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Students Annotating Text

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At our school, we really push students to get comfortable and familiar with the idea of annotating academic text that they’re reading. That’s just one of several reasons why we don’t use standard textbooks much in our English classes, and instead use copied units from Pebble Creek Labs, the Write Institute, or ones developed by local universities. And we always have a lot of post-it notes on hand for when we aren’t using consumables. We encourage students to read text with a pen or highlighter in their hands.

This is why I’m really big on web apps that let you annotate webpages (see Best Applications For Annotating Websites).

This kind of annotation habit is a reminder and strategy for students to interact more meaningfully with the text, and makes follow-up work so much easier (unit projects, studying for tests, etc.). It’s a habit that they’ll find useful for years to come.

Annotation “prompts” include using the typical reading strategies (ask a question, make a connection, visualize by drawing a picture and writing what it is, summarizing, predicting, and agreeing/disagreeing) and highlighting a specifically limited number of words (to help students develop the discipline of not highlighting tons of them). For highlighting, I usually give a certain number of words in a paragraph (three to five) that are either the most important point, or new information, writing they like, descriptive phrases, etc.

Out of curiosity, I asked students in my mainstream ninth grade English class to write a sentence or two during their weekly reflection explaining why they annotate text. I was interested in seeing if they “got it” or if some would say they did it just because it was assigned to do.

Of course, in this kind of situation, students might also respond in the way they believe the teacher wants them to, but I was pleased to see most of their answers. Here are a few examples:

“I don’t know but I think that we do it to improve ourselves around reading and writing.” (Kudos to this student for using the sentence frame displayed prominently on the classroom wall with a “I Don’t Know” crossed out and replaced with “I Don’t Know, But I Think That…”

“I think we spend so much time highlighting so we could be more good readers and understand the text.”

“To understand it better.”

“So we can get used to it and better at using the reading strategies.”

“Maybe because it helps us identify the main points and helps us understand what it’s about.”

“So we remember the lesson for the future.”

Do you encourage annotating text in the classroom? How?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

4 Comments

  1. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t circle and underline and write margin notes, it’s an important part of how I read. If I can’t write, I don’t feel as if I’m reading as deeply. I think it’s party because the notes augment my working memory, partly because it helps make review of past points easier, and partly because writing helps me think differently about the topic. For me this grew into writing my own notebook about the text in parallel with reading the text, while using the annotations to link to the notebook.

    Annotation is so central to the way I read that I was skeptical at first of electronic books because of their limited ability to handle this way of reading.

    In my public school experience at first this obviously caused problems because they don’t want you writing in texts that are shared and you can’t always get a copy of your own. One of my favorite things about college was that the books were mine to deflower with learning. It’s hard to imagine having to be taught to do this, it seems so natural to me. An unmarked book for me is an unread book.

    What a fascinating idea, teaching this as a skill. Thanks for sharing this topic!

  2. I begin every year working with students in annotating text. Like you, I think it is a very valuable tool for students to interact with their text. One of my colleagues has a handout for his students that shows an example of the process and how they can benefit. As I teach mostly freshmen, they often have a difficult time adjusting to the fact that they CAN write in their novels as most of their earlier books were returned at the end of the year.

    I am very glad you posted a link to annotating websites because I have been attempting to add a WordPress plugin with no success. I have put “important” passages from texts on our class wiki and had students write and comment on them but I think having the annotations connected directly with the text is a good way to keep the thoughts together. We are reading Julius Caesar now and I would like to put some quotes/passages for students to paraphrase or comment on and this will be a good community way to do this. It will show student understanding and at the same time be a help to others in the class.

  3. Thank you for sharing!
    Yes I encourage my students to annote texts while reading but I don’t put limits to the number of words or phrases to be annoted. Your idea of putting limits is worth being given a thought. I’ll try it.

  4. Splendid… posting this for my online ESL study group. I’ve always been an annotater and love seeing so many online annotating tools but getting students *conditioned NOT to write in books* into the habit can be an uphill struggle. I find it helps reading no end.

    Now what I need for them is something showing how reading will help their speaking…

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