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Four steps to Studying from (or Translating) a Textbook

When I was a teenager, a very good English teacher told me that the only way to study Shakespeare is to acknowledge that he spoke a different language. That way you set your sights on translating and understanding rather than giving up after discovering you don't get it the first time. Brilliant.

Reading a textbook is like that too: Understanding it isn’t automatic, it needs to be translated into your language. It cannot be read like other books without you giving up after discovering you don’t get it the first time.

After reading Dr Jeannine Jannot’s book The disintegrating Student, my son and I have developed a 4 step game plan for reading the foreign language of a textbook.

If you are a Wonderfully Wired teen learning how to study, this one's for you!

Step One: Gage what you already know before you start.

You are not a blank slate! Even before starting a chapter on say ‘Economic Development’ you know something about first world countries and developing countries, or about unemployment or entrepreneurship. Learning happens best when you can key new information into existing knowledge: that’s in fact how a dyslexic brain develops its intricate database of knowledge over time!


Do the quiz at the back of the unit orally. Don’t worry about not knowing some things, the point is to see what you already know and maybe keep a rough list of terms that are new. Be curious, this is not a test.

Step 2: Get the big picture

Many Wonderfully Wired kids, especially dyslexic kids, are top down learners. You need the tree drawn first before all the individual detailed leaves can be hung on it.

Unfortunately most classrooms are structured for bottom up learning. The teacher gives small chunks of new information that increase in complexity until, tada, at the end you are supposed to look back and see that the detailed leaves added up to a tree. (At which point you usually look back at a pile of leaves and wonder how in the world you are supposed to find a particular one). Instead of waiting for that delightful moment, take matters into your own hands by getting that big picture tree even before the teacher starts the unit.


Reading Backward: Read the summary at the back of the chapter. Try and figure out a rough mind map of the chapter with this limited info. In some subjects a mind map doesn’t seem to be the best visual, you might draw an actual tree silhouette or a timeline if the story sticks better that way.

Read headings and subheadings: As you do, change the structure to your now messy mind map where you need to. We also mark with little post-it tags to any questions that come up.

Step 3: Play to your strengths

Visual learners need visuals! The images in the textbooks are not just for decoration! Dr Jannot teaches us that visuals really stick so it’s a good plan to really take advantage of this.

Also, it turns out that students who do well, take notes. Dr Jannot says it this way: “Seriously, you have to take notes. Students who take notes save time, are less stressed, and make better grades. Period. End of story.”

In the long run, once the skill is learnt, you might decide to dictate your notes onto the brilliant apps available for the purpose but while you learn, stick to writing with a pen on paper. Like Judah says, “It isn’t untidy handwriting. It’s his own font!”


Look at the pictures in the chapter, discuss them, ask questions, criticize, whatever it takes to make them memorable. Julie Bogart, my guest in Episode 10 of the second season explains that the purpose is Critical Thinking and all critical thinking is making connections between abstract and practical as often as you can. Images and real life examples make us do that.

Choose the method for note taking. Dr Jannot points to the most widely used methods: the outline format, the Cornell Method, concept/mind mapping, and charting.

Judah often chooses the Cornell method with a column for headings and subheadings; a column where he puts points to remember in his own language, highlighting key words; and a section at the bottom for questions for his future self. All headings are always in the same colour across all subjects! The same goes for subheadings and key words.

Step four: Translate the textbook

It's only when we actively change what is written in the text book into our words that we understand and have a chance of remembering what we studied.

Note taking isn’t copying! We’re learning it’s possible to work hard without working smart and have to remind ourselves that nobody cares about our notes, no one is giving us kudos or marks for them! Simply writing out in our nicest handwriting with our prettiest highlighters is a waste of our precious time!


Use Shorthand. The aim is to remember as much as possible with as few words as possible. Next time you look at these notes you need to be able to get the larger ideas from your concentrated clues: just add water. This part takes time, so don’t get discouraged. Judah is still figuring it out too.

Draw a picture, chart or table. Any way you can translate the content to something that works for your brain is a win and gives you a better chance of it sticking. Remember, no-one else will see your notes, so go wild!

Don’t be fooled: Watch out for the FLUENCY ILLUSION!

Dr Jannot explains that most kids just read their textbooks when they study and then something called the fluency illusion takes place. The work looks familiar, nothing is surprising and so the student assumes they ‘get it’. Until they sit in an exam and realize that fluency was… just an illusion.

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