Note Taking For ELLs


Clare Alsharif 

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According to Boyle (2011), note-taking skills are important because better note takers have more notes and, as a result, perform better on tests. Taking notes is the most common method of summarizing and learning information from a lecture or text, which makes it an important skill for transitioning from high school to college. Studies show students remember only seventy-five percent of a lecture after thirty minutes and only fifty percent after one hour. Regular review of notes will help with retention, but this depends on good note-taking skills. With today’s technology, other options like recording lectures, photographing boards or using other electronic means are becoming more common; however, studies show that the act of writing down allows processing to occur and keeps students actively involved, resulting in higher quality learning (Boyle, 2011). Note taking also helps students learn academic language more effectively as well as improve selective attention, planning, monitoring, problem solving and evaluating. Conversely, students who lack good note-taking skills miss over forty percent of the important lecture points (Boyle 2011).  Effective note-taking skills include selecting important points, relating information to prior knowledge, abbreviating, rephrasing, recording, organizing, writing legibly, and keeping up with the class. The challenge for all students is filtering and organizing the information they are receiving and then transforming it into meaningful notes. The reality is that most students are not taught how to take notes. It is seen as a skill they will pick up, and unfortunately many students do not develop good note-taking skills.

ELL Issues with Note Taking

For ELL students, note taking is more important and more difficult than for the average student, due to the fact that the lesson is given in English and a different cultural setting. ELL students are at an immediate disadvantage. Among the additional filters an ELL faces when taking notes are:
  • maintaining attention and focus in a second language (L2)
  • rapid processing and evaluation of new information and vocabulary in L2
  •  Applying L2 spelling and grammar skills
  • writing well in L2 under time stress
  • making decisions about asking questions
  • being aware of transitions
  •  understanding body language especially during a lecture
  • recognizing rephrasing and emphasis
According to Matson, Flynn, & Bia (2011), all of these processes require a large amount of attention and therefore prevent fast transcribing of the source to notes. The results of this additional processing can be:
  • less use of  abbreviations
  • use of native language (L1) in notes
  • twice as many pauses before writing
  • more disorganized notes
  • fewer notes overall
  • little interpretation of the source using prior knowledge
  •  shorter short-term memory of source in L2
  •  more problem decoding notes and source
In addition, ELLs can experience challenges as a result of their L1 or culture. If the L1 is a language such as Japanese or Arabic which do not use the Latin-based alphabet,  they have the additional burden of using a different mode of writing.  If their L1 is very orthographic, spelling in English can be a problem. Also, culture may play a role in which notes a student considers important. For example some cultures, like Chinese and Taiwanese, emphasize gathering facts, not the more global comprehension used in US culture.  Additionally, many ELLs just copy what is on the board and what they understand from the source, resulting in their potentially missing important points. Furthermore, a study by Matson, Flynn, & Bia (2011) showed that some ELL students think they know how to take notes effectively in their L1, but in reality they lack developed note-taking skills in both their L1 and English. 

Teaching Note-taking skills

Teaching strategic note taking to ELLs should include general note-taking skills as well as areas of specific need to ELLs. These skills should include important points to consider before, during and after note taking. In addition, ELLs need to be aware of North American education strategies and culture, as well as become familiar with different note-taking techniques and graphic organizers. Course material should include:
  • Note-taking basics, such as, abbreviations, symbols, transition signals
  •  the value of asking questions for clarification and definitions
  • creation of a vocabulary list
  • vocabulary-building skills
  •  review of notes to check accuracy and for retention
  •  preparing before lessons by reviewing source materials and previous lessons
  • revision after lessons of notes to check for accuracy and retention.
 Before class, students should review texts and resource material to gain background, develop questions, and develop a basic understanding of the topic and define new vocabulary perhaps using L1 sources. ELLs should understand that translation slows their ability to capture an idea and keep up with the class. Students need to take notes both from text sources and from lectures.

 During the class, students need to take notes and ask questions for clarification and definitions. Many ELLs are reluctant to ask questions because of fear they will not be understood or their question will seem silly to other students. Therefore, they need to be encouraged to ask questions for their understanding of the material and to work with the teacher if their pronunciation is a problem.

 After class, students should review their notes to check for accuracy and completeness. Students might compare their notes with other students, textbooks, blackboard notes and other sources. In addition, students should compile a vocabulary list of new terms to learn.  ELL students may have an additional issue of academic vocabulary that is assumed to be understood at the college level. These words are best learned before entering college, but the reality is for most ELL students it is an ongoing process throughout the college years.  In addition, students should regularly review notes in order to retain the information from class.
Note-taking instruction for ELLs should include instruction on summarizing skills, teaching academic vocabulary, use of note-taking methods and review by teachers. Summarizing skills are important to help students identify the main idea and supporting details when taking notes. Learning academic vocabulary means the ELLs will encounter fewer new vocabulary words in their classes. Investigating a variety of note-taking methods first will familiarize ELL with note methods commonly used in North America and will present a choice of note-taking methods for the ELLs to use when taking notes. Finally, teacher review of student notes is important to provide feedback on completeness, accuracy, legibility and the use of abbreviations and symbols. 

Boyle, J.R. (2011). Thinking Strategically to Record Notes in Content Classes. American Secondary Education, 40(1), 51-66.

Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA). (n.d.).  Strategy 10: Using Learning Strategies. Retrieved from

Matson, S., Flynn, G., & Bia, Y. (NAFSA 2011, Vancouver, BC). Notetaking:
The Critically Overlooked Skill Beyond (far, far beyond) the Four Skills. Retrieved from

Clare Alsharif is an ESL instructor at Rockford University.

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ITBE Link - Spring 2016 - Volume 44 Number 1