By Stephen Chiger
Can the teaching of effective annotation be the key to unlocking students’ learning of texts? Stephen Chiger explores this idea and how we might go about building it into our classroom practice.
Back in 2019, researchers made one gem of a discovery: what appears to be Milton’s copy of Shakespeare’s first folio. As you’d imagine, it was a finding met with wide-eyed, bookish glee. Cambridge fellow Jason Scott-Warren reported that as he put the clues together, he became “quite trembly… You’re gathering evidence with your heart in your mouth.”
And why shouldn’t he have felt this way? Scott-Warren notes that Milton’s annotations “give you a sense of his sensitivity and alertness to Shakespeare.” It’s a bit like we’re getting to peek into Milton’s mind.
Readers have long used annotations to provide commentary, mark memorable passages, simplify complex ideas, or even – as Edgar Allan Poe put it – to let their mind “unburden itself of a thought; — however flippant — however silly — however trivial….” For those reasons, most of us encourage them in student work. But we could be leveraging annotations for so much more.
With the right classroom coaching, your students’ marginalia can become the key to unlocking their reading comprehension. Here’s how.
Coach Students to Name the Claims
In many ways, annotation is just thinking made visible. But when students are making sense of challenging texts, what sorts of thoughts do we want them to have? To answer, we can step into the classroom of Indiana University’s Professor of History, David Pace.
Concerned about his students’ reading skill, Pace wanted to demonstrate what was important to him as he read a text. Here’s an example he modelled for them; the larger the font, the more important the idea. What do you notice about the lines he emphasised?
While Pace’s students may have been inclined to spend more time on small details, as a more experienced reader he knows to watch for something else: the text’s claims. Watching for those, he argues, helps readers trace and make meaning of the thesis. Pace’s approach highlights a powerful insight: the heart of any writing is the statement it makes.
From editorials to tweets to encyclopaedia entries, everything we read makes claims about the world. These range from the obvious (“here are five reasons your class should use retrieval practice”) to the less so (“here are the causes of World War I”) – but all texts make arguments about our world. For students, there is power in realising that these can be debated.
Our students don’t need to believe everything they read. Far from it. Their job as readers is to find the claims of a text and to then decide whether or not they accept them. Developing that critical eye is one way we can empower them to take on an information-rich world. Annotations give us a way to coach them how.
Create Habits of Mind
Pace’s approach calls to mind the topic-comment model described by researchers Peter Johnston and Peter Afflerbach in the 1980’s. In simple terms: the central idea of a text is the topic plus the comment it makes about it. The approach has the potential to help students read with far more sensitivity and at the same time develop a healthy skepticism about what they encounter. But for this approach to become a habit of mind, students need to practice it. What better place than how they annotate?
Imagine your students encountered the following paragraph. In terms of comprehension, what might you want them to note as they annotate?
For years, researchers have believed life on Venus wouldn’t be possible. The planet was too chaotic. There wasn’t enough oxygen. The atmosphere was car-battery-level acidic. However, recent findings are leading us to question everything.
As an experienced reader, I see a number of things. I can see the topic is about life on Venus, so I might jot that right away. But I know there might be claims later in the paragraph, since not every claim shows up in the first sentence. So, I also take note of the word “however” in that last sentence. I know a word like this usually means the claim of a text is about to shift, typically in an important way. This helps me notice that there’s another argument to consider, that new findings are encouraging researchers to consider whether life on Venus may be possible after all.
In our minds, this happens almost automatically, but annotations can allow us to help students work in slow motion. The process for annotating a non-narrative text then becomes like this:
- After reading the first few paragraphs: jot the topic and your early sense of the text’s claim
- Jot a quick note when you encounter key claims
- Underline claim-revealing lines: how/why statements, rhetorical questions, “I” statements, charged language
- Underline claim-shifters: “however,” “despite,” “but,” “others argue that”
- After reading the full text: Review your annotations and jot the author’s overall claim about the topic
That’s just a start. You might adjust this process for your discipline (for example, in History I’d also spend time considering the speaker, occasion, audience and purpose). Or you might do as our English teachers did and ask students to think about metacognitive strategies to use when they struggle. (If you’re interested in the full strategy we employ, you can find it here: stevechiger.com/resources.)
Shared annotation systems help students develop reading habits that will serve them well with difficult texts in any content area. But that’s not even the best reason to use them. When you have a shared system in class, you won’t have to wonder about whether or where students are struggling as they read. The answers will be written all over their page.
Make Thinking Visible
Imagine you were teaching that Science article we discussed. You’ve annotated it in the same way you hope that students will, and you’ve noted three key claims you’re hoping they can spot accurately.
Because you and your students share an annotation language, you can keep an eye out for what students are writing and how their work compares with yours. Of course, students are welcome to jot notes on whatever else they’d like, but with this mutual core, you can see if students are tracking the text’s big ideas as they go.
Let’s use that first paragraph from our Science article. Your note says something like “scientists once thought life impossible on V, new disc. say maybe.” As you scan student work, however, you see a lot of responses that read more like: “scientists: no life on V.”
A-ha!, you think. Students are missing that shift in the first paragraph. Now, you know exactly where understanding is breaking down, in real-time. Because you’ve made students’ thinking visible, you have the power to act on it, whether individually or as a class-wide response.
As Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and I write in Love and Literacy, what is often seen as a helpful study tool becomes something far greater: an engine for supporting student reading.
In their book Annotation, Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia recall a quote from Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows: “the child’s scribbling on the margin of his school-books is really worth more to him than all he gets out of them.” There’s wisdom in this observation, and it’s wisdom educators can add to.
Students can use annotations to better understand texts. Teachers can use them to better understand students.