Why the First Skill I Teach is Annotation

Thinking on Paper


Even though I am up to my eyeballs in testing and pre-testing, I still want to take a moment to pause and acknowledge the first skill that I teach students every school year: annotation in reading. I use the Article of the Week to implement this right away because it establishes routine, and it also is a skill that we will use the most throughout the rest of the year in a variety of ways. I have sixth graders and seventh graders this year, so I teach and review this skill right away. In this post, I will outline how I go about teaching annotation skills, providing purpose for annotation, and how to keep mixing it up to keep kids interested. 

Why Annotation

In my tenth grade year of high school, my high school English teacher and later on my mentor teacher, started to teach us annotation using Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The American Scholar" and "Self-Reliance." She assigned the reading one night and the next night we entered her classroom utterly confused. While I don't often like to send students into the wilderness of reading without guidance, I think that this strategy provided her some valuable information that I find my students struggle with to this day: Students get lost in reading and can't find their way out. While the wilderness is beneficial when exploring, we don't want to get stuck in the wilderness with no water, no food, and no shelter. Annotation is the survival guide. 

Annotation also provides a roadmap. Thinking through the text and showing evidence of your thinking is a throwback skill to elementary school teachers and middle school teachers stopping to demonstrate their thinking as they read. It is as natural as the anchor chart. Annotation the action of writing your thinking on the page. It starts in stages. Often, students will get caught up in reader's response and engage in reactionary almost comic book like reactions: WOW, WOAH, AWESOME, OMG, IDK, ...While these are great reactions that demonstrate thinking and interaction with the text, teachers must help students define what the purpose of annotation while reading a text. I find these are the three main ways of helping students find purpose while they annotate:

  • Read to comprehend (main idea, points, messages, vocabulary, context, etc)

  • Read to connect (text to self, text, and world)

  • Read to question (asking, pondering, wondering)

I will often outline suggested "purposes" for annotations when looking at both fiction and non-fiction pieces of work. The reason why I love annotation so much is that students get to show me that they have an opinion. They get to show me that their thoughts matter. This is more than a diagnostic; it is an intervention. There are more than these three main ways of helping students find purpose in the text; however, I constantly keep coming back to them as my standbys that never seem to get old. 

Article of the Week:

The most common way I reinforce annotation habits is through annotation. We have been doing annotation on AOWs for about 3 weeks this school year so far, and students finally are getting the knack of writing down their thoughts because they matter and their teacher wants to know what they think. I will count annotation as a part of their grade. For students that do not write comments on their AOWs, I write "not yet" and allow them to resubmit. They have to get this. They have to get this concept now before all else. For seventh grade, I immediately start looking at the quality of their annotation. I ask myself, "Is this something that shows critical thought or reactions with reader's response?" I will also ask them questions that start to introduce them to the other realms of critical theory (even though I don't call it this in 7th grade). Those questions look like this: 

Social Class Questions to Consider:

  1. Who benefits in the text if they have money?

  2. Who is hurt in the text if they don’t have money?

  3. What values does the text support? (Values=judgment of what is important in life)

  4. Who is given power? Who is powerless?

Feminist/Gender Questions to Consider:

  1. How are men/boys presented in the text?

  2. How are women/girls presented in the text?

  3. Are the relationships between men and women positive or negative?

  4. Which gender seems to have more power?

  5. Does each gender seem to have a “job” or role?

The Article of the Week will shift focus throughout the course of the year. Sometimes we will focus on non-fiction summary writing, sometimes we will focus on structure or organization of the text. At all times, we focus on annotation and reactions that will lead to purposeful discussion and dialogue. 

New to Annotation Plan:

While my seventh graders might be ready to dip their toes into critical theory and providing a deeper purpose for annotation, my sixth graders are brand new to this idea of recording their thoughts on the page. I will often call annotation "think marks" and teach students to use symbols as well as comments while they are reading. Students pick up right away on the use of symbols-more so than comments. I like to use this free handout from Just A Primary Girl on Teachers Pay Teachers. It's awesome. Once they seem to master symbols, I will urge them to find a certain number of comments throughout the pages of their reading. All the while providing examples of great annotation at each level. 

I am also a fan of introducing fun highlighters, pens, and markers. However, you have to proceed with caution due to the love of coloring. Purpose is key. Purposeful coloring is great for readers, a whole yellow neon page will be completed immediately unless students are instructed otherwise. I like to use common codes as well. I have all students circle words they don't understand. I also have students underline important phrases that need to be noted for questioning, connections, or comprehending. Using these systems, students are able to interact with the text while reading. 

Annotation Examples: 

Here is my growing example wall and also where I house Article of the Weeks. You can see where students turn these in and take a peek into the process. 

Mix It Up:

In order for students to remain interested and to also keep increasing their skills in annotation, the focus can shift depending on the assignment and where each class is at in a particular unit. For example, there could be:

  • Annotation for Beginners (Students learn how to write on the page)

  • Annotation for Discussion and Dialogue (Students bring annotations as discussion starters)

  • Annotation for Writing Style (Mentor Texts)

  • Annotation for Vocabulary Acquisition

  • Annotation for Critical Theory Responses

And more! The goal is to provide purpose for annotation. While the first go-around I am making sure that kids know it is okay to write on the paper, this shifts quickly so that students realize annotation is more than writing thoughts down. It is showing the complexity and nature of their thoughts in reaction to ideas. It matters. 

Annotation Resources: 

ReadWriteThink: Teaching Student Annotation: Constructing Meaning Through Connections

Dave Stuart, Jr: Purposeful Annotation: A “Close Reading” Strategy that Makes Sense to My Students

BrightHubEducation:Have Your Class Write Annotations: Teacher Tips

WeAreTeachers: Reading With Pen in Hand: Teaching Annotation in Close Reading

Pinterest Board with Annotation Resources/Reading Strategies: 

Writing Mindset Reflection: How do you teach annotation? What is the main skill that you find students need to know right away to set the tone for the year?