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How Annotation Reshapes Student Reading

Jordan Catapano

Students cringe when teachers mention annotation because they know it’s time-consuming, detail-oriented, and just plain boring.

At least that’s their initial impression. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this reaction at the beginning of many school years, when introducing and requiring annotations on student reading assignments. And I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing those same students automatically and joyfully annotate by the end of the school year.

So what makes the difference for these students? How do they transform from readers who hesitate to annotate to readers who rely on it?

Several factors stand out as the critical pieces for getting students to properly understand and implement annotation as a consistent tool in their reading.

When starting annotations with students, here is what every teacher should make sure their students understand:

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  1. Annotations are a record of your thinking. If you’re thinking, make a record of it by writing down what scuttled through your brain.
  2. Annotations make remembering your thoughts much easier. In fact, you don’t even have to remember what you thought -- the paper will remember for you!
  3. The act of annotating is a physical interaction with the text. Because you’re interacting with the text with both your hands and your eyes, the multisensory experience makes a much stronger imprint on your mind.
  4. Annotation is appropriate for ANY subject. It’s not just an English class skill, it’s a reading skill – and reading happens in every course.

Also, “annotations” means much more than merely highlighting.  It is a dynamic way of interacting with the text. In general, annotation refers to two related things:

  1. Symbols = These are the physical interactions on the text itself. These might include highlighting, boxing and circling words/phrases, underlining, stars, arrows, question marks, numbers and bullets.
  2. Marginalia = These are the words a reader writes next to the text in the margins that record thoughts.

The trick to good annotation is that both symbols and marginalia should be used in conjunction with one another. As students highlight or underline a phrase, for example, they should also write a note in the margin that records why that phrase stood out to them. Similarly, if they have a thought they write in the margin, they should physically mark the specific words and phrases that inspired that thought.

As students are required to fill their readings with their thoughts, they realize that they have a lot going on in their mind while they read. Students who don’t annotate will, at best, remember only one or two of the thoughts that occurred to them while reading.

Students who do annotate will find that nearly ALL of their thoughts get recorded and, even better, that the very act of writing and thinking leads them to have even more interesting ideas about their text.

In general, here are the main types of notes students should record in any passage for any subject:

  • Questions = Our minds constantly asks questions about things we don’t understand, things we are predicting, things we are trying to make sense out of. Recording these questions while reading will help students’ minds automatically search for answers.
  • Connections = The more students can connect the information they read to what they already know about themselves, their world, or other readings, the more the passages in front of them will make sense.
  • Interpretations = The meaning or depth of a passage may not be stated at the surface level of the text, but after thinking and inference, it is important that students identify the puzzle pieces and start putting them together.
  • Summaries = Even just putting something into their own words helps to clarify and solidify its meaning in a student’s mind. Writing paraphrases of information in the margins and at the end of sections/chapters helps enormously to enhance understanding.
  • Patterns = As lists, series, sequences, chronologies, or motifs are identified within a text, it’s important for students to use numbers, bullets, or a their own method of annotation to organize the passage.
  • Words = Individual words often hold a great deal of meaning, so making vocabulary words, course-specific terms, and unique diction choices stand out with annotation is essential.

It’s also just as important to tell students what kind of annotations to avoid:

  • Notes without thoughts = It’s easy to write an inane comment but not have an actual thought attached to it. Simply identifying a “simile” serves little purpose; instead, students should record a thought about why that simile is there.
  • Personal reactions = If a student is shocked or confused, writing “Wow!” or “Boring!” doesn’t warrant taking up space. Annotations are for thoughts worth remembering.
  • One-word comments = Like notes without thoughts, usually a one-word margin note just doesn’t depict enough thinking to justify the space it takes up.
  • Notes without symbols or symbols without notes = It’s important to use marginalia and symbols in conjunction with one another. They tag team to bring the passage to life.
  • Too much of anything = Too much chocolate makes you sick. The same is true with annotations: Although they are an extremely good tool, when a student highlights an entire page or paraphrases every sentence, the exercise becomes self-defeating.

Giving students the right understanding of annotation goes a long way towards helping them use it properly. Often, what students once reviled as a time-consuming task turns into an essential component of their reading that they both rely on and enjoy.