Note Taking November: For the Elementary Classroom

For elementary schoolers, note taking as a reading or comprehension strategy is likely unfamiliar, and for a legitimate reasonmany younger learners are just beginning to get comfortable in their reading abilities at this stage. Many children view reading as a mundane task; however, if students begin to look at reading material as a vessel for knowledge, they may change how they read for such information. Reading skills, particularly the ability to extract, analyze, and interpret relevant material, can be improved as students learn proper note-taking practices.

For elementary-age learners, taking notes while reading probably seems like an added burden on an already difficult task. Therefore, when introducing the concept, be sure to frame the instruction with expectations, benefits, and models of how the note taking should look.

  • Explain that note taking while reading is a practice that will take timeelementary schoolers should expect to practice this skill consistently before it becomes second nature.

  • They should also expect their notes to be messy, which is why pencil is a must. Begin the note-taking process by simply recording a stream of thought while reading.

  • Encourage students to mark up words and phrases that are:
    • unfamiliar or confusing,
    • bolded, italicized, or repeated,
    • indicate the author’s purpose,
    • signify an important moment or realization,
    • present an interesting fact or take-away.

      Use these opportunities as a means of teaching context cluesif the term is unfamiliar, ask students if anything around the word or phrase provides insight into the unknown word’s meaning. Encourage them to brainstorm and experiment with possible word meanings until they land on something that makes logical, grammatical sense.

  • Elementary schoolers should also feel comfortable asking “why?” while reading. Encourage them to add question marks to areas of text that they don’t understand or don’t see the relevance.

  • Model the practice of close reading and active note taking with students regularly. For the most part, note taking is an unfamiliar skill for elementary-age kids. When modeling the process, start small. Perhaps you begin by using a text that students have read before. This sense of familiarity will promote risk-taking and allow students to feel more comfortable tackling the text with their thoughts and observations. As you move through the text together, show them how to refer back to earlier notes if they have made connections or discovered an answer to a previous notation or question.

  • Inform students of the benefits of note taking. They will be surprised to know that notes can mean an easier time when rereading or skimming while studying. If students get in the habit of taking copious notes, most of the studying “leg work” will be done ahead of time. Their notes should also act as place markers, meaning that any content that struck them as important or especially tricky should be highlighted to indicate that it is vital to review. Also, let young readers know that note taking is a deliberate practice that ensures focus, comprehension, and other active reading skills on behalf of the reader. If your mind is disengaged or drifting, there is no way that you will be able to maintain substantial notes or annotations.

How to Acquire New Vocabulary: At the High School Level

A robust vocabulary is a key asset when it comes to college and career readiness. I like to equate vocabulary acquisition to a toolbox—the more expansive your toolbox, the more capable you’ll be when fixing, creating, building and assisting. Much like having the right tools for any task at hand, we need to be able to communicate using different manners of speech and appropriate word choice for any number of scenarios. Yes, a hammer and nail can prove to be helpful; however, there are certain to be instances where the job requires more than the standard basics.

Alright, enough with the analogy—how can high school students continue to build a strong repertoire when it comes to vocabulary? Let’s take a look!

Vocabulary instruction and acquisition has drastically changed in even just the last 10 years. My own flashbacks of flashcards (see what I did there?) and rote memorization, while sensible at the time, have proven to be of little assistance to students. Instead of pounding definitions of vocabulary words and teaching terms in a vacuum, disconnected from any real usage, students need more of a real-world approach to adopt new words into their own vocabulary. Exposure is key when it comes to boosting vocabulary at the high school level. In order for students to begin to acquire and use new vocabulary naturally, they must be exposed to a term in both frequent and various contexts.

Consider the term multifaceted—a standard dictionary definition of this word is “having many facets or aspects.” Okay, but what does that really mean? If we want high schoolers to begin to make sense of the word in various contexts, we must model the usage of such terms at home and in the classroom. This accounts for cross-curricular instruction, as well. For instance, students in a geometry class might use multifaceted in the literal context to describe an object with many sides. Similarly, in science, students may examine a crystal or other prism to see how sunlight converges on a multifaceted object. Quite conversely, however, an English or history class might use multifaceted to describe a character or famous person from history with many diverse skills or strengths.   

Another way to look at a term such as multifaceted is to use Latin or Greek roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes). You don’t have to go into an in depth linguistic study—instead, use a cliff notes-esque approach. When introducing such a word, pair it with other familiar words with the same prefix, like multipurpose, multiplication, multidimensional, etc. Prompt a conversation about what all of these words have in common. Then examine faceted—ask students if this word is familiar or if it reminds them of any other word. For some high schoolers, facet is already part of their vocabulary; for others, you may want to scale the conversation down to “facets sounds like faces, so a multifaceted object has many faces or sides.” These word analogies take memorization to another level. Not only do learners equate the new word to a simpler, already acquired term, but they also derive meaning from the relationship between the terms to help solidify the meaning into memory.

The Other Stuff: How to Approach High-Level Thinking Questions

It is important that educators exude a sense of passion for the content that we teach. Whether it be math, science, English, etc., our love for our subject areas helps to engage our students and keep them motivated. While much of our instruction focuses around the content, we are also tasked with teaching skills that allow students to access the content that we are teaching. Depending on grade level and ability, students could be all over the map when it comes to these essential, foundational skills. We must first assess the tools that our students bring with them to the classroom and then be prepared to focus part of our instruction around these crucial basics.

“Dissecting the question” is a practice that students will encounter in EVERY content area throughout their education. Whether responding to a writing prompt, answering a word problem, or following chemistry lab procedures, students must be aware of the end goal when confronting a task. Often times across content areas, questions or practices are framed in wordy, complex, or very involved language. This type of wording has the potential to not only confuse students, but also to discourage them right from the beginning before they have even considered the question. To hone in on an answer, students must first learn how to identify exactly what the question is asking.  

Consider the following prompt: Authors use many different literary devices to convey mood in a narrative. Identify and analyze two devices that J.K. Rowling uses to convey mood in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone using evidence from the text to support your claim.

Now, this prompt is a tall order in terms of a student’s need to focus in on the actual question. Model the process of “skimming the fat” from the question so that only the essentials are present. For example, have students cross off any “fluff” or unnecessary information in the question. This goes for math, English, science, history, etc. For our example above, students could cross off the entire first sentence in the prompt—this simply frames the context of the prompt.

Next, help students to translate or better comprehend the academic language that all content-area questions will use. Terms like analyze, assess, compare, estimate, and classify may seems straightforward to us; however, students often find these directives to be confusing. Have students practice highlighting the common academic language terms as they encounter them in questions, prompts, and tasks. Then, spend time as a class discussing what these terms actually mean—i.e., what actions will we take as readers when we identify and analyze something? What does it mean by devices? Perhaps students need a refresher on literary devices. This is where graphic organizers and other note-taking strategies will come in handy for students needing a quick review of a concept.

Next, help students understand that identify simply means to find, name, or choose two devices that the author uses, while analyze means to explore, examine, or question how these devices convey, or show, mood. Students that are still struggling to begin responding to the question may benefit from a sentence frame or sample starter. This strategy is great for English and math, where teachers are likely seeking complete sentences or full thoughts in the answers and responses. Consider providing students with something like this as their starting thesis statement:

(AUTHOR’S NAME) uses (DEVICE AND DEVICE) to convey a (SPECIFIC TYPE OF MOOD) in (TITLE).

Once they have filled in the blanks for the thesis statement, prompt the analysis piece by asking leading questions. These suggestive questions will help students with the initial practice of analyzing, assessing, or making connections between their claim and their reasoning or support for the claim. Again, this practice takes time and repetition—attacking a high-level thinking question like this is not something that can be mastered in one class period. The key is to provide students with strategies to help steer their thinking in the direction of the actual meat of the question. By helping to define, explain, eliminate, and order the process of the question, students are much more equipped to begin answering.

So remember:

  • Eliminate fluff
  • Locate key terms/academic language that indicate what is being asked
  • Define those terms for students
  • Provide graphic organizers or refresher notes when necessary
  • Consider providing sentence frames or examples for students to use as a springboard

Writing a Paragraph: High School

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Writing is arguably one of the most beneficial skills taught in the academic realm. Since strong writing abilities are valuable in every content area and career down the road, mastery of this skill is essential. As with most undertakings, practice is key to developing a student’s writingthe more a child writes, the better that child will progress as he advances through his education. Once in high school, students are expected to have mastered writing concepts such as organization, mechanics, and varied sentence structure.

At the high school level, the expectations for writing tasks are elevated. It is assumed that students have a proficient grasp on the basics and are now prepared to tackle concepts such as writing for a specific audience and maintaining tone and fluidity. These concepts are touched upon in the middle grades; however, they really become the focus of higher level academic writing when assignments are required to serve a specific purpose.

No matter the content area, secondary level writing assignments involve persuasive, argumentative, and expository writing techniques. From the chemistry lab to the AP government classroom, students will be required to juggle and synthesize many small parts to compose a fluid paper. Some of these writing skills include:

  • Stating a claim
  • Supporting that claim with clear evidence and/or research
  • Providing analysis of the evidence (i.e. how does the research support your claim?)
  • Embedding quotations
  • Paraphrasing or making inferences from direct quotations
  • Drawing the argument to a final conclusion  

Considering the number of key components involved, as well as the high level thinking skills required to accomplish these components, it is no wonder that writing at the high school level can be stressful and strenuous. Here are a few helpful tips from the teacher to avoid future headaches with high school writing.

Utilize the organizer. While graphic organizers are sometimes viewed as elementary tools, high schoolers and college students can greatly benefit from an outline. Of course, these outlines and organizers will not always be provided by the teacher—students will have to do the prewriting legwork. The extra step may deter your high schooler at first, especially those students who prefer to cut corners. However, an outline is a proven strategy to ensure that a large writing assignment is organized, cohesive, and complete. The outline also allows for students to see that they have gathered all of the essential pieces before beginning the writing process. Thus, an outline will save your high schooler time and hassle in the end.

Read examples and samples of similar writing pieces. This is especially helpful when a section of the assignment or essay is more complex, like parenthetical documentation. Viewing samples of how other writers have constructed these components provides students with additional help, almost like a step-by-step guide.

Be sure to proofread. Again, high schoolers who are reluctant writers to begin with will likely shy away from the editing process. However, rereading written work aloud is the only way to ensure that the writing flows, maintains clarity, and adheres to the claim throughout. This fluidity piece is essential for secondary writing assignments.

Use the rubric to assess the writing before submitting. This additional step is yet another strategy that many students choose to disregard. However, “grading” themselves before submitting a paper allows students to look at the writing from another angle. Since the rubric is created by the teacher, and will be used to assess the writing piece, it only makes sense for high schoolers to perform a self-check of the assignment according to the criteria.  
While high schoolers may be loathe to add any more steps to their writing assignment, these strategies will help to focus their efforts and ease them into the writing process. And, best of all, these strategies can help them to enhance their written work!

Writing a Paragraph: Middle School

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Writing is arguably one of the most beneficial skills taught in the academic realm. Since strong writing abilities are valuable in every content area and career down the road, mastery of this skill is essential. As with most undertakings, practice is key to developing a student’s writing—the more a child writes, the better that child will progress as he advances through his education.

For middle school students who have simply scratched the surface of paragraph writing in elementary school, writing takes a rather large leap in the middle grades. The expectation is that students arrive to middle school with a basic grasp of appropriate conventions and sentence structure. However, the concept of writing a thesis statement and supporting that claim with evidence is likely unfamiliar. These terms can be intimidating; however, they are guaranteed to show up in every content, from math and science, to English and history.

Similarly to elementary writing, middle school students need to practice structuring a paragraph concisely and cohesively. While younger students focus on including and organizing each component of the paragraph, middle schoolers begin to synthesize the information and write purposefully. Middle school students should be prompted to pay close attention to the purpose of their paragraph or argument. This is where parents and educators can play an important role. Ask your middle schooler questions like, “Did your paragraph address the question or prompt?” “Did your paragraph have a clear thesis or claim?” “Did you provide evidence or support that clearly connects to and addresses your thesis?”  If these questions prove difficult for your young writer, consider a graphic organizer to help.

Elementary students are not the only writers that benefit from a graphic organizer. Like the cheeseburger method commonly used for K-5 grades, middle schoolers can benefit from an organizer that assists in ensuring that each supporting detail relates directly to the claim. For instance, a commonly used organizer would include the thesis statement, each key detail or piece of evidence in support of the thesis, and a brief analysis of how that support reinforces the claim or thesis.

Many see the graphic organizer as a prewriting strategy, one that must be done prior to constructing the paragraph. However, middle school students can also benefit from using the graphic organizer as a post-writing checklist. This is an opportunity for writers to work backwards and become cognizant editors of their own work. Too often, middle school writers complete a writing task without much revision or editing. Using the graphic organizer as a checklist avoids the issue of missing components in a paragraph. It also forces writers to reread their work, checking for grammatical errors and any issues involving clarity. A tip for parents would be to model the use of a graphic organizer and/or the process of proofreading. Teachers do this on a regular basis, allowing students to follow along as they “think aloud.” As you help your middle schooler with a written paragraph, go through the editing process together verbally. As you read your child’s work, ask questions such as, “Could this sentence be written more concisely?” “Do we have to use this word, or could we find a better replacement?” “Does this sentence make sense here?” “Does the paragraph seem to flow nicely?” These types of questions model the process for young writers—something that they will eventually begin to do on their own.

Writing a Paragraph: Elementary-age

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Writing is arguably one of the most beneficial skills taught in the academic realm. Since strong writing abilities are valuable in every content area and career down the road, mastery of this skill is essential. As with most undertakings, practice is key to developing a student’s writingthe more a child writes, the better that child will progress as he advances through his education.

For elementary-aged students, writing a cohesive, organized paragraph is a relatively new concept, one that can be taxing and frustrating in the beginning. Style, conventions, and technique will evolve with time, but structure and organization should be a writing objective from the start. When it comes to helping young writers compose a paragraph, structuring an organized paragraph is best explained simplycomplex writing will come later.

A helpful strategy to prompt organization is to use a visual tool or graphic representation of how a well-organized paragraph should look. Some educators use the cheeseburger method, in which writers structure their paragraphs like a cheeseburger: the top bun is the introduction, the burger patty is the main idea, the toppings provide added detail to the “meat” of the paragraph, and the bottom bun concludes the paragraph. The cheeseburger method allows young writers to see that every part of the cheeseburger or paragraph is essential. It is also a good way to practice peer editing, as students can examine other paragraphs to ensure that their classmates have included enough toppings (detail), a solid patty (main idea), and an obvious top and bottom bun (introduction and conclusion).

Once writers have mastered the concept of the cheeseburger structure, it is time to instruct them on each individual layer. For example, the top bun, or introduction, needs to be enticing enough to get the reader interestedthis is called a “hook” or “attention-grabber.” The meat or main idea of the paragraph needs to stand out. Explain to your writer that you would not want to eat a burger that has a flavorless patty; the burger, or main idea, is the star of the sandwich. Therefore, it often requires the most attention. The purpose of toppings is that they add to the deliciousness of the sandwichtoppings, or details, accompany the flavor of the burger and add crunch, sweetness, tang, or texture to the patty. Finally, students must include a conclusion, which draws the paragraph to an endthis is their bottom bun. Without the bottom bun, the burger seems incomplete or unfinished; the reader is left unsatisfied by the abrupt end to the sandwich and the missing concluding component.

Again, the cheeseburger method is aimed at young writers to help with practicing structure and organization. More developed writing techniques will expand over time with practice and further instruction. For now, parents can help elementary-age children by focusing on the basics when it comes to writing a paragraph. For even more of a visual, parents can search cheeseburger paragraph graphic organizers to print from the computer. These organizers help children visually plan and construct a paragraph, ensuring that each section is represented.