Getting Started With Annotation


Annotation is an important skill for ELA students to master. But where do we start?

When I rent a movie I’m a sucker for the bonus features. I recently watched “Mission Impossible: Fallout and then spent the next hour watching how all the stunts were done. I was amazed to find out that the skydiving scene was real – Tom Cruise actually jumped out of a plane while other skydivers film that scene. When it comes to movies, I’m as interest in how the movies are made as I am the movies themselves, and I’m glad someone came up with the idea of bonus features for movie rentals.

Annotation allows us to access the “bonus features” of things we read. We can enjoy the piece of literature for its own sake, but we can get a richer experience if we take a close look at the story to see how it was made.

But how do we get started with annotation in our classes? For one thing, we need a good idea of how annotation can become a grind for students and how it can potentially make them hate reading, which is counterproductive. But then I consider my class. Maybe I have new students who need a refresher on annotation. Or maybe a there’s a selection of students I suspect has coasted through school without having annotated anything. I need a good strategy to kick it off before I expect them to do it for homework, or before they tackle something longer like a novel.

Below are a few of the first things I do when we talk annotation in class. I remind them that annotators look for answers to the following questions: what do you notice? What words stick out to you? What seems to be important? And then we do one or more of the following strategies. 

Model it.

I stumbled upon this method by accident. I was looking for a clean copy of “The Kiss,” a story that we read in class. Unfortunately the only copy I could locate was one I had already  annotated for the purposes of teaching it. But then occurred to me that since this was the first story we were going to read, why don’t I just hand them this copy to model what good annotation looks like? 

There are other things you can add more complexity to this task. You can have students add their own annotations along with yours, to fill in the “blank spaces” (you could even annotate parts of the story, and leaves some large chunks for them to annotate following your methods.) You can also have them take all of your annotations and classify them according to what annotation “moves” you’re making – predictions, questions, and so on.

If you get real ambitious, annotate a story improperly. Add some false conclusions. Misread passages. Let them annotate to argue with you. Have them point out how your reading of the story isn’t accurate.

(A confession: I know a lot of teachers have good success with a read aloud, but I’ve never done this. For one thing, I’m too nervous to do it with something I’ve very read, and not a good enough actor to pretend I’m reading something I’m familiar with for the first time. If any of you have a strategy for making this work, I’d love to hear it.) 

Chunk it. 

Annotating an entire story or chapter can be an overwhelming process, and it’s helpful to break a passage into manageable chunks to help students practice with fewer sentences and words.

Take an easy poem and only give students a small piece at a time to work with in increments. I like to use poems that have easy breaks to work with, such as “To A Daughter Leaving Home” (there are breaks after commas at the end of lines) or “The Summer I Was Sixteen” ( which has four quatrains.)

Put each chunk on a slide, or go old school and create a flip book on paper if you wish. Then you work through the poem  as a class piece by piece, annotating as you go. You’ll ask the same basic questions: what do you notice? What words stick out to you? What seems to be important? But as you add each piece, ask another question: how does this piece either build on or contradict what’s come before? 

Working through a poem this way not only gives students manageable chunks of information to process, but also helps model the type of close examination that annotation requires. We don’t just look at the whole thing when we annotate. We also want to look at individual words, phrases, and sentences to see how they contribute to the whole. 

Read it twice.

This is a method I like to use with short stories, especially really short stories that can be read twice in a period. The first time you read the short story you are looking for the basic information: what do you notice? What words stick out to you? What seems to be important?

But after you’ve had time to go through one time, students read the entire story a second time. Now that they aren’t trying to figure out what’s happening next, what do they notice? 

Sometimes I’ll assign a second read for homework. Or, if it’s a longer story, I’ll photocopy a page or two that is especially rich and have them work through that instead of the entire story.

Although it’s a medium length story, I’ve always enjoyed using “The Necklace” for double annotating, and “The Use of Force” or “The Birthday Party” with older students (easily read twice in a period)

This method teaches students that rereading is often necessary to truly understand the nuts and bolts of a story. On the first read, you might be simply enjoying the story. And that’s fine. But to truly understand how the story works, you have to read it a second time to see what techniques the author is using. 

And be sure to have fun!

Annotation doesn’t always have to be a chore for students. Check out my annotation games to add some fun and variety to your annotating. 

If you like these ideas, why not join my email list? I send out great ELA ideas on a regular basis.  Or click on the link below to get a free lesson on The Road Not Taken!

Some other annotation posts you might enjoy:

5 Steps to Great Annotations

Why Students Hate Annotating (and How You Can Fix It)

Rethinking Annotation So Students Will Find It Meaningful

I know you’re the kind of teacher that makes their classroom a fun, engaging learning environment. I have a series of lessons done as comics that address various ELA topics like grammar, poetry, editing, and Shakespeare, all of which will make your students glad they came to class that day. All the fun is there for you, and your kids will love studying any of these topics because they’ll get a new comic every day! Please check out my resources and let the learning begin!

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