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Willingham on reading books
What's Dan got to say that can help students read books like texts?
In an article for American Educator, a magazine of the American Federation of Teachers, my colleague, pal, and sometimes lunch mate, provided “a guide for high school and college students” about how to study text books and similarly dense (i.e., “boring”) books. For those who have read Dan’s newest book, Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy, the content will be quite familiar; the article is, in essence, an excerpt of Chapter 5 without some of the adjunctive material (e.g, recommendations to instructors, but see later notes).
In this version, Dan is true to his title. He explained why reading such texts challenge readers (for example, they do not present content in familiar, compelling story-telling form) and he provided sensible recommendations about how to improve one’s understanding of content found in such texts (e.g., step away from the highlighter).
Dan included many “tips” for improving one’s understanding of the content of complex text. (The tips have a different numbering system in the book than in this article, but that shouldn’t confuse you here.) In the article, the first tip is to discard the highlighter and the second is to approach the reading task strategically (use strategies such as SQ3R, SOAR, etc. that readers of Special Education Today may find familiar).
Here’s the beginning of his third recommendation:
TIP 3—Take Notes as You Read
Whenever I meet with a student who is struggling in one of my classes, I always ask her to bring her notes. Everyone has notes they’ve taken in lectures, but most people do not take notes on the readings. Surveys bear out my experience. People don’t take notes on readings because they figure that highlighting serves the same purpose. But we’ve been over why it doesn’t. Taking notes on readings serves the same functions as taking notes during a lecture: it helps keep you mentally on task, and the notes will help refresh your memory later.
How should you begin? In particular, how should you prep for taking notes? The same way you prep for reading: by posing questions at the start. But how can you craft good questions about a text you haven’t read? The author may give you a good overview in the first few paragraphs, or perhaps there are questions at the end of the reading that provide some guidance. Or maybe the instructor, God bless her, told you what she hoped you’d get out of the reading. Write these at the very top of your notes, so you can keep them in mind as you read.
If the reading includes headings and subheadings, you might write those in your notes; they can serve as a skeletal outline. As you read, complete the outline. For each subheading, write a summary and about three other statements….
Pretty straight stuff, right? Well, there’s lots more in the article (and even more in the book). Oh, and you can read the article to learn what Dan’s fourth tip is.
If you read the article, you’ll also find two side bars, one including a bit of the preface and and another presenting an example of the supplemental material (for this particular chapter).
I was hoping to add a photo of Dan and me (probably of me with food dripping onto my clothing), but I didn’t find one. All I have for “Willingham” is the photo of Esprit and me from 2011. So, here is one of those ubiquitous “head shots” from the book’s publisher.
Willingham, D. T. (2023). How to read difficult books: A guide for high school and college students. American Education, https://www.aft.org/ae/summer2023/willingham
Willingham, D. T. (2023). Outsmart your brain: Why learning is hard and how you can make it easy. Gallery Books. https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Outsmart-Your-Brain/Daniel-T-Willingham/9781982167172