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An Unconventional Approach to Textbook Reading

Most students despise textbook reading assignments, and it’s not hard to see why. Textbooks are built to be boring. The density of the book alone is enough to frighten away even the most enthusiastic students. Textbooks, generally speaking, are poorly organized, written for maximal boredom, and render more confusion than clarity. So, why should students read them?

When done the right way, textbook reading is one of the best ways to quickly dissect, absorb, and internalize information. Textbooks provide a preview of the chapter before the teacher begins to lecture. It’s like watching a movie you have seen a thousand times versus trying to watch a completed movie in a distracting environment.

Imagine your son or daughter (named Taylor) is watching the movie Interstellar for the first time, but in a room full of buzzing devices and distracting siblings. Throughout the three-hour movie, Taylor must leave the room to answer the phone or make a snack for a sibling. She misses maybe twelve minutes of the total film, but is lost at the end. Taylor missed key inflection points, critical character development, and sneaker allusions to the endgame of the film. Because Taylor was so lost, the emotional crescendo of the award-winning movie failed to land. Instead of hanging on the edge of the couch for the final twenty minutes of the movie, Taylor scrolls through Instagram, half-distracted. 

Now, picture the exact same scenario as the preceding paragraph, but swap Taylor’s movie choice for a familiar favorite: Finding Nemo. This time around, Taylor still battles distractions, but they lose their effect. The phone calls, text messages, and trips to the kitchen result in missed plot points, but Taylor still watches in content admiration as Nemo reunites with his father in the movie’s final moments. The distractions lose their effect. 

Why are these two scenarios so different? Why can Taylor absorb the second movie in a half-distracted state? There are a few key differences between the two movie-watching scenarios. First, Taylor knows where the plot is going for Finding Nemo but not for Interstellar. Second, Taylor has prior knowledge of the main inflection points and character traits for the second movie but not the first. Lastly, Taylor knows when to focus and when to take a break in the second movie, helping quell any stress. This is important because stress often causes myopia around unimportant details. If Taylor hyper-analyzes a minor character, some of the other important characters might go unnoticed. 

How does movie-watching apply to textbook reading? 

We want to make textbook reading as similar to the Finding Nemo experience as possible. The approach below not only makes textbook reading more enjoyable, it makes it more effective too. 

Flip the Script

Begin your coverage of the material at the end of the chapter. More specifically, try to find the review page. The chapter review or chapter summary, as it’s sometimes called, contains everything the student needs to know for that night’s content. By reviewing the endgame of the chapter, students will have a better understanding of where the story needs to go. Therefore, students will have context to sort through the seemingly unimportant details in the first few pages of the book. To use our movie analogy, you understand the out-of-context barracuda attack at the beginning of Finding Nemo, if you know how the story ends. The same holds true for textbooks chapters in AP U.S History, Chemistry, Biology, or Economics. 

Know the Players

After reading the chapter summary, students should learn the key players of the chapter. Like the main characters of a movie, students should have a clear understanding of the good guys, the bad guys, and the miscellaneous background characters in any given chapter. For instance, in a chapter on the French Revolution, Maximillian Robespierre is the (theoretical) protagonist of the story and King Louis XVI is the antagonist, depending on how you look at it. Other characters vary in importance, but their importance stems from their relative distance to the two key players mentioned above. Knowing the players helps with absorbing the content. The key terms or vocabulary list at the beginning of the chapter is a good place to start. 

Find Some Landmarks 

Next, we need to find some landmarks. Landmarks, like major plot points, help guide our pacing in the chapter, which we will discuss in a minute. The other important function of landmarks is distraction re-orientation. Remember, textbooks are boring. There’s no avoiding that fact, but hopefully the tips in this post make the dry pages of McGraw Hill slightly more readable. In any case, we need to prepare for distraction by having landmarks to reorient our attention. Knowing the major inflection points of the chapter (there’s usually five to seven), helps us not only to dive back in when we get distracted; it also helps us know when to take breaks. Students should have an idea of the chapter’s high points after reading through the chapter summary and the key terms list. If not, students should look for a timeline or chart that reveals events in relation to one another. Don’t overlook this step; landmarks are your lifeline. 

Speed Up & Slow Down

Last, but not least, students should read the chapter from beginning to end. However, students know have an arsenal of tools to control pacing. They’ll know when to speed up because the content is unimportant to the content’s main idea. They will also know when to slow down, take out a notebook, and make sure they grasp the information. The ability to control one’s reading pace is critical to improved comprehension. 

I hope that helps. Textbook reading can be fun, with the right approach. We understand that succeeding in school (and in life) is about much more than a student’s willpower. That’s why we insist on tactics, strategies, and systems that improve student outcomes. Our four pillars of Executive Function (organization, time management, learning skills, and impression management) can help any student thrive. The best part is all of these skills are teachable and transcend the walls of the classroom. 

To learn more about our flagship one-on-one academic coaching program, reach out today! We’re here to help students survive and thrive in the modern classroom. 

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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