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Why the Right Way to Teach NoteTaking is So Important for Children with Learning Differences
Why the Right Way to Teach NoteTaking is So Important for Children with Learning Differences
Scott Goode, High School Principal

Teaching our students strategies and methods that have life-long benefits into adulthood

Note-taking is an activity that requires a complex constellation of skills more complicated than you may think, and in more ways than you probably imagine. Successful note-taking requires either the mastery of a highly complex developmental language progression, or very sophisticated strategies and work-arounds. Unfortunately, the language and strategies needed for students to become successful note-takers are seldom fostered by the direct classroom instruction they require.

Speech-Language Pathologists, Victoria Brickenden and Joe Walsh, and I presented at the International Dyslexia Association's Annual Conference in November on The Howard School's approach to teaching students with learning differences how to be successful note-takers. More than 300 educators and education leaders from around the world packed the conference room to learn about Howard School's leading model for developing successful note-takers.

Why do students struggle to take notes?

In any lecture situation, students must not just write information down, but they must attend to a myriad of simultaneous brain tasks. They must:

  • Hear and remember what is being said
  • Write or type quickly
  • Listen and try to understand the speaker
  • Organize spatially in whatever format they are taking notes
  • Form letters and spell words
  • Copy from a PowerPoint, or other medium, from afar
  • Deal with unfamiliar terms
  • Abbreviate messages while maintaining its meaning
  • Adopt the point of view of the speaker
  • Relate to past experience or knowledge
  • Think of questions to ask for understanding, follow-up, or highlighting topics that require the most attention
  • Make a plan of how to follow up when the material is not clear

Effective note-taking is a skill that requires people who are automatic at writing, fast reading, effortless spelling, and who quickly connect to prior information. These automatic tasks put huge demands on the executive functioning parts of the brain, especially when students struggle with holding information in their working memory or with how fast they process information. This is a tremendous amount of information to process for any student, and underlines how students who have learning disabilities and differences are apt to struggle in note-taking situations.

Why typical interventions break down for students with learning differences

Typical interventions in a typical high school classroom are really passive approaches to notetaking. They may speed up the note-taking process, but they do not address how to compensate for any learning challenges students may face in how to actually learn the lecture subject. In typical classrooms, many teachers simply tell their students to "just study your notes" without giving students direct instruction and explicit strategies for using notes to enhance memory recall or links that will break the code and open up understanding.

Teaching Students How to Capture, Process, and Apply (CPA)

At The Howard School, we believe in teaching students explicit strategies using direct instruction and intervention. We do this by teaching students to not just be note-takers, but to be note-users through using a "Capturing, Processing, and Applying" (CPA) method to taking notes. Students learn strategies for how to actively receive lecture topics, including using assistive technology, and for how to use their notes post-lecture to enhance understanding. An important component of comprehension, particularly in complex topics studied in high school, students learn to take time to consolidate the information presented in a lecture, and then learn to review the material multiple times to improve understanding.

Building Life-Long Learning Skills

At The Howard School, we teach our students strategies and methods that have life-long benefits into adulthood. Teaching students about what happens during a lecture and hearing information for the first time is one small component of the process. We also teach our students how to compare notes and fill in gaps, how to organize their notes, pick out key vocabulary, summarize major concepts, and to ask higher order thinking questions that push our students to see the importance and main ideas of lecture.

Our teaching team also helps differentiate instruction for the learning needs of each individual student so that they gain the skills needed for their best performance. We work with our students to help them see the value of applying CPA to a variety of listening situations, in reading texts, working on hands-on projects, generating research questions and hypotheses, and completing class activities.

How do we further support the language needs of note-taking?

We believe that note-taking is not stenography, and we do not think it serves our students to just stop at the 'capture' stage. At The Howard School, we view the actual skill of note-taking is really about the capstone language skill of paraphrasing. By the time they graduate high school, students should be able to critically assess and represent others' thoughts and words as an essential function, not just academically, but socially as well. And we believe that there is a developmental progression in note-taking that leads to a mastery in paraphrasing. To take notes well, we start in Kindergarten and build through High School as we teach students to listen, repeat, sort, anticipate, discern relevance and reference, shorten the message, summarize, and finally paraphrase. And we use the CPA process and our explicit teaching of note-taking as a vehicle to build and reinforce these developmental language skills.