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Strategies for Teaching Annotation

Standards: With guided practice, text annotation has the potential over time to address all the standards for Reading Literature (RL) and Reading Informational Text (RIT), in addition to Writing W2, W9, and Language L3, L4, and L5.

A Brief Rationale

It sounds so old school. In an article first published in 1940 in The Saturday Review, “How to Mark a Book,” Mortimer Adler points out that everyone knows you have to “read between the lines,” but only the most active readers “write between the lines” (qtd. in Fielding and Schoenbach 179). These are Adler’s reasons for teaching annotation:

  1. Annotation keeps you awake. Wide awake.
  2. Active reading is thinking, and thinking expresses itself in words and symbols.
  3. Writing helps you remember. An annotated page is a reader’s chronicle.
  4. Annotation slows you down.
  5. Annotation encourages rereading (Fielding 181-184).

“In the case of good books,” Adler concludes, “the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you – how many you can make your own” (184).


The Process

There are many ways to begin. This list outlines a few tried-and-trues:

  1. Introduce the word ANNOTATION as a key vocabulary word in your class, brainstorming for possible definitions, examples, word parts, etc..
  1. Tap students’ prior knowledge and experience by distributing an anticipation guide or a student annotation survey. Complete the survey yourself. Pool the results to compose a classroom annotation bookmark, or to revise one of the annotation bookmarks at this site.
  1. As an expert reader in your content area, model the process and begin with your own annotated texts, such as this teacher-annotated poem, "Frederick Douglass." Display a short but complex passage from the text without annotations, and read it aloud. Then display the same page marked with your own annotations. Share your internal monologue with the text; link your thinking explicitly to your annotations.
  1. Distribute an annotation guide or annotation bookmarks. Examples of annotation bookmarks composed by RHS teachers currently include Biology, Graphic Novels and Graphic Nonfiction, Informational Text, Media Images, Rhetoric, Shakespeare, Statistics, and Technical and Science Graphics. Beginning with a short, familiar passage from a classroom text and working with a partner, students annotate the text. Share and compare. Display exemplary student-annotated texts.
  1. Practice text annotation regularly, even daily, using the gradual release of responsibility model (I do, we do, you do).
  1. Collect and share anchors – student annotations that demonstrate levels of proficiency. RHS English teacher Sara Rice displays examples of the same text annotated in three levels of proficiency. Then Rice has her students create a “human annotation scale” by arranging multiple examples of student-annotated texts on a scale from zero to "Beyond Awesome"!
  1. Engage students in formative self-assessments of their annotated texts, guided by the RHS Schoolwide Rubric for Reading and/or one of the annotation rubrics at this site, including a rubric for annotating Informational Text, Literature, and Shakespeare.
  1. Summative assessments of student annotations can be done as part of a reader’s journal. If students are expected to annotate an assigned text each time they read, teachers can assess the final product relatively quickly, guided by an annotation rubric, by skimming the annotated text and focusing on a certain number of pre-selected pages.


Before, After, While

As Carol Porter-O’Donnell notes in the EJ article, “Beyond the Yellow Highlighter,” most teachers employ a host of pre- and post-reading strategies to enhance and assess reading comprehension. Before students read a challenging text, we tap prior knowledge, introduce background knowledge, skim informational passages for titles, sub-titles, illustrations and captions, introduce key vocabulary words, and reflect on themes we will meet in the text. After students read, we assign questions for writing and discussion and we design projects for students to demonstrate what they have learned. Annotating the text is a strategy that can “help readers while they’re reading” (89).


Helpful Annotation Resources

Adler, Mortimer. “How to Mark a Book,” from The Mercury Reader. Building Academic Literacy: An Anthology for Reading Apprenticeship. Ed. Audrey Fielding and Ruth Schoenbach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 179-184.

Brown, Matthew D. “I’ll Have Mine Annotated, Please: Helping Students Make Connections with Texts.” English Journal 96.4 (2007): 73-78.

Porter-O’Donnell, Carol. “Beyond the Yellow Highlighter: Teaching Annotation Skills to Improve Reading Comprehension.” English Journal 93.5 (2004): 82-89.