Annotation is a common reading strategy used to promote active reading. Annotation is a skill that helps students comprehend what they are reading and leaves a trail of “bread crumbs” for students to follow if they have to respond to the text in writing. Ideally, it will help students make meaning of what they are reading.
As language arts teachers we want students to be good readers and also learn to love reading, and in many ways the two go hand in hand. However, for many students annotation promotes the first goal at the expense of the second. Many of my students who like to read tell me that they hate to annotate. It takes away from the pleasure of reading and makes a chapter of assigned reading that much more time consuming. And as nice as it for teachers to know through annotating that kids have read the book instead of reading Sparknotes, it’s apparent that for many students annotation is something they do for the teacher and not for themselves. They don’t find the value in it and consider it busywork.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. If we change the way we present annotation to students – and change our expectation of what the end result should be – annotation can be a valuable tool that won’t seem like so much of a chore.
Here are some ideas:
Don’t give students too much to manage.
In the past I have required students to look for literary devices, ask questions, and do chapter summaries. I required them to have a certain number of comments per page. In short I was asking them to do about five different things when they annotated.
What I had to learn was that annotating is essentially multitasking – they have to read and do whatever else I asked them to do. When they were looking for personification and characterization and setting details all while asking them to comprehend what they read at the same time, they were not likely to do any of those things particularly well.
The solution? Give students one thing to focus on while they annotate. That way students can read for comprehension but focus on an important part of the assigned reading. Maybe they can look at setting for one chapter and examine the use of literary devices in the next one. This way they can really build the skill of annotating without becoming overwhelmed.
Have a purpose.
Annotating works well when students have a reason to do it other than “to make you better readers.” I try to tie annotation into a final product, whether it be an essay or a presentation. If they are writing a paper on a particular character from Pride and Prejudice I give them the prompt and tell them what to look for as they read. I don’t want them to have to reread the book again, and I don’t want them going online to find quotes. I model this myself – the books that I teach are heavily annotated so that I don’t have to reread every time I want to find a particular passage. In some cases, I don’t even have to read the book again to teach it – I can read my annotations and go from there.
If students know that annotating will benefit them in concrete ways, it will help them see the value in it.
Give them a break from annotating.
There’s nothing wrong with letting kids read a chapter or two without annotating. Let them just enjoy the book with no strings attached. Better yet, incorporate independent reading in your classroom so they always have an opportunity to read for pleasure.
Do an annotation on the second read.
Something that has worked well for me is to do a simple light annotation the first time students read the book. For struggling readers, it does help give them a way in to a text they might find difficult. But I find a tremendous amount of value in doing a second annotation of what they just read on the following day. The students aren’t spending time keeping track of what’s happening, so they are free to look closer at how the text is put together. This is a great way to address foreshadowing, for instance.
The best thing that we can consider with annotating is to think about how much of the reading task should be taken up with it. It’s not something that many teachers I’ve talked to have ever thought about.
I think a good ratio is annotating should only take up 10-20% of the total time spent reading. That way the vast majority of the time, students are simply reading. The annotating won’t add what is perceived as an unreasonable amount of time, and you can still accomplish a lot.
Annotation is a valuable skill, but the love of reading is even more valuable. We don’t have to sacrifice one or the other if we employ sound strategies for both.