Note-taking when reading nonfiction is a genre unto its own, and is the kind of writing that must be learned in order to be done well. Following are a few ideas for launching a note-taking curriculum that will help your students become expert note-takers by the time they leave your classroom.
Building a Vision for Students’ Notes
Then, consider how you envision your students’ notes looking ideally. Try to make a model of this so that you have an idea of where you’d like to take your students this year.
For example, perhaps you’d like your students to make some choices about what information to include and what to leave out, rather than recording everything on the page. You might use an article, such as this Time for Kids article about kids carrying heavy backpacks. Using the section called “Backpack Tips,” your model notes might look like this:
Or, perhaps you would like them to begin to create their own organizational systems for the information, rather than just list it. Then, your model notes might look like this:
You might also hope that your students begin to use note-taking techniques such as sketching to visualize and really take ownership of the information. In this case, your model might look like this:
Then, as an added learning experience, collect the passage and ask kids to teach each other about what they read using only their notes. Observe students as they do this, and make note of those who struggle to recall the passage based on their notes alone.
In most cases, you can keep the note-taking assessment very informal. You might guide kids to assess their own notes, and make revisions immediately based on this assessment. For a sample rubric kids could use to assess their own note-taking along with more tips, see my earlier post here.
Planning Note-Taking Instruction
If your goal is that students learn to take notes make choices about what information is important, some teaching points might be:
- Before taking notes, list on your fingers the ideas or information you would most want to teach someone about the part on which you’re taking notes.
- Use tools you know for summarizing, such as the 5 Ws, to help to structure your note-taking.
- Aim to only include about half of the information from the passage in your notes. Carefully consider what to leave out.
If your goal is that students categorize information, some teaching points might be:
- Make a bullet list with the most important ideas and information from the article. Consider which items in the list might go together. Then, name how they fit together, and use what you come up with as main categories.
- Notice clues from the text that help you to understand the main categories of information. Are there bold words, or quotes to help you to understand what the main categories are?
- Sometimes, the main categories might come right from the text, but sometimes you might have to come up with your own words for the categories. Be on the lookout for categories that aren’t so clear, and name them yourself in a way that will help you to remember the information.
If your goal is that students take ownership of the information using techniques such as translating the information visually, some teaching points might be:
- It’s just as important for nonfiction readers to visualize information as it is for fiction readers. When you come to parts where you are trying to imagine what something looks like, you might stop to sketch to help you to understand.
- Consider the way that the passage is structured and choose notes that best match the structure. If it is listing information, you might use a bullet list. If it is describing a process or the way something works, you might use a flow chart or a sketch. If it is chronological, you might use a timeline.
Of course, students will need a great deal of modeling as you teach them different ways their notes could be structured.
Of course, it’s important to continue to teach and model good note-taking. Use your own notes and famous notes, such as Alexander Graham Bell’s. You might ask family and friends for samples of their notes to give students ideas for different styles.
Continue to guide students to assess their note-taking. Return to the rubric you created at the start, and use it often to encourage students to set goals and get better. In time, they might even outgrow the rubric you started with, and may need to create a new one.
Stay tuned for future posts on note-taking. This important genre is worthy of a curriculum of its own.
Until then, happy launch of the school year, and happy note-taking!
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).