Chapter 15: Reading Textbooks

Dave Dillon and Norma Cárdenas

“I learned to read at age 3 and soon discovered there was a whole world to conquer that went beyond our farm in Mississippi.”

– Oprah Winfrey


If you want to be a better swimmer, you practice. If you want to be a better magician, you practice. If you want to be a better reader, you practice. I encourage you to read everyday. Read widely and across topics. Read newspapers. Read magazines. Read books. Use your library card (get one if you don’t have one). Read blogs. Read tweets. Read Wikipedia articles. Read about history, politics, world leaders, current events, sports, art, music—whatever interests you. Why? Because the more you read, the better reader you become. And because the more you read, the more knowledge you will have. (If you hate to read, learn to hate it less.) That is an important piece in learning and understanding. When we are learning new information, it’s easier to learn if we have some kind of background knowledge about it.

Background Knowledge

In their book, Content Area Reading: Literacy and Learning Across the Curriculum, Vacca and Vacca postulate that a student’s prior knowledge is “the single most important resource in learning with texts.” [1]

Reading and learning are processes that work together. Students draw on prior knowledge and experiences to make sense of new information. “Research shows that if learners have advanced knowledge of how the information they’re about to learn is organized — if they see how the parts relate to the whole before they attempt to start learning the specifics — they’re better able to comprehend and retain the material.” [2]

For example, you are studying astronomy and the lecture is about Mars. Students with knowledge of what Mars looks like, or how it compares in size to other planets or any information about Mars will help students digest new information and connect it to prior knowledge. The more you read, the more background knowledge you have, and the better you will be able to connect information and learn. “Content overlap between text and knowledge appears to be a necessary condition for learning from text.” [3]

There are recent advances in technology that have made information more accessible to us. Use the resources! If you are going to read a chemistry textbook, experiment with listening to an audiobook or podcast or watching a YouTube video on the subject you are studying. Ask your instructor if they recommend specific websites for further understanding.

“The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you the knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination.”

– Elizabeth Hardwick

The Seven Reading Principles

Read the assigned material. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised to learn how many students don’t read the assigned material. Often, it takes longer to read the material than had been anticipated. Sometimes it is not interesting material to us and we procrastinate reading it. Sometimes we’re busy and it is just not a priority. It makes it difficult to learn the information your instructor wants you to learn if you do not read about it before coming to class.

Read it when assigned. This is almost as big of a problem for students as the first principle. You will benefit exponentially from reading assignments when they are assigned (which means reading them before the instructor lectures on them). If there is a date for a reading on your syllabus, finish reading it before that date. The background knowledge you will attain from reading the information will help you learn and connect information when your instructor lectures on it, and it will leave you better prepared for class discussions. Further, if your instructor assigns you 70 pages to read by next week, don’t wait until the night before to read it all. Break it down into chunks. Try scheduling time each day to read 10 or so pages. It takes discipline and self-control, but doing it this way will make understanding and remembering what you read much easier.

Take notes when you read. Recall Hermann Ebbinghaus’ research from a previous chapter. He determined that 42% of information we take in is lost after only 20 minutes without review. For the same reasons that it’s important to take notes during lectures, it’s important to take notes when you are reading. Your notes will help you concentrate, remember, and review.

Relate the information to you. We remember information that we deem is important. The strategy then is to make what you are studying important to you. Find a way to directly relate what you are studying to something in your life. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is not. But if your attitude is “I will never use this information” and “it’s not important” chances are good that you will not remember it.

Read with a dictionary or use an online dictionary. If  a word comes up frequently, you should search for the meaning of the word. Especially with information that is new to us, we may not always recognize all the words in a textbook or their meanings. If you read without a dictionary and you don’t know what a word means, you probably still won’t know what it means when you finish reading. Students who read with a dictionary (or who look the word up online) expand their vocabulary and have a better understanding of the text. Take the time to look up words you do not know. Another strategy is to try to determine definitions of unknown words by context, thus eliminating the interruption to look up words.

Ask a classmate or instructor when you have questions or if there are concepts you do not understand. Bring your questions or if there are concepts you do not understand to class. Visiting an instructor’s office hours is one of the most underutilized college resources. I think some students are shy about going, and I understand that, but ultimately, it’s your experience, and it’s up to you if you want to make the most of it. If you go, you will get answers to your questions; at the same time, you’ll demonstrate to your instructor that their course is important to you. Find out when your professor’s office hours are (they are listed in the syllabus), ask before or after class or email your professor to schedule an appointment. Be polite and respectful. Knock on their office door!

Read it again. Some students will benefit from reading the material a second or third time as it allows them to better understand the material. The students who understand the material the best usually score the highest on exams. It may be especially helpful to reread the chapter just after the instructor has lectured on it.

Strategies To Think About When You Open Your Textbook

Preview. Look at what you are reading and how it is connected with other areas of the class. How does it connect with the lecture? How does it connect with the learning outcomes? How does it connect with the syllabus or with a specific assignment? What piece of the puzzle are you looking at and how does it fit into the whole picture? If your textbook has a chapter summary, reading questions, and glossary, reading those first may help you preview and understand what you are going to be reading.

Headings and designated words. Pay close attention to section headings and subheadings and boldface, underlined or italicized words and sentences and pull quotes. There is a reason why these are different from regular text. The author feels they are more important and so should you.

Highlighting. Highlighting is not recommended because there is no evidence supporting it helps students with reading comprehension or higher test scores. Writing a short summary in the margin is more effective because it forces you to put it in your own words.

Pace. To schedule time for reading, multiply the number of pages by 5 minutes. In many cases, it’s important to break the information up in chunks rather than to try and read it all at once. One strategy that works is to break the information up equally per day and adjust accordingly if it takes longer than you had thought. Skimming the text is reading for purpose. When you skim, you read the first sentence of every paragraph and skip the paragraph if it isn’t useful.

Review. Try to summarize the main points of the text in a paragraph and single sentence. This will help to process the most vital information.

“Drink Deeply from Good Books”

– John Wooden

It’s Not All Equal

Keep in mind that the best students develop reading skills that are different for different subjects. The main question you want to ask yourself is: Who are you reading for? And what are the questions that drive the discipline? We read different things for different purposes. Reading texts, blogs, leisure books, and textbooks are all different experiences and we read them with different mindsets and different strategies. The same is true for textbooks in different areas. Reading a mathematics textbook is going to be different from reading a history textbook, a psychology textbook, a Spanish textbook or a criminal justice textbook. Further, students may be assigned to read scientific journals or academic articles often housed in college libraries’ online databases. Scholarly articles require a different kind of reading and librarians are a resource for how to find and read this kind of information. Applying the principles in this chapter will help with your reading comprehension, but it’s important to remember that you will need to develop specific reading skills most helpful to the particular subject you are studying.

Evaluate the Source. Read from a critical perspective. What position is the writer claiming? What is the context of the writer of the text?

Audience. Becoming a good and flexible reader is a good skill. Not everyone comes to a text with the same references and background. You can fill in your knowledge gap and answer questions. What you believe is true may (or may not) be a reflection of your identity and experiences. By keeping an attitude of openness, a willingness to be vulnerable, and a constantly engaged critical consciousness, you can understand why certain questions get asked and answered, and examine how values shape interpretation.

Licenses and Attributions:

Content previously copyrighted, published in Blueprint for Success in College: Indispensable Study Skills and Time Management Strategies (by Dave Dillon), now licensed as CC BY Attribution.

  1. Vacca, R., Vacca, J.A, & Mraz, M.E. (2011). Content area reading : literacy and learning across the curriculum (10th ed.). Pearson.
  2. ibid
  3. ibid


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Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon and Norma Cárdenas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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