How to Read a Book: Workshops You Didn’t Know Your Students Needed

Not long ago, one of the Speech faculty members at my college emailed me about a local public library class:

“One of my students was sharing how a class he took at the [public library]…taught him how to use the index and glossary in a book and he said it is what helped him when taking one of my online exams.This made me start thinking about our QEP [Quality Enhancement Project] plan and how we are constantly being reminded of reading literacy skills…Have you ever heard of these types of classes being taught at libraries? Do you think we could offer some to our students?  I think they are of great value. My student’s grade went from a 45 to a 92.”

The instructor is referring to the Quality Enhancement Project (QEP) our college is working on for reaffirmation of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Our QEP is titled “It’s in the Book!”, and “emphasizes student engagement with the readings that are important to success in their courses.” (You can read more about it here.)

When I first started working at the college, I was a little incredulous about the QEP topic. You mean there’s a massive, district-wide effort just to tell students to read their textbook?! Shouldn’t they be doing that, anyway? I thought, naive to the realities of community college students’ relationships with their textbooks, often fraught with both academic and financial insecurities.

But what this instructor realized, and what I’ve come to learn from anecdotal experience on the job, is that one of the biggest obstacles students face to meaningful engagement with books is that they simply don’t know how to read a book.

I don’t mean they can’t read. While students may give up on reading their textbooks and other academic books for research because the vocabulary and language are too challenging, the problem goes beyond reading comprehension. It extends to what librarians and other regular readers take for granted: knowing how a book is organized, and how to apply that knowledge in order to be a more efficient researcher.

My students seem to have lots of misconceptions about books, especially about using books for research. Here are some of the common complaints I hear in one-shots, and how I counter them:

“Books don’t have a Ctrl + F.”

That’s a fair point when you’re used to having that feature at your fingertips. But books have a table of contents and an index, which is usually all you need to find where a specific topic or search term appears in your book. Without knowing how to use these tools, however, students are in the dark at finding what they’re looking for without reading the book cover to cover.

“You have to read the whole thing! Articles are shorter.”

No, you don’t! Students sometimes give me the side eye when I assure them that no, it really is OK to only use just one chapter from an edited volume, or the introduction of a longer work. Of course you wouldn’t want to cherry-pick just the information that supports your argument, if there’s evidence in the book to the contrary, but it’s not cheating to use just a portion of the book! Knowing how to navigate a book using the table of contents and introduction will help you figure out which parts are worth your time.

“Books are old and out of date.”

While it’s true that most books will become obsolete at some point in their life cycle – check any weeding discard pile – this is a great opportunity to talk to students about the cycle of information and the information needs books can help satisfy. It’s hard to do a research paper on a topic you know nothing about by diving straight into the scholarly journal literature: books can help orient you to the topic before you turn to current scholarship in the field.

“I don’t want to come all the way down to the library for a book.”

One word: e-books! (And those do have your Ctrl + F feature!)

“I don’t like reading.”

It’s tough to counter this one, except to say that you’re already reading all the time! Whether it’s a book, article, website, or text message, you’re reading more than you think. The problem isn’t that you don’t like reading; the problem is that you equate reading books with a boring waste of time. If we can help students feel comfortable and competent using books, I think we’d hear this complaint less often.

So the more this instructor and I talked about students’ misconceptions and aversion to using books, the more we realized that a drop-in workshop similar to the one she described taking place at the local public library would have a place here at our community college.

Here are some of the topics I’d want to cover in this kind of workshop:

  • Anatomy of a Book: Learn to use the book’s structure (table of contents, chapter headings, glossary, index) to navigate and find information efficiently. The reason this Speech instructor’s student improved so dramatically on his open-book tests was because he understood how the information in his textbook was organized, enabling him to find answers faster and easier.

  • Searching and Selecting Books: Effectively search the library catalog (including searching with keywords and subject terms) to find the right book for you, and learn how to use the online system to  place holds, renew books online, and check your library account.

  • Finding Books: Find the book on the shelf with a Library of Congress call number. Don’t forget to look around you for other books on the same topic!

Do your students have trouble navigating books? Have you ever run a workshop like this? If you have any tips or suggestions, I’d love to hear them! Comment here, or drop me a note at


3 thoughts on “How to Read a Book: Workshops You Didn’t Know Your Students Needed

  1. “It’s tough to counter this one, except to say that you’re already reading all the time! Whether it’s a book, article, website, or text message, you’re reading more than you think.” – love this point! Great post.


  2. I have encountered many of these comments in one-shots and at the reference desk. My favorite comment from students checking out multiple books: “I better get started reading now, I have no idea how I will be able to read all these in time to write my paper!” I try to point out the index or glossary in classes and mention that it really isn’t cheating to use them. I see looks of relief when the professor nods and agrees that they don’t expect them to read five entire books to write a research paper.

    I think a workshop is a great idea!


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