Helping Students Find the Most Important Information in a Text
Every January my alma mater, a small liberal arts college, holds the Great Midwest Trivia Contest—a contest for answering questions that are extremely trivial, or unimportant. If it’s common knowledge, it’s not trivial. If the answer is important in any way, it’s not trivial. The Trivia Masters who run the contest take pride in selecting questions that are so unimportant that no one can answer them—so trivial that, in truth, no one really cares about the answer.
When reading for information, however, students must learn to use an approach that’s the opposite of the Trivia Masters’ method! Instead of seeking the trivial or insignificant details, they need to read with the intention of finding facts that are relevant to a specific topic.
I used this approach last summer, when I took a graduate class on ancient Rome. Every time I picked up my textbook, I set a purpose for reading by asking myself, What is the topic of this chapter? What do I need to know in order to understand it? I wasn’t seeking trivial details; I was seeking important information, information that was key to unlocking the meaning of the material I was reading.
Structure and organization of texts help readers understand what’s most important by grouping related information together. Headings, subheadings, chapter titles, highlighted vocabulary—all of these features guide readers to find and remember the most important information. For example, I read a chapter titled “Roads.” Paging through the chapter, I saw a map, a subheading called “Construction Methods,” and a diagram of the cross section of a Roman road. From that, I inferred that the section of text provides information about roads in ancient Rome, where they were, and how they were built.
Learning Coaches can guide students to determine importance by looking over text features such as chapter titles and headings or browsing illustrations and captions before reading. This strategy sets direction, a purpose for the upcoming selection. Learning Coaches should also caution students to stop periodically and to think, Is this important? Do I need to know this to understand?
Learning Coaches and teachers share the responsibility of igniting students’ passion for reading. By asking questions of our students and encouraging them to ask questions, we guide them to find meaningful answers, not trivial answers, but answers that matter—answers that are key to comprehension.
How do you help your students set a purpose for reading? How do they determine which pieces of information are most important? Let us know by leaving a comment.