Geoff Petty - Learning by reading carefully

Geoff Petty takes us on a journey with a teacher and her students as they develop their skills in reading by doing it carefully.

It’s a process where learners start to really understand a text. It involves reading and re-reading, and underlining, and asking and answering questions – a careful journey to make things clear.

'Careful Reading' is the skill of closely reading a text for deep understanding. Many students find this difficult, but learnable. It makes a great teaching method and can be especially useful in flipped learning or independent learning. Let’s look at a case study from my book, How to Teach Even Better.


Start with your students’ needs

Alice, the teacher, has noticed her students do not read carefully. She sees this as a skill deficiency rather than due to low intelligence. Here is a sequence of tasks that allows the skill of careful reading to be developed, even though it doesn’t embody the entire skill.

Alice looks over her scheme of work to find suitable practice topics. She identifies three, separated by a few weeks on her scheme. She plans to teach these partly by asking students to do some careful reading on some text that explains aspects of the topics.

The sections of text are short, taking students about five minutes to read, underline, and summarise. This will teach the careful reading skill, but also some of the content in the topic, so this is a double-decker lesson.

Double-decker lessons involve simultaneously teaching underlying skills, such as careful reading, with learning new content: a very efficient way to teach.

Alice realises that careful reading requires the subskills of underlining and summarising, but this group is able and the students have these subskills already. With other groups she teaches underlining etc., as separate skills, again in double-decker lessons.

As well as the three careful reading lessons with their double-decker tasks, Alice plans homework requiring students to read and summarise sections of their textbook. They will then compare their summaries with her own in a self-assessment exercise, setting themselves targets for improvement for the next time they do careful reading.

Incidentally, the first time I set an underlying task with able 17-year-olds I found that they underlined almost all the text, often leaving out only the ‘ands’ and the ‘buts’. Yet one of the ‘buts’ in the text was crucial!


Establish the need for the skill

With her more confident group, Alice introduces careful reading by asking them to read a short piece of text on cell division. Then she asks questions on this subject, finding that they don’t understand most of it.

The students complain that the text is not easy to understand. So, she asks some questions such as ‘How many times did you read the text?’ and ‘Did you reread the more difficult passages?’. Most answer ‘no’. Their reading strategy doesn’t cope with more difficult texts.

She introduces her careful reading handout, asking students why each stage is necessary. She asks them to read the cell division text again, following the careful reading strategy. The students are surprised to find that they begin to understand it much better.



At the end of the lesson Alice summarises the main points on cell division – the content for the lesson. Having reviewed the ‘lower deck’ of her double-decker lesson, she begins reviewing the ‘top deck’ – the skill.

Alice: In this lesson we did some careful reading. How did we do it?

Student 1: We underlined important bits.

Alice: We did later, but what did we do first?

Student 2: We read it, but just roughly, looking at the headings, and the beginning and end. And the diagrams and that.

Alice: Why did we skim-read it roughly first? Why not start underlining right away?

Student 3: You don’t know what’s important until you’ve read it a bit first.

Alice: Exactly. So, what would have happened if we had started underlining right away?

Student 4: We probably would have underlined too much…

Student 5: … and underlined all the wrong bits.

Alice: That’s right. So, we skim-read it, then read it again a few times to get the basics, to get what’s called the ‘gist’.


What’s next in careful reading?

In this way, Alice gets the students to step through the careful reading process, stage by stage, explaining and justifying each one. This is a check and correct process, of course. Alice stresses what would have happened if that stage were missed out or done badly.

The process just described is ‘metacognition’, which has a high impact on student learning in itself. Metacognition is the students thinking about their own thinking and their own ways of working.

Then Alice summarises the stages:

  1. Read a few times to get a basic understanding of what the text is about, at least roughly
  2. Re-read hard bits a few times, going back to them later if necessary
  3. Then read it again, underlining the important bits
  4. Then summarise the text in our own words


Bridging – teaching for transfer

The next teaching phase – bridging – assists transfer. Alice asks what other things careful reading might be applied to. Students will hopefully answer online text, which can be printed and underlined or copied and pasted into a document with an underline feature. Photocopied book pages might also be underlined.

Alice establishes when the careful reading approach would not be used. Would, for instance, this approach be used for short and easy texts? The students say no, although they might find it useful for easy but long texts to locate the more important sections more readily.


Learning loop targets

Students are now asked to reflect on their experience of careful reading and to give themselves advice on how to do it better next time, writing this target down on their Skill Sheet for careful reading. It’s important to recognise that the lesson involved learning new content as well as learning about careful reading. Subsequent lessons will need even less time devoted to careful reading.

Alice was not just concerned in teaching the skill, but in un-teaching the students’ habitual response to a difficult text, one that will tend to predominate, especially in times of hurry or stress, such as in an exam.


Further practice

Skills take some time to develop, so one lesson will never be enough. Alice sets homework, where students must hand in their underlined texts and bullet point or mind-map summaries. They are asked to look at the learning loop targets for improving this skill. Sometimes Alice provides students with her own underlined version of the text and a bullet point summary. Students use this to self-assess their work and skills.


Careful reading skill sheet

An example of a worksheet that a teacher might use to help their students.

My personal target for the next time I do Careful Reading is:

  • Read for the gist
  • Read the text twice to get the basic idea. Pay special attention to titles, diagrams and the first and last paragraphs
  • Help I don’t understand this bit
  • Read the hard bit over a few times. Use a dictionary to check meanings. If you still don’t get it, mark the section with a question mark, and continue reading. Then go back to the hard bits when you have read the whole text.
  • Underline the main points: Try to underline about 10% or less, 20% maximum. Use a pencil so you can rub out underlinings.
  • Summarise with key points or a mind-map or other suitable graphic
  • Read back over the underlined bits to ensure you have all the really important bits in your summary
  • Now you will understand the text much better


  • K. Ericsson, R. Krampe, C. Tesch-Romer “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” Psychological Review 1993.
  • Vol 100. No 3. 363-406. (A classic paper showing that ability is learned by a particular way of practising with check and correct; it is not just inherited.)
  • Hattie, J. Biggs, J. & Purdie, N. (1996) “Effects of Learning Skills Interventions on Student Learning: A Meta Analysis.” Review of Educational Research Summer 1996 Vol. 66, No 2, pp 99-136. There is a free download of the key findings of this important summary of research on my website.
  • Petty, G. (2018) How to Teach Even Better: An evidence-based approach. (Oxford: OUP).
  • Mannion, J. & Mercer, N. (2016) Learning to learn: improving attainment, closing the gap at Key Stage 3.