Is Annotating Necessary? Five Reasons Why

Five reasons why annotation and annotating are valuable skills for readers.

For many of our students, annotating is like making their bed. Annotation is something they do because someone in charge tells them to do it, not because it makes sense. After all, if you’re just going to get back into the bed at night, why bother making it at all? Fair enough. I don’t always make our bed, even if a NAVY Seal tells me to

Of course the answer the question in the title is YES! We want our students to be able to annotate. Not everything they read, but those things for which annotation is an important part of the process. But in order to do that, we need to make annotation something that students do for themselves, and not for the teacher. And to do that, we need to give them a reason why annotating is important. They need a why.

Here’s an example I read two books recently. One was The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. The other was White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. I got a lot out of reading both of them. However, the way I read them was completely different. While I read McDermott, I studied DiAngelo, and that meant I had my pen in hand for White Fragility, underlining important quotes and writing occasionally in the margins.

I read The Ninth Hour strictly for pleasure, but with White Fragility I had a different “why.” For one thing, I actively read this text to be able to refer back to it. I was reading it in part for a discussion group, and wanted to be prepared to contribute. And even when we entered into the chat, I had my pen in hand once again ready to annotate as people said things I wanted to remember and called attention to passages that I might have missed.

We want to empower our students with a reason to annotate. So here are five reasons from my own experience where annotation has been a useful tool. 

1. Annotating helps you pay attention.

I have an easily distracted mind and sometimes I need to force myself to pay attention even while reading something I’m really into. Annotating helps minimize the usual distractions (should I work out today? Are we out of milk? Can I just think about how great that episode of “Modern Love” was?) I can easily read a book or article and think that I’ve read it, when my mind was actually elsewhere. Annotating helps keep my focus on the task at hand instead of on other enticing ideas. 

2. Annotating helps you understand what you read.

I can find myself in the weeds with some difficult reading sometimes, and annotation helps me process what I read. I write a comment off to the side about what I think the passage means, or why it matters. This tends to be what I do with difficult non-fiction to get through it (like that Bakhtin guy that popped up in virtually every class I took in graduate school.)

Because English teachers are darned good readers most books won’t give us a problem. But many of our student aren’t as skilled at reading, and need to annotate  to process what they read.

3. It gives you something to say.

Annotation prepares students with something meaningful to say in class. When I do online discussions with my students I require them to be quoting from what we are reading. I also have a loose policy about classroom discussions that they need to be working from the text when they say something. Backing up what you say with evidence is a valuable skill, and annotation prepares students to present thinking with evidence.  

4. It saves time later.

I always give my final essay topics to students before we start reading a novel. That way, they can annotate strategically as they go. If they are writing a character analysis, for example, they might begin the book by annotating about every character. As they get closer to the middle, they can begin to kick characters to the curb and make a final decision about who they would like to write about.

But even without the topic in advance, a well annotated book will be an asset that will save them time writing. They don’t have to flip through the entire book looking for quotes to use (or more likely, go to SparkNotes and find the relevant passages.)

5. Annotating makes you REALLY understand something.

I’m a big fan of doing “second annotations” in class. There’s a good chance that students will annotate the easy stuff and neglect the stuff that’s a little more hairy. I like to give students a passage that I know they glossed over (sometimes on a separate sheet of paper so they can see it with fresh eyes) and have them do a  second close read of the passage. These second (and sometimes third) readings always yield things they haven’t seen before, and is a better opportunity to look for literary devices once students get what’s going on. 

Keep it fun!

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We need to keep our classes lighthearted and one way to do that is through comics! If you teach ELA I have a series of comics that tackle serious language arts concepts in a lighthearted way your students will love. I have a series of lessons done as comics that address various ELA topics like grammar, poetry, editing, and Shakespeare, all of which are well suited to a remote learning environment. 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!

And if you’d like to see a sample of my work Click on Robert Frost below to get a free comic lesson!

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For more articles about annotating, check out the following blog posts:

Also here’s a great video about the importance of knowing your “why” that you can show your students:

Five reasons why students should be annotating.

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