Getting a ‘Read’ in Five Minutes

Think about standing in front of a bookstore rack teeming with titles on a topic about which you want more information. Or scanning through possible sources in the electronic card catalog that might be appropriate to your needs.

Or perusing the stacks of professional resources on display at a educators’ conference or convention. How do you decide what to pick up? How do you determine what is worth reading?

Often, our dilemma is not that there are no resources available. Instead, we are more likely to feel inundated by possible materials that could meet our needs. You may be forced, perhaps within a limited time period, to make a choice, and in some cases spend money.

Students experience a similar challenge when they undertake research projects. They may confidently sally forth to the library, only to discover a few minutes later that there are more potential sources related to their topic than they can possibly handle.

Overwhelmed, many adopt a default strategy to make their choices, settling for the source that appears to be the easiest. The rest are relegated back to the shelf, even though some of them might have been better suited for what the student was looking for.

Teaching/Learning Activities

How can you get a “read” on a book before you actually have to read it? Helping students size up a possible resource is a critical component of the research process. Take a look:

Step 1: Model the process for critically examining a source through a think-aloud to the class. Begin by very clearly stating your research goals or intentions: “I am looking for . . .” “What I will need is . . .”

For example, as a prelude to examining a book on anxiety, note that you have decided to investigate panic attacks: “I am looking for strategies that can help a person cope with panic attacks.” Or with a book on substance abuse, say: “I need to locate information on the effects of alcoholism on the abuser’s family and friends.” This is a crucial step because it targets the specific domain of information that needs to be accessed during research. Instead, many students will approach a research project having articulated only vague goals, such as “I’m doing a paper on anxiety, or alcoholism.” Without narrowing their focus, they will likely find the breadth of information too formidable and won’t know where to begin.

Step 2: Next, continue your think-aloud to walk students through the steps for a “5 Minute Read” of a source (this can be distributed to students as a handout or bookmark). Introduce the steps by emphasizing that an intelligent analysis of a potential source must include two important facets: author perspective and available information.

Students commonly overlook authorship of their sources, trusting that any materials purchased for a library collection must be legitimate. But as more sources are accessed through Internet sites, students need to be conditioned, as an initial step, to identify who has compiled the information and what credentials these authors bring to the topic. This phase of the “5 Minute Read” establishes the reliability of the information and provides insight into the perspective offered by the authors.

If individual authors are listed for the source, students need to look for any biographical information that may be available. Students should be especially tuned into any group or professional affiliations that may be listed. Sometimes the publisher can provide a clue (such as a university press or a professional organization, such as the American Medical Association).

Students should also take this opportunity to read the preface, forward, or introduction to the source, a step almost always overlooked. The perspective of the book is commonly outlined here: how the authors are connected to the material, what the book does or does not attempt to do, and what provides the basis for the selection of information.

Step 3: The second phase of a “5 Minute Read” is to scout the source to determine if information related to identified research goals is available. Students are well practiced using the Table of Contents for this purpose, although this feature is frequently not adequate in highlighting the information pertinent to specific research questions. Students should turn next to the index, if one is available. They should scan the entire index, rather than try to pinpoint a certain narrow term or two, because categories of information that they had not anticipated may present themselves as being potentially useful.

Finally, they will need to investigate specific chapters that seem promising, paying special attention to introductory and summary paragraphs. A quick skim of a chapter, which focuses on first sentences, can provide a further indication of whether the source will be worthwhile for further consultation.


This process of scoping out potential resources should take about 5 to 10 minutes to complete, depending on the complexity of the material. The 5 Minute Read facilitates research in the following ways:

  • Students approach their sources with a focused mindset, as they aggressively examine materials with their research goals as a guide.
  • Students have a protocol for source analysis, which assists them in a systematic examination of the usefulness of an array of materials.
  • Students are more likely to identify the best of available materials, and to ascertain which sections of a source will be most useful.
  • Students will approach electronic texts with a more analytical eye, especially in terms of authorship.

The five-minute read

  1. Locate author biographies and background information: Who are the authors and what are their credentials?
  2. Find the title page, front and back: Does the title give you any clues as to the focus of the book? Who is the publisher? How recent is the book?
  3. Locate a preface, introduction, or forward: Are the main points or major themes of the book mentioned?
  4. Examine the table of contents: How does the book appear to be organized?
  5. Peruse the index: Which topics have the most extensive entries? Which entries might be connected to your research goals?
  6. Quickly skim the first chapter: What do the chapter introduction and summary tell you?
  7. Sample several chapters, quickly reading introductions, first sentences, and summaries.