Reading to Learn: Why You Shouldn’t Read Beginning-to-End and What to do Instead

When I try to read books to my daughter, she always grabs the book and turns to a different page. I patiently explain to her that books are read beginning to end — except that I’m only being half-truthful. With fiction and poetry, beginning to end is the way to go. The same can be said for biographies, histories, and other types of non-fiction. But when it comes to learning something, beginning-to-end is the wrong way to read. Yet we’re never taught this. Or, if we are taught that there are better ways to learn-by-reading, the advice is abstract and not immediately actionable.

Let’s change that.

Before You Sit

Did you know that every time you are interrupted, it takes over 20 minutes for your brain to get to where it was? Maybe there are people who can really read and learn with the TV on, or at the kitchen table while family members are cooking, but I’m willing to bet that most of them (or all of them) are lying to themselves. Or, at the very least, they’re spending an hour doing what should take them thirty minutes. Not efficient.

So, first things first, go somewhere where you aren’t likely to be interrupted. Then turn off your phone, or better yet, put it somewhere else so you aren’t tempted to hop on it. Grab whatever you will need: the book, paper, pen/pencil, coffee/water/whatever.

Before You Start

Ask yourself some questions:

  1. What is this class about?
  2. What are we currently learning about?
  3. Based on the name of the book or article, what do I think this is about?
  4. What do I already know about this topic?

You might already have some questions about the topic you’re about to read. If so, write them down. As you go through the following steps, add more questions and cross out questions you found answers to.

Browse & Skim

Okay, onto the text. Before you start reading page-by-page, you’re going to do a few things. Browse the reading first, then skim the first paragraph. Browsing and skimming seems like cheating, but that’s just because we’ve been trained to read beginning-to-end.

Throughout this document are some (bad) pictures from a chapter in a textbook regarding the creation of the US Constitution. It nicely illustrates the method described.

Title of chapter and first paragraph:

Second, look at the top-level headings and skim the first few sentences under each. (Some books have more than one level of headings. For now, ignore the sub-headings and focus on the main sentences.) This will not only give you a sense of the topic, but it will clue you into what you’re about to read. You’ve essentially cleared a space in your brain for this information to go. As you will see, just by reading the headings and first few sentences, you can get a good handle on the information.

As you browse, you might have come across tables, charts, etc. that summarize the material. These graphics are rarely placed where they are most useful to the reader, so make them useful to you by looking at them before you start reading the actual text.

Remember to 1.) cross out questions you learned the answer to and to 2.) add new questions that emerge.

At this point, you’ve only spent a few minutes, yet you know a lot of the most important information. If you were doing this the traditional beginning-to-end way, you’d probably still be reading the first few pages.

Dig a Bit Deeper

It still isn’t time to read beginning-to-end. Instead, you’re going to go section-by-section, looking at titles, headings, and the various sub-headings. Your job at this point is to skim and find the summary/thesis sentence that is almost always located in the first paragraph of each section. Highlight this (or underlined, or whatever you do to draw attention to text.)

At this point, highlight nothing else, just those key sentences.

A few more minutes spent, a lot more information gained.

A few examples:

Now, Start Reading Beginning-to-End…

…but only the first page or so and the last page or so, particularly if these pages are marked ‘Introduction’ or ‘Conclusion.’ In so doing, you’re finding out what is most important to the author. The last few pages might be confusing to you, since there’s a lot of information you haven’t read yet, but that’s OK. You’ll know where the author is heading, and that’s a big help.

After that, you can start reading beginning-to-end. Read as you normally would but don’t be afraid to skim. You are primarily looking for information that supports the major points made thus far, as well as information that answers your questions. You will find that the reading proceeds much smoother than it otherwise would. Your brain is ready for the material. You’ve primed the pump.

As you read, USE THE HIGHLIGHTER RULE!

The Highlighter Rule

Be selective about what you highlight (or underline, or circle, or whatever you do to draw attention to words.)

There is a tendency to highlight everything and to do so without giving any context. It’s almost as if we think that if we highlight something, the knowledge will magically appear in our brain where it will be available to us at a moment’s notice. Except… that’s not how learning works.

And, besides, if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

So, here’s my Highlighter Rule: If you highlight something (other than the summary/thesis sentences), you must explain why you highlighted it. Because we’re inherently lazy, we will automatically highlight less. When we do highlight something, it’ll be meaningful. And, because you’re writing out something by hand, you’re giving your brain a better chance of remembering that information. A win on multiple fronts.

Example:

The Highlighter Rule also applies to key terms that are repeated or emboldened. Don’t just highlight the word and its definition. Write out a definition in your own words, incorporating why this word is important to the topic-at-hand.

Taking Notes

Up until this point, you haven’t taken any notes. But that’s OK. In fact, that’s optimal. Because you’ve done the work up-front, note-taking will be a breeze. You have the headings, summary/thesis sentences, and other important stuff already marked. At this point, the notes almost write themselves.

There are many ways to effectively take notes. You can copy the headings and sub-headings and do a traditional outline based on them, or you can outline the answers to the questions you’ve posed.

Also, don’t be afraid to throw some creativity into the mix. If outlining feels more burdensome than useful, do something different. Some people do mind maps. Some people draw really bad pictures.

And some people (myself included) do a combination of things based on what is being learned and what I’m in the mood for. Sometimes I like to do the outlining we all learned at school with Roman numerals, indenting, etc. Other times I use a sketch notebook and a pencil. It’s up to you.

Takeaways

  • Reading from beginning-to-end is good for some things, not good for others. It’s a really bad way to learn a topic.
  • If you read strategically, you will save yourself time, energy, and stress. This is true when you do the reading and it is true when it is time to put the knowledge to use.
  • In your life, regardless of career choice, you will have to read and learn many things. Most people will continue to read beginning-to-end. Using this method will give you a distinct advantage over them.

Examples above are from American Government: Power and Purpose, Brief 14th Edition written by Theodore Lowi, Benjamin Ginsberg, Kenneth A. Shepsle, and Stephen Ansolabehere (2017).


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