Teaching Annotation

"Underline words or phrases you do not understand. Circle powerful words or phrases. [Use an exclamation mark for] Something that surprises you. [Use  question mark for something that] Raises a question. EX = When an author provides examples. Draw an arrow when you make a connection to text. 1, 2, 3 ... Number arguments, important ideas, or key details. Write important thoughts in the margin.


"Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources" (post) outlines the rationale and procedure for teaching students to annotate texts.

A. Rationale

1. This "strategy requires students to underline key words, write margin notes, and summarize main ideas as they read a primary or secondary source."

  • "Because careful reading is integral to powerful writing and thinking, annotating text often helps students craft stronger written arguments."

2. "[S]tudents will learn to take notes from primary and secondary sources that address the validity and bias of evidence, the perspective of the source, and their own interpretation."

  • "Students will need regular practice, reinforcement, and feedback on their annotations in order for this type of careful reading to become routine."

B. Procedure

1. "Share Examples"

  • "Show students sample annotations—your own or from other students."
  • "Ask students what they notice."

2. "Discuss the Value of Annotation"

  • "Ask students why they think [academics] annotate as they read."
  • "Discuss the value of the following":
    • "A way of 'talking to the text' and having a dialogue with yourself as you read."
    • "A way to slow down your thinking as you read difficult text, so you read more closely, thoughtfully, mindfully, intentionally."
    • "An opportunity to sort out the material: what you understand and what is still puzzling."
    • "A way to keep track of your thinking as you read so you can revisit and use that thinking later, when you are debating or when you are writing your essay."

3. "Model Annotating a Text"

  • "Model annotating a short primary source document in front of the class."
  • Be sure you model both simple summarizing/paraphrasing and more complex critical thinking as you read." 
  • Options:
    • "Circle or underline key words; tell students why these seem important."
    • "Put a question mark by ideas you don’t understand or find puzzling."
    • "Summarize key historical events and ideas: Does this make sense? What does this say? What does this mean?"
    • "Write phrases or sentences that express your reactions and interpretations."
    • "Note the author’s intentions and assumptions."

4. Have "Students Annotate a Text"

  • "Give students a short text to annotate on their own or in small groups."
  • "Circulate to give them feedback on their annotations."
  • "After they have read and annotated, have students compare their annotations and consider these questions":
    • "What did you write?"
    • "How did it help you?"
    • "How were your peers’ annotations different?"

5. "Practice Annotation Throughout a Unit," Term, etc.

  • "Ask students to annotate throughout the unit."
  • "Periodically remind them of the essential question and writing prompt as a way to help them focus their thinking as they read."
  • "What should they be paying attention to?"
  • "Check their annotations. Give students feedback."
    • "Write your own thinking back to them or talk with students about their margin notes." 
    • "What strikes you?"
    • "What ideas seem worth pursuing?"
  • "Remind students that they should use these margin notes when they write their essays."

C. Consider "Social Annotation": From "How Can Online Instructors Get Students to Talk to Each Other?"

  • Social annotation allows "the power of discussions taking place in the margins of books."
  • "Hypothes.is is a social annotating tool that takes these reading practices to a whole new level. When reading on the internet, you can select text and annotate it. These notes may be shared publicly or saved privately."
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