Hints for Effective Reading

The goal of a textbook is simple: inform and educate.

The goal of the Harry Potter books is very different. Novels tell stories. Textbooks communicate ideas through explanations of information. Because of this, you need a different strategy for reading textbooks. Follow these four easy steps to get on your way.

1. Don’t read front to back (aka, READ BACKWARDS)

Reading a textbook chapter front to back ensures that you will waste time.

I know it’s counter-intuitive to not read a book front to back, but don’t do it. Mystery novels stink when you read the back first, as do good thriller movies. If you read the last page of a Sherlock Holmes novel before you read the story, it’ll be lame. If you know Bruce Willis is dead, don’t watch the 6th Sense.

But textbooks are rarely building to a suspenseful twist at the end. I promise. I’ve read a lot. They don’t come with surprise endings. “And then, Abraham Lincoln dodged the bullet!” Yep, that’s never going to be in a textbook.

Want to try this strategy? Try reading your textbook chapter in this order:

Go to the questions at the end first. Read them, answer them to the best of your ability, and then begin your actual reading strategies. This will sort of “prime the engine” of retention.

Next, read the final summary of the chapter. This will give you a general background as to the Big Ideas in the chapter.

Third, look at the headings and subdivision of the chapter.

Fourth, read the chapter introduction.

From that point you can then work through the chapter from front to back. By taking this out-of-order strategy, you are focusing not on the chronological order, but rather connecting the ideas found in the chapter together. This is infinitely more important than reading things in the order they were written.

2. Read for Big Ideas

Textbooks are extremely thorough. You, while needing thoroughness, are not going to be able to absorb every tiny detail found in a chapter. You have to focus on what’s most important. See our posts on filtering for more info on this.

Textbooks are great because they explain those Big Ideas in context, but make sure you don’t get lost in the minutiae. Read for the Big Ideas first and foremost and you’ll be able to sift through the mountain of information available.

In textbooks, Big Ideas are easy to spot because they are often in bold print or section headings. Look for the complete sentence thought that summarizes and drives each subdivision and you’ll have identified the Big Ideas.

3. Read for Key Details

Big Ideas need support. Otherwise they’re just opinions. After you identify each Big Idea, make note of the supporting details that fill out and help the Big Idea make sense.

While this looks different in each subject, they should be relatively easy to pick out. Key people, places, and events often make up the key details in history books. Grammar rules are the important details frequently in grammar books. For languages, vocab are some of the most important key details of the chapter. Check your notes against the questions at the end of the chapter. If they reflect the same key details, you know you are barking up the right tree.

4. Read the book once but your notes multiple times

You should never have to read a chapter more than once (in theory). If you’ve done your reading well and taken notes as you read, you have a record of the thoughts being communicated.

Granted, it takes a while to adapt to this approach. Don’t be upset if you have a time of adjustment before being able to read a chapter only once.

But if you put in the work now to get used to reading a textbook more effectively, consider the time you’ll save in the long-run. We promise you’ll see the benefits quickly. For those of you who are already using this type of active textbook reading strategy, congratulations on making the honor without losing your social life. Well done.

How to Skim

Skimming — getting the essence from reading material without reading all the words — boils down to knowing what parts to read and what parts to pass by. Following are some tips and techniques for recognizing what is important to read in the act of skimming.

Know what you want

Before you start skimming, ask yourself what you want to get from the book or article under your nose. Think of two or three terms that describe what you want to know, and as you skim, keep an eye out for those two or three terms. Aimlessly skimming with no particular purpose can cause drowsiness, and eventually, sleep.

Read vertically as well as horizontally

When skimming, you move your eyes vertically as much as you move your eyes horizontally. In other words, you move your eyes down the page as much as you move them from side to side. Skimming is a bit like running down stairs. Yes, you should take one step at a time, and running down stairs is reckless, but you also get there faster by running.

Think like the author

Every article, book, and Web page is written to make a point of some kind, and if you can detect the author’s strategies for making his point, you can separate the important from the unimportant material in the course of your reading. You can focus on the original, meaningful material and skip over the material that just supports the author’s argument without advancing it.

Detecting the author’s strategies requires you to put yourself in his place. Besides noticing the material on the page, notice how he presents the material. See whether you can recognize how the author places background material, secondary arguments, tangential information, and just plain frippery.

Preread before you start skimming

Examine an article before you read it. By prereading an article before you skim, you can pinpoint the parts of the article that require your undivided attention and the parts that you can skip.

Try to detect the main idea in the introductory paragraphs

The introductory paragraphs usually express the main idea, argument, or goal of an article or chapter. Read these paragraphs closely. They tell you what the author’s aim is, which can help you decide early on whether the article or chapter is worth reading in detail.

Read the first sentence in each paragraph

The introductory sentence of each paragraph usually describes what follows in the paragraph. When you skim, read the first sentence in each paragraph and then decide whether the rest of the paragraph deserves a read. If it doesn’t, move on.

Don’t necessarily read complete sentences

When skimming, you don’t even have to read complete sentences. If the start of a sentence holds no promise of the sentence giving you the information you want, skip to the next sentence. Read the start of sentences with an eye to whether they will yield useful information, and read them all the way through only if they appear to be useful at first glance.

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