Teaching Students How to Read a Textbook
Many students come to our classrooms prepared to read textbooks, but many others do not. Since class survival often depends on a student’s ability to read the course material efficiently, I spend time early in the class teaching them how a textbook should be read and how this process differs from reading a novel, a newspaper story, a comic book, or something on the Internet.
On the first day of class, after we’ve gone through the syllabus and have gotten to know each other through an ice breaker, I go through and teach students (or remind those who already know) how to read a textbook in order to get the most from the textbook.
I ask them what they believe are the differences between reading for information and reading for entertainment (putting these on the board for all to see) and ask them about the type of reading that will be required for the class. Then I ask them how they will approach the textbook and the required reading. Most will say they just begin reading whatever pages are assigned. Then I tell them I will help them learn how to get the most out of a textbook for the semester.
The steps are:
- I ask them what they believe the course is about, and after I receive several responses, I then have them open the textbook to the Table of Contents and look over the chapter titles and, if present, the specific chapter content to see if their ideas were matched by what they learned in their exam.
- Generally, when assigned to read Chapter 1, for example, students begin reading Chapter 1 by turning to the first page in that first chapter that has long stretches of black ink on white paper. However, I point out that the table of contents is the place to start with each chapter. Some textbooks include a basic TOC and others include a more detailed TOC, which includes a breakdown of that chapter. I direct the students to read this expanded TOC for the chapter first in order to get an idea of what concepts will be covered in the chapter.
- Students again want to go to the beginning of the chapter, but now I direct them to the end of the chapter instead. Here they may find a chapter summary and a list of key terms or other textbook aids the author has provided. I direct them to read over the summary so that they get a big picture of what the author will be covering and then to make note of any key terms that might be listed.
- Now students can go to the beginning of the chapter. Oftentimes, however, material will be presented before the chapter text appears—I advise students to pay attention to this material, for it is not in the book just for eye-candy—the author placed it in the text at that point for a reason. I advise students to pay attention to all material in the chapter, not just the text since the author chose that material to help present the ideas in the chapter. I take this opportunity to point out the different features in each chapter, especially those that we will be using in the class.
- I then query students about how many pages of a textbook they can read at once, getting them to acknowledge that they cannot expect to read the whole chapter the morning the reading is due or even the night before. Some students confess that they can only read a page or two at a time before they become distracted, and they acknowledge they would need to start reading the required material earlier rather than later (I point out in the syllabus how many pages they would be expected to read each week just for this class in order to complete the reading in time.
This topic opens up an opportunity to talk about study skills and how to apply these skills to understand the course materials.