In this paper we provide a multimodal account of historical changes in secondary school textbooks in England and their social significance. Adopting a social semiotic approach to text and text making we review learning resources across core subjects of the English national curriculum, English, Science and Mathematics. Comparing textbooks from the 1930s, 1980s and 2000s, we show that a) all modes operating in textbooks -typography, image, writing and layout- contribute to meaning and potential for learning b) that the use of these modes has changed between 1930 and now, in ways significant for social relations between and across makers and users of textbooks. Designers and readers / learners now take responsibility for coherence, which was previously the exclusive domain of authors. Where previously reading paths were fixed by makers it may now be left to learners to establish these according to their interests. For users of textbooks the changes in design demand new forms of ‘literacy’; a fluency not only in ‘reading’ writing, image, typography and layout jointly, but in the overall design of learning environments. We place these changes against the backdrop of wider social changes and features of the contemporary media landscape, recognizing a shift from stability, canonicity and vertical power structures to ‘horizontal’, more open, participatory relations in the production of knowledge.