A Notable Process: Teaching Critical Reading Via Notetaking (Making)

Diaz, A Notable Process - teaser image

Teacher-librarians foster reading for pleasure as part of their library programs, whether through special programming events, author visits, class instruction, or one-on-one conversations about books and read-alikes. The actual teaching of reading, at least in the middle school realm, has often been kept within the classroom. Yet, in dealing with our current digital natives, the skill of critical or "deep" reading is becoming more crucial in this transliteral world as young learners interact with a variety of media across platforms.

Note-Taking—A Hot Topic?

In my collaborations with content-area teachers in cultivating information literacy skills within the research process, I became aware that the skill of close reading for meaning beyond decoding was an issue that made basic notetaking almost impossible. Note-taking is not usually considered an instructional hot spot in the information literacy skills continuum.

But if students learned to do an effective keyword search in a database, found a quality article, and then created a citation, they would hit a glass wall once they began to "take notes." In fact, they were taking, but not making—students were not able to think about what they were reading and how it related to their research purpose and driving research questions, let alone recognize what they did or did not understand from the article at a basic comprehension level. They were stymied as to how to really read the article thoughtfully in order to extract anything meaningful from it and then make their own meaning beyond the text. Neither the use of our subscription site NoodleTools nor modeling an example digital note card translated into better notes.

The Mind of the Digital Native

Stymied myself by this virtual wall, I pondered: Why can't they take real notes that show they understand what they read and make their own connections to make new meaning? Well, one possibility that came to mind was exactly that—could their minds, or rather their brains, be different due to their membership in the millennial generation? Maybe their digital native brains are already re-wired to process text differently as authors Nicholas Carr and Maryanne Wolf potently describe in their books The Shallows and Proust and the Squid, respectively.

Another possibility could be transference. Maybe students weren't transferring the same critical reading skills taught in their language arts classrooms to the process of note-taking, and needed more opportunities to practice and develop these skills. Added to this mix of rewired brains and lack of transference are the "skill and drill" pile-up our classroom teachers face in incorporating so many other data-driven and tested skills addressed in our particular state's lengthy and detailed curriculum standards.

Reading on Reading

I began reading more about reading and the process of teaching reading to identify strategies that would address the weaknesses I witnessed and strengthen the skills our faculty were struggling with among our students. Our reading teachers do use some notation symbols with students to show how to annotate text, as well as work on inferencing skills, finding the main idea, and summarizing. As I read more about the process of moving from comprehension to deeper reading and thinking about texts, I began to see comparisons among our current note-taking approach (via NoodleTools and our district's digital note-taking form), some commonly used reading strategies, and those shared by expert teachers of reading, such as Kelly Gallagher.

Reading Strategies vs. Note-Taking Process Comparison Chart

Deeper Reading - Kelly Gallagher What Does it Say? What Does it Mean? What Does it Matter?
It Says...I Say...And So Reading Strategy It Says I Say And So...
Note-Taking Process (NoodleTools)
(Our district's digital note taking form)
Direct Quotation Paraphrase or Summary My Ideas

Experimental Scaffold

As an experiment, I decided to combine specific critical reading strategies with the note-taking process. Using strategies shared by Gallagher in his books Readicide and Deeper Reading, Wormeli in Summarization in Any Subject, Daniels and Zemelman in Subjects Matter, and Marzano in Classroom Instruction That Works, I developed a scaffolded process for note-taking that involves:

  • First and second draft reading
  • Practicing the art of paraphrasing
  • Using notation symbols to annotate a text
  • Building upon the skill of summarizing

You might be thinking, "How do I have time to do all this?" or "How could I get teachers to work with me on teaching these components?" My selling point to my ELAR faculty was that I was both saving them time down the road and doing double duty by teaching or re-teaching these skills within the context of a research project. Even though these strategies build upon each other as part of a notetaking continuum, so to speak, they can be taught in isolation and practiced in practically any subject, either in sequence or with an "on demand" approach.

Since one of our campus's target initiatives is fostering authentic literacy through reading, speaking, and writing about informational texts, these strategies made sense and seemed doable across the content areas. I led a campuswide staff development session at the beginning of the year on how to use NoodleTools, tailored for each major content area. Fostering buy-in is ongoing, but the momentum has started among faculty who are seeing the benefits. The trick to sustaining momentum is to encourage teachers to require students to use these skills regularly. Note-taking becomes an opportunity to partner on skill development and reinvent how we approach instruction to meet the needs of our digital native learners, plus it helps foster critical thinking as part of the AASL standards and supports the shift toward text complexity within the Common Core Standards.

Getting Symbolic

The first task was to tackle the process of annotating texts. I created a mash-up chart of notation symbols for students to use during their initial reading of a potential source for their research. Some of these symbols were already familiar to students from their reading classes, whereas other symbols lend themselves more to thinking about questions, specifically guiding research questions.

Symbol Meaning
(check mark) Confirms what you thought / you agree with this, understand this
X Is different from what you thought / you disagree with this
? Puzzles you; makes you think of a question
?? Really confuses you
* (star) Seems very important
→ (arrow) Is new or interesting to you
R Reminds you of something
A Answers a question you had
! Something that surprised you
→→ (double arrow) Connection to something you already know (can write a note in the margins next to the sentence/words)
E Connects to your Essential/ Guiding Research Question

The process was relatively simple: Do a first read-through without any annotations. During the second reading, use symbols to mark up the text. Then look at your symbols and be prepared to explain why you used each symbol.

I modeled the process using an article about the Mars Rover, since that was in the news at the time. Students then worked in pairs on a section of the article, adding notation symbols and annotations during their second read-through. Then we looked at the entire article, and each pair shared what symbols they used and why.

Diaz, A Notable Process - image

Pair-a-Phrase Strategy

The next skill on my hit list was paraphrasing, which we all know is much easier to give the definition for than an example of. In my reading on reading, one point resonated with me—underscoring the need to address paraphrasing as an essential skill in this evolving instructional framework. The ability to paraphrase is easier than summarizing, and can be an effective stepping stone to being able to summarize, which is more formal and sophisticated (Kletzien, 2009). Taking cues from our state's own standards (TEKS) and also the Common Core Standards, I decided to use real sentences from articles from our subscription databases and current news articles from national newspapers, such as the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. I looked for sentences that were complex, included advanced phrasing and unfamiliar adjectives, and also allowed for condensing or expanding, which are both elements of paraphrasing. After modeling the process myself, students worked in teams of two or three to develop a paraphrase from these real-world examples, which they then presented via an interactive whiteboard.

Using the game of Telephone as an inspirational model, we moved deeper into practicing paraphrasing via another strategy titled "Pair-a-Phrase."

In this strategy, partners take turn as paraphraser and transcriber, using an actual article they've selected during the research process. Both roles read a section of the article silently. The paraphraser jots down keywords to help prompt the paraphrase when ready while the transcriber comes up with three questions about the text to help prompt the paraphraser if he gets stuck. Then the paraphraser turns over the article, and begins paraphrasing from memory, using the keywords and condensing or adding more as needed while making it sound as if he was the author of the article by translating it in his own style of language. Meanwhile, the transcriber is recording the paraphrase by hand or keyboard. The two then compare the paraphrase to the original, and together edit the paraphrase to avoid any similarities that too closely mirror the original article.

Students used the same Mars Rover article, which helped them see what they had already marked as clear, interesting, confusing, or important. Using this same text reinforced the reasons and benefits of annotating a text before doing anything with it, since they had to first understand the text before trying to paraphrase it. Then, before the next instructional sessions, participating teachers had students create NoodleTools note cards using their paraphrased sections and graded their efforts, making comments and suggestions as needed.

Rule-Based Summarizing

Next, we moved on to summarizing. According to Marzano, students "must analyze the information at a fairly deep level" in order to do this effectively, which underscores the importance of developing their paraphrasing skills before moving on to summarizing. Here we used the rule-based summarizing strategy. This strategy can be distilled into three basic steps: delete, substitute, keep (Marzano, 2001). Students first read through the text, deleting any words they determine are unnecessary, trivial, or redundant. They then substitute out any specific terms or unfamiliar vocabulary with more general, familiar words they would normally use. Last, they keep and rework what is left into a summary, selecting a topic sentence or inventing one if needed.

I designed a simple handout for them to use as a guide during this process and modeled it with a high-interest article about Facebook's consideration of expanding its site to under-thirteen users. Prior to this, we all took the time to read through it twice and use notation symbols to annotate each section. Students then paired up again and worked on summarizing distinct sections of the article as practice, applying the process together to make a collective summary. We then put together our "chain letter" summaries on an interactive whiteboard, describing the decisions made for each section while doing a side by side comparison to the original article. Their assessment was to then use this summary to create a NoodleTools digital note card by completing the direct quotation and paraphrase/summary portions.

On a Final Note

During this beta testing, I learned that while mastery is our goal, practice is key. The more students can practice these skills, the more likely they are to make the mental shift from one subject to another and see their implementation as a fluid part of learning, more as tools rather than tasks. In the next round, I plan on focusing on synthesis through the My Ideas component of note-taking, tying it to the essential questions that, in theory, drive or guide the students through the entire research experience. I also plan to build in more metacognitive reflections and formative assessments that can be used at any phase, to help me better tune into how the students' brains are really dealing with the skills beyond what we see in their actual notes.

All of these skills—annotating a text, paraphrasing, and summarizing—came together through specific ELAR research-based projects, collaboratively taught in the library and reinforced through classroom-based lessons involving expository texts. Any of these skills could be addressed in a science, social studies, or elective class, tied to what's happening in the curriculum as well as what's happening in the world. Online note-taking tools like NoodleTools, EasyBib, or your own digital note-taking form in Google Drive are convenient options for teachers to continue the instructional momentum you've started.

Rule-Based Summarizing Strategy

  1. Delete words/sentences containing information that is NOT necessary to help you understand the text (draw a line through it)
  2. Delete words/sentences that repeat information (draw a line through it)
  3. Replace specific terms with general terms.
  4. Replace a list of things with a word that describes the things in the list (example, "flowers" for "daisies, tulips, and roses")
  5. Find a topic sentence (main idea sentence). If you can't find one, write one.

Just remember that every topic sentence has TWO parts: The SUBJECT and the author's CLAIM about it

{Method for Applying these 4 Steps}

T = Trivia—REMOVE trivial material

R = Redundancies—Remove redundant or repetitive information

G = Generalize—Replace specifics or lists with general terms & phrases

TS = Topic Sentence—Find or create the Topic Sentence:

Subject + author's claim about that subject (Marzano, 2001; Wormeli, 2005)

Works Cited

Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W.W. Norton, 2011.

Conderman, Greg, and Laura R. Hedin. "Teaching Students to Comprehend Informational Text through Rereading." The
Reading Teacher
63.7 (2010): 556+.

Daniels, Harvey, and Steven Zemelman. Subjects Matter: Every Teacher's Guide to Content-Area Reading. Heinemann, 2004.

Gallagher, Kelly. Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. Stenhouse, 2004.

Gallagher, Kelly. Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It. Stenhouse, 2009.

Kletzien, Sharon B. "Paraphrasing: An Effective Comprehension Strategy." The Reading Teacher 63.1 (2009): 73+.

Marzano, Robert J., Debra J. Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock. Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001.

NoodleTools. www.noodletools.com.

"Summarizing and Note-taking." Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works. Howard Pitler, et al. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2007. 119-138.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Harper Perennial, 2008.

Wormeli, Rick. Summarization in Any Subject: 50 Techniques to Improve Student Learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.

About the Author

Teresa Diaz is a teacher-librarian at Eisenhower Middle School in San Antonio, Texas.

MLA Citation

Diaz, Teresa. "A Notable Process: Teaching Critical Reading Via Notetaking (Making)." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Display/1949100?productId=2002&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2265048. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

View all citation styles.

Back to Top