A Different Approach to Teaching Annotation

Annotation ‘rules’ can zap students’ natural curiosity, but building a culture of observation encourages them to ask questions.

March 10, 2023

The act of reading elicits a feeling of curiosity. We notice stuff, certain words or phrases that make us pause or experience a feeling of weight. I know this is true for adult readers, for high school readers, and for my own children. My 3-year-old son stops me while we read together so that he can touch illustrations or ask random questions. When my 6-year-old daughter reads, her eyes grow wide as she shouts, “Wait! I see something!”

My high school students notice stuff, too. Their eyes also grow wide with recognition. They see repetitions and discrepancies. They experience cognitive dissonance and ask questions. However, at the beginning of the school year, many consistently claim, “I don’t know” or “I don’t see anything,” when approaching an unfamiliar text. They annotate nothing or highlight everything. Only after months of observation routines do they admit the truth: They didn’t think their annotations would be correct.  

In the late 1990s before No Child Left Behind, the National Reading Panel performed a large-scale secondary analysis to determine the effectiveness of reading instruction. Not surprisingly, they learned that teaching reading comprehension does in fact improve reading, which ignited a series of conditional arguments. If I must teach comprehension, I should teach how to annotate correctly. If there are correct ways, there must be incorrect ways. If there are incorrect ways, there must be ways to assess.

The unsettling consequence of using annotations to assess comprehension is that annotations are no longer used to record curiosity or investigation while reading. Perhaps this is why students constantly ask if their annotations are correct or, more compellingly, why they express contempt toward annotating.

Building a Culture of Observation

Allow me to make myself clear: I am not asking students to stop annotating. I am asking teachers to guide students to observe as a habit of mind, rather than explicitly teach how to annotate. 

When we prescriptively teach annotating, students comply rather than comprehend. When we use annotation guides, students scan the text for answers rather than observe and question. When we grade annotations, students are afraid of being incorrect. The more explicitly we teach it, the more they hate it.

Often, teaching annotation leads students to notice what the teacher has decided is important, and they too quickly forfeit their own observations and ideas in order to finish an assignment. Instead, teachers must explicitly reframe the skill of annotation and build a culture of observation.

6 Ways to Encourage Observation

1. Prioritize “observing text” as a habit of mind. Insist that “good reading” is not fast or perfect reading. Good readers slow down to observe, to notice. Observe texts together, and annotate collectively. Do not reject any observation, even if it sounds wrong. 

2. Reframe annotation, and invite students to observe through mantras. 

  • “No one knows what’s important on the first read; trust what you notice—it could matter!” 
  • “I’m not asking you to find something specific or deep. Notice any little thing.”  
  • “Can you take this big text and break it down into little parts? What do you see?”

3. Reframe annotation using different analogies or metaphors.

  • “Read with a pencil. Let the pencil be an extension of your thoughts—from brain, to arm, to pencil, to paper.” 
  • “Have you ever played I Spy? I Spy stuff, and don’t judge what you find.”
  • “Don’t run—walk. Walk through the text, and smell the flowers. Notice everything.” 

4. Exemplify various styles of annotations. Laud and display different styles. Victoria loves colors, Angel uses arrows, John draws boxes around phrases, and Oscar only uses a pencil. Omit examples that have scant annotations.

5. Model annotation using different students. While collectively annotating, ask different students to annotate on a projected text as the class shouts out what they notice. Then explicitly state that the style doesn’t matter. What matters is the content—the stuff you notice!

6. Encourage marking words and phrases. Patricia Kain’s essay from the Harvard College Writing Center invites students to focus on words and phrases instead of whole sentences. This is the only suggestion for annotation that I give explicitly. I do not correct their annotations but explain that words and phrases create connections in a way that whole sentences do not. A repetition of phrases or discrepant word choices could lead to important discoveries.

The suggestions above seem simple, but they must be implemented consistently to build a culture. Teachers must genuinely forfeit their own sense of correctness and resist the lure of leading students to the teacher’s answers. Building a culture will require more time, patience, and practice, but not necessarily extra work. 

Teachers will no longer have to tediously grade annotations, trying to guess whether a student understands the text. Students will no longer have to guess what the teacher wants them to mark down and feel like they cannot master a reading assignment. Instead, both will engage in a more observational and analytical learning culture that will pay off in time and energy when students begin to meaningfully engage with texts. They will shout, “Wait! I see something!” and endearingly take photos of their messy annotations, proud of all the scribbles and arrows and stuff that only they can understand. 

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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