Delete, Substitute and Keep: A Practical Guide for Teaching Summarising and Note-Taking

Summarising and note-taking require students to condense information into a concise form. Meaningful notes will also identify connections between the ideas contained within a passage of text. Generating notes and summaries is difficult for students because they struggle to tell what is and isn’t noteworthy. 

I often read that the Cornell system offers a practical method for teaching note-taking. Sure, the Cornell system provides a useful framework for students to record their notes. But it doesn’t give the instructional teaching required to increase the chances of student success when summarising and note-taking.

Robert Marzano’s book Classroom Instruction That Works (2001) provides what I consider the best guide for teaching summarising and note-taking. It is hard to believe that so few talk about Marzano’s book. It offers the perfect blend of theory, research and practical classroom strategies. Here are the three guiding principles Marzano recommends you follow when teaching summarising and note-taking.

1 To effectively summarise, students must delete some information, substitute some information, and keep some information.

Cognitive psychologists Kintsch (1979) and van Dijk (1980) studied the cognitive mechanisms involved in summarising. Based on these studies, Marzano concluded when summarising, your mind engages in three activities: (1) deleting things, (2) substituting, (3) keeping things.

To illustrate this process, consider the figure below, a passage of text about a business studies concept called price skimming. Thank you to Sarah Jones (@JonesLearnUK) for sharing this extract.

Note how much of the original text has been deleted. It was decided much of the information was not valuable to the overall meaning of the passage. In the final summary, some of the words have been substituted — the word decrease has been replaced for the term falls. Marzano suggests the substitute terms can be more general or more specific than those in the original text. In this example, the substitute words are more natural, everyday words, making the overall meaning easier to recall. The passages of words thought to convey meaning have been kept. The final summary is referred to by Marzano, as the macro-structure — intellectual jargon, for information condensed into a concise form.

2 To effectively delete, substitute, and keep information, students must analyse the information at a fairly deep level

When students copy information word-for-word, they leave no capacity in their working memory for analytical thinking. Borak Rosenshine and colleagues (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994; Rosenshine, Meister & Chapman 1996) concluded that strategies that develop the analytical element of summarising, produce the most powerful effects. For students, analysing information isn’t easy. To be successful at analysing, students must identify what is and isn’t important, and why it is or isn’t important.

The Cornell note-taking system cannot help here. The Cornell system doesn’t teach students to analyse information at a deep level. Students require modelling, guided, and independent practice to be successful when analysing information.

3 Being aware of the explicit structure of information is an aid to summarising information  

Most information has an underlying structure, and the more a person is aware of this explicit structure, the better she can summarise it. The notion of information structure or text type is widely accepted and was brought to the attention of educators by the likes of Meyer and Freedle (Meyer, 1975; Meyer & Freedle, 1984), Raphael and Kirschner (1985) and Lunzer and Gardner (1982). The four text types identified through research, are chunk, compare, sequence and cause and effect. Here is a table uniting the research about text types — while the names might be different, their meaning is the same

Table created by Oliver Caviglioli

The example below, taken from Learning from the Written Word (Lunzer and Gardner, 1982), illustrates the importance of explicitly revealing the structure of information.

While learning about suspension bridges, students completed a table to help them classify information. In a later lesson, students used their experience of classifying to study information about the human tooth. While the human tooth is different from a suspension bridge, the underlying structure of information in both descriptions was similar. Students were able to use the old headings for classification, with little alteration: name of region or part, location, connection to other parts, function and appearance.

When teachers explicitly reveal the structure of information, it helps their students know which parts of an article are most important, helping them to delete, substitute and keep information.


Lunzer, E., & Gardner, K. (1984) Learning from the Written Word. Edinburgh: Schools Council Publications.

Kintsch,W. (1979). On modeling comprehension. Educational psychologist, 1, 3–14.

Marzano, R,J., Pickering, D, J., & Pollock, J, E. (2001) Classroom Instruction that Works. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Meyer, B. J. F. (1975). The organization of prose and its effects on memory. Amsterdam: North-Holland Press.

Meyer, B. J. F., & Freedle, R. O. (1984). Effects of discourse type on recall. Americans Educational Research Journal, 21(1), 121–143.

Raphael, T. E., & Kirschner, B. M. (April, 1985). The effects of instruction in compare/contrast text structure on sixth grade students’ reading comprehension
and writing production. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

Rosenshine, B., & Meister, C. C. (1994). Reciprocal teaching: A review of the research. Review of Educational Research, 64(4), 479–530.

Rosenshine, B., Meister, C., & Chapman, S. (1996). Teaching students to generate questions. A review of the intervention studies. Review of Educational Research, 66(2), 181–221.

van Dijk, T. A. (1980). Macrostructures. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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