How I Differentiate Like a Pro Using Cornell Notes

by - May 30, 2018


I think that I've decided to make this Cornell Notes business a whole series because it has gotten so much attention. I am blown away by the feedback about my disenchantment with Interactive Notebooks and how I transitioned to Cornell Notes in my ELA classroom! I had so many people ask so many questions, so I figured that I would start with the most asked question - how I differentiate and use Cornell Notes in instruction! If you keep reading, I will be linking some great examples.

*this post contains affiliate links. If you purchase products from these links, I might make a small commission*

First of all, I recommend that you read my post about how I use Cornell Notes in my ELA classroom if you have not already. There are some good examples of Cornell Notes and an explanation of how I created my own mentor notes.

In my classroom, I teach two sheltered ESOL classes, meaning that every student in the classroom is an ESOL studnet. I have a beginning/emerging level group, and an intermediate level group. I also teach one group of SPED students in an Intensive Reading and Language Arts block. You can imagine how incredibly important good differentiation is in my situation! (In fact, if you really want to learn how to become strong at differentiating instruction, spend a few years teaching SPED or ESL students!)

Using Cornell Notes was important to me this year, but just as I hated all of the glue, I also hated trying to give students tons of notes to copy. I have students who are attending school for the very first time in their lives and may struggle with forming letters, and SPED students who struggle with fine motor skills and writing is difficult for them. I certainly cannot pop a page full of notes under my doc cam and expect them all to happily copy. This becomes a frustration for them and for me and in the end, no one has clear, concise, and effective notes.

I hate wasted time.

Differentiation is an important part of making lessons comprehensible for every student in the classroom, and when I was a new teacher, it completely confounded me. It was difficult to get every kid on the same page in my classroom in general - forget figuring out how to get them all on the same page using different paths to get there.

I have come to realize that when we are taught to utilize skills or strategies in our classrooms through Professional Development, we are often being shown how to apply things under perfect conditions by folks who are not implementing them in an actual classroom.

So my experience with learning how to differentiate in the classroom was limited to multiple PD's that overwhelmed me and created more questions than answers.

And then I started using Cornell Notes. (Seriously, if you have not read my post about this, please check it out, it's full of information and anecdotes about my epiphany).

Suddenly, differentiatng became so incredibly clear.

The problem was that my ESL and SPED students struggled to write an entire page of notes, but I wanted them to have the notes, so I needed a solution! Once I realized what I needed to do, it seemed so obvious and I felt stupid - but sometimes it's difficult to solve a problem when you are so close to it!

Students can take notes without taking all of the notes. Every single word is not important. If I create a template for students that requires them to only fill in the most important information, they are still taking the notes, right? They are following along as we discuss, they are reading my mentor notes page on the board, and they are reading their differentiated version in front of them so they can fill in the information that is missing.

So I took my mentor notes and created a black-and-white fill-in-the-blank version for each page that I can photocopy as many times as I want. Then I can have these pages on-hand for students who struggle with writing lots of information.








This is my mentor page for teaching the text structure Chronological Order. This page would sit under the document camera while I discussed each part of the notes, beginning with the vocabulary terms in the left-hand column.
















This is a differented version of the same page of notes. Some of the information is not filled in, and there are some blanks where key terms or information would need to be filled in by the student. Notice how the words that are written for them are unimportant words in each sentence or note.










I do not give these differentiated pages to every student in the classroom. Some students are capable of taking an entire page of notes, and some students need to be pushed a little bit with the expectation that they will take those notes. But there is no reason for a student to sit frustrated and struggle through pages of notes all year long.

Many students in the room begin with a blank Cornell Notes page (you can download a blank template for this here).

Notetaking is more effective, our time is better utilized, and students are being met where they are - it's a win for everyone! This method has changed my classroom so much and we spend so much more time practicing skills than taking notes or gluing crap into notebooks.

If you have any questions, or would like to share tips or ideas that have been successful in your own classroom, please do so in the comments! I love to see teachers heling one another become better, more effective teachers :)



UPDATE on August 9, 2018: 


You can now get a copy of my Cornell Notes in a full document that covers every ELA standard, including writing and grammar. This also includes a student fill-in-the-blank page! This is available on this post!








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18 comments

  1. I have just discovered your site and love the Cornell Notes section. I am encouraged to have another go using them with my Year 7 classes.

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    1. Fantastic! I am glad that this resonated with you! Good luck!

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  2. I love your ideas and very helpful examples. Last year, I switched to teaching 6th grade ELA after 18 years in elementary school. Next year, I will be teaching 6th and 7th grade ELA. I can breathe a little better with your suggestion of Cornell Notes. Thank you, Kaily!

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    1. I am so glad that this is helpful for you! Good luck transitioning to Middle School!

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  3. I am trying to figure out a say to implement this in my classes. I will be teaching 6 classes of all ESOL 10th grade. I will be using this method to differentiate for my students. Our school is 1:1. (Everyone has a laptop) I can get away with the students doing the cornell notes but doing text examples or anything else may have to be digital. So I am trying to figure out a way to make this work for my students. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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    1. Do you use Google Classroom? Honestly, you could do their entire notebooks digitally, including their cornell notes if you were to use Google Docs. I wish that we had 1:1 at my school! Oh the things we could do!

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    2. I did the last two years but this year school wide we are using canvas. I think I want themthem to do cornell notes by hand not digitally. I believe it to be better for learning and retaining information. In previous years, I have seen the difference in the two different methods. I usually teach new methods by having them do by hand and then we graduate to digital.I am all about improving my teaching practices. This is why I want to adopt the cornell notes into my teaching. You don't feel something would be lost by typing instead of handwritten?

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    3. In Florida, students by the 7th grade have to be able to type everything for their state exams, so I am very inclined to have students do as much typing as they possibly can, so I am a big proponent of having students type note if access to computers is available!

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    4. Our district went 1:1 last year and prior all teachers had a cart of chromebooks in the class for everyday use. I began using Kami for digital annotation, marking the text, and digital Cornell Notes. I would share a blank Cornell Notes page with them through our digital classroom and they would complete it throughout the lesson, save the annotated PDF from Kami and share it back with me for comments and notes from me.
      Just an idea. ;)

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    5. Deanna, I've been struggling with this myself on digital vs. directly doodlung/writing on note pages because I don't want them to lose any retention if they don't have the actual interaction with notes and text.

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  4. How/where do you store student binders?

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    1. I use cardboard magazine boxes that I get at IKEA for like $1.99 for a 5-pack. Then, I cut the front off of them so that it's open. I line them up on a counter, and students just slide their binders into their assigned bin (I put their names on them). This keeps them neat and organized and not in a pile in my classroom!

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  5. I your master, "I Can Trace and Evaluate an Argument", I cannot understand one word! = "When something is relevant it has to do with something (eles)? Should this last word read "else" (?) Love your articles on these notes!

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  6. Sorry! First word in previous commnet is "In"!!!

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  7. I use these as a note exchange program with my ESL students, I make them take notes to the best of their abilities and then turn them into me to receive a copy of notes with pictures, graphics and bilingual aides.

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    1. yes absolutely! I love how easily you can differentiate with Cornel Notes!

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  8. Your differentiated page matches your teacher example perfectly and it's in your own handwriting. How do you create the differentiated page? I've tried doing something like this before and the only way I could figure out how to do it was write my example, photocopy, use A TON of white out and re photocopy. It was so time consuming and I was going through gobs of white out. Please tell me you have a better way! If so, what is it?

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    1. I just rewrite the entire page and instead of writing the important information, I just draw a blank line for student to fill in on their own. It's a lot of work to do every page, but I only had to do it once to create a master and then I can photocopy that page as many times as I want. You can see all of mine here:

      https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-YX16VtTDn5DkQZ8-cWUMuEqNCwN8CtE/view?usp=sharing

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