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Annotation and Other Tips for Getting the Most Out of Textbooks

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: we talk more with English teacher Maria Spelleri about how to get the most out of college textbooks for English language learners.

RS: "Should the student be looking up every word as it appears?"

MARIA SPELLERI: "No, the most important words to pay attention to are the new terminology for the field. So many of those freshman books focus on those words, and every publisher has some kind of code to make those words pop out at the student. They're bolded or italicized. These are the words that are going to be on the test. These are the words you need to throw back to the professor to show the professor that you know what's going on in the class and that you've done the reading. So this is where you should put your primary focus."

RS: "Should a student be taking notes?"

MARIA SPELLERI: "Oh, absolutely. If I see an empty textbook, then I'm seeing a student who hasn't interacted well with a text. And students should fully annotate their textbooks. I know that they're expensive and many people want to preserve them in a pristine condition to sell back. But to get full use of them you need to be annotating in the margins: finding the main ideas, making vocabulary notes, even little illustrations or charts, questions for your own study purposes."

AA: "That would be good even for native English speakers, I would think."

MARIA SPELLERI: "Oh, absolutely. I mean, anyone who needs to read big business reports or wade through financial information should always be reading that with a pencil in hand. There's something about the seeing it and the doing it, the movement of the hand at the same time, that really helps people to comprehend and remember things better."

AA: "So, I'm curious, why are textbooks turning out like this? Are publishers not doing the best job they can?"

MARIA SPELLERI: "Well, you know, I think there's only so much they can do with the amount of material that professors require the textbooks to have. But, in fact, I think textbooks have really, really improved from fifteen, twenty years ago. They have many more aids to the student embedded within them: advice on how to use the book better, references to Web sites, study guides embedded within the textbooks, study questions. I think they've come a long way."

RS: "How would you go about analyzing a specific chapter?"

MARIA SPELLERI: "Well, this is a really important thing to do, because all chapters are laid out in the same way. So by picking any chapter you want -- preferably not the first chapter, but picking something out of the middle of the book and taking a good look at the kinds of fonts that are used, the colors that are used for the headings, the subheadings, for the sidebar information.

"This gives you a very good visual cue as to the prioritization of the points within the chapter. And this is going to help you study as well. You'll know what points come out of other points. And as you flip through chapters, you'll see how the chapter is divided according to what kind of fonts or size or color or whatever is used for each section. So it's a great thing to fully analyze a single chapter and learn how it's put together."

RS: "Would you advise students to get together in groups outside of class to try to manage their textbooks better?"

MARIA SPELLERI: "Well, you know, a lot of people recommend this, but I think it really depends on the learning style of the student. There are students who function better in groups; they need to say their thoughts out loud and explain things to other people and have people talk back to them about the ideas. And for those people, absolutely, group work is the way to go, group discussion, group study. But then there are other people who just fare better working on their own in like a quiet environment. So I think it really depends on the learning style."

AA: We asked English teacher Maria Spelleri about the value of outlining a chapter. She brought up something we talked about last week -- the SQ3R method.

MARIA SPELLERI: "It is Survey, Question, Read, Recite and Review. And in the recite portion, this is kind of like an oral recitation of what you can remember. But this is also a good time to write things down on another piece of paper and try to prepare an outline of the chapter. And go back and look at your annotations and work through those and put those into an outline format. This is still a very good method.

"Review just means once you've gone through and read something, don't pat yourself on the back and call it a day. You do need to revisit this information several times before you're going to be tested on it, even if you do understand it well when you read it. Because obviously it's not going to hang around in your head forever if you don't use it."

AA: Maria Spelleri teaches English for academic purposes at Manatee Community College in Venice, Florida. Part one of our interview can be found at And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.