We might as well admit it: by the time your kid hits middle school, textbook reading just isn’t as “fun” as it used to be. Back in elementary school, a book on history might have twenty pages with three print lines each, and every spread was another cool photo of ruined palaces or ancient weaponry. Now, suddenly, kids see 300 pages of dense, serious words. It’s a whole new level and style.

We often assume that kids will know what to do, but in fact, they usually need help with a straight-up, practical skill: the ability to dive into texts and come up with major facts. It can be hard, especially at first. And lots of kids, faced with that challenge, will do just about anything to dodge it.

But there’s good news for parents: you’re actually in a great position to help. The next time your child comes home with history reading, try this simple technique, called “Preview, Read, Review”:

  • No matter how tempting it sounds, don't start with, “Just sit down and read.” That’s fine for summer whodunits, but history textbooks usually require a boost from the reader if they’re going to be interesting at all. Kids need to learn to “read with a purpose,” delving in to seek and harvest a factual story.
  • Instead, insist that your child preview the pages assigned. This means: In five minutes or less, look at headings, pictures, maps, graphs, and captions…ONLY. Ask: What is the main idea of this reading? Does it relate to anything you already know? Great! Does it remind you of that summer you drove by the Civil War battleground on the way to Six Flags? OK! It’s a connection! Finally: if your child has been assigned “comprehension questions” look them over now. In many cases, your child will know, just from the preview stage, where the answers will appear.
  • Then, and only then, allow your child to read the text carefully. Make sure, however, that he or she continues to check how the information fits with the big picture. If your child is looking for answers to questions, he or she can stick a post-it in the margin where that answer appears, or highlight it if you happen to own the book outright.
  • To finish the job, you need to insist on review. This stage, which again takes only five minutes or so, includes going back to the headings, pictures, maps, graphs and captions, and asking, “What did I just learn?” As students become more practiced readers, they will also ask themselves “What did I not understand?” and re-read those sections until they make sense. In the meantime, this is also the stage when kids should write the answers to any questions the teacher has required.

The first time, this method may seem like a slog. But you and your child should quickly find that it’s a huge time-saver. By previewing, your child is taking charge of the reading process; this, in turn, means that your child will understand it on the very first read-through, not the third, fourth, or fifth—or, worst of all, after the test is all done and the next unit has begun.

Finally, “preview, read, review” is a real-world skill that will help for years to come. Lawyers, doctors, and politicians, for example, must all be able to read complicated material and understand the main idea and supporting facts. This is a thinking process that kids are beginning now—and congratulations, parents! You can make all the difference.