7 Dialectic Note-taking

A dialectical approach to taking notes sounds much more complicated than it is. A dialectic is a dialogue, a discussion between two (or more) voices trying to figure something out. Whenever we read new or challenging material, it can be helpful to take dialectic notes to create clear spaces for organizing these different sets of thoughts—put yourself in a conversation with the text through your notes.

Creating Dialectic Notes

Start by drawing a vertical line down the middle of a fresh sheet of paper to make two long columns.

The Left Column

This column will be a straightforward representation of the main ideas in the text you are reading (or viewing). In it, you will note things like:

  • What are the author’s main points in this section?
  • What kind of support is the author using in this section?
  • Other points of significant interest
  • Note the source and page number, if any, so that you can find and document this source later

You can directly quote these points, but if you do, you must use quotation marks immediately, so you don’t “forget” that you took the exact words from the text. If you paraphrase, do not use quotation marks. Be consistent so that you don’t make more work for yourself when you start writing your draft. For more guidance with writing summaries, paraphrasing, and quoting, follow these links.

The Right Column

The right column is for your ideas—the questions and connections you make as you encounter the author’s ideas. This might include:

  • Questions you want to ask in class
  • Bigger-picture questions you might explore further in writing
  • Connections to other texts you’ve read or viewed for this class
  • Connections to your own personal experiences
  • Connections to the world around you (issues in your community, stories on the news, or texts you’ve read or viewed outside of this class)

Bottom of the Page

It is often a good idea to leave space at the bottom of the page (or on the back) for

  • additional notes about this piece
  • what your instructor teaches about it
  • comments and questions your peers make during class discussion


Once you’ve finished the text and have taken your dialectic notes while reading it, you might have something that looks a bit like this (for the sake of the example, I read a story I’d never read before from an author I’m familiar with, so you could see genuine reactions to a first read):

Dialectical Notes for Bradbury’s “The Last Night of the World”
What is says Questions/Connections
“What would you do if you knew this was the last night of the world?” It feels so strange to start a story with a character asking a direct question in dialogue… can’t decide if it draws me in or not.
“You don’t mean it?” said his wife. The slow reveal of who these characters are, their relationship to each other, even how many are talking is interesting. I wonder why Bradbury chose to reveal them this way.
Long paragraph about his dream and Stan. Weird! And a little creepy… I wonder why the shared dreams, & how many others are hearing the same one.
Dialectical Notes for Bradbury’s “The Last Night of the World” – Page 2
What it says Questions/Connections
This is logical. What? Not a single thing about this is logical! Not even the further explanation makes logical sense.
February 20, 1951 Okay, so… alternate timeline? The world ending on a day that never has, never will exist?
The discussion about whether the children know. Why wouldn’t the children have had the same dream?
Notes during the class

Once you have this set of dialectic notes, there are a number of ways you can use them. Here are a few:

  • They can help you contribute to class discussion about this piece and the topics it addresses.
  • Significant questions you encountered while reading are already written down and collected in one place so you don’t have to sift back through the reading to re-discover those questions.
  • These notes provide a place where many of your observations and thoughts about the piece are already organized, which can help you see patterns and connections within those observations. Finding these connections can be a strong starting point for written assignments.
  • If you are asked to respond to this piece in writing, these notes can serve as a reference point as you develop a draft. They can give you new ideas if you get stuck and help keep the original connections you saw when reading fresh in your mind as you respond more formally to that reading.
  • They can be part of your Gathering Ideas step in the Writing Process.

Text Attributions

  • This chapter was adapted from “Dialectic Note-taking” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear, which is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 Licence. Adapted by Allison Kilgannon.


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Advanced English Copyright © 2021 by Allison Kilgannon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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