Power Notes – Information Hierarchies

images-45Organize information with concept maps

It is the end of the day and you have a few moments to peruse your daily newspaper. You delve into a story on the stock market that is packed with complex information. The Dow. Drop of 32 Points. Nikkei average. Hong Kong exchange. Continuing crisis. Alan Greenspan. Devaluation of Asian currencies. International Monetary Fund bailouts.

As you read, however, you focus less on specific details. Instead you organize your thinking around main ideas, such as causes of current world economic problems and possible impacts on American citizens. As a mature reader, you can “separate the wheat from the chaff.”

In last month’s column, Power Notes were described as an effective activity to help students distinguish main ideas from supporting details. Power Notes are a variation of outlining: a power 1 is a main idea or category, power 2s, 3s and 4s are corresponding details and examples.

Teaching/Learning Activities

After students understand the concept of Power Notes and have practiced experimenting with them, teachers can use this activity in a variety of ways to enhance comprehension and learning.

Step 1: Provide opportunities for students to apply Power Notes to concept mapping activities. Concept maps are visual webs of information that illustrate important relationships within the material. Yet students sometimes construct concept maps without a sense of super ordinate and subordinate information. Their maps may only be a mishmash of facts.

Use the following guidelines for concept maps. The center of the map is reserved for the topic being developed. Only power 1 ideas can emanate from the center. Each power 1 idea is further defined with power 2s. Power 3s elaborate the power 2s on the map.

For example, students reading an article about the Red Cross determine three power 1s: wartime services, disaster services, and community services. Each of these categories is developed with power 2 and 3 details, as the Red Cross concept map illustrates.

Step 2: A second application of Power Notes is the Pattern Puzzle strategy. Pattern Puzzles prompt students to notice topic sentences, transition words, and paragraph structure as they read. This activity also models how to write well-organized paragraphs and essays.

Begin by word processing a well-organized paragraph, segmenting it into individual sentences. Cut these apart into slips of paper, each containing one sentence. In cooperative groups, have students attempt to arrange the sentences into a paragraph that reads smoothly and makes sense.

To accomplish this task, students will have to attend to whether the sentence contains power 1, 2, 3, or 4 information. They will also have to be sensitive to transition language that helps ideas flow from sentence to sentence.

As students become more sophisticated, they can tackle Pattern Puzzles that feature several paragraphs. Leave the first paragraph intact, and then cut apart the sentences for the rest of the passage. Suggest that students locate power 1s (topic sentences) first, and build their paragraphs from these.

Step 3: Pattern Puzzles can be used in a number of settings. For example, having students assemble a paragraph that represents a sequence or series of steps, such as the directions for conducting an experiment, can cause them to carefully analyze why order is important in the procedure.

A Pattern Puzzle constructed from an important section of a textbook passage can insure that students will closely examine the material to be learned. Math word problems or poetry are also excellent sources for developing Pattern Puzzle activities.

As part of this process, students may discover that multiple solutions may be possible for arranging sentences into paragraphs. In some cases, students might be able to argue that their decisions for configuring the passage may even be preferable to that of the original text.


Power Notes contribute to students’ awareness of text structure as they read and write. In addition:

  • Students learn to read actively and to prioritize main ideas from details as they study.
  • Power Notes can be integrated into a number of other activities to help students perceive how information is interconnected.