English as a second language learners: Does confidently utilizing your English skills seem like a far off pipe dream? Has your professor or teacher ever encouraged you to take notes during lectures, only to be met with skeptic, blank stares and disbelief?

While it may sound way out of your league to simultaneously listen, process, and record the lecture at hand, it honestly isn’t- and you should really stop doubting yourself! In fact, not only is it within your realm of possibility, but a little discipline and commitment to this one act will yield a myriad of results, including an immense improvement of your language skills. Beyond widening your vocabulary and improving your comprehension ability, taking notes during your English language class will help you retain focus and maintain attention.

Ready to become a more attentive listener, a more engaged student, and a more better English speaker (oh, the irony in that last clause!)?

Why Note Taking is Challenging for English Language Learners

Not only is note taking a generally difficult skill to obtain, it is uniquely difficult when you are trying to develop this skill in a foreign language. What actively contributes to these added challenges?

1. Your short term memory in English sucks

While it is relatively easy for you to mentally retain information in your mother tongue, it’s very difficult for you to spit out words, sentences, or concepts in English. Even if your friend or teacher gave you something simple to memorize, reciting it later on is always an added challenge. In fact, your short-term memory muscle in English is out of shape. Since you do not give regular attention to recalling information, your skills are weak.

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 by word. This is fine for a while, but unrealistic in the grand scheme of English-learning-things. No wonder you are averse to taking notes in class – it is impossible for even a native English speaker to accurately record every. last. spoken. word. This is not a lesson in dictation – avoid punctuating your interpreting and instead listen for key concepts in the string of words.

3. Cultural references trip you up

With or without realising it, many English speakers tip their hats to different cultural references casually during conversation. While mentioning Santa Clause or Michael Jackson may seem like common knowledge to a native English speaker, these referrals can really confuse someone who isn’t “in the know.” This happens way more often than anyone cares to admit, and as an English as a second language speaker, it’s only normal for this to prove an added difficulty in your overall understanding of a conversation.

Despite this extra layers of challenges for English language learners, it is not impossible for you to take notes while actively listening to a conversation or lecture.

Benefits of Note Taking

You might be wondering if it’s worth all of the trouble- but trust us when we tell you that it 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 different parts of your brain.

If you are going to take notes in class, commit to doing it in the target language (which in this case is English!). Avoid writing in a weird hybrid of your native tongue and English, or simply taking notes in your native tongue; it’s ineffective and tricks you into falsely believing that you are being productive.

Tips for Effective Note Taking

Not all note taking was created equal. Instead of letting the added challenges hold you back and keep you from acquiring this highly effective language learning skill, here are some ideas to overcome the obstacles:

1. Be an organized note taker

Add dates and titles to your notes, add stars or underlines to highlight key points, write in an outline, and, perhaps most importantly, write legibly (otherwise all of your efforts would go to waste, d’oh!).

2. Start slow

Having the capacity to focus for hours on end in a foreign language is a mental workout. Build up your stamina for this level of concentration slowly and over time. Commit to taking notes for 10 minutes of class, then the next 15, and the next 20, and so on, until you feel comfortable and able to effectively take notes in class.

3. Copy your professor

If your instructor deems a subject important enough to write it on the blackboard or dry erase board, that probably means it’s a pretty key topic. Similarly, if your professor draws a graph or image to illustrate a point, attempt to duplicate the drawing in your notebook. Take extra care to copy these items directly into your notes.

4. Come to class prepared to listen and learn

Avoid showing up to class without any knowledge of what the day’s lesson will entail. Professors hand out syllabi for a reason. It is your responsibility, as a student, to come to class having a basic grasp of lesson ahead – simply reading, or scanning, the material before you go to class is a simple method and will provide context.

Instead of the material being brand new and needing digestion, you will be more equipped to discern which pieces of information are important (AKA worth jotting down) or extraneous (AKA worth skipping over).

5. Bring note taking instruments to class with you

This may seem a bit silly to tack onto our list of tips, but you would be shocked how many students show up to class without the basic tools. Make sure you have your pen and paper at the ready, otherwise note taking is going to be very difficult (if not impossible).

You might consider packing an emergency notebook and pencil in the depths of your backpack just in case you find yourself in a pickle…

6. Re-read your notes later

Your notes will be especially useful as a review tool later on in the course. Immediately after class, while the concepts or your unanswered questions are still fresh in your mind, revisit your notebook and flesh out any remaining details. Look up the answers to your questions or briefly research areas that are still confusing. Take additional notes. Check your grammar or rewrite sentences in more formal language.

Double whammy – not only will you be retaining the class subjects, you will also be improving your language skills.

Warning Alert!

I 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 your notes, you are more tempted to copy your professor’s words exactly. While this may seem like a better system overall, you are actually doing yourself a disservice. By regurgitating the instructor’s lesson word for word, you are bypassing and essentially skipping the step of truly summarizing and relaying ideas.

Don’t take the easy way out and opt to take notes on your laptop. 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.”

Besides, are you really strong enough to resist the temptation of your Facebook newsfeed? Can you hold off Stumbleupon for a couple of hours until today’s classes are over? You think you can? Well, with a laptop beneath your fingers it’s incredibly unlikely. For improving retention and actually benefiting from the act of note taking, do yourself a favor and keep it to pen and paper- your newsfeed is still going to be there once you finish.

Short-cuts for taking class notes faster

Here are some common short cuts that English-language speakers use to expedite their note taking process in class. If your professor talks a million miles a minute or you are having trouble keeping up, these handy abbreviated writings will come in very useful:

Short Hand                                                       Long Form

w/                                                                                      with

w/o                                                                               without

b4                                                                                  before

p. or pg.                                                                           page

+                                                                                       plus

=                                                                                     equal

–                                                                                      minus

#                                                                                   number

^                                                                               increasing

v                                                                               decreasing

—>                                                                                leads to

etc.                                                                            and so on

&                                                                                         and

>                                                                            greater than

<                                                                                 less than

2                                                                             to, too, two

vs.                                                                                  versus

%                                                                                 per cent

Q                                                                                 question

A                                                                                   answer

lb                                                                                    pound

Most importantly, remember to be consistent when utilising short hand writing, or your notes might end up being even more confusing!

In conclusion…

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 wizard in no time. Until then, happy scribbling!

Image via Shutterstock.

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