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Note taking can be a real challenge for pupils with dyslexia and similar conditions. But there are some simple things you can do to help level the playing field – Special Children investigates.

Listen, understand, record. It’s a simple three-step process for most of us, but for others it can be one of the most challenging tasks to master in school. This is especially true for students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia. The problem might have to do with any of the processes involved in recording information: organisation, comprehension, working memory and handwriting skills. So essential is fast and accurate note taking in further and higher education that many institutions publish their own advice for students, generally as part of broader guidance on effective study skills.

Child writing notes

Many schools also offer advice on study skills, especially when pupils reach the sixth form, but as with FE and HE counterparts the focus is all too often on what the student needs to do. The general assumption until recently was that all teachers were effective teachers who made the aim and content of their lessons accessible to all students. The BDA’s Dyslexia Friendly Schools Pack, which can be downloaded from its website, includes useful checklists of what good primary and secondary teachers should do to ensure that all pupils benefit from a lesson. The points are drawn directly from pupils’ comments:

Primary

  • At the start of the lesson, they are clear about what they want us to do.
  • Show us as well as tell us.
  • Give us time to listen.
  • Use pictures and structural material – these make it easier to understand.
  • Show enthusiasm for the subject.
  • Let us ask questions – check that we are doing it right.
  • Help when we get stuck.
  • Are patient with our mistakes and when we need help.
  • Are nice to us – please do not shout when we get it wrong.
  • Create a peaceful classroom.

Secondary

  • Understand us and spend time helping us.
  • Prepared to repeat instructions.
  • Happy to answer questions.
  • Proactively check we are doing it right.
  • Explain, check that we understand – if not, explain with pictures.
  • Write things down clearly – preferably on a white board.
  • Teach the basic information ‘without rambling on about other things’.
  • Smile when we ask for help – explain it again and do at least two examples with us.

The BDA says that while both primary and secondary pupils seemed to place more importance on a teacher’s personal characteristics than on the provision of support materials, the importance of quality support materials was also mentioned by both groups. In particular they appreciate it when teachers:

  • use a white board
  • number lines at both ends – different coloured lines can be helpful
  • leave instructions/spellings etc on the board for a long time
  • prepare individual crib sheets to minimise copying from the board
  • make audio recordings of homework instructions
  • accept and encourage work to be presented in different forms – audio recordings, webcam, oral responses, etc: ‘You choose the best way to show me what you know for this task.’

As useful as these tips are, they don’t eliminate the need for note taking. Pupils still need to learn how to take notes effectively and to know what help is available to achieve this. Here are our top five tips for you to pass on:

Refine your note-taking skills

There are whole books devoted to the subject of note taking. One of our favourites is the booklet Reading and Taking Notes published in 2007 by the Open University as part of its Skills for OU Study series. If reading a book on the subject seems daunting there is lots of free information on the internet (see below).

Four reasons are usually given for taking notes: to summarise the main points of what you read, hear or see; to aid recall later; to assist with revision; and to help you concentrate. To be effective, notes need to be organised, re-read and reviewed. It is a good idea to review notes with your peers as they may have covered things you missed, and explaining your notes to other people is a good way of making sure you understand what you’ve written down. Some authors distinguish between note taking and note making – the former involves simply recording what you read, hear or see, while the latter requires creatively reviewing your notes to draw out the most important points and connections and add your own comments or critical remarks.

The most common form of note taking is linear. Linear notes involve writing short summaries, often using abbreviations. Specialist systems such as Pitman shorthand or Teeline exist for those who need to take notes as part of their job. One popular method of recording and organising linear notes is the Cornell Note-taking System. This uses a simple grid that divides an A4 page into three: a narrow column on the left, a wide column on the right and a horizontal panel at the bottom of the page. Notes are made in the right-hand column, comments or questions in the left-hand column and a summary of the notes in the bottom panel. A template of this and a lot of other useful information can be found at http://lsc.sas.cornell.edu/Sidebars/Study_Skills_Resources/SKResources.html

Use mind maps

An alternative to linear note taking/ making, especially for pupils with specific learning difficulties, is the use of visual diagrams, often referred to as mind maps. Mind mapping was developed by Tony Buzan after critically reviewing his own note taking practices. What he realised was that in his linear notes he struggled to identify which were the most important concepts or ideas. So he began to look for ways of making associations. This led to him placing the most important idea at the centre of a diagram and connecting it with other ideas and concepts using colour-coded branches incorporating words, symbols and images.

While the end hand-drawn product may look like a work of art – and be more memorable for that very reason – more and more students are using mindmapping software. Tony Buzan now has his own range, iMindMap, which is available for Windows and Mac operating systems and also for use on the iPhone and iPad. Popular alternatives that are worth investigating are Inspiration, available in the UK from TAG, and MindView, available from Matchware. The latter also has the facility to effortlessly create timelines, which is a useful feature for planning projects or organising time-related notes. Both Inspiration and MindView run on Windows and Mac platforms. One of the obvious advantages of mind mapping software over hand-drawn mind maps is that they can be changed very easily: decide that the key idea you have placed at the centre of your mind map is the wrong one and you can quickly replace it with another and leave the software to do the hard work of redrawing your map. Mind mapping software also allows you to link concepts and ideas to other files outside the program and to export mind maps to word processing packages like Word or presentation packages like PowerPoint.

Improve your working memory

Another thing that students who struggle with note taking can do is to improve their working memory. Working memory is usually understood as the ability to hold and use a limited amount of information in our minds for a relatively short period of time. It is a crucial skill in note taking, as students are often required to follow a teacher’s line of argument or explanation while recording the key points.

Simple techniques exist for improving working memory including the use of memory games, mnemonics and chunking (the grouping of numbers or objects into ‘chunks’ so that they can be remembered more easily). More controversial is the use of supplements such as omega-3 or so-called ‘smart drugs’ that some researchers say can improve working memory. These include the drug Ritalin, which is frequently prescribed to children with ADHD.

Software is also available to improve working memory. One of the best-known products is Mastering Memory from the Communications and Learning Skills Centre (CALSC). There are two versions of the software: one for children aged 2-11 and one for secondary age children and adults. It is similar to some of the card-based memory games in that it presents a sequence of pictures on screen that the child tries to remember. The objects, which are of animals, food, transport, sport paraphernalia and other items, are presented visually and/or auditorially and the teacher or parent can adjust the sequence, speed and number of images to suit the aptitude of the child. Another popular choice is Memory Booster from Lucid Research, which helps the child to develop good memory strategies, to organise information efficiently, and to practise the skills necessary for effective learning and recall of information.

Learn to touch type

Using a laptop to take notes

For children with handwriting difficulties who are planning to take notes on a laptop it is essential to learn to touch type. This has the added advantage of not just helping with note taking but also with producing legible written work. As learning to touch type inevitably involves repetitive exercises it is important to find some way of injecting fun into the training, especially if young children are involved.

According to the charity AbilityNet, as a rule of thumb, a child needs to have a spelling age of around at least seven years old to progress well with learning to touch type. It also suggests that a child should have a typing speed that is equal to, or surpasses handwriting speed before a keyboard is used as a regular recording aid in the classroom.

A good example of a visually attractive typing tutor is Dance Mat Typing, available free on the BBC website. This uses a family of cartoon characters with quirky accents to lead you through a 12-stage programme to become a top typist. If you are looking for a commercial program then there are several available. One of our favourites is Nessy Fingers (Windows and Mac). It is beautifully illustrated, easily personalised and motivational. You can try it yourself by downloading a free demo from the Nessy Fingers website.

Other popular choices are Typing Instructor for Kids (Windows and Mac) from Individual Software, EnglishType Junior from English Type and KAZ’s Typing Tutor, which says it will teach a child to touch type in 90 minutes and was shortlisted for a BETT Award in 2006. Less graphically intense is Touchtype Read and Spell (ttrs), a computer-based course designed not only to teach a child or adult to touch type but to teach spelling and reading as well. 

Record lessons 

However good your note taking becomes or however fast you are at typing, there is something very reassuring about knowing that you have the safety net of a recording of what was said. There are lots of simple voice recorders available with Olympus and Sony among the best-known brands. However, recording a lesson can place a huge strain on students if they have to go through the whole recording a second time to find the relevant information. One solution is Audio Notetaker (Windows only) from Sonocent, which allows you to break your recording up into segments, colour code them, play them back at different speeds and insert notes and images alongside selected sections.

An interesting variation on using standard recorders is the Livescribe series of smartpens. These use proprietary stationery known as dot paper to link hand-written notes to audio recordings. Just tap on your notes and the pen replays what was recorded at that time. You can even alter the speed at which the recording replays. Connect the smartpen to your computer and it will automatically transfer your notes and audio recordings to Livescribe Desktop where you can search for key words. You can create custom notebooks by combining pages, you can transcribe them using a downloadable application (a charge is involved), you can save pages as PDFs and you can export audio files for listening to on your MP3 player.

The only real limitation of any form of recorder is how good the microphone is and how noisy the environment in which you are using it. Thankfully there are now very good external microphones that can be used with both traditional recorders and smartpens which means other than in a very unruly classroom there is no reason why you should miss a word. 

Resources 

Open University (2007) Reading and Taking Notes (ISBN 0-749-21266)

iMindmap – www.ThinkBuzan.com

Inspiration – www.inspiration.com

Mindview – www.matchware.com/en/products/mindview/default.htm

Mastering Memory – www.masteringmemory.co.uk

Memory Booster – www.lucidresearch.com/sales/esales.htm?category_id=31&product_id=194

Dance Mat Typing –www.bbc.co.uk/schools/typing/

Nessy Fingers – www.nessyfingers.co.uk

Typing Instructor for Kids – http:// download.cnet.com/Typing-Instructorfor- Kids-4/3000-2051_4-10803497.html

EnglishType Junior – www.englishtype.com/junior.php?subMenu=1

Touch-type Read and Spell – www.touchtypereadspell.co.uk

Audio Notetaker – www.audionotetaker.com

Livescribe – www.livescribe.com

First published in Special Children, issue : 
198
December 2010

See also