English as a Second Language (ESL) learners: does English fluency feel near impossible to achieve? Is your mind so focused on listening during class that there’s little room for anything else? Are your teacher’s pleas for you to jot down notes ever met with blank stares and sighs of disbelief?
— BBC Learning English (@bbcle) 14 August 2018
While simultaneously listening, processing and recording can sound like a challenge, you really should have faith in yourself. Despite its bad rep, science has shown that the human brain actually likes it when we multi-task.
Rest assured that the simple act of taking notes breeds a wealth of benefits, including huge improvement to your language skills. Beyond widening your vocabulary and improving comprehension, note taking can help you maintain focus in even the most complicated subjects.
Why is note taking such a challenge for ESL learners?
1. Your short term memory in English sucks
While it might be easy for you to retain information in your mother tongue, you find it hard to master words, sentences or concepts in English. Even if your friend or teacher gives you something simple to memorise, recalling it later on is no easy feat. Your English short-term memory muscle is out of shape. If you don’t give regular attention to your recalling capabilities, your skills in this field will likely remain weak.
This little chimp is flexing his memory muscles! Source: Giphy
2. You digest words, not sentences
Rather than listening to an entire idea and mentally filling in the blanks, you hear English sentences word by word instead. This is fine for a while, but unrealistic in the grand scheme of English language learning.
It’s no wonder you’re worried about taking notes in class – it’s impossible for even a native English speaker to accurately record every. last. spoken. word. But remember: this isn’t a lesson in dictation. Forget perfect grammar and punctuation, instead listen for key concepts in every string of words.
3. Cultural references trip you up
English speakers have a habit of dropping casual cultural references into conversation. While they are considered common knowledge among natives, these referrals can really confuse someone who isn’t ‘in the know’. This happens way more often than anyone cares to admit, and in terms of ESL, this can be just another hurdle on your path to fluency.
Despite the extra layers of challenge for English language learners, it’s not impossible for you to take notes while actively listening in on a lecture or a conversation.
Pens at the ready… Source: Giphy
Benefits of Note Taking
You might be wondering if it’s really worth all the trouble – but trust us when we tell you that it truly is. Note taking in English will keep your mind at its peak performance for a sustained amount of time. You will simultaneously be engaging many parts of your brain.
If you’re going to take notes, commit to doing it in the target language (which in this case is English!). Avoid writing in a complicated blend of your native tongue and English, or simply taking notes in your native tongue – it’s ineffective and tricks you into falsely believing you’re being productive.
Tips for Effective Note Taking
Rather than let these challenges hold you back and keep you from gaining English proficiency, here are some ideas to help you overcome these obstacles:
1. Be an organized note taker
me taking notes in class when i have no idea what’s going on pic.twitter.com/mCXcrl9nyf
— oliver blank (@blank_oliver) 16 August 2018
Add dates and titles to your notes, use stars or underlines to highlight key points and, perhaps most importantly, write legibly – otherwise your efforts will go to waste!
2. Start off slow
3. Copy your professor
If your instructor deems a subject important enough to write on the board, that probably means it’s a pretty key topic. Similarly, if your professor draws a graph or image to illustrate a point, duplicate the drawing in your notebook. Take extra care to copy these items clearly and accurately.
4. Come to class fully prepared to listen and learn
Avoid showing up without any knowledge of what the day’s lesson is about. Professors hand out course material for a reason. It’s your responsibility to come to class with a basic grasp of the lesson ahead – simply reading, or even scanning, the material before you go to class is a simple method and will provide context.
Instead of the material being new and needing digestion, you’ll be able to determine which bits are most important (AKA: worth jotting down) or additional knowledge (AKA: worth skipping over).
5. Bring note taking instruments with you to class
This may seem silly to tack onto our list, but you’d be surprised how many students show up to class without the basic tools. Make sure you have your pen and paper at the ready, otherwise taking notes will be, well, impossible.
Consider packing an emergency notebook and pencil in the depths of your backpack in case you ever find yourself in a note taking pickle!
6. Re-read your notes later on
Your notes will be useful for revision later on in the course. Immediately after class, while concepts and unanswered questions are still fresh in your mind, revisit your notebook and flesh out remaining details. Look up answers to your questions or briefly research areas you still find confusing. Take additional notes. Check your grammar or rewrite sentences in more formal language.
Whenever I see someone taking notes during the homily pic.twitter.com/gX4v7B9mB2
— The Papal Bull 🇻🇦 (@ShamelessPapist) 16 August 2018
Not only will you be retaining information, you will be improving your language skills as well. Double whammy!
We know what you’re thinking: “Okay, I’ll take notes – but I’ll take them on my laptop! Typing is easier and I can do it faster!”
While this may be true, keep in mind that when typing notes, you’re more tempted to copy your professor’s words exactly. While this may seem like a better system overall, you’re actually doing yourself a disservice. By regurgitating the instructor’s lesson word for word, you’re bypassing and essentially skipping the step of truly summarising and relaying ideas.
As the Oxford University Press website reports:
“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.”
Taking notes in your native tongue is hard. Taking notes in English is harder. But what good things in life come easy? All you need is a bit of practice and you’ll be a note-taking, English-speaking wizard in no time at all. Until then, happy scribbling!