This blog post is all about why I think Cornell notes are beneficial for students, and tips on how to make them easier for teachers. If you don't want to read my background story on how I came to love them and you just want the nitty-gritty, skip to the bottom of the post :)
My first year teaching was at an AVID demonstration school. If you are familiar with the AVID program, they require students to use Cornell notes during class. I was fresh out of college and had never heard of them before. I was really excited to use interactive notebooks and to be honest I wasn't thrilled with having a set note-taking format I had to use. It felt like I spent the first month of school telling students what to write on the left side of their notes, and what to write on the right side. Getting them to write summaries was like pulling teeth. BUT, after a couple of months things got easier, and students got better at knowing what to write. Eventually students enjoyed having structure instead of messy note pages. I tried my best to make sure my powerpoint slides had clear questions and bolded vocabulary so students knew exactly what to write and what was important. I initially tried to get students to write the summary for homework, but I soon realized they just weren't going to do it. Enter plan B. Instead I would go back the next day and have them review their notes and write the summary for bellwork. It was a great way to refresh their memories on what they learned the previous day. Then I would call on 2 or 3 students to read their summaries out loud, which increased the stakes for writing in complete sentences and explaining things in their own words, not just regurgitating vocabulary words and definitions. Often times students would even call each other out, and say things like "You forgot to answer the essential question!" By the end of the school year my little 6th graders were champs at taking notes.
Fast forward 10 years and I now teach a class of seniors who are taking college biology through duel enrollment. One of the entrance requirements to this duel enrollment course is for students to have been in AVID all 4 years of high school. It has been amazing to see them take notes without asking, and not just during standard lectures. We have had multiple guest speakers visit our classroom, and students automatically set up a notes page, write down notes and questions they have throughout the presentation, and summarize what the speaker taught them. All without groaning. THAT, my teacher friends, is amazing to see.
So in summary, here are a few things to take away...
Why Cornell notes are good for students:
If you've been teaching for a while, chances are you have had some ELL (English language learner) students in your classroom. I've known many teachers that have panicked and asked me "how can I teach them science if they don't speak English?" I think many teachers tend to think they need to dumb down the content for these students. They aren’t dumb! Your job is to make the content accessible. It’s been my experience that ELL students are amazingly hard workers and are a blast to work with. My friend Bethany Lau over at Science with Mrs. Lau and I have created a list of best-practice tips for working with ELL students. We also have some helpful resources to share with you!
Tip #1: Get them talking! A quiet classroom is not conducive to learning a new language. Many students are scared to speak out loud in English, especially in front of the entire class. To help build their confidence, try small group discussions first. To ensure that every student has spoken to his or her group, give each student something color-coded (I use colored Popsicle sticks from the dollar store). When a student speaks, they place their Popsicle stick in the center of the table. It is easy as a teacher to walk around and monitor who is speaking and who isn’t. Make it a requirement that each student has to speak at least twice during group discussions.
Tip #2: SLOW down when you are talking, and use nonverbal cues. This is much easier to do when you have all your ELL students together in one class, but when they are mixed with native English speakers we often don’t realize how fast we are talking. It is really difficult for ELL students to process when you are speaking a mile a minute. So take a deep breath, slow down, and use your hands and other nonverbal gestures. Don’t be afraid to act things out! Yes they will giggle, and yes they will love it.
Tip #3: Build vocabulary. When you teach new words, always make your students repeat the word out loud after you say it. And if they aren’t loud, make them do it again. If you have a word wall in your classroom, go down the list frequently and make your students say them with you. To help students remember the definitions, discuss prefixes and suffixes to help them decode meanings.
Find fun ways for students to practice those new words. Instead of doing vocabulary worksheets, do vocabulary games instead! Bingo is an awesome way to review vocabulary words before a test. Create a bingo card from a free online bingo-card maker such as http://osric.com/bingo-card-generator/. Type in the words you want your students to learn and print a class set. Instead of calling out the words, say the definition and the students need to cover up the correct word. If they get a bingo they need to say the words out loud in order to win a prize.
Tip #4: Utilize pictures. I used to try and translate parts of my power points into Spanish before the lesson thinking I was doing my students a favor. I quickly realized that:
a. Google translate is frequently wrong,
b. many of my students can speak fluent Spanish but can’t read it,
c. and even if they could read most of it, they didn’t know the content specific terms in Spanish. Why would I want my students to learn the word “homeostasis” in Spanish AND English? Let’s just stick with English.
Instead of translating, stick with visual pictures. Pictures transcend all languages. Include them as much as possible in your lessons and power points. Make students draw pictures in their notes. Include pictures in all your articles you want students to read. A great pre-reading activity is to have students look at the pictures and captions in an article before they read the body paragraphs. Have them guess what the article is about based on the pictures and discuss with their neighbors (get those Popsicle sticks back out). If you have a word wall in your classroom, make sure it includes pictures too! The more they see a picture associated with a new word, the more likely they will remember what it means.
Tip #5: Learn about their language and culture, and include it in your lessons when applicable. Students will have more buy-in to your lessons when they feel like their language and culture is valued. If you can connect their language to the content, chances are they will remember it better. For example, students use the term “liga” in Spanish to mean rubber band or hair elastic. When teaching “ligaments,” discuss how they are stretchy unlike tendons. Students won’t forget!
Tip #6: Use Manipulatives! Sometimes students need help learning how to structure their writing into logical paragraphs (even native English speakers need this too!) If you have sample paragraphs for them to learn from, you can print separate sentences out on separate lines, and cut them into strips. Then you can mix the sentences up and have students order them in how they should logically appear in a sentence! You can also do this for other parts of a lab report, like the procedure section or even the proper labels for a graph!
You could create your own writing structure manipulatives, or you can check out Bethany Lau’s Lab Report Writing Activity Bundle found here. She has a set of activities with manipulative for each and every part of the lab report with a lot of examples for students to learn from.
Tip #7: Get them writing as much as possible. Data shows that when students take the state language proficiency tests, they struggle the most with writing. Find ways to get students writing on a daily basis. This could work in many different formats- just find one that works for you. Daily bellwork is a great place to start, as well as having students keep writing journals. What should you have them write about? Check out these writing prompts from Science Rocks’ store! These were designed to be used before new concepts are taught, and allows the teacher to assess prior knowledge and check for misconceptions. When students are first learning English, allow them to write in their native language and plug in English words that they know. Throughout the year as their language improves you will see their writing transform from fragmented to fluid sentences.
Another great writing strategy for ELL students are sentence frames. For students still learning how to write a complete sentence, give them half the sentence first and have them fill in the blanks. For example, a hypothesis on a lab report for an ELL student could look like this: “If I change ___________, then I think ___________ will happen, because __________.”
Tip #8: Model. And then model some more. As science teachers we tend to think of “modeling” as meaning “I’ll show them how to do a lab before it’s their turn.” Modeling applies to so much more than labs.
a. Model reading strategies. As you read through articles out loud, stop and discuss. What was the main idea? What did you highlight and why?
b. Model writing strategies. When you assign those writing prompts, work through one with them first. Show them what a quality answer would look like.
c. Model behaviors. Many students will enter your classroom from different backgrounds. Behaviors that may have been acceptable where they grew up may not be acceptable in your classroom. If you want them to give a verbal presentation with eye contact, show them what a good presentation looks like first.
d. Model word pronunciation. Sometimes if students are nervous to say things in English, I have them teach me how to say the phrase in their native language first. Once they have giggled at my horrible pronunciation, they aren’t so embarrassed to pronounce things in English.
Tip #9: Modify. Yes, one more thing to add to your to-do list. But it can honestly be as simple as cutting down the number of questions for them to complete, or adding pictures to an assessment. One of my favorite websites to find nonfiction science articles on is newsela.com. Not only is it free to use, but once you find an article you can change the lexile! That means all your students can be reading the same article but at a reading level that is accessible to them.
Tip #10: Use formative assessment frequently, and celebrate gains. It’s important to check in with ELL students often. Many of them will take notes, smile, and nod during class, but only understood 20% of what was discussed. Exit tickets and note summaries are great ways to check in and see where they need help and what they have mastered. Make your exit tickets specific. Don’t just say, “One thing I still need help with is…” but instead ask them to answer a specific question related to the lesson. This will help you group them by mastery and focus on the students that really need your help. Once they have mastered a new concept or learned new vocabulary, don’t forget to celebrate! Let them know you are proud of them, and they will work harder in the future. If students feel like their hard work is recognized and celebrated, they will continue to work hard!
We’d love to hear stories from you about what helps your ELL students! Let us know in the comments!
Teaching English language learner (ELL) students is not for the faint of heart. In my teaching career, I have always had ELL students trickled throughout my classes. This year is the first year that I have had a biology class made up of entirely all ELL students. They vary in their English speaking abilities; some can speak it decently well and others moved here from Mexico only a few months ago. My main focus had to shift from being a biology teacher to being an English teacher and sprinkle in some fun science content. It has been really fun to work with them, giggle with them as they use English phrases incorrectly, and hear them giggle at me as I try and speak Spanish.
I had a humbling experience today in class that reminded me of a previous experience that happened a few years ago. This year since I have all my ELL students together, I’ve often used google translate to translate some of the vocabulary so they can read the definitions in both English and Spanish. I usually try and ask the Spanish teacher next door to proofread the Spanish and make sure it’s grammatically correct. This can be tricky in science, especially when words like “organic” mean very different things if you are in chemistry class opposed to biology class. Today I didn’t have time to get my notes proofread so I just crossed my fingers and went with it. As we were taking notes, I asked one of my students if the Spanish translation made sense. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Does that translation made sense? Is it correct?”
Student: “I don’t know, I don’t read Spanish very good.”
Me: “You can speak it but not read it? Didn’t you learn to read Spanish when you were little?”
Me: “When your parents started teaching you to read, didn’t you use books that were in Spanish?”
Student: “I didn’t learn to read until I was in kindergarten.”
Me: “Ok, well don’t you have Spanish books around the house that you’ve read as you’ve gotten older?”
Student: “The only book in the house is the bible.”
It made me sad to think these students didn’t read at home with their parents growing up. I remember looking forward to bedtime so I could read Junie B. Jones with my Mom. Books were all over the house, something I took for granted. Let me be clear- I’m not in any way suggesting these parents failed their child in some way by not reading with them. Many parents are just doing the best they can to get food on the table. Today’s experience reminded me of something that happened in my first few years of teaching middle school. We were finishing up our body systems unit and I was going to do a frog dissection with my 6th graders. I had permission slips sent home in both English and Spanish, since some parents opt out of having their child dissect for personal or religious reasons. Picture a very tired and cranky teacher at the end of the week, trying to collect 150 permission slips. I was calling on students that still hadn’t returned their forms and got to one particular student… let’s call him Jason.
Me: “Jason, do you have your permission slip?”
Me: (getting frustrated) “You’ve had a week! I really need it returned.”
Jason: “My Mom can’t read it.”
Me: (starting to raise my voice) “I sent it home in both English AND Spanish!”
Jason: (practically yelling) “MY MOM CAN’T READ!”
Now picture that tired and cranky teacher looking like she got slapped in the face. I wanted to sit down at my desk, cover my face and cry. I felt like the most insensitive teacher in the world. My heart broke for this kid. I didn’t just feel bad because I had lost patience, but because at such a young age he would have the responsibility for helping his parents read and fill out important paperwork. His 7 years of education was probably more than his parents had completed. It made me look at my job in a whole new light. It also made me so grateful for the education I was given. I’m so glad I remembered that experience today.
So to all you ELL teachers out there, remember- YOU MATTER! When you are having days where you feel like your students aren’t learning English as fast as they should, remember that they might not have had the same opportunities you had. They are doing the best they can. You have a hard but rewarding job and are making a huge difference in their life. 10 years from now those students might not remember that one awesome lab you did, but they will remember the kind teacher who for an entire year helped them learn English.
Have you heard these statements before?
"Why are we doing writing, this isn't English class!"
"Why are we doing math, this isn't math class!"
Believe it or not, in science class we integrate almost all of the content areas. The key to this integration is making the learning interesting so you don't hear the complaints. This year I am teaching a biology class of all English language learner students. I not only have to worry about teaching the students science concepts and vocabulary, but also getting them to read and write proficiently so they can pass the state language exam. It's a lot of pressure! I decided one way to get students to write more in my class was to give them fun writing prompts. I came up with 10 prompts per quarter, and would assign them periodically for homework the night BEFORE the concept was taught. Why before? I didn't want to read regurgitated class notes. I really wanted the students to think critically about the science concept and be able to assess their background knowledge. I gave students a grade for completing the homework assignment, but didn't grade them on the accuracy of the content knowledge. It is also a great way to uncover misconceptions and address them throughout the lesson. As I started using these prompts I saw my student's writing skills improve and vocabulary increase.
I not only created writing prompts for biology, but for many science content areas. Check out a freebie from each content area before you buy!
Is your school pushing you to do more literacy in the classroom? Mine sure is. I stumbled across a website that is pure gold for current articles that students will love. Newsela.com is an amazing website for a few reasons:
4. Articles come with short answer and multiple choice quiz questions you can assign students. Your prep work just got a whole lot easier.
I've never had a problem trying to find an article that fit the topic I was teaching. Check it out! What other websites do you use to find articles? Leave a comment below!
Becca of Science Rocks
Hi, I'm Becca! I've been teaching science for 10 years at both the middle and high school levels.