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Close Reading: Modeling Annotations

Updated on January 17, 2019
Jonathan Pickles profile image

Jonathan Pickles has taught language arts at the middle and secondary levels for more than twenty years.

Show Young Readers What You Do as a Reader

In my last blog, I wrote about marking text with low-skilled readers to boost engagement. Marking text is formally known as annotating, which is the time-tested practice of marking one’s thoughts and reactions in the margins of books. It’s a low-tech method requiring only a pen and a book. Technology just isn’t an option at this point. At present, the notes functions in e-readers and other digital devices are cumbersome and unwieldy. They just don’t feel natural. Currently, there are very few if any applications that harness the potential of annotation in a manner that is comparable to putting pen to paper.

I find it difficult to read without a pen in hand, even while reading for pleasure, as I am often compelled to make comments in the margins. I might make a connection between the story and my own experience or identify a stunning example of the author’s prose; I might also note a repetition in the narrative or highlight a passage that conveys the work’s theme. Annotating enhances my reading experience and engages me deeply in a text.

Educators also benefit from writing in the margins of books, not only for themselves, but for teaching purposes as well. As a language arts teacher, I often annotate for my students. These annotated books are my “teaching copies.” In this capacity, my notes serve a twofold purpose: they are a visual trail of my own thoughts while reading and an effort to frame the information or narrative in a way that my students can understand it or, even better, in a way that they can draw their own conclusions and make their own insights.

Young readers need to see what expert readers do when they read, and one way to achieve this is by modeling. I show my students my annotated books--those that I’ve read for pleasure, the books I’ve read as a student, and my teaching copies. This is a powerful practice! My students get to see that a real reader annotates, and that I do so for a variety of purposes.

If you’d like to introduce annotating to your students, try this: bring in any copies of books that you’ve annotated. They could be your college science or anatomy textbooks, books you’ve read in a graduate literature class, or your favorite novel. Take pictures of your notes with a document camera and project them on a classroom whiteboard or smartboard. If you are a luddite, like me, and wish to stay low-tech, simply pass your annotated books around the classroom and keep them on-hand for reference.

Don't get caught up in thinking that the only way to model is in real time in front of the students. In fact, this is less authentic as it's an academic exercise with the sole purpose of showing students how you'd like them to complete a given task. Rather, show them what you've done in the past as an actual reader or as a student. Modeling the actual strategies you’ve employed is far more genuine and far more impactful.

This is an excellent activity to establish reading purposes, which young readers need to have presented explicitly. If you’re projecting your astronomy textbook, for example, ask your students why you wrote a mnemonic device next to the planets in the solar system (to remember the order of planets, perhaps). In this case, you’ve demonstrated a technique to assist your memory. Maybe you’ll project how you highlighted all the instances of Homer’s repetition of the phrase, Athena, the grey-eyed goddess, in The Odyssey. This could lead to a discussion of how you wrote an essay about Athena’s important role in the story. You’ll find that your notes will spark curiosity and engender amazing conversations between you and your students.

Make sure to save and catalogue the photos or scans of your annotations for use in lesson planning. Taking the above examples, one could file the astronomy textbook notes in a folder titled non-fiction reading strategies. The Odyssey notes could be filed under repetition. Over time, you will build a repertoire of reading strategies to share with your students. Then you can import these images into the appropriate lessons or presentations. Keep in mind that this need not be limited to language arts classrooms. Science and social studies teachers can provide valuable lessons on how to read expository text. Annotating is an interdisciplinary experience!

If you are a teacher, and haven’t begun to annotate, start today! There are no rules. Annotating can be a deeply private and personal experience where you share your innermost thoughts or it could be a rant about why you hated Twilight which you are dying to share with your book club. Use your annotations in the classroom to model reading behaviors.


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