Interactive Notebooks are NOT Just for English Class!—Why They Matter in Every Content Area!

I’ll be the first to admit that when I’ve seen other teachers doing interactive notebooks with their students, I thought of them as more of an “art project” than anything educational.  But then, I had my first child, and I noticed something about the books that she begged me to read to her again and again.   They were EXCITING!  They had COLOR.  They had ILLUSTRATIONS.  They had FLAPS!  They had TEXTURES!  And I noticed that my two-year-old wasn’t the only one grabbing these books at story time.  I started selecting them to read to her, too!  I enjoyed finding Spot right along with HER! 

And the more we read the same books over and over again, the quicker her vocabulary expanded.  That got me thinking about the importance of interacting with information.  Not only did I enjoy the same Matthew van Fleet books with my daughter, but I also had just as much FUN as her when we visited children’s museums and science places.  Why?  Because I got the chance to touch, to see, to feel, to smell, to hear, and to TASTE the experiences. 

Just recently, my husband and I took our daughter to the Orlando Science Center (a FANTASTIC place to go, by the way), and my husband and I had a blast interacting with the exhibits right alongside our daughter.  At one point, my husband got so caught up trying to dig up dinosaur bones that we had to leave him there and come back for him!  And he was NOT the only parent having FUN.  There were people of all ages interacting with the exhibits.  I noticed that the OSC even has a pre-school inside the museum itself, and I thought that was a brilliant idea to get students involved with science and not stuck at a desk just reading about it. 

I started doing more research about the importance of interaction in education, and study after study seemed to come to the same conclusion.  Apparently, we are NOT very good auditory learners in general.  In fact, when you tell your child to pick up her toys, and she doesn’t because she claims she didn’t hear you, that actually might be true!  While your child might have heard your voice, she didn’t process the information, which is actually quite common and normal.   It’s part of being human.  Tapping more than one sense at a time increases processing dramatically!  Knowing this as a teacher and a parent can save quite a bit of frustration.  How many times have you told students to take out a piece of a paper, and not everyone "heard" you?  Understanding how our brains work can lessen this frustration.  We were born with five senses because we NEED them.

Don’t get me wrong, the auditory component is a necessity.  But, it’s even stronger and even better when reinforced by another one of our senses.  When I was in school, I never really looked at my teachers/ professors while they were lecturing.  As this was in the days before classrooms had any technology of any kind, the only “visual” was usually the teacher.  So, I became an avid note taker, and I would often accompany my notes with sketches, charts, and diagrams.  In hindsight, I realize that I was intuitively using my senses of sight touch/ movement with the physical action of writing to process the information that the teacher was saying.  I took the one sense of hearing and tripled its power by using two other senses simultaneously.   When my teachers would say something that confused me, I would write it down, and a lot of the time, it would make perfect sense when I reread it again.  The point is this—students will absorb significantly more information when there is interaction involved.  Just in thinking about writing a blog, I was told I had to insert at least three images in order to maintain the interest and understanding of my readers.  Why?  Because we need the visual aspect to give the words more power.

So, how does this relate to interactive notebooks? 

They are an excellent way to build in this level of interaction within your own classroom, right in their own notebooks.  The reality is that we can't always take our students to museums such as the OSC, so the notebook is an easy and efficient means to creating interaction right inside their notebooks.  Instead of boring old note pages that they never want to see again, they can create fun, vivid, dynamic, tactile, 3-dimensional notebook pages that they will enjoy looking at.  The interactive notebook will make them want to read those same notes over and over again—just like my daughter with her “Where’s Spot?” children’s book. 

The images above depict the exact same notes.  The image on the left is an interactive way to represent the notes on the right.  But the interactive page shows a relationship that the traditional note page does not show.  It reveals the relationship between literary elements and theme with arrows that all point to the term "Theme."  So, interactive notebook pages enable students to make connections beyond the scope of traditional notes. 

The same can be done for the boring, traditional notes pages for your content area.  Students can take the "boring" notes and transform them into interactive pages that they will want to visit time and time again.  They can also SWAP notebooks with classmates and observe what other students have done to categorize and synthesize the same information and skills from class.  Interactive notebooks have interactive appeal that your students will enjoy creating and reading.

This brings me to the current debate over STEM vs. STEAM.  There is a movement in education right now to reinject creativity back into the curriculum.  Some educators think that creativity has no room in education.  But, let me recast this concept in a different light.  Maybe it’s not that students need to be creative for creativity’s sake.  Maybe it’s because by being creative, they ultimately tap more senses, creating a more dynamic, interactive experience with the information that enables them to acquire new information and skills faster and more effectively.  Interactive notebooks also enable students to categorize, classify, and synthesize information unlike regular, linear note taking that cannot.  And when students have the power to do this on their own, they can go back to explain why they categorized the information the way they did, which also becomes a key part of any lesson—REFLECTION.  Don’t worry if you aren’t the “artsy” “creative” type.  There are TONS of examples online, and turning your class’s notebook into an interactive notebook doesn’t have to happen overnight.  It can be a gradual process.  Here is a website where you can get FREE notebook templates!  Click on the image to go to 

Print some of these templates out and leave them on a table in your classroom.  Then, give your students time to create a layout in their notebooks.  Let them choose which template they want to use and how they will represent the information… OR, assign a particular template and layout design.  That’s what I LOVE about notebooks—they are so easy to differentiate for multiple entry points.

But what about technology?  Can something like this be accomplished with technology?  Absolutely! Enter the ONLINE PORTFOLIO!

While computers can’t really give us a tactile experience other than typing, they can give us such vivid, dynamic images and sound that they can help students acquire new information faster.  However, sometimes technology can be more of a distraction than a helpful tool.  I’ve seen students get off-track with online discussions in the past, or wanting to draw pictures on the iPad instead of using it create an outline.  So, keep that in mind when deciding on the best method to increase the sensory stimulation of your lessons.

And then, of course, there are plenty of ways to target multiple senses without notebooks or computers.  My high school Chemistry teacher comes to mind.  She was on of the GREATEST teachers I ever had.  She didn’t just tell, she showed us the experiments and explained how things happened.  Now I know that when I blow dust over a flame through the mouth of a jack-o-lantern, that huge flame is caused by the expansion of surface area, which spreads the fire outward.  She taught me this scientific phenomenon when we did the experiment in class.  I will remember it forever!

So, this year in your classes, think of ways to reach multiple senses at one time.  Think of the best ways you can SHOW and not just TELL your students the information.  If you’ve never used an interactive notebook, give it at a try.  You and your students might just have FUN with it!

Please leave me a comment with your thoughts about interactive notebooks.  I’d love to hear back from you! 

About the Author

Meredith is the founder and creator of and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.