Annotation can be a difficult and stressful process for high school students and educators alike. It’s an essential skill across subject areas, something we expect students to just do, but rarely do we actually teach them how. Students don’t understand how to annotate and, more often than not, why it would be a useful tool in the first place.
“If I understand the story, why should I annotate?” was a common refrain I heard from students. I noticed that many would highlight random sentences hoping to skate by in assessment. Others wouldn’t even attempt to engage in the process. I began to consider ways that I could support students in developing close reading and annotation in a collaborative and genuine way that would give them agency.
The first step required that I think about why I saw annotation as valuable in the first place. Why did I see it as a skill that students needed in my classroom? I created three primary beliefs to work from:
- Annotation is intentional, allowing us to engage more deeply with texts and ourselves.
- Annotation is practical in all areas of life and with all types of texts.
- Annotation offers agency and is a tool that we can use to interact with texts from where we are now.
With these beliefs in mind, I worked to create a scaffolded process that provided structure and guidance in annotation while also facilitating choice.
Step 1: Create purpose
Establish clear prompts to engage students. The teacher or the students can preselect these prompts, but the guided focus can be the first step to making meaningful observations. The more specific the prompts, the better.
For example, when studying world building, I have students look for physical descriptions, sociopolitical elements, and paranormal or supernatural elements. Assigning each prompt a specific color helps students to stay organized and easily pick out elements of focus later on.
Step 2: Identify
After students have read the text, I ask them to go back and identify the quotes or highlights that they see as the most interesting and/or important. I often have them circle, star, or otherwise mark these in some way. I also ask students to leave a note that explains their selection and the importance of this quote.
The goal in this step is to have students revisit the text and their initial noticings, making a habit of using their notes. This step also allows students to self-select what they see as important and defend their selection, providing ample opportunities for discussion and comparison.
Step 3: Make meaning
You can tailor the next step to the key elements of any lesson or specific text. Students use sticky notes to add on final thoughts, questions, or connections they may have in relation to the text. As with the previous steps, these can be adapted to the goals of the lesson or the needs of students.
For example, you may ask students in this step to speak directly to possible themes or a specific character. Again, this step builds the habit of going back and rereading and reviewing texts. It also aims to have students use their annotations to begin to synthesize, looking to explain larger abstract and complex topics such as theme or historical context.
Step 4: Share meaning
The final step requires collaborative discussion among students. When they follow the previous steps, every student has the ability to come to the discussion with quotes, ideas, and resources that will allow them to participate.
I often begin discussion with the prompts created in step one, allowing students to draw from textual evidence and meaning making from steps two and three. During or after the discussion, I have students again add to their notes and annotations, helping them see knowledge building as collaborative.
When guided through this structured process several times, students become familiar with the process and embody the steps. They come to understand the need to annotate with purpose, to revisit the text, and to use the text in a discussion. The ultimate goal is for the instructor to slowly relinquish support until students are doing the process independently. Requiring students to identify prompts, asking them to independently revisit the text and add notes, or having them lead the discussion can achieve this goal.
Ensuring that students have opportunities for skill development and practice enables them to utilize these skills not only in the ELA classroom and across the curriculum, but also throughout their lives.