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10 Reasons Not to Use Interactive Notebooks

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Interactive notebooks are riding a crest of popularity in both elementary and secondary schools. A brief Google search finds 6,850,000 results for “interactive notebooks” (INBs) in all subject areas: math, science, reading, language arts, social studies/history, foreign language study, and art. Some schools are now completely cross-curricular INB instruction in all subject areas and homeschool education has especially latched onto this educational approach. Whether you are an INB aficionado or skeptic, veteran or noob, it’s helpful to take a step back to analyze the pros and cons as to whether INBs should have a place in your classroom. Let’s start with the cons and examine 10 Reasons Not to Use Interactive Notebooks. My article, 10 Reasons to Use Interactive Notebooks, will strike the pro and con balance. I’ve also compiled a helpful checklist of essential selection criteria for teachers and schools considering purchase of INB programs.

I certainly have no ax to grind regarding INBs. I sell my own Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Interactive Notebook Grades 4-8 HERE. I also sell a more traditional grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling and vocabulary program (See product information at end of article). So, I am well-acquainted with the pros and cons of INBs in the ELA subject area. I have also used the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute (TCI) Interactive Student Notebooks to teach history/social studies and loved this instructional approach. However, INBs are not for everyone.

To get beyond my own biases, I checked out dozens of INBs and INB templates (most INBs use foldable, pop-out, 3D graphic organizers) in all subject areas: both products for sale and sharable lessons found on teacher blogs, Pinterest, and Facebook. I focused on reader comments to produce the following 10 Reasons Not to Use Interactive Notebooks list. On Teachers Pay Teachers I read over 5,000 individual comments on the INB products and purchased the two most popular (and wonderful) products for thorough review: Erin Cobb’s Interactive Grammar Notebook for Common Core Grades 4-8 (over 30,000 sold with more than 6,000 product reviews at the time of this writing) and Nicole Shelby’s grades 2-5 Interactive Language Notebooks (14,531 product reviews). About 98% of the product reviews for these two products were positive; however, because Teachers Pay Teachers offers incentives for reviews, the vast majority of the reviews are completed upon first glance at the materials and not after using the materials in the classroom. Most reviews are extremely brief, such as “Great!” “Thanks for sharing,” etc. For the following list of 10 con reasons, I’ve included actual comments from all INB product reviews, staff room, conference workshops/webinars, and a few of my own. I’ve intentionally decided not to cite names or products referred to in the reviews. My goal is not to offend, but to inform.

After posting this article last year, I’ve updated it (in blue text) to show how I addressed the following concerns as I field-tested my new Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Interactive Notebook Grades 4, 5, 6.

10 Reasons Not to Use Interactive NotebooksInteractive Notebooks

1. Interactive notebooks waste too much class time. Because INBs involve copying, coloring, writing, cutting and pasting graphic organizers (plus many other activities), many teachers find that this instructional approach takes up too many classroom minutes. Plus, some students just take much more time than others. INBs may be more conducive to elementary teachers or secondary teachers on a block schedule, rather than to secondary teachers on a traditional five or six period per day schedule. BTW… through field-testing in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes, I was able to get my INB lessons down to 40 minutes per lesson, twice a week… primarily by cutting out wasted student copying time and printing the front side text of the graphic organizers. Students focus on writing the examples, annotating the Cornell Notes lesson text, and writing on the back of their 3D graphic organizers. More time learning and less wasted class time. I also designed the lessons so that teachers can choose to teach all or part of the lesson and use all, some, or none of the online links and resources and still cover the focus standards and allow students to succeed on the biweekly unit tests.

2. Interactive notebooks require too much prep time. Creating both teacher input and student response activities is extremely time-consuming. Many teachers have purchased published INBs to save time, only to find that the advanced preparation required to complete complicated INB activities is much more than expected. Most INBs require voluminous copying (and copy expense), pre-cutting (to save paper costs), sorting, and distribution of the copies, markers, glue, scissors, and the notebooks themselves. Plus, most INB publisher programs require teachers to create their own notebooks as models and as reference for absent student make-ups. For my INB, I opted to create a completely no-prep design to enable teachers to “teach on the fly.” Perfect for new teachers, veteran grammarians, and even substitutes! I created the teacher pages to provide a completed INB with all examples, answers, and notes so that absent students will be able to use these resources to catch up upon their return to class. Simple, but effective.

3. Interactive notebooks require too much correcting time. Every Friday afternoon, I help one of my favorite seventh grade history teachers out to the parking lot with her two folding crate carts full of 115 INBs. She actually has 230 students, so she staggers the bi-weekly grading (She sees each class every other day). Yes, she uses peer grading, some self-grading, and only grades selective work, but even with these work smarter, not harder techniques, it takes her all Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I experimented for an entire year on this. I found that students can accurately self-correct and self-edit the practice exercises, sentence dictation formative assessments, grammar cartoon responses, and writing applications from the display of the teacher pages. Students earn a maximum of 10 points per lesson (6 for the practice exercise; 2 for the sentence dictations; 1 for the grammar cartoon response; and 1 for the writing application (plus 1 point if the student shares his or her writing application with the class). Students learn best from correcting their own mistakes. I collect the INBs after 8 lessons (monthly) and skim grade for completeness, grading accuracy, and neatness. It takes about a minute per student and I award 50 points. Problem solved! Spend more time teaching and less time correcting.

4. Interactive notebooks are a mess. It doesn’t take a neat freak to abandon the INB instructional approach. You may be a great housekeeper at home and in your classroom, but even well-trained students do no always share your values. Despite the best classroom management skills, glue spills, tiny paper scraps, ruined INB covers (or lost INBs) will be headaches for any teacher using INBs and for every custodian. At my school custodians vacuum only once per week. The last period of the day gets clean-up duty, but it’s not perfect. Plus, INB clean-up takes up more class and prep time. I’m not going to lie; even my INB can be messy; however, I learned from field testing with the more artsy, complicated foldables in the two products mentioned above, that students prefer simpler 3D graphic organizers with less complicated cutting, coloring, and folding. They use the 3D graphic organizer templates from Tangstar (the best on the web) much more as study aids than the other art project foldables. The also focus more on the classification and matching by color that make the graphic organizers essential components of the INB. You can overdo a good thing. Many teachers give up on the INB because of the wasted class time and mess. Less complicated graphic organizers with fewer intricate cuts, folds, and gluing means the same consistent directions each time. So less confusion, less problems for students with poor hand-eye coordination, less tears, and less wasted class time. You can still be cute and stylish without being a complete mess.

5. Interactive notebooks can dumb-down content instruction. The Common Core State Standards have “upped the rigor” for most Interactive Notebookssubject areas. The high stakes PAARC and Smarter Balanced tests do not assess the way that most INB programs approach teaching and learning. The simple fact is that many times content and practice is limited to what will fit in the “cool flower petal” foldable. The graphics lend themselves to Depth of Knowledge, or Costa’s Levels, or Bloom’s Taxonomy lowest levels. The “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” (math order of operations), “King Henry Doesn’t Usually Drink Chocolate Milk (science metric units), or F.A.N.B.O.Y.S. (ELA coordinating conjunctions) work great for 3D graphics, but not so great for higher level thinking skills. I chose to include analytical and inferential responses to the grammar cartoons and provide a writing application for each grammar lesson. Nothing is wrong with defining and identifying; however, higher order application is also important. Each unit test requires these skills for every lesson component.

6. Interactive notebooks focus on teacher-centered instruction. The design of INBs is centered on teacher input (traditionally the right side of the page, but others go left) and student response (on the opposite page). The rudder steers the boat; the boat does not steer the rudder. Although some teachers in flipped or inquiry-based classrooms still use INBs, this is uncommon. Yes, students can personalize their responses and extend their learning with INBs, but time and resources are limitations. Additionally, INBs focus on grade-level instruction; the focus is on the content or skills (the Standards), not the individual student’s needs. None of the INBs I have seen do a decent job of individualizing instruction or helping students (remedial, EL, special ed) catch up while they keep up with grade level instruction. However, my INB is different. I’ve included over 100 online resources, including remedial worksheets for dozens of key spelling, mechanics, and grammar content and skills. Each has a formative assessment to determine student mastery. Teachers can individualize instruction without tearing their hair out. These printable resources are perfect for learning centers, writers workshop mini-lessons, homework, or classwork.

7. Interactive notebooks do a poor job of assessment-based instruction or learning. Rarely do INBs include formative assessments of the focus Standards or teacher’s behavioral objectives. Some would argue that INBs use embedded assessments in the application and response to teacher input found on the foldables; however, most of this is copying or done in pairs or small groups. Students get no immediate feedback and teachers don’t usually adjust instruction or re-teach according to the student work. I have not seen formative assessments incorporated into INB programs. Therefore, individualized or differentiated instruction is precluded without access to student performance data. Most teachers do allow students to use INBs on unit tests. The latter is a good idea. My INB has one mechanics and one grammar sentence dictation for each lesson. Students use the lesson content to write or revise a sentence dictated by their teacher.

Mechanics Dictation Example: “John and Carla loaded green beans, salad, and fruit on their plates.” Serial Comma Standard

Grammar Dictation Example: Revise the following sentence, placing the adverbial clause at the beginning of the sentence– “The girl stops playing, whenever I ask her, and listens to me. Answer for Students to Self-Correct and Self-edit: “Whenever I ask her, the girl stops playing and listens to me.” Adverbial (Subordinating) Clause Standard

The teacher uses the sense of the class to formatively assess whether additional individualized practice is needed (see #6 above for resources) or re-teaching. Learning is the goal in my INB, not teaching.

8. Interactive notebooks instruction is supplemental and reductive. Most teachers and publishers use INBs as supplemental anchor Standards instruction. This is particularly true with Standards-based INB programs. For example, many of the ELA language (grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary) programs restrict instruction to the listed Language Standards, ignoring the grade to grade Progressive Skills Review and other key content and skills in the subject matter which is foundational for instruction (and assumed by the Common Core authors). Any supplemental (or core) program is reductive. Time and energy focused on one instructional or learning task takes away time from another. (As an author aside, for years I have railed against spending valuable class time babysitting students while they do sustained-silent reading for this very reason. Click to read). As an example of the reductive nature of INBs, the inordinate amount of time and energy expended with these notebooks on some Standards takes away from the purported purpose of the INBs: to prepare students for reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Plenty of preparation, but little practice. It’s like appetizers without the main course. Teachers certainly do modify INB instruction by picking and choosing which lessons to do or not do, but this tends to foster hodgepodge instruction with little fidelity to a published program. My INB is designed for core content instruction. The twice-per-week lessons take 40 minutes per. I do offer separate grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 spelling and vocabulary programs. Each is designed to not take up excessive class time.

Interactive Notebooks

What Teachers Have to Say About Interactive Notebooks

9. Interactive notebooks are not “real world” instruction. Most of our students will not attend universities in which professors will use INB instruction. Most of our students will not wind up in workplaces in which they create learning or product portfolios (Certainly there will be exceptions). Additionally, though some teachers and publishers have integrated online resources into INB instruction, the focus is paper. I am intrigued with notion of a digital INB and am in the process of integrating that learning platform into the traditional INB I am working on… you can cut, past, color, and copy on computers 🙂 Over 100 links and resources, including the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) resources are a click away in my INB. And all have express permission from the publishers, unlike many other INBs with unauthorized YouTube videos or songs.

10. Many students hate interactive notebooks. My mom worked as a “soda jerk” during her high school years in a small Texas town drugstore. After her shift she was allowed to make herself one treat. Her favorite treat was a pineapple sundae. After two weeks of pineapple sundaes, my mom never ate one again. Due to the trending popularity of INBs, your students have “been there and done that.” They are tired of the same pineapple sundae, even if you are not. It is certainly not true that every upper elementary, and especially every middle school student, loves to copy, color, cut, and paste. Some students, like my youngest son, are not artsy fartsy, even if their teacher spends hours on Pinterest daily. Instead of building a medieval castle, we begged his seventh grade teacher to let him write a report of medieval castles. Instead of coloring everything in the INB, we begged his eighth grade teacher to let him produce a collage of computer images. Some students just learn differently and prefer other means of acquiring and processing knowledge. The most useful revisions in terms of format, style, grading, and lesson components for my INB came from students in the classroom. They are ruthless editors and demanding consumers, but they are our learners. The success of my INB will largely be credited to kids from my classrooms and from those of my colleagues. Thank you.

To order my Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Interactive Notebook Grades 4-8, click HERE and enter discount code 3716 to receive 10% off the lowest price on the web.

Interactive notebooks are not for everyone. For a more systematic and comprehensive language curriculum, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

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