To Read Textbooks Effectively, New Skills are in Order

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My son is a good student, and takes pride in his achievements in school. This year, he has entered fifth grade. He is accustomed to receiving study sheets that list all of the information he needs to know for tests, but this year he has teachers who simply assign reading in the textbooks that is to be discussed in class. My son is worried, because he doesn’t know how to pick what is important out of the text without the help of a study sheet, and he does not want his grades to drop. These chapters seem pretty dense for a fifth grade level. How can I help him pick out the important information?

Jody T.

Asheville, NC

Dear Jody:

As a high-achieving student, your son will have to develop some new skills in order to meet the challenges of middle school, junior high, and high school. Situations like your son’s are not unique.


Many schools and teachers have relied more and more heavily on study sheets as effective communicators of the important material from a chapter. Unfortunately, study sheets can encourage a student to rely on memorization as the only means to an end, and as a result can cause the skills of interpretation and ability to paraphrase to develop late, if at all. Fear not, it is not too late for your son, but this is a perfect example of the panic that can arrive as the study sheets begin to depart.

It is critical to the long-term academic success of a student that a shift in mentality and training occur as students go through the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. That shift is a movement away from the mastered skill of memorization to a more dynamic ownership of learning that can only manifest when the child has internalized new information by making it his or her own. Translation: Raw data must be paraphrased by students into a language they can understand for real learning to occur.


When your son reads from a textbook, he needs to learn to scan before he attempts to read every word in the text in sequence.

First, he must learn the basic organizational structure of the textbook, which might vary from subject to subject. Basically, textbooks are organized into chapters, and each chapter is divided into content sections, usually headlined with boldfaced sub-headings. Occasionally, review questions are listed at the end of each section or at the end of the chapter.

Once your son understands how his textbooks are organized, he is ready to use that knowledge to his advantage. Here is a simplified step-by-step approach to textbook scanning:

e Have your son read the boldfaced subtitles in the order in which they are presented. Then, have him look away from the text and say in his own words what the reading covers, as indicated by the subtitles. This will help define the boundaries of what he is going to read, and exercise his ability to paraphrase. (If he is at a complete loss when asked to paraphrase, and can only regurgitate the sub-headings word for word, then you will know that this is a completely new concept for him.)

e Read the first two sentences of each paragraph, and scan for boldfaced words. Your son should ask himself whether these first two sentences contain essential information, and have the confidence to say “no.”

e If he is unfamiliar with any of the words, he should look up the definition in the glossary, or in a dictionary or electronic source. Just as important as the definition of the word are the synonyms, which he can use to rephrase the definition in his own words.

e When he has finished reading the first two sentences of each paragraph in a section, he should summarize the section using the sub-headings, boldfaced words, their definitions, and only the information he considers to be essential. He must continue until he has completed each section of the assigned reading. (If he writes every sentence word for word, you will again be able to see an over-reliance on memorization technique, and will know this will require more practice.)

By the time he has completed these steps, he should be able to write essential information in bullet form, leaving space in between for added detail. This creates a structure for ongoing note taking so that he can build his knowledge as his teacher leads him through each chapter.

After he has scanned the assigned reading and begun to build his notes, only then is he ready to go back and read every word in the text. As he reads, he should ask himself whether the information is essential, interesting (but unnecessary) or trivial.

Your son should add to his notes all essential information and select only the interesting and/or trivial information that he feels might be needed for his tests. He should not overdo it! The goal is not to memorize or cram, but to understand, learn, and express.

By the time he finishes this process, he should be able to do well on a pop quiz. He will also find that there will be no need to cram for tests because he has reconstructed the knowledge in his textbook in a way that is meaningful to him. His notes will become an infrastructure for his knowledge, and he will be able to then use class time as an opportunity to add depth and detail to knowledge he already owns.