Teacher Tip: A System to Help Your Child Read Textbooks More Efficiently

Your middle- or high-schooler comes home with a new assignment:

Read and take notes on Section 5-3 of your history textbook (the Oregon Trail), due next class.

As she sits down, you notice she’s copying an awful lot of the text into her notes. After an hour, she’s barely gotten through half the section. She’s getting frustrated because she’s overwhelmed and doesn’t understand the point of the assignment.

There’s a better way.

To tackle textbook reading assignments efficiently, your child needs a system. Here’s a step-by-step process I suggest.

1. Get a roadmap from the start of the textbook section.

At the start of most textbook sections, your child will typically find the following:

  • Main idea

  • Objectives or learning goals

  • Vocabulary terms

This is the roadmap for reading the section. Have your child go over these, in order, to know what she’s supposed to learn.

I recommend she write out the main idea and objectives or learning goals at the top of her notes. It’s important that she keep these in mind as she reads the section.

Have her also review and write down the vocabulary terms. The definitions should be at the end of the textbook in the glossary.

2. Use the headings and subheadings to guide reading.

Throughout the section, there will be headings and subheadings. These are often in bolded text, with a larger font size and in a different color.

Remind your child that the headings and subheadings can help guide her as she reads. They provide a quick view into the main point of that section. Have her use them to organize her notes.

3. Scan the text for the most important information.

Textbooks are often overloaded with extra facts. If your child is struggling to get through a section, she doesn’t have to read every word of every sentence.

Explain to her that the most important ideas and facts will be at the beginning or the end of a paragraph or section. Suggest she look there first for the main idea. The middle will be filled with supporting details that back up the main idea.

Point out examples of sentences she can skip over when taking her notes. Then have her identify an example or two herself. It may comfort her to see how many details she doesn’t need to include or think about.

She can also look in the headings or subheadings for keywords that match the main idea. Sometimes, the text will have bolded words, which are typically vocabulary terms. Another good way to scan text is to look for bulleted or numbered information.

4. Use the pictures, diagrams and charts in the section.

Often, textbooks present key information through graphics. Your child may be tempted to skip over these visual elements. Have her pay special attention to them instead.

These graphics can help her “see” the important information in the section. In fact, they’re often helpful summaries of the section.

5. Limit reading to chunks of around 20 minutes.

Spending too much time reading a textbook could overload and frustrate your child. Chunk it out! Have your child read for 20 minutes, and then have her take a break or move on to other homework. She can come back to it later.

She can also tackle the assignment in steps. For instance, start with setting up her notes by writing down vocabulary terms. Then take a break, and come back later to fill in her notes.

—Jenn Osen-Foss

Jenn Osen-Foss is an instructional coach in Iowa who works with kids with learning and thinking differences.

Get tips on how to improve your child’s reading comprehension. Learn how assistive technology can help struggling readers. And read about more techniques that can help teens with reading issues.

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