Before I became a teacher, I volunteered at my alma mater elementary school with a seasoned primary teacher who banned handouts in her grade 2 classroom. Although it was a rough start, it was amazing to see the growth in her students’ penmanship and literacy skills as the year progressed. That experience stuck with me, and as an English secondary teacher I’ve always kept note taking in my daily course activities (even through periods when it went out of fashion).
Over the years, I’ve noticed a significant decline in my students’ ability to both physically write as well as communicate clearly and effectively in writing. I recently had a group of freshman students take notes about summary writing. It should have taken them 5 minutes – MAX. Yet, half an hour later many were still not finished. Scary.
Although unfairly demonized as ‘wasting time’ and ‘unfair to students who struggle with writing skills or special education’, note taking is essential to becoming a good writer and developing strong literacy skills.
#1 Note Taking Boosts Memory
As noted in a Medical Daily article about the importance of pen and paper note taking, “According to a recent study in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, using pen and paper, not laptops, to take notes boosts memory and the ability to retain and understand concepts.” Therefore, note taking can support students in both learning and remembering course material.
#2 Note Taking Practices Fine Motor Skills
How can we expect our students to refine their fine motor skills (such as printing our handwriting) if we don’t give them ample opportunities to practice these skills? Note taking provides daily fine motor skills practice that is beneficial for joint health, physical movement and communication in writing. Although kids should master these skills at the age of 7 or 8 , many do not and require significantly more practice to do so. Daily note taking provides them with regular fine skills motor practice.
#3 Note Taking Emulates Proper Syntax, Spelling and Conventions
Many students struggle with proper syntax, spelling and using conventions such as capitalization and punctuation in writing. They need to practice these skills, and one way to do so is by emulating and copying language that has these features. By writing properly through modelling, they can work on transferring these skills to their own, independent writing. For example, many times in a note taking activity, I’ve had a student ask: “Mrs., what’s that word?” When I’d reply they’d say: “Ohhhh, that’s how you spell it.”
#4 Note Taking Improves Vocabulary
We know that students learn vocabulary through regular exposure to new words in a variety of contexts. Typically, kids need 4-12 word exposures before adding it to their working vocabulary (How to Help Your Child Build a Strong Vocabulary). Note taking is a great way to sneak in word exposures for students. Using a new vocabulary word daily in note taking, over the course of a week, can contribute to vocabulary learning and comprehension for students.
#5 Note Taking Improves Reading Skills
Note taking is yet another short method of exposing struggling readers to language. If note taking occurs daily, and is used effectively, students should need to review and highlight or note key understandings in their notes as a follow up activity. This simple daily classroom activity then becomes a quick dose of reading comprehension.
From what I can remember, the trend to avoid note taking began about a decade ago with arguments that it was “too hard” for some students and took “too much classroom time” away from concrete teaching. This was around the same time we were told to ‘differentiate’ literacy activities to include all students. This is also about the time when students literacy skills took a nose dive. Thankfully, like all trends we seem to be coming full circle and going back to basic literacy activities in the classroom that actually involve reading, writing and vocabulary building.
Unfortunately, avoiding literacy skills is not the answer to student success. Without literacy skills, we know that students are at a significant risk for failure in school and dropping out all together. Yes, literacy skills are challenging for some students, but avoiding them will do nothing but bury them in a deeper hole. Note taking daily in class is but one way to sneak in an extra dose of literacy skills for all of our students, while simultaneously covering curriculum expectations.