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Why Language Learners Should Take Notes

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Why Language Learners Should Take NotesMargaret Brooks, a co-author of Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, offers some tips to help your students take notes in class.

Whether in the context of taking a phone message or listening to an academic lecture, note-taking is an essential skill for most language learners. In order to help learners acquire this skill, it is important to consider first the special challenges language learners face when trying to listen and take notes.

Short-term memory

One of the most self-evident issues is that it takes a language learner longer to process audio input than it does a native speaker.  One reason for this is that a person’s short-term memory is shorter in L2 than in L1. People employ short-term memory (usually measured in seconds) when processing audio materials. For example, when listening to a long sentence, the listener may need to hold the whole utterance in his mind and review it in order to comprehend it adequately. For the L1 listener this happens naturally, without the person being aware of it.  However, for the language learner, this mental review process may not always be possible in the available time.1

Language structure

Another factor is the need for a mental map of the language, an internalized knowledge of the vocabulary and structures. A native speaker is grounded from childhood in the structures of the language and knows what to expect. We know, in fact, that people do not actually hear every word when they listen. But they hear enough to be able to parse out the meaning or reconstruct the sense quickly.  They can “fill in the blanks” with words not actually heard.

Cultural expectations

Finally, in addition to being familiar with the semantic and syntactic aspects of the language, a listener may need to know of certain cultural expectations. Names of people and places and knowledge of events or history familiar to the average native speaker may be unfamiliar to the learner.  All of these are things that may cause the listener to hesitate, stop listening, and try to think about what was said, while in the meantime the speaker continues.  The listener then loses the thread and finds it difficult to bring attention back to the task.

How note-taking can help

In the face of these challenges, it may seem that adding note-taking to the listening tasks in the classroom may be a step too far for many. How, for example, can we expect high beginning students to listen and write at the same time? However, when the tasks are appropriate for the learners’ level and carefully implemented, note-taking can actually improve comprehension.

Taking notes helps the student maintain focus and attention. It encourages a more engaged posture, such as sitting forward in the seat. The act of handwriting also aids in attention. Interestingly, studies have shown that students taking handwritten notes performed better on comprehension tests than those taking notes with an electronic medium such as a laptop or tablet.  The reason for this is that handwriting is slower than typing. The writer has to summarize content, which involves more mental processing than faster typing. This in turn leads to better understanding and retention.2

The following are some examples of note-taking practice activities for the language classroom:

  • Preparing to listen: Although this is not a note-taking skill in itself, it is a necessary first step in the classroom. In real life, people do not usually approach something like a lecture or other listening context without some idea of what they will hear. They will have read assignments leading up to a lecture, received the agenda for a meeting, or at the very least know something about the topic.  We often put learners at an unfair disadvantage by starting a listening task by just saying, “OK, now listen to this.” Pre-listening activities level the playing field by giving learners realistic preparation for the task. These can consist of things like pre-teaching key words, exploring students’ prior knowledge of the topic, or short reading selections related to the topic.
  • Focusing on main ideas and key words: Some students have a tendency to equate note-taking with dictation and set out to try to write every word – something impossible even in L1. Activities that focus on writing only main ideas and key content words address this issue and help develop short-term as a well as long-term memory. When students write down a few important words as they listen, seeing the words is a memory aid and helps them follow the flow of the ideas.  This strategy is essential when dealing with authentic listening texts at higher levels of language study and, by extension, in real world situations. Authentic texts are likely to contain chunks of unfamiliar language that become “roadblocks” if students are not able to move past them and keep listening for key words.
  • Using a variety of organizational systems such as outlining, the Cornell Method, or even word webs: This enables students to follow the development of a speaker’s ideas and “remember” them from start to finish as they listen. Presenting several ways of organizing notes shows that note-taking is essentially a personal task. Each person has to find a system that works for them.
  • Reviewing and adding to notes soon after a lecture or presentation: The purpose of note-taking in an academic setting is to provide students with a tool for study and review. In a business setting, notes from a meeting might be used to write a report or prepare a task list for a project. Notes consisting of just words and short phrases will not serve the purpose as the note-taker will quickly forget how to put these together into a coherent record of a lecture or meeting, for example.  In the classroom, students can review notes and expand what they have written. Also, even though there is no “rewind” function in a real-world lecture hall, it is useful practice for students to listen again and add to their notes.
  • Collaborating with others: Students often suffer from the mistaken notion that asking questions or getting help from others somehow diminishes them, makes them seem “stupid.” They forget that even native speakers do this all the time and it probably comes naturally to them in their first language. In the classroom, students can compare notes with classmates, ask questions about things they didn’t understand, and listen again to verify information.

Providing students with an opportunity to practice note-taking in a controlled and “safe” environment not only gives them a skill that will be useful in a variety of settings from the lecture hall to the meeting room, or even a doctor’s office but also helps them become more attentive listeners and improves general comprehension.

References and Further Reading

1Rost, Michael. Research in Second Language Processes and Development in Eli Hinkel (Ed). Handbook of Research on Second Language Learning and Teaching, Part IV. , Chapter 35: L2 Listening, Routledge, Nov. 11, 2005.

2Mueller, Pam A and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking. in Psychological Science, published on line 23 April, 2014.

Martin, Katherine I and Nick Ellis. The Roles of Phonological Short-term Memory and Working Memory in L2 Grammar and Vocabulary Learning. in Studies in Second Language Acquisition, Vol. 34, Issue 03, September 2012, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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4 thoughts on “Why Language Learners Should Take Notes

  1. I encourage my students to take notes in each class. They have started to follow my instructions and are developing good habits at a young age. Writing down key words, definitions and other bits of info is an excellent way to boost memory retention. Thanks for the post!

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