I’m going to say something now that you must recognize as one of the most important lines of this book...

NOTHING is more important for your academic success than learning through reading.

I have been teaching this learning stuff for a long time and I am convinced of this. If the thing in your neck is poor reading then this is your chapter… so kick back and let’s talk it through. I get the irony that I’m asking you to read a chapter on how to read, and if you are not much of a reader, then even reading this stuff might be tough. But stay with me and I’ll do my best to help you figure it out.

First let’s get this “I hate to read stuff” out of the way. A mom came to me and said that her son hated to read and refused to do it. I told her that I thought that was probably not true. I sent her home and I told her to ‘spy’ on her son playing video games and just see how much reading he was doing. At some point in the evening she finally had seen enough and she stepped into the living room where he was gaming and she said, “WAIT a second. I’ve been watching you for a while and you are reading lots of words on that screen.” After her son got over the fact that his mom had been spying on him, they were ready to talk.

Here’s the deal… it’s not that you hate to read. What you hate is reading stuff you don’t want to read. If you are reading these words at all then you are literate and that means you are able to drive and read the signs, or go to the store and don’t have to rely on pictures to figure out what you are buying.

There are two kinds of reading. The first kind of reading is what I often call social reading or survival reading. When you are gaming and you read the stuff on the screen, that is social reading. When you read a review on the net about the next movie you will watch, that is social reading. When you pick up a magazine and thumb though it at the doctor’s office so you don’t have to worry about what’s coming next… that is social reading. I also call this kind of reading survival reading because so much of the time you are lost if you can’t do this kind of reading. Social reading gets you through your day. If you know someone who really can’t do this kind of reading you know a person who is really sadly lost.

But the kind of reading we are about to discuss is the second kind of reading… academic reading. Here in a few minutes we will call this kind of reading… annotation. This reading is very different from social reading. When we read academically we are reading actively. We are going on a treasure hunt to discover new information that we can use. We are reading so we can respond. Here’s the difference. When you read a novel just for fun, you are not worrying about someone asking you exam questions over the reading. So you can just kick back and read for fun. But when we read academically, actively, we know that someone is probably going to ask us to respond to what we are reading. So we want to have an approach that will help us do that kind of reading. I remember talking with one of my students who was the top diver in the state and she said that really all that stuff she did at the end of the board and into the air and finally entering the water was not that hard if she got her approach perfect every time! The same is true in reading… the approach is everything.

Since we define learning as the ability to connect new stuff to old stuff, then we will now define annotation as learning while we read. In other words, when we read academically we hope that the final outcome will be that some kind of new learning will take place. If we learn how to learn while we read, then of course the odds are higher that we will do much better on exams.

As we said in the last chapter, admitting that you have a problem with reading is the first major step towards fixing the problem. Stop saying that you don’t care and besides you hate to read anyway, and let’s start fixing the problem. We can’t address all the problems with reading right here, right now. For some of us the challenge is reading speed. We start reading and we are so slow that it takes us forever to get to the end of the page, and since we have ten more pages left for the night of homework, we can easily get frustrated and just quit. For some of us the challenge with reading is vocabulary. Too many big words become a distractor and all of a sudden we can’t comprehend what we are reading. For some of us we lose focus very quickly and we can read a whole paragraph, get to the end and then realize that we can’t remember anything we just read.

Hear me when I say this: You MUST start to take your training wheels off in regards to this reading thing. That means that you say out loud to yourself that it’s time for you to actually get to work improving your reading. You must go to a teacher you trust and say, “I need help with my reading… I know that now… and I’m hoping that you can help me get started.” Will that take courage? Of course. But in the end go back to what I said at the start of this chapter… NOTHING is more important than this skill set.

Think about this… if you are having a conversation with your pal and she says, “Stupidity in his school is ubiquitous!” you are not just going to sit there and nod your head. Most likely you are going to say something like, “What did you just say? I got the word stupidity… but what the heck was that other word you just used?” And your friend might say, “You know… ubiquitous… everywhere present… as in ‘all over the place’.” See, that’s what we do when we are talking with someone. If we don’t understand, we ask what she means. If we agree with something she is saying we will nod our head… you know… stuff like that.

Now we will do the same thing when we learn how to read actively. We want to see reading as participating in a conversation or a dialogue with the writer. We want to welcome the author into our room… invite him or her to take a seat on the comfy couch and we are going to chat… that’s all… just chat. But here’s the thing… during the chatting, we are going to be taking some notes, annotations we will call them, to help us remember what we just ‘talked’ about.

I know this idea might sound kind of strange to you at first, but trust me, it’s a great way to start seeing reading differently. And for many students, learning to see the whole process of academic reading as nothing more than having a good conversation is the first step towards taking that lump out of your neck. The key is to not be afraid or intimidated by the author you are reading. If he or she has done a half decent job you should be able to understand most of what he or she is saying. If you don’t get it, you are going to learn how to ask questions.

The annotation approach that I’m about to teach you has helped many of my students over the years. I hope it helps you. Like most anything… like learning to snowboard… you will probably struggle a little at first, and you may have to adapt some of what I’m showing you to fit your needs. This is no ‘set in stone’ approach. I’ll share the basics and you can try it for a while and see if it helps you to learn while you are reading. We want this approach to be easy or you won’t try it and keep using it.

First we will think of the annotation approach as having three simple steps. There is stuff we will do before we come to class. We will call this the Pre-class Annotations. Then there will be stuff we do during class. We will call this the In-class Annotations. Finally we will have the junk we do after class to get ready for the exam. We will call this Post-class Annotations. When we put all three parts together… we call that academic reading… or annotations for short. I have sometimes called these kind of notes “Learning Journals” simply because we want to focus our reading on learning. Make sense?

We start BEFORE class with some reading and note taking. We recognize a simple concept. If you have done some work before you come to class, you will be much better prepared for the experience of class the next day. In math then we will try to read the assignment for the following day… the night before. Instead of walking into a math class and plopping down and waiting for the instructor to ‘teach us’ math, we seek to help ourselves by looking at the material the night before. That way, when the teacher goes over the same material the following day in class we will be able to connect new information to old information much easier. Make sense?

By the way, for those of you who are asking, “Is this guy high? Why would I do all this extra work the night before?” I will tell you here in a little bit that this is the way to spend LESS time doing homework… LESS time getting ready for the exam. But we are back to the whole trust issue. You will have to trust me for a while and just listen to what I have to say and see if it makes any sense. If it does not make sense… then don’t try it.

1. Pre-class Annotations:

Look at any one of your textbooks. Open up to any chapter and notice how the chapter is laid out. Notice that any chapter is divided up usually into three parts. Do you see them? First there is some kind of introductory comments… preparing to read stuff… objectives to be learned… junk like that. Then the second part of the chapter is almost always some kind of information. If it’s a history book it will be something you have to read about the civil war, or whatever. If it’s a math book it will be a sample problem where the authors will try to walk you through the process of solving the problem. If it’s your English literature book you have to read some ‘dumb’ poem or story. Finally the last part of any chapter is usually some kind of review questions or exercises to make sure you understood what you were reading.

Now why do you imagine that all your textbooks are set up this way? Simple: the authors and your teachers expect you to learn by using your textbook. In some ways you are expected to start to teach yourself the important concepts BEFORE you ever enter your classroom and hear your teacher talk about the concepts to be learned. If you can hear anything I’m saying in this chapter… hear this…

Your teacher is there to help you teach yourself the concepts.

So... how do we do that? We will start with a blank sheet of paper and we will draw a line down the center of the page. After you have drawn a line down the middle of your page you will put your pre-class annotation notes on the left side of the line using red ink. You always want to start with some kind of log-in information at the top of the page so you can come back to these pages later and remember quickly what they were notes over. You will jot down the pages from your textbook to be studied, and you will want to note the day when the in-class teaching is supposed to take place. Later in the chapter on organization I’ll suggest a good three-ring notebook is a great way to keep all these annotations organized.

After you’ve done the log-in you are ready to go to your textbook and start the annotation process. Depending on what you are reading or studying you will take different kind of notes. If you are working in your math book on the lesson that you know the teacher will cover for tomorrow then you will jot down the objectives for the lesson and definitely work through the sample problem, trying to understand as much as you can ON YOUR OWN.

If you are reading out of a Language Arts textbook you will try to answer three simple questions while you read. Question 1: What does this text (a poem, a story, an essay) say? Try to summarize it by just bullet pointing the key ideas. Question 2: What does this text mean? What are one or two major themes or messages from the text? Question 3: How does this text relate? Can you think of any other texts that are kind of like this text? How does this text relate to me personally?

If you are reading in Science or History, you will write down anything that appears in bold ink because the author of the textbook thought that was important. Pay attention to special vocabulary words or dates, or even formulas that might be introduced. If there are maps or diagrams study them for a few minutes and jot down one thing you would like to remember about them.

Here’s the core of pre-class annotations: You want to try to learn as much of the information on your own, so that way when you come to class the next day you are ready to LEARN… by connecting new stuff to old stuff.

2. In-Class Annotations:

Next time you are sitting in your math class just take a look around while the teacher is teaching the new concept. See how many kids are trying to write everything down from the white board as the teacher is flying through the problem he is solving. Notice how frustrated students soon become trying to keep up. If you grew up playing basketball… what did they teach you about dribbling a ball? Keep your head UP. Right? The same is true in math class. If you come into class and hear the new concept for the very first time as the instructor is showing it to you on the board, you are going to spend much of the first part of class with your head down trying to get everything written down.

But now here is a question for you. What if the night BEFORE math class you had sat for 10 minutes and gone over the assignment for the next day… working through the sample problem in the book? Most of the time the instructor actually works the sample problem out of the book anyway. That means that while you are in class the next day, you don’t have to waste your time writing down the problem. You already have it in your notes. Now you can just kick back and watch the teacher go through the problem. And if there was a point in the problem that didn’t make sense… now is the time to ask. Go back to what I said above. The teacher is there to help you teach yourself. In-class work is often about letting the teacher help you… learn.

When we are taking in-class annotations we will work on the right hand side of the line that you drew down your notepaper. I often will suggest that you use different color ink for pre-class annotations and in-class annotations. I suggest that you train yourself to do your pre-class notes in red ink and your in-class notes in blue or black ink. The reason I suggest this is that once you are a student at university you will be buying your books and you will take notes or actually write inside your books… on the very page. We call annotation notes that you make inside the textbook, Internal Annotations, and annotations you make outside of the textbook, External Annotations. Obviously this approach is the second kind of annotations. But since you will do Internal Annotations in red ink it will make it easy to just take your pre-class notes in red ink.

When you are taking your in-class notes you will be focused on two things. First you will be looking for what we call “Match” information. Match information is anything that instructor says in class that you have already written down. Why would you need to write down something again that you have already written down in your pre-class annotations? Students will often just mark or circle this stuff on the left hand side of the line, and this information will be part of exam preparation. Think of it this way… if the textbook says it and the instructor says it, there is a good reason to believe that this information will end up on the exam.

The second kind of information that you will look to write down in your in-class annotations is what we will call “New” information. This is anything the teacher says that is NOT in your pre-class annotations. This information you will write on the right hand side of the line, again in blue or black ink.

The idea here is actually pretty simple. There is no reason to write down things during class that you have already written down in pre-class notes. All you have to do is to note it, mark it down. Sometimes students will create some kind of a code system where they will put a star next to concepts from pre-class annotations that are mentioned in class. This is the reason why I suggest that you work with different color ink when you are taking your in-class notes. This way you can tell which concepts are important that were mentioned in the text and also said by the teacher. If the teacher repeats what is in the textbook, there is a really good chance that this concept will end up on the exam.

Here’s the problem with not doing pre-class annotations. You could be sitting in your science class and the teacher is flying through her lecture and you are taking all these in-class notes but you are having a hard time keeping up. So you think, “I’ll just stop taking notes and read the textbook later.” But the issue here is what if the teacher is providing new information that is NOT in the textbook? The only way that you will know this is new information, not in the text, is if you have taken pre-class reading notes.

The key to classroom success on the exam is learning how to take good notes before you come to class so you know what to really focus on during the class. Make this process your own after you have practiced it for a while. Let this annotation approach help you prepare for the exam.

3. Post-class Annotations:

After you have taken pre-class annotations and after you have come to class and taken good in-class notes, you are ready to prepare for the response. We often think of this response in the form of an exam, but that is not the only kind of response. However since the exam is the primary way that a teacher will check to see if you understood or learned the material, let’s talk about exam preparation.

I’ll begin with an important question:

If you know everything that is “Match” information (stuff the teacher says that’s also in the textbook)… and if you know everything that is “New” information (stuff the teacher says that’s not in the textbook)… then tell me… what could the teacher ask you on the exam that you don’t already know?

Go back and re-read that question a couple of times to make sure you understand the point I am making. The ONLY stuff that should ever end up on an exam should be “Match” stuff and “New” stuff. To put any other material on the exam is morally incorrect for the instructor and he or she should be challenged for it. I had a student who learned the annotation approach with me and then took a university science course in her freshman year. During the exam she saw a certain number of questions covering material not in her annotations. She said as much to the instructor and then showed her instructor her annotations. Not only was her instructor blown away by her close annotation notes, but he had to admit that she was correct. He had drawn some questions from an old exam that covered material from a different textbook he no longer used. In his apology to the class he pointed out that a student’s close annotations had helped make the class a more honest and fair experience.

Test anxiety is a serious problem for a lot of students. You might suffer fears about test performance so badly that during the exam you ‘freeze up’ and perform poorly. Of course the key to good performance on the exam is proper preparation before the exam. Once you understand that there is nothing the instructor can ask you that you have not covered in your annotations, you can begin to think about the exam as a fun task of showing yourself how well prepared you are for the exam. No kidding. Taking exams for some of my students actually becomes kind of fun for them. They are no longer afraid of the exam because they know exactly what’s coming.

Think of a good ball club. If the coach has helped to prepare the players for the experience of the contest, the players are not afraid… they are just excited to get into the contest and prove they are well prepared. It’s the same thing with a good set of annotations.

Part of your preparation for the exam is to know what kind of exam is coming. Will the exam be multiple-choice or will it be short answer? Will the exam be one long essay that you have to write? Will you simply have to show that you have memorized a bunch of information or will you have to actually use that information in some kind of creative way?

Knowing what kind of testing situation is coming is necessary as you start to prepare for the exam. You will study your annotations to prepare, focusing first on all match information since you know that most match information will end up on the exam.

Some students like to prepare sample questions using the information from their annotations. If they know that they are going to be tested by multiple-choice they will actually try to create sample multiple-choice questions. One powerful way that many students prepare for exams is to get together as a group and review annotations. They will try to guess what kinds of questions will be asked, given what they know from their pre-class and in-class annotations. Sometimes they will even turn the whole exam preparation into a kind of game where they are trying to figure out what kinds of questions will be asked on the exam.

I remember one of my students during an exam kept smiling. I wondered if she was just having a good day so I asked her why so happy. She said that she was just laughing at the number of questions she was answering on the exam that she had predicted would be there. She confided to me that she had not really been using the annotation approach as she had been taught, but after her last bad exam performance she had decided to actually try to use the annotation approach on this exam… and she was amazed at the way doing the annotations had made taking the exam almost like a joke.

If you are serious about trying to improve in school then it’s time for you to at least give some kind of note-taking a try. If you have not been reading stuff before you come to class… then give this annotation approach a try for a few weeks and see if it makes sense. You might decide to use only one part of the approach. That’s fine. You might find that you want to adapt the approach to ways that more suite you. That’s fine. You might invent an even better way to do annotations. Even better.

I began this chapter by saying that reading is the key to academic success. It’s like playing basketball. Let’s face it, if you can’t catch the ball, then nothing else matters. You might be the best jumper on the floor, but if you can’t catch the ball it does not matter.

Let’s go to work learning how to catch that ball!

Where to next? Let’s learn how to express ourselves through writing.