1.3 Reading Your Textbook and Assigned Readings


Just as you should review your course syllabus to get some context for your entire course, you should begin each reading by surveying or scanning the chapter or article before diving in. There are many ways to do this, and which method(s) you choose will depend on the type of content you are about to cover and how it is organized within the source. Some common strategies include the following.

Scan the Table of Contents and the Headings

This will tell you what information is going to be covered and in what sequence, and it will help you decide which areas seem especially important or challenging so that you know where to spend your energy.

Read the Preface, Introduction, or Abstract

It is tempting to skip over a book’s preface or introduction when it is not part of an assigned reading. However, each of these sections will help you understand why a text was written (e.g. the bigger problem or question it attempts to address). An introduction will also often explain the purpose of the different chapters or sections, especially if the work is a compilation of many writers’ contributions.

Abstracts, on the other hand, are intended to be concise summaries of scholarly articles or studies. An abstract will usually tell you the problem the paper will address, what kind of method was used to study or explore the problem, and what the main findings were, making it much easier to follow along as you read further.

Take a Quick Look at the Index

An index can offer up some important clues about what the book is going to focus on. What kinds of terms are included? Which terms seem to be especially important, with lots of corresponding pages listed?

Here is another good reason to scan the index: As you are reading, it can start to get overwhelming to use flags, sticky notes, or other page markers if there are a lot of different topics or themes you want to remember to come back to. A good index can help point you back to specific sections and passages for future reference. If the book’s index does not contain the sorts of terms you will need to look for again, there is nothing to stop you from customizing the index with corresponding page numbers for the terms and phrases you think are most important, either on blank pages at the end of a book’s index, or wherever you take notes. For instance, you can track pages that will correspond well to sections of a paper you are working on or to specific course discussions or potential exam questions.

Reading About Topics and Concepts

Textbooks that teach topics and concepts are often found in introductory-level courses, though they can be used in upper-level courses as well. These are the texts that introduce lots of terms, definitions, theories, structures, and processes that you may be expected to remember for a multiple-choice or short answer exam, so your ability to recall the information on demand will be important. Often, these textbooks will be designed to make it easier for you to review key concepts. For example, definitions may be in bold, processes and larger concepts may be presented visually, or there may be chapter summaries included for quick review. These and your own highlighting and notations will be useful in helping you practice recalling information you will need to know for an exam.

When reading these texts, it helps to go slow:

  1. Read only one or a few small sections at a time.
  2. Read once without highlighting or taking notes. (Upon the first read, most of the content might feel important, so if you highlight right away, you might highlight more than is necessary!)
  3. Go back and decide what is important and then highlight, underline, or take notes. Focus on key words and phrases that will help you remember concepts quickly when you go back through your text.
  4. In the margin of your textbook, write cues that you can use to test yourself. For example, in a section of your textbook discussing deviance you might write:
    • Define deviance.
    • 3 factors determining deviance.
    • 3 sociological paradigms explaining deviance and crime.

This way, when you cover up the main text, you can ask yourself questions about the material: What is the definition of deviance? What are three factors used to determine if behaviour is deviant? What three main sociological paradigms offer explanations for deviance and criminal behaviour? This serves the same function as flashcards, but it takes much less time to do. Once you can recall most of the information from one section of text using your notations in the margin, you can move on to the next section of text.

As you become more experienced with this type of material, you might think of your own methods of achieving the same results. We all develop our own study preferences as we go, but what is important to remember with these types of texts is that we want to study in manageable chunks, we want to be able to quickly scan our texts to check our understanding of key concepts, and we want to regularly test our ability to recall that information so that our brains are trained to not only remember it long-term but to also retrieve it quickly when we need it.

A Note About Highlighting

Study strategies experts have differing opinions on how much students should be highlighting from their textbooks, readings and notes. You may have heard before that you should highlight only one or two words in a row instead of highlighting complete sentences, or perhaps you are used to highlighting so much that your textbook looks like a rainbow.

As is the case with so many study strategies, context is important when it comes to figuring out what will work best. If you are highlighting to remember concepts because you are going to have to recall specific definitions, stages, or processes, then less is more because it is easier to review and remember words and short phrases than it is to keep overloading your memory by reading and re-reading long passages of highlighted text. On the other hand, if you are following an author’s argument to prepare for a class discussion or as part of your research for a term paper, you may want to highlight whole passages or paragraphs that nicely represent the author’s main points or key findings so that the highlighted portions provide a sort of summary of the argument as you re-read them, or so that you can keep track of particularly interesting passages you may want to quote or paraphrase later. 

Reading Arguments

The purpose of some texts is to argue a thesis or make a larger statement about an issue. For example, a concept-based psychology textbook about deviance might go over several definitions of deviance, some of the main theories about deviance, and some examples of how deviance has been handled in the courts. An argumentative work on the topic might instead explore how our conceptions of deviance and normality have changed with certain events or socio-political developments, or how they are being inequitably imposed on different members of society to maintain a specific power structure.

These sorts of texts might be full-length books by a single author or a group of authors, they might be scholarly articles, or they might be compilations of works each written by different authors, with each piece contributing an idea or argument that offers unique insight into the general theme or topic of the text. These texts are usually assigned in classes where students are expected to use critical thinking more extensively to respond or react to authors’ ideas or to formulate their own scholarly argument in response to an issue. Thus, they are often used when conducting research for term papers and in courses where students will write essay exams or be asked more complex questions without a clear “right” or “wrong” answer.

When reading argumentative or thesis-based texts, you will still want to take your time to digest the material, but rather than looking for specific phrases or passages that look important (because everything will look important!), your task is to determine the author’s main argument or thesis, the supporting arguments the author makes to establish that thesis, and the evidence or examples the author uses to illustrate those supporting arguments. It is a skill that will take time and practice to master, but it is important that you learn to recognize and distinguish between these elements; otherwise, it becomes easy to cherry-pick passages that sound important while missing the broader point the author is making, and if you do not understand that broader argument and how it is executed, you cannot effectively respond to it critically.

You will notice, too, that some of your textbooks will seem to fall into both concept-based and argumentative categories. When that happens, it just means that you might have to employ several reading, highlighting, or note-taking strategies throughout.

A Note About Speed Reading

Speed reading courses and texts are sometimes marketed to students as a way to reduce the amount of time spent studying. So, should you buy into the hype about speed reading? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it all depends on context.

More than the speed you are reading at, you should be concerned with how much information you are retaining and how much information you need to be retaining. If you are reading too quickly to process what you are reading, then you are not really saving yourself time. But, contrary to what some may assume, reading more slowly does not always improve retention either. In fact, when you read too slowly, it can become easy to focus too much on the details and miss the bigger point or theme.

Rather than concerning yourself too much with your overall reading speed, consider using variable reading speeds. With time and practice, as you get better at identifying what information is important to know for your purposes, you will begin to be able to read quickly over parts that are less important and to slow down and more carefully digest those that are more important.

If you are still interested in increasing your reading speed, though, you can try running your finger just under each line of text as you read. Start by moving your finger at your normal reading pace, and then gradually increase the speed so that your finger is just ahead of the words your eyes are focusing on. This is an easy way to increase your reading speed, and some readers find it helps them stay attentive while reading too. Just be sure to pause every now and then to mentally summarize what you just read and ensure you’ve actually captured what the text is saying; otherwise, you may increase the speed of your eye movements but not your reading speed!


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Navigating an Undergraduate Degree in the Social Sciences by Diane Symbaluk, Robyn Hall, and Geneve Champoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.