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Launching a Year of Meaningful Note-Taking

When teaching kids to take notes, whether about their reading, a film, a lecture, or the like, finding balance can be tricky. Have you noticed that when they are reading fiction, most kids race through their books, and getting them to stop to jot even a list of characters is a teaching feat of strength? But when reading nonfiction, many kids slog through at a snail’s pace, writing down every fact and detail nearly verbatim from the book.

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

First, as with any kind of writing genre, it’s important to build a vision for yourself of the kind of writing you hope your students will produce. You might begin by thinking about the genre as it exists in the world. What do most adults’ notes look like? How are they used?

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:

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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:

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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:

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Assessing Note-Taking

After setting a vision for the kind of note-taking you hope your students will do, you might give them a note-taking assessment to get a sense of what they already know about note-taking. Choose a very short passage (even a couple of paragraphs will do, as shown by the example above), and ask them to do their best note-taking work to record the information in the passage.

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  

Consider a few teaching points that will help students to move toward the goals you have for them.

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.

Providing Ongoing Note-Taking Support
To help students get continually better at note-taking, encourage them to return to their notes often and to teach each other using their notes. Notes should be used, not jotted down and forgotten.

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 Gratz Cockerille View All

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).

10 thoughts on “Launching a Year of Meaningful Note-Taking Leave a comment

  1. I never thought of an on-demand type assessment to see what kids already know or don’t know about note- taking as a way to get started! I just kind of plowed ahead with what I thought they needed to know, not studying them as note-takers and seeing what they were already doing well and what strategies they neede to be more effective. Thank you!!!!!

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  2. Thank you for the specificity. My eighth graders think that note taking IS about being told what to write, verbatim. The idea that there are choices to be made is a hard sell for them. I see that I need to create a better vision. With three weeks left in quarter 1, THANK YOU!!!

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    • Oh wow your school year is way underway! I am so glad you commented about your 8th graders. I find this all the time, even when I briefly taught at the graduate school level, students struggled to make notes their own. What they can learn to do with some help is amazing, and you’ll stand your students in such good stead by teaching note-taking skills now, so they won’t have to struggle to teach themselves much later on.

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  3. Anna,
    Perfect timing to think about the PURPOSE of notetaking at the start of a new year. How students will USE the notes definitely should impact the “how to collect and organize” notes. This is so helpful for those of us who were taught to “copy” notes or “write down everything I say” notes. Ahhh, and even thoughts on “assessing” notes.

    So timely and helpful!

    Fran

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    • I’m so glad, Fran! I was always a “kitchen-sink” note-taker. I wrote down everything and rarely returned to my notes. I wish I had learned to be more thoughtful in my note-taking earlier on. But at least now I can help students with this!

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    • Oh what a great idea to share this with science and math teachers. You are so right! I’m passing this along right now to my friend who teaches high school chemistry. And you sparked an idea for another post – an in-depth look at boxes and bullets. Thank you!

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  4. I wish I had had a post like this when I was a classroom teacher. Taking this something I struggled with teaching to the kids. It was always something I came naturally for me, but I had trouble teaching different structures in a meaningful way. I look forward to coming back to this post many times in the years to come.

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