How to Read a College Text Book

Textbooks are a staple of college life. Chances are, you came out of the bookstore on your first visit with huge bags of textbooks in your hands and a lot less money in your pocket. You paid a lot for these books, and yet, many beginning students don’t even crack them until the first exam. There are lots of reasons why you may not be getting your money’s worth out of your textbooks. Maybe they seem boring, intimidating, or confusing. There is a lot of information packed into every paragraph, and the sentence structure is often complex. But the sooner you learn to tackle your textbooks, the more successful you will be. Textbooks can be powerful partners in learning. They can: Books The following tips can help you get better at reading textbooks: 1. Get acquainted early. If you paid $150 for any other item, you wouldn’t let your money go to waste, would you? As soon as you buy your books, flip through them and see what resources they have to offer. 2. Start with a positive attitude. If you are dreading sitting down with a textbook, start by taking a deep breath and saying to yourself, “I can do this.” On the other hand, if you tell yourself “I hate this. I’m not going to understand it,” your brain will believe you. 3. Choose a good environment. Give yourself the best chance for success by choosing a good time and place to read. First, choose a good time of day for reading — not too early in the morning or too late at night. Then find a location that is comfortable, but not so comfortable that it makes you sleepy — a padded upright chair in front of a table or desk is usually best. The library has lots of great places for reading. Try to avoid reading in a place where there is too much noise or too many distractions. If total quiet bothers you, try playing some soft music, preferably without lyrics (otherwise, you’ll find your brain singing along to the song instead of paying attention to the words you are reading). 4. Don’t put it off. Trying to read an entire chapter — or worse, multiple chapters — the night before a test is a recipe for disaster. It is better to spread out your reading so that you read a few pages one day and a few pages the next, using your syllabus to keep current with the course. 5. Review your notes first. When reading about something that has already been discussed in class, review the material in your notes before you begin. Having the concepts fresh in your mind will make understanding the reading much easier. You can also pinpoint things in your notes that you need extra help understanding, and look for answers in your reading. 6. Skim ahead. Before you dive into the text, do a quick preview of what you’re going to read. If you get the big picture first, it will help you to make sense of the details. Look for headings, words in bold print, notes at the side, and summaries that can help make sense of the text. 7. Do it in chunks. Read one paragraph or section at a time, using the headings to break the reading up into manageable chunks. Look for the main idea and supporting ideas in each paragraph. Try to figure out what each sentence is saying before going on to the next. After each paragraph or section, stop and review. Ask yourself, now, what did I just read? Explain the main idea out loud, in your head, or on paper. Reread the section if you need to make sure you’ve got it. 8. Take notes. As you read, write some notes on a separate piece of paper or on a computer document outlining the main ideas of the text. Putting it in your own words will help you understand and remember. And when it comes time to review for the exam, you can just look at your notes instead of having to tackle the text again. 9. Look up words. If you come across words you don’t know, look them up. If they are words that have to do with the subject matter, check for a glossary at the back of the textbook. If they are regular English words, use a dictionary (a phone app works great for this). Don’t waste time guessing what something means when it would only take 30 seconds to know for sure. 10. Don’t rush through it. Reading textbooks is different from reading for pleasure. It takes a lot more concentration and work. Don’t get frustrated if it takes a while to unpack or decode all of the information you are reading. If you expect to just breeze through it, you will get frustrated very quickly. 11. Turn headings into questions. One commonly used method that can be amazingly helpful is to turn the headings in the book into a questions before you read, and write these on cards or a piece of paper. If the heading says “The Ideal Gas Law,” you could write “What is the ideal gas law?” Then as you read, look for the answers to these questions and write them down on the opposite side of the cards. These questions and answers will be a great help when it comes time to study for the test. 12. Make flash cards. Another way to do this is to create questions as you are reading by turning statements into questions, then writing the answer on the other side of the page or card. If you read “Many yellow or orange fruits and vegetables such as apricots, cantaloupe, pumpkin, and peaches are good sources of vitamin A,”you could write, “How can you recognize foods that may be a good sources of vitamin A?” Then on the other side of the card write, “yellow or orange colored fruits and vegetables.” 13. Read Out Loud. If you find that you learn better by hearing than by reading, find a secluded spot and try reading out loud. This can help keep your mind focused and brings the part of your brain in charge of interpreting speech into the effort. You can also try reading into an audio recorder and listening to the recording. 14. Read with a Friend. You can also try reading the chapter out loud with another student and discussing what it means together. This can be a great activity for a study group. Quiz each other on what you have read. If you don’t have a partner available, try explaining what you have learned to a friend or family member who is willing to listen. Teaching and explaining is a powerful way to learn. 15. Use practice questions and problems. If there are comprehension questions or practice problems, do them on scratch paper (even if they weren’t assigned). You can also look ahead at these questions before you read and look for the answers while you read. Looking for answers to questions makes reading much easier. 16. Take breaks. Your brain can only focus well on something for about 20 minutes. After that, it becomes difficult to concentrate and be productive. So don’t try to read for more than 20 minutes without a 3-5 minute break. Get up and walk around, get a drink, take out the garbage, do some dishes, talk to your roommates, play with your kids, run around the building, etc. Then come back and go at it again. 17. Stay on task. Reading is much more difficult if you mix it with other activities. Don’t keep stopping to text, check Facebook, etc. If you are having a hard time concentrating because you keep thinking about other things, take out a blank sheet of paper and write for 5 or 10 minutes about whatever you are thinking about. This can have the effect of emptying your brain onto the page, and helps get worries, basketball games, TV shows, or whatever off your mind so you can concentrate. If you are worried about what you need to get done, make a list of everything you need to do and prioritize it. Having a plan can help you focus on one thing at a time. Then get back to your reading. 18. Take a Reading Class. There are many resources to help you improve your reading skills. Look on the internet, find a book, or take a class on improving your reading skills. DSU offers two courses for improvement in reading skills: ENGL 0470 (Basic Reading) and ENGL 1470 (Critical Reading). See the University Catalog at for details. There’s no doubt about it — reading a textbook is hard work. But with practice, you will find yourself reading more quickly and remembering and understanding more of what you read. Don’t let the money you spent on textbooks go to waste!