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Purposeful Annotation: A “Close Reading” Strategy that Makes Sense to My Students

By Dave Stuart Jr.
Post- Purposeful Annotation Image

Mmm… tortilla chip crumbs. (It'll make sense later.)

If you look at my original close reading post, you'll see I was basically using the phrase “close reading” to refer to annotation.

It took me a year or more to realize that I was saying one buzzwordy thing to mean a lot of explicit, less confusing things that readers do when grappling with a text. I blame my error on allowing myself to get sucked into the unfortunate vortex that was the buzzwordification of close reading.

If you’re new to the blog, though, keep in mind that while I do try not to take the educational establishment too terribly seriously (instead opting to occasionally poke fun at us), when it comes to helping students flourish in the long-term, I’m dead serious.

So when I call close reading a buzzword or write the term’s obituary, I don’t want to give you the impression that we should let ourselves cynically dismiss the idea that reading is often hard, analytical — and yes, even “close” — work, especially when we're dealing with complex, college- or career-level texts assigned by a teacher. We still need to teach kids, across the disciplines, how to wrestle with assigned texts, seeking, like Jacob, to get whatever blessing they have to bestow.

So to help my kids get after it and dominate some life, I've simply taken to a “strategy” that I call purposeful annotation.

Purposeful annotation: here's what I’m talking about

The big idea is this: what we do when reading should align with

  1. why we're doing the reading in the first place and
  2. what we're going to do with the reading after we're done.

When my students have a text they can write on, the idea, then, is to annotate in a way that supports our purpose for reading and the parameters of our post-reading task (keep in mind that the purpose and the task should line up). Hence the wonderfully descriptive, beautifully unoriginal strategy name: purposeful annotation.

Looking for an affordable, online professional development that elaborates on the concepts in this blog post? Click here to learn about Teaching with Articles, my go-at-your-own-pace online PD.

As an example, let’s say I’m helping my students think through the task of purposefully annotating a Kelly Gallagher-esque article of the week. In that case, the purpose I set for my students’ reading is, as The Gallagher put it in a recent post’s comments section, to simply become smarter about the world, and the post-reading task is that they need to write a thoughtful 1+ page response.

In that example, knowing that I want to dominate that post-reading task and that I simply need to get myself engaged with the probably unfamiliar and certainly unchosen content, I, as a student, ought to make annotations that begin to respond to the text. Of course, I can't respond to something I don't understand, and so sometimes, especially when faced with a particularly befuddling sentence, paragraph, or section in the article, I ought to slow down, reread, and then annotate a brief summary or paraphrase of the challenging section in the margin.

So, two things we can annotate, naturally, are 1) our responses to a text, and 2) our paraphrases/summaries of bits of the text we had to wrestle with. These logically line up with what I’m going to do with the text after reading, as well as my purpose for reading it in the first place.

The idea here is that I'm writing these things in the margins — these purposeful annotations — not simply for a grade or because the teacher said, “Do a close reading.” I'm doing it to help me dominate:

  1. the task of understanding and learning from the text while reading (this is one of my ultimate goals for my students — that they'll read the texts I assign with self-kindled, habituated, cultivated curiosity, engaging with it for learning's sake), and
  2. the task of doing a thing with that text after reading (if my head is on straight as a teacher, there's going to be a piece of writing or a piece of speaking that every student will do with any given text).

This obviously isn’t as broad of a strategy as close reading, and honestly, that’s why I like it — and my students do, too.

The core idea is that annotation should help the reader during and after reading. It should serve, as my friend and work-sister Erica Beaton has well put it, as the leaving of cyanide-laced breadcrumbs (okay, the cyanide bit is mine — but seriously, that's the right way to put it, because breadcrumbs alone get eaten by birds, while cyanide-laced breadcrumbs leave a nicely traceable, bird-covered trail).

Mmm... Dark and accurate -- my favorite flavor of analogy.

Mmm… Dark and accurate — my favorite flavor of analogy.

Why teach purposeful annotation rather than some other method?

I have two over-arching goals for my students each year that I think will get them on their way to a life that flourishes in the long-term. I want to help as many kids as possible to figure out

  1. why school matters to them and their lives, and then
  2. how to dominate the challenges of school and, more broadly, life.

So much of my thinking is still shaped by one of the central ideas of Jerry Graff's Clueless in Academe — far too many students simply don't understand school, and frustratingly, that simply need not be so. A big part of helping kids “get” academia is showing them how argument is the essence of thought and then teaching them arguespeak across the school day — They Say, I Say remains the best text in the world for helping with that. (Please note that I support my reading habit through Amazon affiliate commissions — if I link to a book anywhere in this blog article, it means I'll get a small gift card to Amazon if you make a purchase through that link. This costs you nothing extra but keeps me hooked up with new books to read. Thank you!)

For me, Graff pointed out both the problem — academia does a great job obscuring itself to students — and a large part of the solution. Arguespeak is the language of power not just in school, but in the world at large — we're foolish not to teach kids that.

Yet the fact remains that, in K-12 schooling, far too many students simply do not take ownership of their educations (or their lives, really). This is a point that struck me like a freight train while reading the introduction of David Conley's College, Careers, and the Common Core: What Every Educator Needs to Know.

From Conley's book:

The [students] who had the greatest success were those who were willing to take some modicum of ownership of their learning and responsibility for their behavior. Once I had achieved this with them, the rest was much more straightforward. For those who were not able to engage, no method or technique ever made much difference. This lesson about the importance of ownership of learning never completely left me. Interestingly and unexpectedly, I had reached the conclusion that the social contract was a two-way street: society has a responsibility to create a level playing field, and individuals have a responsibility to take advantage of it.

I'm sure I'll write more on ownership of learning this year as it's a central burning question for my colleagues and me, but for the sake of this post suffice it to say that I believe the clearer we can be about what we ask kids to do and why we ask them to do it, the more academia becomes unobscured and the more likely it is that our students will come to a place where they can say, “Yes — schooling matters for me because _______________.”

In short, I've found that the phrase purposeful annotation makes sense to my freshmen and explicitly shows them how to “work smarter not harder” when reading and doing something with a text.

So how do we do the purposeful annotation thing?

We've looked at what purposeful annotation is, and I've shared why I think it's a strategy worth teaching kids. Now let's examine how to actually do the thing.

First, start with the end in mind

Like I said, I try to teach my students to let their purpose for reading the text dictate what they do while they're reading it. For my “what does this look like in a gradebook” readers (I feel you), I do consistently assign a grade to whether my students, at minimum, write 1-2 thoughtful, purpose-driven annotations in the margins of each page of a shorter complex text. (I explain how I grade articles of the week in this post.)

article of the week -- example of close reading

Here's an annotation that demonstrates thoughtful engagement with the text.


Example of an annotation that shows little evidence of thought. I don't mark kids down for this, but I also don't give them credit for it. Responding with OMG, smiley faces, etc is a strategy for staying engaged with a text and responding to it emotionally, but I want more when kids annotate.

Here's an annotation that shows little evidence of thought. I don't mark kids down for this, but I also don't give them credit for it. Responding with OMG, smiley faces, etc. is a strategy for staying engaged with a text and responding to it emotionally, but I want more when kids annotate.

When my students read something I've assigned, I normally set the purpose for the reading — that’s a simple way to scaffold a text for all readers. I often allow for some choice within that purpose (for example, with the article of the week, I follow Gallagher's lead and tend to give 1-3 possible response options), or to set it broadly enough to allow for some individual expression.

Possible response options for a sample article of the week

Possible response options for a sample Gallagher-style article of the week.

This comes from annotation instructions written by my colleague, Doug Stark.

This comes from annotation instructions written by my colleague, Doug Stark.

With that said, here are the kinds of annotations I recommend kids try (remember, 1-2 thoughtful interactions per page) based on their purpose for reading.

If your purpose for reading is to learn the content:

  • Summarize a sentence or paragraph
  • Paraphrase a sentence or paragraph
  • Circle and define key words

If your purpose for reading is to end by responding to a specific prompt:

    • Annotate toward that prompt. If you’re being asked to evaluate, make evaluative annotations. If you're being asked to analyze, make analytical annotations. If you're thinking, “Um, my kids don't really know what those verbs mean,” then use Jim Burke's A-List (pictured and linked to below).
Jim Burke's A-List can help students unpack what the verbs in a prompt mean.

Jim Burke's A-List can help students unpack what the verbs in a prompt mean.

Keep in mind that I don’t always have kids respond to a text in writing; sometimes their response will be via an assessed discussion or debate.

Second, do it while you read

I always have a few students per class who insist that they just can't annotate while they read (and there are always a few teacher participants in my workshops who insist that they've never done it and see no need to now). Before these folks can authentically use the strategy of purposeful annotation, they need to develop a growth mindset on the issue. Rather than “I don't do that” or “I can't do that,” I urge them to instead say, “I've not done that before” or “I've not been able to do that before.”

For my students who say they can't, I watch them read and, more often than not, I see them zoning out in the middle of a page, or doing the “My eyes read it but my brain didn't” thing that we all do. Annotation, I've found, can help my students focus on a text, especially when that annotation is purposeful rather than “fill in the margins as much as you can.”

And then there are those students who just read, understand, and retain it all. I try coaching them into the mindset that purposeful annotation is meant to make their post-reading work both stronger and more efficient. By choosing to annotate only portions of the text that they want to address further in the writing or speaking we'll be doing after reading, they're allowing their brain to leave those breadcrumbs on the page rather than keeping those notes in their brains (for an awesome article on how not writing things down keeps information in your brain's rehearsal loops, check this out.)

Time out: what about teachers who see no value in annotation?

I know some readers are coaches, administrators, PLC leaders, department chairs, and so on, and if you've been trying to push close reading or annotation at your school, you've probably run into resistant folks. Here are a few things to think about:

  1. Are you referring to annotation as close reading? See the video below (or click here to view at Youtube).
  2. Instead of requiring all teachers to use a complicated coding system when teaching their kids to annotate, empower them with the idea of purposeful annotation. The means need to fit the ends.
  3. Think deeply about the why. Use my “Why teach…” section above to help.
  4. Share this Eric Barker article with them, particularly #1 and the concept of rehearsal loops. Annotation allows us to get our 1-2 “I could expand on these in the post-reading writing or speaking task” thoughts on paper and out of our brains' rehearsal loops. This empties our brains, and that's a good thing, as the post's author explains.

Fight relentlessly against this becoming busywork

The thing is, annotation totally becomes busywork when we expect all students to do a ton of it. Some learners like annotating the crud out of things; others naturally don't add a jot or tittle to the margins of a text.

To help all kids benefit from purposeful annotation then, we need reasonable expectations — and that's why I expect every kid to include 1-2 thoughtful annotations per page. “Thoughtful,” you say. “Wow. That's so incredibly descriptive, Dave. Thank you. For nothing.” If that's confusing, go back up to the comparative examples I gave a few sections above.

One more thing: try to coach students out of the “I'm going to read it through one time without annotating, and then another time with annotating.” If they're doing this because they're confused on the first read-through, show them how to break down difficult sections of a text and paraphrase or summarize the gist — this kind of annotating aids comprehension. On the other hand, if they're doing this because they just don't feel like it or they don't like it, we want to help them get the hang of annotating as they read, keeping their purpose for reading in the front of their mind.

The point of having kids do this is helping them efficiently internalize a purpose for reading, read toward that purpose, and then write or speak in line with that purpose.

Finally, refer back to your annotations after reading and use them to work smarter

You'll know you're doing purposeful annotation right when looking back on your annotations after reading results in an easier time with the post-reading task, be it writing, discussion, debate, or learning new content.

Unlike back in the day when I would tell my kids to close read an article, I feel good and clear when I teach them and expect them to purposefully annotate instead. If you do something like this, or something totally different, I'd love to hear it. And, as always, your critiques are welcome, too. So much of what I share on DaveStuartJr.com is the epitome of “rough draft thinking,” down to the smallest, most annoying typos 🙂 (Sorry about those.)

Also, if you're wanting to dig deeper into dominating assigned texts, check out Harvard's six reading habits for “thinking-intensive” reading.

Love you guys,


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82 Responses to Purposeful Annotation: A “Close Reading” Strategy that Makes Sense to My Students

  1. Jennifer Lynn Ringo October 11, 2014 at 10:20 am #


  2. Carla October 11, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    I totally agree with you. I’ve been saying the same thing to the teachers I work with. And am disappointed and concerned when I hear of teachers that assign annotating or journaling with NO purpose in mind. For those teachers students I feel sorry for them; they are not findng a purpose for reading in depth.

    • davestuartjr October 11, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

      Carla, thank you! We can spread some sanity on this issue, I think. Share this post liberally, dear comrade 🙂

  3. authenticLiteracy October 11, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    Hey Dave! You nailed it here. Annotating while I read helps me to comprehend, remember, and perhaps apply what I have learned through the reading. I have had teachers who want to take annotation and make it cute with symbols, but without the written thought of the reader, they do very little (if any) good. You articulated this thinking well in your article! Thank you!

    • davestuartjr October 11, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

      Christy, it’s always great to hear from you! Thanks for the feedback and I hope all is well in IL and OH!

  4. jgood03 October 11, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

    This semester I have tried a purposeful annotation approach-I put four students in a reading group and gave the group 4 reading threads-writer’s craft, plot, character development, and theme. Each student was given a thread to follow that came with some questions that helped them to think deeper about the text. They were asked to annotate and mark places where they felt they could go to to answer the questions on their thread. In other words, no one wrote out answers to reading questions, they just kept track of where this information could be found through their annotations,

    Once a week we had a group quiz where everyone brought their annotated texts to class to use to answer 3 essay-sque questions about the chapters they read that week. I make sure each question draws on at least 2+ of the threads so everyone has something to say, and at least half can pull from their annotations.

    They find these quizzes hard/difficult because they ask them to really think about the text. they also find them meaningful because they help them to understand what is happening in the text, give them an opportunity to talk about difficult spots and get to a point of understanding, and provide them with the opportunity to collaborate.

    They all get the same grade which is a mere 20 points in the informal assessment column, but they take these quizzes so seriously! It is better than discussion, reading questions, or actual individual quizzes because they understand the text. I have not had to give 1 lecture about The Scarlet Letter, and yet they are able to relate to McCarthyism, Puritanism, and the Gothic Romantics which we study in class.

    I find giving my students a reason to read and annotate so important for self-reliance and gaining the confidence to understand difficult literature.

  5. Stacy Gibbs October 11, 2014 at 6:25 pm #

    Dave – love your ideas and thoughts on purposeful annotation. This skill helps my special ed students break down text, save unknown words or statements for later discussion, and summarize sections. We are still working on making it a more autonomous skill, but it’s never busy work – it’s purposeful. :). Thanks for your info and sense of humor.

    • davestuartjr October 12, 2014 at 8:21 am #

      Stacy, that’s my pleasure. I can tell you’re intentional with this, and that’s the key, I think. Take care Stacy 🙂

  6. Shelley Stuart Gibbons October 11, 2014 at 10:31 pm #

    Hi Dave,
    It’s Saturday night, and a great time to do a little educational reading of Dave Stuart Jr.’s writing. Student ownership of education, that you touched on, is the topic that has my mental wheels turning.

    Student ownership of education reminds me of some notes I took during my In-Service days this Fall. The notes listed research results done by Dr. Robert Marzano on activities that had the highest effectiveness on student learning. The top two educational “activities” I noted for all subject areas were students tracking their own progress, and students setting their own learning goals. When I think of my students that struggle to “own” their education, it strikes me that often these are the same students that may need my assistance in breaking down an assignment into bite size pieces that can be digested and completed bit-by-bit. Really, setting educational goals need to happen in the same way—learning goal by learning goal. This would look like an IEP that is reviewed and tweaked every couple of weeks, rather than once a year, and would be written one-on-one between the teacher and student. Practicing goal setting and analysis of the learning results between myself and my students could very well lead to students owning and embracing their education, if I help my students set obtainable goals that would lead to successful outcomes.

    And here you thought you were writing about purposeful annotation. :-}

    Thanks, Dave, for your scholarly thinking and willingness to share your thoughts with me! I’m proud of you. (Cousin) Shelley

    • davestuartjr October 13, 2014 at 11:50 am #

      Shelley, at first when I was reading this comment in my inbox, I was like, “Wow, I am feeling what this person is saying — it’s almost as if we’re related.” And then, sure enough, we were 🙂

      Ownership of learning is at the forefront of my thinking and seeking this year. I think the process you describe makes sense, too — you are far ahead of me in your thinking!

      Always good to hear from you Shelley! I hope all is well in Cale 🙂

  7. Bev Sims October 12, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    Years ago , I tried to convince my middle school colleagues the importance of annotating and they just could not accept it. Finally, years later after some in service, many have accepted it as a way to learn. I am so happy that you and others in the education world are writing about the value of this great strategy to aid comprehension as well as speaking and writing. I am truly grateful to you.

    • davestuartjr October 13, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      Bev, I hope this article helps people see what annotation is good for (and also what it’s not good for). Take care, and thank you for your comment!

  8. Don October 12, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

    Thanks Dave! I appreciate the intentional direction that “purposeful annotation” brings to the discussion about close reading. Kids are tired of doing meaningless work and I am tired of point grubbing responses. We have better things to do!

    • davestuartjr October 13, 2014 at 11:47 am #

      It’s seriously my pleasure, Don. I am also tired of it, and we can’t blame the kids, can we? Take care!

  9. Carianna October 12, 2014 at 9:01 pm #

    Holy crap. Hands down, the best info on annotating I’ve ever seen. This is seriously the bomb-diggity.

    • davestuartjr October 13, 2014 at 11:47 am #

      That’s high praise, Carianna — thank you so much! It is always a pleasure to meet someone who “gets” what comes out of my brain 🙂

  10. ebonye76 October 12, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

    Good grief! Brilliant! I took notes while reading this! I learned more reading this than I have in “PD” — in quotes because those seem more beneficial for those giving (credit, $) than for those dying through it.

    • davestuartjr October 13, 2014 at 11:46 am #

      It’s so good to hear that this was worth your time, Ebonye76. Thank you for your kind words 🙂

  11. Jim October 13, 2014 at 7:23 pm #


    Awesome job with the content on your website! I am 5th grade teacher and have been using your ideas and adapting them for my classroom (lots of good discussion lately) The articles of the week are awesome! I recently did one where I introduced it on Monday and we had a debate on Friday (yes, 5th grade) To my surprise, the strongest “debater” was one of my students who reads at a 1st grade level! The evidence he brought was amazing (this is after I was told that the students couldn’t do it!) Anyway thanks!

    Question: How would you go about using NEWSEla in a small group setting? Maybe using one article for the week, but for a different purpose. Just trying to get some ideas!

    Thank you for your time

    • davestuartjr October 14, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

      Jim, I hugely appreciate the feedback! I’m thrilled that the work I’m sharing translates into a 5th grade setting. Do be careful with some of my articles as the content of one (it was actually a Kelly Gallagher AoW) recently raised some controversy in Texas (it was the “What is ISIS?” article).

      Isn’t it thrilling when a kid comes alive through debate?

      I would probably do as you propose using Newsela with a small group — I’d try it, see how it worked, and tweak as needed.

      Keep dominating life, Jim!

      • jgood03 October 20, 2014 at 4:46 am #

        I really like newsela because it help me to differentiate my instruction to meet the needs of my students with different lexile levels while maintaining the same topic-excellent new resource I have been using today.

  12. Erin October 14, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

    Hi Dave! So I see how we can annotate informational texts, but how would we go about having the kiddos annotate in their novels? Ideas there? Thanks!

    • Susan October 19, 2014 at 11:04 pm #

      Erin, post-it notes are useful for annotating school novels. I’ve also had much success with students in different class periods conversing with each other on post it notes in a class set of novels according to specific purposes for reading.

      Dave, I couldn’t embrace the concept of “doing close reading” when “reading closely” suffices to name the process by which we make sense out of difficult text. Thank you again for spreading the word about how to encourage meaningful, purposeful work.

      • davestuartjr October 20, 2014 at 12:15 am #

        Exactly what Susan said, Erin 🙂

        Thank you, Susan, for giving me things to think about 🙂

      • Erin October 20, 2014 at 8:46 am #

        Susan add Dave,
        Thanks! I did plan on using post its. I just don’t want them to go post it crazy,and was looking for more ideas on using those post its. I want them maybe to pick one and write longer about it at least once a week, but I’m thinking then kids will only see that as a “task” to complete–write a post it so I can get the assignment of writing in my notebook about it. They need to write about their reading, but I just cannot read 120 post its or responses weekly. Thoughts?
        Thank you!

        • davestuartjr October 21, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

          Yes, you cannot possibly read that much — I agree. You could grade one of those responses per kid per book. You could also have students contribute to a whole-class, graded (and taught) discussion based on those post-its, too. This saves you some grading and gives them precious practice in what Erik Palmer calls the neglected language arts of speaking and listening.

  13. Erin October 28, 2014 at 9:33 pm #

    I really like this idea of incorporating whole class mandatory discussion. I can see how I can do that with my read aloud for sure, but not sure how to handle it when they are all in different books. Love love love your awesome blog. Stupendous ideas!

    • davestuartjr October 29, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

      Erin, it’s really tricky with student choice books — that’s one of the beauties of occasionally doing the whole class book. Thank you Erin!

  14. Mary Madsen December 2, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

    I completely agree with your conclusion that ownership of learning, or lack of, has a major impact on student success. Can it be something that can be taught?
    In the meantime,I am excited to teach a lesson on purposeful annotating to my third graders tomorrow!

    • davestuartjr December 3, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

      Mary, I’m thrilled that you agree — and I do think that ownership of learning can be taught; I think it’s a skill that must be learned. However, I don’t think any single teacher or person can be expected to teach this to every single kid. Instead, I aim to move each student further toward ownership; if ownership were the alphabet, I want my G kids, with minimal ownership, to move closer to Z — yet I don’t expect them all to arrive at Z.

  15. Laurie January 4, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    Hi Dave,
    I came across your article with the purposes if gaining a deeper understanding of annotating. In observing classes. I see books filled with annotations. Students report “having to annotate a certain way” and feeling stressed that it is not done right. Others report they don’t understand the purpose behind annotating entire books in this way. They don’t enjoy reading like this. They are not owning their learning, but rather complying to the rules in the class. Not what I would want for seniors. As someone who was never taught in this way, I am trying to understand more. I found your article helpful to gain some insight into the teacher’s purpose, but also be able to ask better questions on behalf of the students.
    Thank you for getting me started!

    • davestuartjr January 4, 2015 at 2:56 pm #

      Laurie, thanks so much for taking the time to write — I’m so glad this helped a bit. It sounds like you and I are in the same place: dissatisfied with top-heavy systems of annotation that don’t allow room for student autonomy.

      Be in touch if I can be of further service, Laurie!


  16. Dava February 19, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

    What a great post. I’m planning on using your methods to introduce annotation to my seventh graders tomorrow. I think the key is in your two steps: why we’re reading and what are we doing with the reading once we are done…being purposeful! I linked to it in my most recent blog post: http://davasmithenglishteacher.blogspot.com/2015/02/annotating-text-in-middle-school-english.html

  17. D. Williams (@configurationb) June 7, 2015 at 9:10 pm #

    this has been fantastic

  18. Michelle July 13, 2015 at 5:44 pm #

    You speak my language, Dave! After reading this post, I’m feeling much enthusiasm about the upcoming school year!

    • davestuartjr July 17, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

      Michelle, I love finding people who speak the language. That’s why I write 🙂

  19. Victor Aguilera September 24, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

    Just found this entry and I’m really glad I did. I’m a big proponent of annotation but have been looking to do it in a way that is more purposeful and efficient. This makes perfect sense. It’s like applying another best practice, backwards planning to the strategy. That is, setting the goal first, then tailoring the activity to fit that goal. Thank you for posting this. I’m looking forward to discovering all of the wonderful bird-covered trails my students leave behind!

  20. melissa October 11, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    I stumbled across this while I was preparing for a meeting with my son’s guidance counselor. He’s in 10th grade Pre-AP English and, for the second year in a row, he’s being required to annotate every reference on every page of every book they read:
    R1–Main Idea: Blue/arrows
    R2/R2a–Figurative Lanuage/Character Archetypes: Green/underline once
    R3–Culture & Society: Pink/squiggle underline
    R4–Author’s Style: Orange/Circle
    R5–Comparing to other texts: No color/ *(write name of text/author)
    R6–Inferences & Predictions: Yellow/Check mark

    It is, as you described above, busy work. And he is starting to hate literature. They never discuss the annotations. They just turn the book in after the test for a grade. No other feedback. They also do not have class discussions about the books. Nor do they use the annotations for any written assignments. He was homeschooled until last year and I’m very frustrated with the quality of education in what is supposed to be an advanced class.

    • davestuartjr October 22, 2015 at 8:59 pm #

      Melissa, this does sound tough — just keep in mind that his teacher is probably stressed, pressured, and dizzied by ever-increasing demands.

      Are the annotations indeed read by the teacher? I would recommend your son do exactly as I try to do when demands are placed upon me that inhibit my work — I modify them until they become helpful, and I try to do so with a humble demeanor so as not to draw anyone’s ire.

      Best to you and your son!

    • Marta July 13, 2017 at 12:40 am #

      Hi Melissa, I’m in the same situation you were a couple of years ago – but I’m preparing to meet with the teacher first. Do you have any advice for me from your experience? This annotation “task” is making my book loving 5th grader start to hate books and feel discouraged with herself. This is killing my heart. She is reading at a ridiculously slow pace for her and she says it’s because she can’t enjoy the book while she debating with herself – I’m reading that the main character is insecure and unsure about how to address the school principal – is this a character trait (should highlight in yellow) or a problem (highlight in orange). This is killing her and I’m not knowing how to help. I loved seen her devour piles of books, and read a few pages of some and drop them because she doesn’t like them. Now it’s all assigned reading and this annotation thing is pointless. The book needs to look like a rainbow. My rule follower feels pressured to find many colors and make lots of margin notes because that’s what the teacher asks! She doesn’t have a problem understanding books. Many times if she loves a book she asks me to read it so we can discuss it. And we do. She understands what she’s reading without annotating it. I see the point in annotating an article or a scientific paper where you are trying to analyze and assimilate as much info as you can. But what is the point of the color coding and margin notes in a novel? Dave and others here – what do you suggest? Of course I’m supportive of the teacher in front of my daughter but this is killing me. Thanks!

      • davestuartjr July 14, 2017 at 6:51 pm #

        Hi Marta, thank you for writing. This sounds like a basic case of unintentional readicide (Kelly Gallagher has a book by that title, and you could use that book if you need to take things beyond the teacher). As a teacher myself, let me say THANK YOU for 1) going to the teacher first, and 2) being supportive of the teacher in front of your daughter. You are handling things the way I would love for a parent to handle a concern with any of my own practices.

        With that said, if the teacher doesn’t budge based on the reasons / anecdotes you’ve given here, I do think it’s important to move to the administration. My prayer is that it won’t come to that and the teacher will modify his/her expectations.

        Keep us updated.

  21. Heidi October 13, 2015 at 11:12 pm #

    Dave, I am just discovering your articles, and I am intrigued! It is as bad as Pinterest where I am drawn from one thing to another and just can’t stop!!! In Louisiana, we give an End of Course test. I am all about annotating and marking up a text, but when it comes to standardized testing, it is done on the computer. Do you have any strategies for annotating a text they cannot write on? I am currently just making them write their annotations on a sheet of paper, but I am struggling with getting them to be sure that what they write is meaningful and not simply just a summary of what they are reading. Any advice will help!

    • davestuartjr October 22, 2015 at 8:57 pm #

      Heidi, what a privilege to have you on the journey 🙂

      I sort of shudder at these computer-based tests that ask kids to annotate. If I were reading an article online and had to write using textual evidence from the article, I would pray that there be some way to take notes in the “text box” or whatever I’m supposed to compose my writing in. There, I would keep the occasional note that might help me in my writing.

      In terms of pushing kids past summary, try They Say, I Say — I’ve written on it here on the blog, and it’s the work of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.

  22. kymbrunner November 11, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

    Love your arguments on purposeful annotation (thank you!) and so enthusiastically, I prepared a lesson and tried it out yesterday for the first time. But today, I am feeling a bit discouraged. Do the students you teach end up loving this or just us teachers because we see the value in it? I teach 7th grade reading and LA. Yesterday in class I went through the first page of a short story, demonstrating how I’d question or comment upon what I read in the margins (I was a terrific actress, commenting on things and jotting down a short note like “Wow – I wonder why he did that?”). For homework, they had to finish the remaining four pages.

    Today I had them work in groups and share their ideas about annotating (if they enjoyed it, what sorts of things did they find themselves commenting on, etc), and then to send me a “group share” list with their thoughts. Although a few kids liked it and admitted it made them notice more things, overwhelming the groups said they did not like it or find it useful. Quote: “We all said NO, we don’t like it. Why should we write our thoughts down when we think them? Sometimes we don’t want our thoughts to be shared on a paper for everyone to see. We think it is not useful.” Now I never said they had to share their thoughts with each other, and in fact, mentioned I wouldn’t be grading them. (I requested they do about 3 annotations per page, but there was no set requirement) So do you think this is this a typical 7th grader not wanting to work differently/ general aversion to trying something new? Or is commenting about things as they read not purposeful enough? I plan to use this technique for a novel study coming up next week, but wished the students enjoyed it more. Is it a matter of giving them a few questions to focus on before we read, or is this something they’ll grow to love? 🙂

  23. Shannon January 25, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

    Quick question: Why is it bad for students to read the article once for the gist and then annotate on the second read? I’m torn on this one.

  24. Sara Carbone April 3, 2016 at 9:56 pm #

    LOVE your article – thank you so much. Captured so much about the ins and outs of the process, the snarly tough parts of teaching kids to annotate..with some great solutions..

  25. Scott Walters May 23, 2016 at 7:36 pm #

    Do you see any value in group annotation using, for instance, the hypothes.is app?

    • davestuartjr May 27, 2016 at 8:52 am #

      I’m familiar with that application, Scott. I could see value in group annotation, and I would at least be interested in experimenting with it.

  26. David Rickert June 4, 2016 at 9:31 am #

    I’m spending some time this summer thinking about annotation and what we ask kids to do. Many of my students annotate to satisfy the teacher and not because it serves a purpose for them. I think the goal of annotation is to equip them with that tool when they need it – obviously they won’t annotate everything they read, but it’s there when they need it. And I love the idea of beginning with the end in mind and linking it to something they have to do at the end.

    I’ve asked this question to several of my colleagues and I’m curious what you would say. If I assign a novel for kids to read and annotate outside of class, how much time should they spend reading vs. annotating? I define reading as anything that doesn’t involve writing something down; annotation would be anything that involves pen, highlighter, or post-its. Could you give me an ideal percentage? Is it different for articles?

    • davestuartjr June 5, 2016 at 10:08 pm #

      Great question, David. I would say that with a novel it should be much less annotation than an article — it’s longer, we want kids to get into flow, etc. Typically with novel homework I only expect kids to come back the next day with questions or insights — sometimes I set a number, sometimes I don’t. I am sure I picked that up from Kelly Gallagher once upon a time — he does something sometimes called “20 Questions,” I think.

      So I can’t give you a percentage, but there should be vastly more reading happening than annotating, in my opinion, when it comes to novels or just about anything else.


  27. Lisa July 7, 2016 at 8:13 pm #

    Dear Dave,
    I am so happy to have read this article with all of its attached side articles. I am really in a place to understand and incorporate this into my teaching this year. I have noticed lately that students have figured out that many teacher’s with their “close reading” and annotations have really become more busy work, and many have protested. I was in the process of creating a cheat sheet about Annotating (with explanations about why and how) when I read your article and it really explained exactly what I wanted to share with my students. You wrote this so long ago and it’s still relevant.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • davestuartjr July 12, 2016 at 8:24 am #

      Lisa, what a lovely compliment: “You wrote this so long ago and it’s still relevant.” Thank you.

  28. Leigh Roche July 19, 2016 at 10:44 pm #

    Your article on annotation has been so helpful to me. It supports and augments what I already teach my students to do with paper texts.

    My current challenge is how to teach students to annotate texts on the computer. Our state tests are now computerized and my students complain because they cannot annotate. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thank you,

    • davestuartjr July 22, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

      Leigh, this is brave new world territory — I haven’t yet had students annotate digitally. Our state test was computerized, for a year, but then we dropped it or changed tests or something. I can’t even keep the state tests straight in Michigan. It’s changed every year for at least the last three years.

  29. Amanda July 29, 2016 at 10:21 am #

    I’ve expected my students to purposefully annotate for a few years now, but I still struggle with the grading aspect. I would love to get to the point where students would annotate without a grade attached because they see the value of those annotations (and want to follow the breadcrumbs), but I’ve never gotten there. Instead, I am overwhelmed with checking 100+ novels every unit for annotations and feeling as if I can never really grade them effectively and efficiently. Any advice?

    • davestuartjr July 29, 2016 at 11:30 am #

      Hi Amanda,
      For novels, I just have students come to class with 5+ insights, comments, questions, or confusions from the previous day’s or night’s reading. I put a grade in the gradebook, but it’s only not a zero if kids are obviously not doing the work (which I check at the start of class during the Think-Pair-Share we do with their 5+ things.
      I hope that helps a bit.

  30. Lulu August 9, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    This is smart and thoughtful. Thanks for posting.

  31. Meghan September 6, 2016 at 11:56 pm #

    Thanks for the article Dave. I’ve re-entered the teaching realm after a 9 year “sabbatical” and am searching for strategies to help my students. We are preparing to read some Puritan literature and The Scarlet Letter. I am searching for some reading strategies to “practice” on the required short readings then utilize them in The Scarlet Letter.

    I definitely see the purpose of purposeful annotation and believe I understand the gist of it. You mentioned, though, that you don’t use it a lot throughout a novel.

    How can I utilize this strategy for The Scarlet Letter?


  32. Katherine Palacios December 8, 2016 at 6:31 pm #

    This was exactly that which I didn’t know I was looking for. I don’t know if that made any sense but thank you for this article.

  33. Paige Jacobson February 14, 2017 at 1:32 pm #

    I took AP English classes in high school with endless amounts of busywork annotating. Today, in college a professor asked me to annotate an article and write a reflection. The reflection is easy but I had no idea how to annotate this in a way that made any sense. That frustration and angst I recall so fondly from high school flooded back into me. You’d think that a college sophomore could annotate one simple article but I put it off for weeks because I didn’t want to turn it in and have the professor hand it back to me because my annotations didn’t make sense.
    Finally, in desperation I did a google search. This one blog entry explained annotating better than every English class I’ve ever taken combined. THANK YOU.

    • davestuartjr March 8, 2017 at 8:33 pm #

      Paige, this was kind of an incredible piece of praise. Really — amazing. Thank YOU!

  34. Jennifer March 23, 2017 at 3:13 pm #

    Thanks for sharing the Harvard’s six reading habits! These will be very helpful as I redesign a critical reading course.

  35. Jessica April 4, 2017 at 11:02 pm #

    You are all very smart.

  36. Melba April 11, 2017 at 8:54 am #

    Wonderful article! Love the part about student’s ownership of their education.
    Thank you.

  37. Rex Houston April 24, 2017 at 10:02 am #

    Thanks for this post, Dave! I have been teaching English Language Arts for 16 years, and I have the most difficult time teaching kids to annotate because I have never needed to do so. I tend to do it all in my head as I am reading. Most of my students are incapable of that though. Your article helps a lot. I wish I had discovered it at the beginning of the school year though.

  38. Kay F. Solomon May 15, 2017 at 8:54 am #

    Thank you for this, Dave. What is your view of digital annotations? We’re a 1:1 school, and I bounce back and forth between wanting my students to read a physical book (I teach biblical studies, so the Hebrew Bible/New Testament), or offering the option to read the text online. Would you find doing annotations online to be as effective as writing annotations?

    • davestuartjr May 15, 2017 at 9:17 pm #

      Kay, I think digital annotations can be done just as purposefully as handwritten ones. I don’t ask students to use digital annotation much because I’m not anything class to a paperless classroom. I suppose, though, that the only time I use digital annotations is when I am reading the Bible online — so, if you were my teacher asking me to do something like that, I’d be doing something that was pretty natural!

  39. Lynne August 28, 2017 at 10:24 am #

    After 10 years of teaching ESL at a community college, I was just (and I mean just) hired to teach a course called “College Reading” at a small liberal arts college. Thank you for clarifying something crucial – for me and for my students! And thanks for the links you provided …

  40. Elizabeth Nicol September 3, 2017 at 7:46 am #

    I am so happy to have discovered your words at the beginning of our homeschooling journey. My daughter is a freshman. Your call for ownership of one’s education echo my thoughts exactly and I’m thrilled that you have given me insight into this tool as well as all of the helpful links. She is taking a Socratic discussion course through the Well-Trained Mind Academy and is already enjoying “The Art of Argument”, although we will certainly check out “They Say, I Say” upon your recommendation. Thank you!

  41. Melissa Welsch November 27, 2017 at 4:43 pm #

    Always a fan of annotating and have used it with success from grades 4 to 8. Unfortunately, all of our testing is now on computer PLUS the tests are timed, so close reading is in competition with finishing the reading! I’m at a loss except to encourage purposeful reading – why / what we are looking for. Any ideas welcome!

  42. Chicago Public School Parent March 5, 2018 at 9:48 am #

    Dave, I ran across this blog post because I am trying to understand why my child has been doing nothing but annotate fiction novels this school year. After reading this I still don’t understand how annotating makes for a better reading experience. It actually seems like instead of increasing reading skills what the students are actually doing is trying to impress the teacher with their annotation skills. Is there any evidence that annotating text increases reading comprehension? My child’s NWEA MAP test scores for reading have dropped 6 percentile points to 92 since annotating has become the main education tool at his school. My husband and I have been trying to figure out who are these kids annotating for. We keep coming back to the fact that it’s for teacher. Annotating is not a practical tool for teaching because the students cannot practice it elsewhere. Library books are not to be written in and most kids borrow far more books than they own. If students need to take ownership for their education then teachers and administrators need to be honest about what the curriculum actually accomplishes.

    • davestuartjr March 5, 2018 at 11:35 am #

      Hi there CPSP,

      The teachers are likely just assigning what they have been told to assign. Unfortunately, purposeless (or purpose-lite) annotation became a fad several years ago — it was a mis-reading of the first standard in the Common Core, which talks about close reading.

      Annotation IS practical when it’s done for a purpose — and annotation can be done either directly in the text or, for a library book, using notes or stickies or some other kind of system. The purposeful use of annotation can help students, but just doing it to do it won’t help much.

      I think passing this blog article along to your school’s teachers / administration might be useful in spurring conversation. If I were you, I would just ask them to what degree they align with what I’ve written about in this post.

      Like so many things, it’s not all or nothing — annotation isn’t useless, nor is it a silver bullet. It’s a tool that needs to be wielded purposefully.

  43. Kylie Meyer March 10, 2018 at 4:11 am #

    Hi Dave,

    I just stumbled across your blog whilst preparing for a tutorial for my pre-service teachers and I am so glad I did! I am appreciating your no-nonsense approach to offering insight into the teaching of reading comprehension.

    I would be really keen for you to check out my approach to annotation and purposeful reading. I still get goosebumps when I read the depth of the students’ responses and thinking:

    Meyer, K. E. (2010). A collaborative approach to reading workshop in the middle years. The reading teacher, 63(6), 501-507.

    You can download the pdf from google scholar – sometimes the simplest things are the most powerful!

    I would be keen to hear from you if you try this approach with your students.

    Thank you so much for sharing your work! I am keen to investigate your blog further :).


    • davestuartjr June 21, 2018 at 2:16 pm #

      Kylie, this is excellent! I’ve not tried it with my students yet, but I admire and appreciate your work and you sharing it! I hope we meet someday in AU!

  44. Kennedy December 2, 2018 at 5:01 pm #

    I’m new to the world of education blogging and this is the first post I’ve read on davestuartjr.com. This post piqued my interest because I’ve been struggling to get my students to annotate. They often fake it for a completion grade. But I don’t blame them! They’ve been annotating without a clear purpose. Consequently, I’m inspired to model the functional purpose of “purposeful annotation” with my own students. I might have them read a piece of text with and without purposefully annotating and then ask them about their experience responding to a post-reading task. I also find it useful that you’ve delineated multiple types of purposeful annotation and their respective functions.

    Lastly, I appreciate your dedication to “unobscuring “school for students. I’m eager to use your strategies in my classroom, in part because you are explicitly focused on making academia accessible. Thank you for highlighting the expert blind spots teachers might have when working within a system that operates on a hidden curriculum. I also appreciate your attention to alignment, transparency, and the effects of buzzwords in education. You’ve crafted a playful tone to accompany your earnest argumentation for/illustration of purposeful annotation. It was a joy to read.

  45. Steven Parsley December 8, 2018 at 8:33 am #

    I do truly understand

  46. Elizabeth de la Rosa February 28, 2019 at 5:45 pm #

    I understand purposeful annotation when there is a writing response involved at the end. I think this is a great strategy that I am excited to try with my students. As “testing season” approaches, how do you adapt this strategy to standardized tests and multiple choice questions?

    • davestuartjr March 6, 2019 at 11:54 am #

      Elizabeth, thank you for writing. I ask the students to think through the reading they are doing on a test like this. What will you need to do at the end? How, then, ought you to annotate?

      Typically, the answer is that annotation should only be used in these cases to aid concentration and comprehension.

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