Reading with a pen in hand. Questioning as you read. Responding to a text. Whatever name we give it, annotating is one of the best reading tools we can give to our students. When it becomes habit, annotating improves comprehension by keeping students actively engaged, provides the necessary textual support for writing and gives kids courage to join in class discussions.
I first became a proponent of annotating when I taught AP Literature more than ten years ago. The density of the texts we shared in that course and the level of analysis required on the AP exam demanded that students do more than scan a piece and provide a cursory summation, two things that the typical honor student seemed to have mastered. To be successful in AP Lit, kids had to scrutinize texts through close readings. I made annotation a graded requisite. To facilitate grading, I created a five point rubric. It worked.
When I decided to try my luck in a middle school classroom, I adapted the learning strategies that had been successful with high school students for younger pupils. Once again, annotating proved a win-win: kids who took good margin notes earned grade boosting quiz scores and their reading comprehension and written responses improved.
Though I would never say this is the end-all and be-all of reading strategies, it is one element that has consistently been successful for all my students.
It takes experience before kids get the hang of this, but it is worth the effort and the time. By the end of the first quarter of seventh grade, the kids are automatically picking up their pens.
I start with a very short text. For my seventh and eighth graders, I try to find articles in The New York Times or Sports Illustrated or on-line. The selections have to be relevant to the core readings we share, non fiction I hope will enhance the reading experience. This makes the process worth the instructional time it consumes.
I always open by telling kids what’s in it for them. They will be stronger readers and better writers. Every collected annotated text is a chance at a 100%. They will have something to say if they are called in to contribute to a discussion. They will have great notes to use when they are asked to write about the texts.
Then we learn by doing.
I distribute a copy to each student and ask them to first read the title and write three questions inspired by that title. Beginning with questions allows all kids to move forward, even those kids who might be error-conscious.
I then allow them time to read the piece independently, indicating they are finished by looking up. Though at first it is hard to allow adequate wait-time, it is really important to be patient. Kids who rush through a reading often miss salient points. If they have nothing else to do while everyone is still reading, they learn to revisit the passage.
When everyone has completed the reading, then we read again together, stopping every couple of paragraphs to record questions, insights and for discussion. Kids can add to their own notes if they hear something in discussion. Most kids start this with a series of plot driven questions, but with practice, they move on to more sophisticated inquiry and ultimately some, though not all, will be able to rephrase questions into inferences.
Finally, I show the kids a sample of the same text, well annotated and go over the five point rubric.
It takes patience and time to model annotation, but it supports readers and writers on every level, in every content area.
Not every text can be annotated; books that must be reused every year obviously cannot. But whenever possible, I try to give students ample chances to practice this skill.