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How to Read a Textbook

Textbooks are tricky publications. They are bound books of knowledge and schools of thought. Some people spend their school years reading textbooks in lieu of attending classes. Other times teachers use textbooks directly to teach their classes. A good teacher will use a textbook and create new information in class.

Textbooks can be your best friends or your worst enemy. They can guide you through the confusing ins and outs of school or they can sit in your room untouched for weeks. They are expensive, overpriced pages of valuable information. And whether or not you attend all your classes in school, it behooves you to learn how to read a textbook. Textbooks exist in so many forms, and when you leave school, they will still exist in your workplace. These textbooks just take on new names, such as memos or manuals.

Most textbooks are designed in the same format:

  1. Cover Page (Title Page)
  2. Table of Contents
  3. Introduction
  4. Chapters
  5. Index
  6. Glossary

The Cover Page (Title Page) of textbooks is never simple. It is generally a short catchy title followed by a colon and a longer explanation of the subject matter. It contains the publication, authorial, and copyright information.

The Table of Contents generally follows the Title Page and is a succinct listing of all chapters and subchapters in the book. It will be your guide as your navigate the textbook. Your teachers will always tell you what chapter to read and what sub-chapters to read. Often, you will not read a textbook in its entirety. You will simply read the pertinent chapters. This is where the Table of Contents comes into play. It is a very descriptive guide, unlike novels' tables of contents, which has long descriptions for each chapters. The Table of Contents in textbooks will list every single chapter, sub-chapter heading, and outline within. Often, the Table of Contents in a textbook can cover dozens of pages.

The Introduction in a textbook is generally the first chapter of text. However, is summarizes the book in entirety. It is like the Table of Contents in content, but in prose form. Many people just read the Introductions in textbooks to get a basic gist of the information given in the book. It is a vital element to textbook reading, and if you are going to read any part of a textbook, you should read the introduction.

Chapters in textbooks are the meat of the textbook. You will know exactly what the chapters will cover if you have read the Table of Contents and Introduction. Textbook chapters vary in length and style. Depending on your publisher, education level, and reading ability, textbook chapters will have an easy or difficult flow. Some textbooks have graphics, charts, photographs, and line art. Some will have questions at the end of each chapter, some will have short chapter summaries. Depending on the textbook, we recommend that you read the chapter introduction (a short paragraph at the onset of each chapter) and the chapter summary or chapter questions (at the close of each chapter) for a general understanding of what each chapter covers. Remember, chapters are always divided into sub-sections. Your teacher will often just assign a sub-section of a chapter and it will be important for you to read just that portion. You can always read around the assigned chapter if you desire.

The Index comes at the end of the chapters and is a detailed listing of all words and ideas in the course of the text. The Index is different from the Glossary (see Glossary in the next entry). The Index is printed in extremely fine print and tells you what pages words, ideas, and people are printed on. It helps you locate specific names and sections within the enormity of the text quite easily. So, if George Washington is mentioned in the textbook at least once, it will be listed in the Index. The Index will then tell you what page number (and all page numbers) on which George Washington is mentioned.

The Glossary is a mini-dictionary in the back of your textbook. In scientific textbooks, Glossaries are obviously longer than in art textbooks. Nonetheless, the glossary is an alphabetical listing of definitions at the end of the textbook. Usually, the words that are listed in the Glossary are highlighted or bolded within the body of the textbook so that readers know if it is a Glossary word.

Textbooks are printed with large print, extra wide margins, and space. The reason for this set-up is so that you can take a pen and highlighter and scribble across the textbook. When you are studying at the end of a class, semester, or year for your assessment, you will want to look back on your textbook to see what you thought was important at the time. If you had already written in it, you will have a much easier study time.

The beauty of textbooks is that they are rarely assigned to read in their entirety. Because of their excessive organizational structure, you will often just read portions of them. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the set-up of textbooks so that you read them to the best of your ability.