Annotation for Smarties – 5 Tips for Teaching Students Active Reading and Critical Thinking

“How many of you have ever gotten to the end of a page of assigned reading, and realized you have no idea what you just read?”

Every year, I pose this question to my English classes, and every year, just about every hand goes up, including mine. I share with my students that there have been several times, even recently, that I’ve realized I have absorbed absolutely nothing of what I thought I just read, this, despite 16 years of teaching and a lifetime of being an avid reader. It’s the discovery of why this happens that led me to one of the most successful strategies I use to help my students become close readers: annotation.

I know – annotation brings up memories of pages of text stained bright with yellow highlighter, glowing with the statement that EVERYTHING is important. When I set out to “study” my vast pages of reading for my freshman college classes so many years ago, I had very little direction other than, “find what’s important.” without any guidance as to what “important” meant. When I began teaching, I quickly realized that if I wanted my students to think critically about what they read, I needed to teach them how to actively engage with a text. Over the years this is what has worked best in helping my students

1. Throw away the highlighters. Or at least put them away for a while. Although many students relish the act of sweeping bands of neon pink or green across their texts, I ban the use of highlighters for the purposes of annotation in my classes – at least at first. Instead, students use a pen or pencil to underline words or phrases that seem important or interesting, and then comment on the text immediately. This simplifies the act of writing a comment for each piece of text underlined, and seems to increase the number and depth of annotations. While we use highlighters for several other activities in our class, such as structural analysis of essays, students develop the best annotation skills with the simple but mighty pen.

2. Annotations are the words you write about the text, not the text you underline or highlight. When my students first begin practicing annotation in my class, I tell them that they may not underline a word in a text, unless they write WHY they underlined it. Even if it’s just a question mark, or an exclamation point, forcing themselves to write their reason for underlining makes them consider their thoughts about that text, focusing and deepening their analysis. They are less likely to mark everything as significant, because they are held accountable for discussing the significance of what they mark.

3. Annotation is a conversation. When we don’t remember what we just read, it’s often because we were reading passively. When we actively read a text, we engage in a mental conversation with its ideas and this is what annotation should reflect.

When I’m introducing annotation, I show my students my own mental processes while reading, thinking out loud while writing on a text on the SmartBoard at the front of my room. I underline words and phrases, writing questions and comments and talking through my thought process as I go.

Another particularly effective activity is to put a short text up on the SmartBoard, often a poem, and have students get up and scribble their comments all over it. (This also works well with a document camera.) After the students have clustered around the board, writing and talking about what they’ve written, we sit down and, one at a time, students explain their thinking about the section of text they’ve annotated.

With more timid classes, I’ve given them the text ahead of time so that they can work on it individually for a while and then let them compare annotations in pairs. Finally, two at a time, the students come up to the board to annotate and explain their comments and thoughts.

By getting students thinking about a text and hearing the thought processes of others, they quickly begin to deepen their understanding of the possibilities for analysis

4. There are many ways to interact with a text. Everybody has a tendency when it comes to the type of annotations they tend to write – I always ask a lot of questions and make personal connections to what I read – it varies depending on the type of text I’m reading and my purpose for reading it.  In order to develop their ability to interact with the wide variety of texts and reading tasks they’re going to encounter, it’s important for students to expand their repertoire of the ways that they respond.

I introduce my students, “regular” and AP, to a list of active reading strategies, including one- sentence summaries, making predictions, questioning, making connections, and forming opinions. As I demonstrate what each strategy looks like and then have students practice them as a class and individually, students add to their arsenal of response methods.

5. Dealing with the inevitable question: How many annotations do I have to do?  No matter how much time you spend exploring the purpose and methods of annotation with your students, you will still encounter this question. AP students, especially, have been conditioned to focus on grades, and crave clear guidelines for what we expect from them. I can’t simply tell them it’s all about quality over quantity, because the more they interact with the text, the more they will get out of it, but there is so much more to effective annotation than simply having a lot of it.

Developing a rubric that clarifies your expectations for your students’ annotation is key. I’ve developed one of my own but an important part of formulating your rubric should be to consider what your goals are for having students annotate. What do you want them to get out of it and what do they need to do to accomplish those goals? My goals change regularly, depending on the assignment and the needs of my students.

When we teach students how to use annotation as a way to engage actively with a text, we give them an invaluable tool. Suddenly, they are a part of the conversation, increasing their ability to think critically about what they are reading and their confidence in their ability to tackle tough texts.


4 thoughts on “Annotation for Smarties – 5 Tips for Teaching Students Active Reading and Critical Thinking

  1. This is great for actual books, but me students all use ebooks, as more and more students do. Have you given thought to how teachers can monitor electronic annotation?

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