In middle school, study skills are key. But, often kids don't know the best place to start. Even your child's period of “study hall” or “independent reading” will be usless if she’s never been shown how to utilize that time. Teachers seldom train kids to read with a purpose, organize their thoughts and notes, infer what comes next, or connect what they read to their own lives. These are critical thinking skills we assume students have, but don’t formally teach!

Honing reading and study skills takes practice, and synthesizing facts from a textbook, even a nontraditional one, is never easy. Here are key strategies to get your middle schooler started:

Identify text features: It’s not surprising that blossoming readers fail to recall the title of a book they’ve been reading for weeks. Kids must learn to navigate between the covers and identify text features, particularly elements of a nonfiction textbook.

First, have your child study the book jacket: what information is presented on the front and back flaps? After scanning the table of contents and the index, ask him to predict what the book is about. Next, flip through the first chapter, say, “Birthing a Universe.” What does this title imply? Is the chapter about the Big Bang, or how societies began? Introduce terms like epigraphs, sidebars, and captions. Infer themes from epigraphs, and discuss the difference between the main text and information in margins, columns, and small boxes of text.

Read with a purpose: Your child’s fact-filled chapters may be overwhelming. If she's trying to absorb tough material, it may take several reads. “Most schools don’t let students read over their heads, but good readers do that all the time,” says Joy Hakim, author of the series the Story of Science and the History of US . As we know, even adults need to read material more than once to retain large amounts of information. When reading, Hakim suggests a quick overall read, then follow-up readings with specific goals.

Kids may sometimes feel bombarded with information that is “all over the place.” But such material can actually be helpful for showing them how to sift through text and grasp main ideas. “Part of the process is to learn what is important to remember," says Hakim. "Later, in the greater world, most of them will have to do Internet research and read information-heavy manuals and reports.”

After your child reads a chapter the first time, he should identify the major points, and decide what was a key idea, and what was simply a detail. Once he knows that the chapter focuses on two main ideas, for example, he can read the chapter again, keeping in mind how these topics interplayed with one another.

Know when to skim: When your child reads, she’ll occasionally run out of time. It’s best to encourage her to read all the text presented, but sometimes – in a timed exam – covering every bit may be impossible. So then what? Introducing the technique of skimming can be complicated: you should train your child to “speed read” if she’s pressed for time, but you don’t want her to get into the habit of scanning.

To practice this, try asking your child to read a chapter that is intentionally too long in a fifteen minute time. When warned of the ticking clock, she will begin to weigh the importance of certain text features, and will focus on the main text and skim (or ignore) sidebars and captions. Advise her to read the first and last sentences of paragraphs, and then decide to read or skip it. Look for italicized or bold-print words for vocabulary. And after she realizes she's running out of time, she should immediately locate the end of the chapter to gauge how much material is left.

Choose a method to take notes: If your child is asked to take notes, chances are she wonders what she's supposed to write down. First, note taking is different from brainstorming, or free and disorganized thinking. But in the note taking process, kids rarely proceed past the brainstorming stage.

To practice notetaking, have your child draw a big “brainstorm bubble” on a piece of paper, and while he reads, have him record words and phrases inside the bubble. Later, as he studies his ideas, discuss the best ways to organize these notes – and test these methods out!

Popular methods to organize notes:

  • Webs include phrases and ideas connected, sometimes haphazardly, by lines, arrows, circles, and other doodles. A web is an effective way to link thoughts in a visual way.
  • Venn diagrams, as well as T-charts, are useful when your child is comparing or contrasting ideas.
  • An outline is best when your child has a hefty amount of material, several major ideas, and many specific and significant details.
  • Bullets are fitting when there isn’t enough material to create an outline, when information is scattered or isn’t chronological, or when your child has yet to find the main ideas of a chapter.

Seeing the big picture: Encourage your child to scan chapter titles to identify big ideas and deduce what’s next, and to write down questions that pop up in her head when she reads. Try to scan what she reads and ask her how it applies to real life: if she's reading about ancient Ionia, for example, ask her to show you where it used to be on a map. (Ionia was located in modern-day Western Turkey.) Or, if she's learning about Pythagoras, inquire how geometry can be applied to sports she enjoys, such as baseball or billiards.

Anticipating test questions: At the end of each study session, ask your child to imagine coming face-to-face with what she's read in a standardized test. Urge your child to make predictions, such as these:

  • From studying my notes, what types of multi-choice or short-answer questions may be asked?
  • What essay prompts do I anticipate?
  • How would I organize such an essay?

If they created a Venn diagram to organize their notes, they may feel confident about writing a compare and contrast essay. Or, if they created an outline, they may have enough support for a five-paragraph essay, and use each Roman numeral topic to estimate what their thesis points will be.

Study skills are key, but they take practice and patience to perfect, and not everything works for every child. But in time, everyone can find the right set of strategies to work for them.