6 Effective Nonfiction Note-Taking Tips

Effective note-taking is a skill that takes years to develop. Many students don’t really start taking notes on their own until middle school when learning becomes a little more independent. 

My first few real lessons of each school year typically revolve around some basic skills my students will be expected to use in my classroom, whether brick and mortar or virtual. Note-taking is actually one of my favorite skills to teach because I can use any work as my model text. 

Below are my six big ideas I like to focus on when teaching note-taking skills to students in grades 6-12. 

  1. Don’t color. It’s amazing how giving a student a highlighter makes them feel like a little kid again, and they want to color EVERYTHING because it looks “cool”. Usually when I say this to kids they start to chuckle, because they know it’s accurate. When it comes to highlighting, I tell my kids to focus on: dates, vocabulary, people, events, and facts. I also like to mention that we only need to highlight key words in a sentence so the information really pops out. If there is a whole paragraph that’s important, I tell students to put a star next to it or some other symbol. 
  2. Use text features. Most students tend to skip the maps, charts and graphs that are included in nonfiction texts. Reminding kids that these features are meant to help in their comprehension is important, especially as we teach students to be more independent readers and learners. I usually start by giving students a copy of this awesome handout from Teachers pay Teachers (click here) and explain the purpose of each feature and how it helps with reading comprehension. I also like to mention not to skip these features, and if the text says to look at figure 2.1, students should actually take a look at the figure. 
  3. Look up unknown words. This is a biggie for my students because it may require a little extra work depending on the word. When discussing this idea with my students, I try to give them different scenarios. Bolded words in a nonfiction text can be found in the glossary. In an article, there may be a symbol next to a word to indicate a footnote with extra information. In the event that the word in question is just a word in the text, a student should first use context clues before heading to a dictionary. If my kids have a paper copy of the text, I tell them to write the definition near the word in case they need to refer back to it in the future. 
  4. Use note sheets. Depending on the class, students may be given guided notes to fill out or some other task. Teachers assign these activities to help students digest the text, and to be used later as study tools. If a student likes filling out structured notes like this and one isn’t provided, I like to offer alternatives. I’m personally a fan of using Cornell Notes, which are a great tool for students in grades 6-12. 
  5. Check in with yourself. I’ve gotten many emails from students over the years saying they were confused by a reading. When I asked what specifically made the text confusing, students would say, “I just don’t get it.” This is a sign that we need to teach our students to check in with themselves while they’re reading. Whether it’s at the end of each section or chapter, encouraging readers to stop and ask questions is an important step in the comprehension process. “What did I just read?” “Did I understand it?” This takes mere seconds and can immediately show students they need to go back and re-read or make a note to ask questions in class. 
  6. Make notes your own. If someone were to look at one of my notebooks, they would be incredibly confused by certain parts because over the years I’ve developed my own system that works for me. I use a lot of abbreviations and symbols. Some ways students can make notes their own include: using different colors/fonts, typing or handwriting notes, drawing pictures, and using abbreviations/symbols. In recent years, some of my students have started incorporating bullet journaling and create incredible pieces of art. 

As with any new skill, note taking will not be perfected overnight. Encourage students to try different approaches and methods to figure out what works best. Even though students are living in tech heavy world, it’s okay if some want to hand write notes. 


Little Reading Coach is a certified Teacher of English (K-12) and Reading Specialist (P-12) offering online reading,  writing and home-based learning support tutoring services for students in grades 3-12. For more information click here.


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