How to Read a Textbook

Focus on Reading

Very few people voluntarily read a textbook for a whole host of reasons.  Even the best of them are never really entertaining.  They fail to address topics of interest in any depth, and the structure of a textbook is, by its nature, somewhat scattered, ultimately going from one topic to another without much connection—at least to the novice in that discipline.

So when students try to read a textbook and use the same reading strategy that one would use for a novel or a news story or a blog or a letter or even a professional journal article, they are going about it the wrong way.

This handout is meant to help you avoid bad reading strategies for textbooks and adopt workable reading strategies to maximize your chances for retaining the material being presented.  So, first, let’s take a look at the reading strategies or habits you should avoid:

  • Do not try to absorb every fact in the textbook.

Your brain is not a computer and you can not remember every detail.  In a computer, when you save information, you create a file that can be accessed at any time.  In our brains, when we see new information, we can not simply file it away in our heads in total and be expected to recall it on demand.  Yet this is exactly what you are trying to do when you write down everything in the textbook into your notes or try to memorize everything.  You are treating your brain like it is a machine; it’s not.

  • Do not breeze through the chapter as if you are reading a novel for its plot.

As opposed to trying to remember every detail, this strategy seeks to remember none of the details and tries to just get the “feel” or “gist” or “main idea” of the chapter.  That’s not how textbooks are written, and so we should not read them that way. 

  • Do not try to anticipate what is and is not going to be important.

Many times there are questions associated with a chapter or questions that you need to answer based on the chapter, like an InQuizitive.  Do not try to target your reading to the assessment by trying to anticipate what specific details will be important.  This amounts to random guessing and wastes time.

  • Do not assume that reading and rereading equals retention

Parents will sometimes encourage you to read it over again so “you get it,” but if all of your reading is passive, you’ll need to reread it a dozen times before there is any retention.

There are probably other bad reading strategies to avoid, but those seem to be the most common.

Now, as to the effective reading strategies or habits you should try to cultivate:

  • Textbook chapters are usually divided into sections; focus on only one section at a time.
  • Within the section, focus on the topic sentences or key ideas for each paragraph; don’t get caught up in the minutiae, dates, etc.
  • As you read the section, take notes but do not write down everything; make an outline of the section with main ideas for each paragraph and keywords bulleted.
  • Once you run through the section and make the outline with key ideas and keywords, read through the section one more time to make sure that your outline makes sense.  Make any adjustments or edits or revisions as needed.

Adopting the above techniques, many of which fall into the idea of “active reading” or reading with the goal of determining relevance, should help you get through the textbook more efficiently, help you retain the knowledge, and provide a future guide to access the knowledge, details, and related minutiae more quickly.


When you complete reading questions or a reading assessment, like an InQuizitive, you should have three items with you:  the assessment, your notes, and the textbook.  In the case of an InQuizitive, you can have one browser window open to the InQuizitive and another open to the textbook.  Your notes can then be laying beside you. 

Based on your notes and the associations your brain can now make to information in the text, you should have a much easier time answering the questions compared to a student who breezed through the chapter or tried to remember or write down everything.  For questions where you are unsure, you should be able to immediately reference the text in the other open window, and know exactly where to go based on the outline of the chapter in your notes. 

The above application of the active reading and note-taking techniques outlined above do not work 100% of the time for reading questions or reading assessments.  But, based on my experience, it does work better than 90% of the time—and that is “A” level work!