There are numerous occasions where one needs to skim for a specific piece of information, to glance quickly over a story or article or document looking for a particular something. Yet we seldom practice the skill. As always, I begin with small steps – looking for the more obvious before moving on the harder to find.

Especially in those awkward minutes at the end of a class – too late to start something new but enough time to do something useful – the phone book can offer a reasonable time filler. Have students share a phone book and try some of these challenges:

a. Have everyone open to a certain page in the white pages. Call out a name from that page and ask for the phone number – or for the digit in the hundreds place (or whatever). As soon as students find the answer, they jot it down, flip the phone book over and stand up. I wait until a handful of students are standing.

I usually start by asking for business names that are bolded and in yellow. The kids learn to skim only those names. Then I might ask for simply bolded names. As you can see from the picture below, I might ask kids to skim for bolded numbers and then ask for the matching name. As the kids get better, I ask harder questions. Of all the Andersons on page 5, what’s the address for R & S Anderson? What apartment does F. Antoni live in?

Double click on the pictures to enlarge them

What’s the motivation? Often the prize is recognition – we were first or we were among the first. Sometimes I hand out coupons for Draw Day – that’s another story.


These days, many will argue their smart phones replace the phone book in its entirety. I disagree. I can find something faster in the phone book – when I know how to use it – than I can on my smart phone. If in doubt, why not challenge your students to a race. I think the phone book will win – but the smart phones can be used to get directions to a business either through Google Maps or  with a GPS system.

The index to the Yellow Pages is a part of the phone book many students have never seen. If you show them how to use it, they might be more likely to give it a try. I like to try a list like this to get started:



Hearing Therapy

Ice Climbing

Jet Skis



Set half of the class on the task of looking up this information directly in the Yellow Pages. Direct the other half to find this information by beginning in the Index to the Yellow Pages. See what happens.

To see what else the phone book offers, guide your class through some of the other parts of the book – the part that shows emergency numbers (poison centre, police, public utilities, shelters, hospitals), area codes, coupons, what numbers are in your local calling area, etc. Just flip through the book and let the students point out aspects of the book they didn’t know existed.

As a final thought, I like to cruise the Yellow Pages to compare ads. Which ones stand out? Why? What cool and interesting slogans do some companies have?

As I said at the outset, the phone book can be a useful class resource and an interesting way to spend those awkward minutes near the end of a class.


  1. Always good to see the “old Teacher Man’s ” post. I remember seeing this done. Surprising what can be taught from the phone book.

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