Nine tips for taking notes in a book (without ticking off your librarian!)

When I took my first English class right out of high school, I was shocked that not only did we have to purchase our own books, but we were even allowed to write in them!  I had always been told not to write in my schoolbooks—and all I ever saw written were things like “School SUX” or obscene drawings.  I was never taught to take notes in a book, but over time I learned that by writing notes in the margin, being able to highlight or underline a key point, and using my textbook as a practical, tangible tool was invaluable.

When I went into teaching, I was reminded that the same “hands-off” rule applied to my students.  Because of budgetary reasons, the school was only able to afford enough books for about 120 students at a time (the fact I never had enough books for my classes is a whole other story, but I digress…). Students were never allowed to write in their books.  Thus, I was always searching for creative methods to help my students to use their books as a living, breathing, interactive tool, rather than an untouchable, inaccessible tome filled with random obscenities. I felt (and still feel) that the more students are able to make their books—especially novels—an active tool for learning, the better they will learn.  The more involved they are allowed to be with the story the better, and being able to be an active learner and note-taker in that process helps them be an active participant in the workings of the story.

This month, I have decided to share some of the tools I have used over the years to help my students use their books as active learning tools, while keeping the librarian happy by not making permanent marks in the books.  (If you have other tips and tricks for teachers who are not allowed to have students write in books or cannot require students to purchase their own books, please feel free to comment on this blog or share them with our followers at!)

  1.  Sticky-notes.  These are not always cheap, but usually dollar stores have good deals on sticky-notes, or you can get bulk packs for a good deal during back-to-school sales. Encourage students to write their thoughts, questions, and ideas on sticky-notes, and to stick away!  The more notes, the better.  Be sure that students know what kinds of things to write on their sticky notes.  Don’t just have students summarize the chapter or section, although this might be one sticky note.  You may want to model a book that you have already marked with notes to show how it is done.  Teach students to question the text, then once they find their answer, to go back to their sticky and write the answer.  They can either remove the sticky, or they can keep it there in the book.  Once students have completed the novel (or section of a text), have them remove their sticky notes, stick them onto blank sheets of paper and use the notes as a review/study guide.  If they have not found the answers to questions they posed, have them go back to the text to find the answer.  Encourage them to bring any outstanding questions or concerns to a class discussion.
  2. Flags.  Flags are a modification of sticky notes, but can be used to highlight major points or things to remember rather than writing them down.  Flags are the skinny sticky notes that are either shaped like an arrow or are rectangular.  They are small enough to write one or two words, but they are more useful for just quickly pointing out things to remember for future reference.  From there, once the book is finished, students can look back on their book to their flags to help them arrange written notes.  Sometimes students will find that what they flagged seemed important but wasn’t, or that they didn’t flag something that turned out to be important.  This helps students in the long-term to be able to help them become more active readers and find the more important aspects of the text.
  3. Paperclips.  These days, paperclips come in all sizes, and a variety of different colors and shapes, so students can have fun with this one.  If using multi-colored clips, have students decide which colors correspond to which color paper clip.  For example, a pink clip can represent a note about character.  Have students clip a sticky-note key to the front of their book for reference.  When they find something interesting or note-worthy about a character that they would like to remember, have them clip the pink paperclip on the start of the line or passage in the book. They can use different colors to represent other notes, such as blue for important quotes, red for important plot twists or conflicts, etc.
  4. Original Bookmarks.  Have students cut a plain piece of horizontally aligned paper into 5 sections, like a bookmark.  At the top of each, have students write Characters, Conflict, Plot, Quotes, and Questions (or whatever you would like them to take notes on).  Students can decorate their bookmark, but it must have room on both sides for notes.  As they read, they use the specified bookmark to take notes.  If they find an interesting quote, for example, they would write on their “Quotes” bookmark the page number and the first few words of the quote so that they can come back and find it later.  They can leave the bookmark on that page as they continue to read.  When they find another notable quote, they move the bookmark to the new page and repeat the process, noting page number and first few words of the quote.  Once students have used the bookmarks, they can start a new one and staple them together.  When they have finished reading the text, they have a built-in study guide.  Students should then go back (keeping with the example) and re-read the quote, taking notes in a notebook of who said it and why the quote is important to the story.  An especially fun bookmark to make is Prediction, as students move their bookmark chapter by chapter, they can see what they predicted and whether they were right, again helping students retain the reading and remain active readers.
  5. Note cards. Have students write details of each chapter on a note card designated for each chapter.  For each chapter, have students write: Major Characters, Important Events, Important Quotes, Questions on the Chapter, and Predictions.  Students should complete all sections, helping create great study cards for review after reading the novel.  Be sure to remind students to write down page numbers for later review.
  6. Dog-ear.  While your librarian may not be thrilled that students are actually touching the pages (!) the old-fashioned approach of dog-earring pages still works.  Have students gently fold the corner of a page they find interesting, for whatever reason at the time they are reading.  Once they have finished the chapter or section, have students go back and write down reasons they dog-eared the page.  It could be an interesting quote, something that doesn’t make sense the first time they read it, or something they want to remember.  From there, students can either use note-cards or a simple notepad or piece of paper to write down page numbers and reason for the dog ear.  This is still making students a) actively read the text and b) go back at least a second time to re-read for the reason for the dog-ear, which will help them make connections with the text.
  7. Bubble diagrams or webbing.  Have students start with 5 blank pages of paper.  In the middle of each one, have them draw a circle.  Have them write the one of the words characters, plot, quotes, questions, problems in each of the five circles. Have them then draw “legs” off the center circle.  Encourage students to add bubbles to their main circle as they learn things about each of the five main circles.  Allow them to write what they learn, as they learn it about each of the five topics.  For students who can’t handle 5 pages, limit to two or three topics, or have classes work in small groups to complete their work and compare notes each week or so.
  8. Give students an outline.  This is something most of our Literature Guides offer.  Our “Note-taking and Summarizing” activities ask students to outline chapters or sections, looking for specifics about the novel, such as major characters, plot events, setting, important quotes, personal responses/thoughts, questions about the chapter, and predictions about what will come.  Often, having a familiar outline will help students learn the most important aspects they should be looking for in a novel.  Once they can find the basics (i.e. characters, conflicts, etc.) naturally, they will be able to move on to more complex aspects of text analysis, such as symbolism, irony, and such. Be sure to model at least the first chapter, working together as a class to actively use the text and the note-taking sheet to find important notes.
  9. Create a Facebook page for the novel your class is reading.  Title it something like “Mrs. Smith’s classes for the study of Romeo and Juliet.” Have students post notes, interact with each other in discussions and share comments.  You will have to monitor this one, however, or it could become a breeding ground for sharing answers!  It is also important to check with your school/district for their rules for the use of Facebook in instruction.  Be sure that rules about conduct are clear.

Of course, be sure to have students remove stickies, tags, notecards, and fix dog-ears before returning the books to the library, or you will surely then tick off the librarian!

(originally posted 3/1/2011)

Good luck!


3 thoughts on “Nine tips for taking notes in a book (without ticking off your librarian!)

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