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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Students How to Read a Textbook

  1. Thanks for sharing a practical method for helping, guiding, and enlightening students on reading for meaning and understanding by beginning at the shallow end of the reading pool. Often students are expected to jump into the deep end, and thus they panic and merely dip their big reading toe into the pool.

    On the second and third classes of my thinking critically and creatively, I set aside time as well to help them wade in the shallow end by showing them an example of a former student’s reading analysis of a chapter in the text as illustrated here along with typical questions that a student is asked to answer when reading the chapter:

    Student sample of analyzing a chapter

    Each week you are assigned a chapter to read and then to share your thoughts, reflections, comments, examples, and what you learned or disagreed with; the following analysis by Nicole B., an on-line student demonstrates an example of a critical analysis of the chapter 5 (what is opinion?) in the thinking critically and creatively course – she assesses the logic of what she is reading:

    “The author has strong opinions and I didn’t’ happen to agree with them all (big surprise, no?). I object to a couple statements on page 61.
    “Yet, however deeply and sincerely such opinions are held, they are most likely wrong.”

    Says who? You? Why? Because you don’t hold them? Hmmm tisk, tisk, where’s that open minded thinker keeping value judgments in check.

    “This popular perspective may seem eminently sensible and broadminded, but it is utterly shallow.”

    The examples he used were on an extreme end of the moral compass, however, I don’t think having the, “to each their own” idea is shallow. He asks how many people we have heard claim that rape, spouse abuse, child molesting and burglary, etc. is morally acceptable. We all have and do every day. They are filling our prisons, backing up our courts, related to us and living next door. If their doing it their claiming it. Statistics only show the reported and known, not the unknown.
    I did not know there are criteria to use in order to increase the correctness of our personal moral judgments. I don’t know how I feel or think about this just yet. I need to ponder it a bit more.

    On page 65 it states that expert opinions are more highly valued than non-experts. In general, without specifics I think it depends on what type of opinion you’re talking about, courts of law or issues of health? I mean if your foot hurts you go to a foot doctor, heart, a heart doctor. In the smaller yet bigger picture everyday people have the same opinions of those on TV, writing books or winning peace prizes (Obama, really?). I have heard the profound from educated and uneducated, eloquence versus simplicity? More valued no, better stated, maybe, but that would depend on who you ask.”
    ——————————————————————my analysis
    Nicole’s analysis prompts the following series of questions you can ask when reading any text; keep in mind that every piece is not of the same quality. You assess what you read by applying intellectual standards to it, standards such as clarity, precision, relevance, significance, depth, breadth, logic, and fairness. Some authors adhere to some standards while violating others. For example, an author might be clear in stating his or her position, while at the same time using information that is not accurate. An author might use relevant information but fail to think through the complexities of the issue, that is, fail to achieve depth. An author’s argument might be logical but not significant. As the reader, then, you need to become adept at assessing he quality of an author’s reasoning as exemplified in Nicole’s critical analysis of chapter 5 on forming opinions. You do this only when you can accurately state in your own words an author’s meaning.

    To assess an author’s work, answer the following questions:

    1. Does the author clearly state his or her meaning, or is the text vague, confused in any way?
    2. Is the author accurate in what he or she claims?
    3. Is the author sufficiently precise in providing details and specifics when specifics are relevant?
    4. Does the author introduce irrelevant material, thereby wandering from his/her purpose?
    5. Does the author take us into the important complexities inherent in the subject, or is the writing superficial?
    6. Does the author consider other relevant points of view, or is the writing overly narrow in its perspective?
    7. Is the text internally consistent or does the text contain unexplained contradictions?
    8. Is the text significant or is the subject dealt with in a trivial manner?
    9. Does the author display fairness or does the author take a one-sided narrow approach?

    (Critical Thinking Reading and Writing Test by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, 2006, page 9)

    ————————————————————-another method
    reflect, relate, and question via these four prompts:
    • “Identify one important concept, research finding, theory, or idea … that you learned while completing this activity.”

    • “Why do you believe that this concept, research finding, theory, or idea … is important?”

    • “Apply what you have learned from this activity to some aspect of your life.”

    • “What question(s) has the activity raised for you? What are you still wondering about?” The response “Nothing” is not an option.

    ————————————–the following is for the instructor

    Professional article

    For many college instructors, getting students to read their textbooks is a continuous struggle. Not only are students unmotivated to read, but even when students do read they often lack the necessary skills to fully comprehend the material. As a result, instructors may subtly or unwittingly communicate that reading the textbook is not necessary in order to pass a course. This communication can take the form of providing students with elaborate study guides or notes that summarize the reading or include all the answers to upcoming tests or quizzes.
    Faced with these obstacles, I created the Reader’s Guide, a step-by-step exercise that students complete while reading their textbook material. It consists of three separate sections: (1) Planning, (2) Reading, and (3) Evaluation.

    Within the planning stage, the reader is asked to engage in skimming, questioning, and evaluating the organizational structure of the assigned reading. These techniques are to be completed without any reading of the text. This prepares students to begin the process of setting reading goals, devising questions to be answered by the text and to begin preparing for the organization of the chapter.
    In the planning stage, students are prompted with the following questions:

    Before you begin reading …
    1. What is the title of the chapter?
    2. Name three questions you would like to have answered from this chapter?
    3. What are the subheadings listed in this chapter?
    4. For each subheading listed in question three, write one statement describing what you think the paragraph will discuss (based on the subheading).
    5. What are the bold face words in this chapter?
    6. Using questions 3 and 4, briefly put together an outline that effectively displays the organizational structure of this passage?
    7. Skim each of the paragraphs, noting whether or not the paragraph will discuss what you predicted in question 4.

    The next section in the Guide is the reading section. The reading section prompts the reader to begin reading the chapter and to underline important points, code sections of the text, take notes, elaborate on information, and monitor failures in comprehension.
    In the reading stage, students are given the following instructions:
    Read the chapter …
    8. While reading the chapter, underline any ideas you believe are important.
    9. While reading the chapter, write the following symbols next the sentences as you feel
    they are necessary.
    ? = I have a question about this
    A = I agree with this
    D = I disagree with this
    ! = Interesting or important point
    C = Confusing
    10. Write down two ideas from the text that you believe your instructor may put on a test.
    11. Using the two ideas from question 10, write down any information you knew about these items before reading the passage.
    12. Can the information from the chapter be easily associated with the information you knew about these items prior to reading the chapter? Yes or No?
    13. While you are reading, write down the number of times you noticed that you experienced a failure in comprehending the material? What did you do about it?
    Finish reading the passage.


    The last section requires the reader to engage in an evaluation process. Within this section, the reader is asked to reflect on his or her reading process and to summarize key points, and reflect on the piece to determine if all questions addressed during the planning stage were answered.
    14. Looking back to question 2, were the questions you wanted answered by the chapter answered?
    15. Give a brief summary of the chapter you just read.
    16. Was summarizing the chapter difficult? Yes or No? Why?
    17. Was your summary accurate? Look back at the passage to determine your accuracy.
    18. On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = very inaccurate to 10 = very accurate) how would you rate your summary?
    I make the Reader’s Guide a required assignment for all chapters that are covered in a course. The Guide requires little to no instruction and can be easily implemented into any college course. Students seem to like the format and find that it is less anxiety provoking than quizzes used to increase reading compliance. Many students comment that the Guide helps them to better understand their reading material. For me, grading the Guide is easy and requires little time and effort. It makes reading the textbook mandatory and also holds students accountable for reading in order to receive a good grade in the course.
    For a PDF of the Reading Guide, go here >>
    Tiffany F. Culver, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Psychology at Sul Ross State University, Rio Grande College.
    Roger J. Vanden Busch

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