top of page

Subscribe for a free High School English Teacher's Playbook

  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

The 4 Essentials of Reading Checks and Note-taking

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

If we want students to be lifelong learners and readers, we need to make reading as fun and painless as possible. When I explain note-taking to my students, I stress that reading should be pleasurable, not stressful. We want students to read like they’re taking in every word of a love letter, not like they’re a lawyer, scanning for essential facts. Inspiring teenagers to love reading long, complex novels is one of the most difficult things about teaching literature.

Why Students Might Not Read

There are a lot of reasons why our students might not read the book. It could be because they don’t have a quiet place to read in their house. It could be because they struggle to read challenging texts – we often assume that all of our students read at their grade level. Many students have extracurricular activities that run late into the evening or have other courses with a high workload. Many students don’t get the right amount of sleep or don’t have the brain power left to read (a mentally challenging task) after a long day at school. I know I’m sharpest in the morning or at a library. Some students have unexpected family trips or responsibilities or other important priorities. Some students procrastinate and then feel like it’s impossible to catch up. When we expect students to read a section of a novel each night, they might lose track of the events and characters from the previous night. They might not know how to take notes or get distracted and lose focus when trying to complete a study guide. The list goes on.

Reading Checks and Assignments

Over the years, I feel like I’ve tried everything to see if they’ve read. I tried one kind of quiz that involved a short answer to a question about the assigned section. For a few years, I would ask them to describe three or four really important scenes from the novel with as much detail as possible to prove that they read. I tried picking random quotes and asking students to talk about the style or narration. They could always read an online summary and provide a decent amount of detail to justify a reasonable grade. I tried study guides, but I found that my students just exchanged answers. At some point, I realized that quizzes have no real value and that they stressed everyone out.

I eventually came to terms with the fact that there’s always a way around the system, even with online tools. It feels like an impossible task: prove to me that you’ve read this novel, not the online summary. We could give in and assign texts that don’t really challenge them. Or get rid of reading checks altogether and let the essay speak for itself. I wanted a reading check that had meaning, so I simply told them to take notes. They loved it.

The 4 Essentials of Note-taking

Here’s a few essential things I’ve discovered about how to assign notes:

1. Taking notes is an important skill for any subject and in life.

When you take a note, you’re writing down something you don’t want to forget. It left a mark on you for some unexplainable reason, and you’ll figure out that reason later. I take notes when I sit down for a meeting with my supervisor, a faculty meeting, professional development and even when I’m on the phone. After I take notes, I reread them, and think about them. It’s when we develop our independent ideas – not just the ideas of the writer, our ideas. That’s the essential part of the note – the original thought. Student should have a record of their independent interpretation of the text before they hear the thoughts of their teacher and classmates. Students should take notes on class discussions, but they should always return to the notes they took when they read the book, because that’s their original thought before it morphed into something else.

2. Students should determine when and how much they want to read.

This allows a student to go on that family trip and catch up on reading the following week. They might rehearse for the play on weeknights and instead decide to read in the morning on the weekend. If they are the type of reader that forgets events and characters after reading for fifteen or twenty minutes each night, they might decide to read a larger chunk of the novel on the weekend or when there’s a day off school. They can look at four to six weeks in their planner and find a time to read that works for them. They can see when they have a science project coming up and avoid reading during that time altogether. I don’t check their reading at any point because I want them to learn how to create their own schedule. I also don’t assign any other homework other than reading. Classwork is classwork and I don’t expect them to take it home. I get everything done in class, so they have as much time as possible to read the text. When I assign a due date, I give them as much time as possible to read the text and I always ask them if they think it’s enough time to complete the novel. Some years I felt like I covered too many novels, so I added projects that didn’t involve homework to give them more time to read.

3. Notes contain the foundation of independent thought.

I describe a note as including any important information about the book, like a quote, summary, or analysis. Notes should be a combination of those three things because they’re all essential – details about the plot and characters, memorable or significant quotes, and their own independent thoughts about the book. Notes should not just be all summary, or all quotes, or all interpretation. The note does not need to be a complete sentence and can be the length of one line on their paper. They are just thoughts - not finalized, not formalized, not logical. Notes could be in different colors and include drawings and shapes, but they should always have a page number for future citations. I also ask them to track a topic of their choice by placing a star or asterisk next to the note related to the topic. I’m always surprised when students don’t know how to take notes, so I always offer examples.

4. Notes don’t have to get in the way of reading.

I expect them to take a note at least every five pages of text. This way, they show me they haven’t skipped reading large portions of the book, but it’s also a way to acknowledge that there’s always something worth thinking about. I only collect the finished notes, so they can take notes after one chapter, a few chapters, or after reading the entire text. This way, they can enjoy reading and then go back and complete the assignment. I’ve allowed students to submit the novel itself with a bunch of post-it notes stuck to different pages.

Scott Cameron

online professional development for high school English teachers

353 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page