United States History Reading Study Skills

Review these tips to help you better understand and analyze the material you’ll read in this course.

Read a Rigorous College-Level Textbook

You should be studying a recent edition of a college-level textbook. A college-level book will ensure you have access to the full chronology, the basic facts, and the major trends in the American past, regardless of your teacher's emphasis or the nature of other assignments. Be sure to study the graphs, charts, and maps included in the text to see not only what they say but what you can infer from them.

Use Primary Sources

Study the primary sources to gain familiarity with the “raw materials” of historical inquiry and to practice assessing the validity of historical evidence. Students need to learn to comprehend the difficult style, terminology, and meaning of colonial charters, Supreme Court decisions, laws passed by state legislatures or Congress, and treaties and agreements made with other nations. You should also study documents in social history—wills, probate records, and census reports, for example—that provide rich insights into the experiences of individuals, families, and other social groups.

Do Other Reading

Your teacher may assign recently published monographs, often selecting works that introduce students to a variety of historical formats such as biography, case study, and broad interpretive analysis. You should read historical fiction, both for its intrinsic interest and for its insight into cultural climates. Your teacher may assign an anthology of scholarly articles (either a survey anthology or one that focuses on a particular period or topic) or selected articles from scholarly journals.

Do Some Historiography

If your teacher assigns readings in American historiography—the changing and conflicting interpretations that arise from differences among historians—use the opportunity to compare and contrast the reasons for their differences (sources, backgrounds, social and intellectual contexts, and guiding assumptions, for example). This exercise can provide a wonderful opportunity to understand how two historians looking at the same event can reach such different conclusions.

Get a Head Start

Get a head start by obtaining copies of as many of the assigned texts as you can so that you won’t waste time searching for a text when you absolutely need it. Preview the text by reading the introduction and the concluding chapter.

Find the Main Ideas

As you read, pause and articulate the principal ideas the author is expressing and the material the author uses to support them. These ideas may be fairly easy to identify in popular writing in newspapers or journals, for example, but much more subtle in political commentaries.

Know the Context

Knowing the context of a piece of writing can help you read with greater understanding and better recollection. As you read works by historians, a knowledge of the period in which they lived and wrote contributes enormously to an understanding of what their assumptions were and what they were trying to accomplish.

Vocalize the Difficult Words

In reading important passages in any text, slow down and vocalize—that is, pronounce—the words by moving your lips. Contrary to earlier advice, reading experts today say that comprehension of difficult materials is substantially improved by pronouncing the words.

Reread Difficult Material

Another technique that enhances comprehension of difficult material is re-reading. Complex ideas are not always easily caught on the first reading, so go back and read them again.

Use Additional Resources

Form the habit of consulting the dictionary, the thesaurus, the encyclopedia, the atlas, and the globe. These resources are tools to aid you in discovering new ideas and knowledge.