May 30

How to Read Textbooks

Digital Textbook: Reading Tools and Tips

Reading Textbooks

People seldom read a book which is given to them.
—Samuel Johnson


Textbooks represent a significant portion of students’ academic reading. With increasing sophistication of layouts and integration of Internet links, not to mention the incredible range of types of text included in these textbooks, students need guided instruction in how to read them and strategies to help them read them independently. The questions that follow offer a generic beginning; teachers and students should develop other questions specific to their particular textbook or reading assignment.

Ask the following questions:

  • What events, ideas, people, or perspectives might the publisher have left out to avoid controversy?
  • What is/was the political and social climate in which this textbook was created and how, if at all, might that have shaped the content, form, and function of this book?
  • What is the perspective of the author/publisher of this text and how does that shape my perceived meaning?
  • What is the relationship between what students read in the textbook and hear or learn in class through simulations, discussions, lectures?
  • What is the important idea or information in this particular text or assigned reading?
  • How do you determine whether an idea is important?
  • By what criteria are people, events, places, etc. chosen by the authors or publishers (e.g., for the sake of coverage? Importance? Test-preparation? High interest?)
  • What do students need to know and be able to do to read this book, chapter, or specific excerpt successfully?
  • Do they know how this text works (e.g., what a word in bold typeface implies)?
  • What role (reference, sacred text, supplement to other texts) does the textbook play in the classroom?
  • What would (the Japanese) say about the textbook’s description of (Hiroshima)?
  • What does the textbook not include—information, perspectives, events, people, places—that it should? (And why do you think they left it out?)
  • How thorough is the book in its coverage of the subject? (For example, one textbook I looked at offered as its “biography” of General Douglas MacArthur three paragraphs).
  • Is the book’s vision coherent and consistent throughout the book?
  • What is the teacher’s role or relationship with this textbook as reflected by the book itself and the support materials addressed to the teacher? (Is it a “teacher proof” text, or one that expects or at least allows the teacher to use the book to support constructivist, inquiry-based instruction?)
  • What is the reading level of the textbook—and the students using it? What are the implications for the teacher if the students’ reading abilities do not match the demands of the text?
  • Is this conclusion or observation still true? (e.g., a history textbook might offer a description of Secretary of State Robert MacNamara based on his actions and ideas in 1967, many of which he himself has responded to or even debunked in his subsequent memoir about the war).
  • Are they (e.g., the author of the textbook or given passage from within that textbook) a credible voice in light of what we know now? (For example, the history teacher with whom I collaborate uses an obsolete but excellent textbook called Tradition and Change which consists of case studies and primary source documents. When he has students read about South Africa, he immediately addresses the need for more current information by bringing in Time magazine articles and having the students interview South Africans via various resources available through the Web.)
  • What other materials or resources might I use to supplement this textbook on this particular issue or subject?
  • What is the question this textbook, teacher, or class is trying to answer and how is the book being used to help answer it?

The information on this page comes from Reading Reminders: Tools, Tips, and Techniques, by Jim Burke.

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