One way to make the most of your time when you are a student is by learning how to read textbooks faster. You may be able to read your textbook faster by being a selective and active reader. Instead of reading chapters word for word, use the questions at the end of each chapter or section to clue you into the important material. Additionally, as you read, use your finger as a guide and minimize sub-vocalization to increase your reading rate.
Method One of Three:
Examine the questions at the end of each section or chapter. Use these questions as a guide to help you focus on the important and relevant material. As you are skimming the chapter, ask yourself if the material you are reading is answering these questions. If it is not, then skip it.
Read the chapter intro and final summary. Look for key words like “effects,” “results,” “causes,” “versus,” and “pros and cons,” for example. These key words will clue you into the chapter’s thesis or main idea. Knowing the main ideas beforehand will help you identify sections of the chapter that need careful reading.
Highlight and refer back to the main idea or thesis so you can stay on topic.
Look carefully at section headings and subheadings. Rephrase section headings and subheadings into questions to help you focus on the important ideas being presented. If the section heading says, “Kramer’s Three Social Laws,” then rephrase it into a question by saying, “What are Kramer’s three social laws?” Then read the information that answers this question.
Remember that bolded or italicized headings and subheadings contain clues to the most important information.
Read the first and last sentence of paragraphs. If you understand these two sentences, then just skim or skip the paragraph. If you do not understand the first and last sentences, then read the entire paragraph.
Make sure to slow down when you encounter complex paragraphs and sentences. This way, you will be able to fully understand what the author is trying to articulate in the paragraph.
Pay attention to important concepts and details only. Skim the book for important concepts, people, places, and events. These are usually bolded or italicized. If you understand a concept, then you can skip the contextual information that explains it.
Read the supporting text and contextual information only if you do not fully understand a concept.
Break up the chapter with your classmates. Ask some of your classmates if they are willing to do this. If they are, assign sections of the chapter amongst one to three other classmates. Each classmate should be responsible for their section. Make sure that you all can come to an agreement about each person’s responsibilities.
For example, devise a plan where each student in the group reads and writes a detailed outline for their respective section. Then, have everyone complete their outline by a certain date like the end of the week.
Was this method helpful?
Method Two of Three:
Define a goal. You can do this by asking yourself pre-reading questions such as, “What is the author’s main idea?” “What does my teacher want me to focus on in this chapter?” “What have I already learned or not learned about this topic?”
These questions will help you focus on important and relevant content that will enhance your leaning while excluding information that is irrelevant or that you already understand.
Take notes in the margins. In addition to highlighting, write questions and comments in the margins of your textbook or on a sheet of paper if the book does not belong to you. This will help you engage with the material and retain the information better, and thus prevent you from having to read the section over again.
Make diagrams, flow charts, and outlines of the material when you can.
Make sure to focus on and define terms that you are unfamiliar with.
Summarize what you read in your own words. Write down the main points on a sheet of paper. Use examples to clarify the main points. If you are not able to summarize key information, then you may need to go over relevant sections once more.
Limit your summary to one page.
Create a study environment that is free of distractions. Pick a quiet space in your house, for example your room, or the library to read. Put away other sources of distraction like your phone, computer, and the Internet. Instead, read the chapter and write your notes by hand, and silence your phone or turn it off.
Additionally, make sure the the space you choose is well-lit and comfortable, but not too comfortable.
If you choose to study at home, let your family (or roommates) know that you will be studying quietly in your room and that you would appreciate it if they kept the noise level down.
Give yourself a time-frame. Tell yourself, “I will read this chapter for one and a half hours.” Giving yourself a time-frame will help you stay on track as you read. If you begin to notice that you are reading a section for too long, get the main points and move on.
Mark the section and come back to it if it is a particularly difficult section.
Use a pointer to focus on the material. As you read, place your finger (or an index card or pen) below the first word of the sentence and move it as you read. Your finger will help your eyes focus on the words you are reading, instead of other pictures and information.
Additionally, using a pointer can you help control how fast or slow you read something; for example, the faster you move your finger the faster you will read and vice versa.
Try not to sub-vocalize. Sub-vocalization is reading aloud in your head and/or moving your lips as you read. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it can slow down your reading rate. Reduce your sub-vocalization by chewing gum or listening to music while you read. By forcing yourself to read faster you may also be able to reduce sub-vocalization.
Additionally, there are apps and programs that can help you reduce your sub-vocalization.
Control the speed of your reading. Reading faster isn’t just about reading fast, but about controlling your speed. In other words, slow your reading when you encounter concepts that you are unfamiliar with or do not understand. Then, increase your speed once you have gauged the meaning.
Effective textbook reading is a key study skill for student success. Nearly every class makes you read them.
“Makes” is the right word here. “Requires,” “forces,” or “insists” will also work. Few people read textbooks unless they have to. If you read textbooks for fun, shoot me an email. I need to interview you, because I don’t think you exist.
Reading textbooks is weird. That’s right – weird. Granted, we all have to read them. But even you bookworms – the kinds of people who devour the Twilight books in one week, or Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games books – know that textbooks are a bit weird.
Think about it. Textbooks are the only books you read today that have pictures on nearly every page (Dr. Seuss fans excluded). In fact, should you be forced to read a textbook without pictures, you are in real trouble. Those books get seriously tough. Nevertheless, understanding how to read a textbook is vital.
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.