Reading and Note Making

    The information on this page has been developed as part of the Teaching International Students project 

    Developing better reading and note making skills may be especially important for many international students who have had very different previous experiences with reading than that expected in UK programmes, and who often have not encountered the necessity of making and using their own notes.  Issues of language capability, too, are relevant.

    Many student guides specifically address the needs of international students and suggest ways they can become better readers; some are suggested under ‘additional resources’ below.  This section looks at how teachers can encourage all students to be more critical and discerning when they read.  It also suggests how to help students generate effective notes for using later when they think and reflect, solve problems, and write.

    One challenge in encouraging lecturers to focus on helping students develop their reading is its relative ‘invisibility’.  When students write, the results are tangible yet an experienced English Language teacher affirms the central role of reading: ‘in my experience, weak reading ability is frequently behind students' problems with writing.’  Making time for specifically supporting students’ reading and note making in already full modules and courses also takes careful planning, usually by organising interventions at the programme level. 

    You will find related material in sections devoted to academic writing , avoiding plagiarism, and critical thinking.  The resource on lecturing also makes points about note taking in that context. 

    The main issues:  getting started

    Issues which have a particular impact on international students’ reading include:

    • How students previously read texts
    • Students’ previous access to and use of libraries
    • Whether or not students are able to make the link between reading and making notes for future use
    • Students’ reading speed

    Students’ previous experience with reading for learning

    Students around the world will be using the same word - ‘reading’ - but are sometimes describing practices which differ from those expected for UK study. Many students have relied on reading a set text for passing an examination and some have never read a book outside of school; some have not encountered academic journals or research reports, either because they were not seen as relevant or due to resource limitations in their previous institutions.

    Reading for whole text mastery is common in many undergraduate studies. One undergraduate from Greece described reading her text over 30 times in order to be able to answer examination questions (Timm, 2008) which is clearly a different approach than reading a text as source material for later reuse in coursework or for problem solving.  Some students arrive with only skills for the former and many express surprise at being asked to read several authors on the same topic whose views differ from each other or from that of the recommended text book.

    Students expectations and assumptions about reading will take time and support to shift to using texts in new ways and their skills will progressively develop through practice. 

    Students’ understanding of the link between Libraries and learning

    Many students struggle to use libraries well but for some, open ‘stacks’ and a central catalogue are unknowns.   Some have never selected their own reading materials for study purposes. Timms (2008) describes visiting Indian university libraries, ranging from world class research facilities, which ‘had little impact on students as they were not admitted as users’, to small rural facilities where the library was ‘one large reading room with a guard…[B]ooks were neatly lined up on the tables, spine upwards and untouched. Students did use the room but none were observed to read or write.  The Library was their social space for small group meetings, banter and laughter ’  (Timm, 2008, p. 28).

    Making notes when reading

    This might be a new idea for many students including UK students whose highlighter pens are often in constant use as they read.  Making notes, on the other hand, requires a reader to engage with the ideas in the text and transform the original text, perhaps through a summary or by noting key points, into ‘their own words’. These transformations can be key to students using others’ words and ideas appropriately in their academic writing. At this point, they also need to understand the difference between quotation and citation.

    Reading speed 

    Schmitt (2005) notes that non-native readers of English often require three times longer than their native speaker peers to read a text.  The rate drops further at the start of a programme when all students’ vocabulary in the discipline is developing or where the text is written in complex language. Students may have good English language skills but may be unprepared for the often complex language and concepts in academic texts and may take considerably longer in trying to decode meaning.

    Possible solutions:  suggestions for action

    One place to start is by thinking about the overall amount of reading you set for students, especially where some are still developing their capability in English. You might think about:

    • including a realistic statement about reading time in the course handbook. It may be difficult to estimate a time that fits all students but your best guess might alert students who are taking far longer to the need to seek out more efficient reading strategies.  Some are suggested in the guides listed in ‘additional resources’ below.
    • Creating differentiated reading lists.  Early course handbooks could define a reading list then distinguish between essential ‘must-read’ texts, additional texts (stating what this means) and optional extras.  One international student describes how he went one step further:
      • I read every article [on the list] with my dictionary.  It was terrible.  One student asked me to join a reading group and this was great.  The four of us divided the list and each read one then we met and talked about it then decided if we needed to read it ourselves.  We saved so much time and energy’ (Reinders, Moore & Lewis, 2008, p. 85)
    • Annotating reading lists.  Explain why each text is included and what students will find useful from reading it.
    • Seeking out accessible, clear texts.  This is probably especially important towards the start of a programme. If you are not sure about a text’s readability, English Language specialists are usually happy to provide advice.  Ryan (2005) suggests using electronic materials for faster searching of relevant information, providing glossaries of key terms and concepts, and ensuring students get lists early – all pointers that reflect the importance of time and understandability.
    • Model reading of a key text, demonstrating effective strategies for identifying the usefulness of a text, or in gaining an overall picture of the central themes and arguments prior to a full reading. This may include first looking at key information such as titles and section headings, abstracts, introductions and conclusions, and topic sentences.

    As well as examining what you ask students to read, you can help students become more critical readers, defined by Reinders et al. (2008) as ‘not only to be able to understand the meaning of a text but also to be able to assess its value’ (p. 99). Grasso (2005) refers to critical reading as requiring the ability to recognise hidden assumptions, bias and the author’s motives, all of which assumes considerable shared background cultural knowledge between reader and author. Where this is not the case, teacher intervention becomes even more important.  

    To support students in embarking on this difficult and possibly unfamiliar way of reading, you might provide structure through:

    • trigger questions to accompany texts
    • templates to record particular aspects or characteristics in the text
    • a reading log where students summarise what they have read.

    All are likely to be more effective if you discuss the entries in subsequent classes and make explicit links to students’ academic writing. Discussion also helps students judge issues of authority and reliability, perhaps asking ‘What’s the difference between the reading for this week and something you find on Wikipedia?’  Interaction and structured monitoring help all students assess the ‘value’ of what they read. 

    Build links with the library and use of library expertise early in a programme

    The proliferation of online and electronic sources of information continues to reshape the role of libraries in tertiary education.  However, critical readers use libraries and library databases regularly, even if they do not physically go to them.

    By building library use into an authentic task early in their programmes, teachers can enhance students’ awareness of what a UK university library offers and how it can be used.  Many international students rate Librarians as a key and accessible source of help and support and the earlier they discover this, the better for their later success.

    Help students keep track of what they read

    Postgraduate programmes often build in ways to record reading, perhaps through software packages to record bibliographic details or requiring students to use cover sheets with headings (e.g. title, full reference, themes, content notes, action to be done as a result of reading).  Students then use the template and complete it for each article, book  or report they read.  Where such activities are designed into programmes, monitored and above all, discussed, they are more likely to occur in the first place and to feed into writing, tutorials or supervisions. Undergraduates may need equally structured ways of building a personal reading collection. 

    Find ways to support and encourage note making

    The first step might be signaling the value of notes.  You could include mention of notes in task briefs or list them as steps in the research process.  Some teachers ask for them to be shared and peer reviewed alongside drafts or stop briefly in lectures to give students a chance to review their own notes or to compare their notes with those of their neighbour. 
    Some teachers talk to students about useful note making strategies. One example, under the title  ‘Making notes to support critical reading’ (Cottrell, 2005, p. 153-164) tells students what to do, provides templates and examples, and explains why the effort is worthwhile.  Note making skills are especially important for students who are not confident of their English.  They risk retaining too close a copy of the original text in their notes unless they adopt a strategy based on summary rather than quotations and paraphrasing (Shi, 2004).  The use of Mind Maps or other concept mapping techniques can also be useful for students in identifying key ideas and information and connections between them.  The ubiquitous highlighter prompts Godfrey (2010, p. 91) to advise ‘Go easy on the highlighter’ and makes  a case for occasional use in margins to denote useful sections or even better, in students’ own notes to point to key elements.

    Top Tip

    Think about the amount of unseen reading you ask students to do in examinations.

    When Schmitt (2007) investigated this issue by looking through several years of papers across all faculties in one UK university she found wide variation and cause for concern:

    A number of the exams reviewed use case studies; the length of these ranges from one paragraph to 12 pages ….. The reading load of case studies is very likely to have a negative impact on EFL students’ performance on an exam due to their slower reading speed.  This is even true if they have been given the case study to read in advance.  Case study questions require that students repeatedly refer back to the case study and their notes while they write.  EFL students will require more time for this reading than will native speaker students.

    Attending to the overall reading load means teachers can reduce these concerns and improve all students’ ability to show their knowledge rather than their reading speed. 


    Guides for students

    Cottrell, S. (2005) Critical thinking skills:  Developing effective analysis and argument (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan)
    [Covers more than reading and shows how skills are integrated]

    Godfrey, J. (2010) Reading and making notes (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan)
    [A short but very practical text]

    Reinders, H., Moore, N. & Lewis, M. (2008) The international student handbook (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan)
    This is 12-chapter book takes students through the skills they will need to succeed, using clear English, numerous examples and useful exercises. 

    Additional reading

    Grasso, S. (2005) Academic reading: How do we teach it and test it in EAP courses?’ Proceedings of the 18th Annual English Australia Education Conference, 29 September to 1 October 2005, Brisbane, Australia

    Ryan, J. (2005) Improving teaching and learning practices. In J. Carroll & J. Ryan (Eds), Teaching international students:  Improving learning for all. (London: Routledge)

    Shi, L (2004) Textual borrowing in second language writing. Written Communication, 21(10), 171-200.

    Timm, A. (2008) Final report on educational practices in India. Student Diversity and Academic Writing Project.

    Timm, A. (2008) Final report on educational practices in Greece. Student Diversity and Academic Writing Project.