College students frequently are required to purchase the books they will be reading for their classes, and as a result, they are able to employ one of the most useful comprehension strategies for determining importance: they mark their texts.

However, even college students struggle with this vital reading strategy; many of them wield their marking highlighters haphazardly. They color massive portions of their texts yellow, and when they are done and it’s time to study, they discover that they have marked too much. They did not do a good job “sifting the wheat from the chaff.”

The strategy of determining importance helps a reader make decisions as to what parts of a text deserve the most attention. Not all information presented by an author is of equal importance. Some of the details are secondary and flesh out the background of a passage.

Other details are vital for truly understanding. Strategies such as inferring, visualizing, and synthesizing are all predicated on the assumption that a reader is capable of differentiating between what is significant and what is secondary in a text.

Determining importance is also necessary for memory. Obviously, we do not remember everything from a selection. Instead, we fix on major ideas or themes and the key information related to them. Readers who try to remember everything in a passage soon overload their short-term memories and are usually left with a very hazy notion of what they read. They may only recall a mass of details and miss the whole point of the text.

Determining importance is especially critical when reading nonfictional¬†materials, materials that emphasize learning information. To become adept at using this strategy, students need to be taught how to “scout” out a selection to look for textual clues that signal items and ideas of central importance.

Features such as headings, bold or italic print, objectives statements, summaries, pull-quotes, and marginal notes can all guide a reader toward transcendent information and ideas. However, students do not automatically make effective use of these text features. Sometimes, students may skip right over them as they read along and get lost in a maze of information as they read one fact after another.

Determining importance is also related to the reader’s purpose. We can read a text for a variety of purposes-for entertainment, to look for a specific piece of information, to enhance our general knowledge of a topic, or to obtain directions. Children beginning to learn to read, and struggling readers, may wade directly into a passage without a clear idea of what their purpose for reading should be. As a result, they are not able to determine what is important and what is not.

The following teaching/learning activities can help children learn the reading strategy of determining importance:

  • SMART
  • KWL
  • Story Mapping
  • Tour Guide
  • Highlighting
  • Power Notes
  • Power Notes
  • Interactive Reading Guides
  • Frontloading
  • Previewing