Annotation is a valuable skill, but it’s not one that comes naturally. It has to be taught. Most of our students come to us used to reading books for pleasure without a pencil in hand (that is, if they read at all.) And if reading is a lifelong habit, this is what we should be doing with books 90% of the time.
But in an academic setting, we might be asked to do something else with them: writing a paper, participating in an online discussion, or many other tasks that require us to think differently about the book than if we simply read for pleasure.
Here’s an example. This summer I’m reading Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao for an AP summer reading club. While it’s basically a pleasure read for me, I’ll also be discussing it with other teachers in a few weeks. In order to contribute to the conversation I need to be making some notes along the way so that I have something important to say.
Annotation is thinking made visible. However, students may not know what they should be thinking about when they read, or need some help making those things explicit. Here are 5 things that we can ask students to do while they annotate and why those strategies are important.
1. Ask Questions.
Students can ask questions like the following: Where are you confused? Where might you have to reread? What guesses can you make about what will happen next?
Why this is important: at a really basic level, this strategy allows students to come to class with something to contribute: pose your question and get an answer. This can be a powerful strategy to bring to class the following day. What questions do you have about the text? Are these questions we should know the answer to? What questions do you have that prevent you from going further?
Asking questions also teaches kids to pay attention to when they get stuck and what strategies they can then use to move forward. Sometimes answering questions is essential for understanding what’s going on. Sometimes the author doesn’t want you to know. It’s important for students to know the difference and be able to hold uncertainty as they read.
2. Add personal responses.
What does this text remind you of in your own life? In other texts? In popular culture and current events? What are your opinions about what the characters are doing and what happens to them?
One of my favorite annotations of all time was one from a student who wrote “What a bitch.” about Caroline Bingley in the margins of Pride and Prejudice. Here’s someone who connected so deeply with the story that she thought of her as an actual character. And her use of what would commonly be called profanity and she never would have used in a paper, indicated that she saw this as a place where she could speak freely in her own voice. That’s what we want.
Why this is important: If students ONLY did this for annotation, we would be in good shape. We would know they were actively reading and making the book their own by fostering deep connections to their experiences. When students read Frankenstein we want them to be thinking about all the different ways that science can cross moral and ethical boundaries. When they read To Kill A Mockingbird we want them to be outraged at the injustice while also recognizing that it still exists today. This is a record of the ability of reading to enlarge our world and get us thinking.
3. Draw pictures and/or symbols
Annotations don’t always have to be words. Quick sketches can be a great way to annotate, and a system of symbols can be a quick way to have kids annotate certain things that they will see repeatedly. Plus, it’s fun to create a secret code that no one else will understand.
Why this is important. It can be a fun way to engage in an activity that many students find to be a burden. It can be appealing to people like me that are naturally hard-wired to draw things. But it can also be a way to get kids to think differently about a text. What would happen if you told your class that for the next chapter they can only use pictures to annotate? They might find some great new insights that way, and it can be a good way to add some variety when they are halfway through a book and need something new to make annotation fresh again.
4. Mark things that are important.
Being able to instinctively know what is important is a hard skill to develop and one that requires a decent amount of reading experience in order to be able to do on the fly (This is why I never tell students to annotate examples of foreshadowing because most of them don’t have the ability to see it.) However, here are a few things that authors do in order to tell the reader that something in important. Students can look for these as they read:
- Repetition: If you keep seeing it, whether it be a word, a phrase, an idea, or a character, it’s important.
- Similes and metaphors: If an author wants to emphasize something, they may use an especially striking simile or metaphor (or a series of them) to explain it.
- Lots of detail: If something is explained in great detail it’s important. If you see a large paragraph describing a turtle crossing the road in minute detail (especially if it seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the passage), there’s something going on there.
- Opposites: One way to show that something is important is to juxtapose it with something that is completely opposite or out of place with the rest of the passage.
5. Summarize what you’ve read.
Summarizing is an underrated skill, and not as easy as people think. Can you summarize the events or a chapter or the main points of an article in a sentence?
Why this is important: Summarizing is the best way to really process something you’ve read to really prove that you’ve understood it. Furthermore, if you’re reading a long novel it’s a great way to review what happened in each chapter before you take a test or write a paper. It’s a great bread crumb trail of what happened. If you’re reading an article, summarizing the main points is a great active reading strategy that prepares you for class discussions. However, you have to be careful with this one, because I find this is the one that students find most tedious. If students are getting bogged down in annotation, this is the first one I would drop.
We don’t necessarily want students to be doing all of these things at once because we want to be careful that we don’t turn students off from reading. Getting kids to love to read is one of the most important things we do as ELA teachers. But we also want them to develop a set of skills that they can use for different occasions. I don’t annotate books I read for pleasure, even though there are some people out there that do. But if I’m reading an article that I am going to use in a paper for a college class, you can bet I’ll have a pen and highlighter close by. In a previous blog post I wrote about how we can rethink our annotation practices so students will find it meaningful. I’ve also written about why students hate annotating and what we can do about it.
It’s also important to model annotation. I don’t give students something to read that I haven’t annotated myself. And if I teach the class a couple of times a day, I can show them how reading something multiple times leads to new insights.
Another helpful strategy is to give them a poem and a non-fiction piece, have them annotate both, and share how they annotated each one differently while still using the above five strategies. You can also have students share what they annotated. Anytime that we can get kids thinking about what they are doing – and more importantly how they were better off for doing it – we will start to build value in a skill.
David Rickert is a high school English teacher in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. He has been teaching for over 20 years and has taught virtually every grade and every subject. David is passionate about developing lessons that make difficult language arts subjects fun and engaging. He is also an author on Teachers Pay Teachers.