Beyond ‘OMG!’: Supporting Students in Annotating for Reading Success
As a 7th/8th grade Humanities teacher, I wonder a lot about what happens for students when they read. At the beginning of the year, when I asked students to annotate an article, I would usually receive a page saturated with yellow highlighter and a few symbols like happy/sad faces or question marks. While students had in fact annotated, their annotations did not reveal much about their thinking while they read. I began to wonder if this practice was really increasing their comprehension. I wanted to know the intricacies of their reading process: What do they do when they get stuck while reading? How do they know something is important? How do they know when they do/do not understand? How do they read for an academic purpose?
With the support of Mills Teacher Scholars and my teaching partner, Eva Oliver, I chose to focus my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry on annotation because I hoped it would provide a peek into the minds of my students as active, thinking readers and thus help me better understand how to support them to access and analyze complex texts. A first step in my inquiry was getting clear about what successful annotation looked like. Using a model student’s work, Eva and I ultimately winnowed our indicators of success for annotation to:
- Student uses selective highlighting
- Student’s annotation reveals sense-making/comprehension
- Students’s annotation serves an academic purpose like answering a historical question
What Do I Say to the Text? It Doesn’t Talk Back!
When asked to “talk to the text” or write notes in the margins, most students repeatedly asked, “What do I say to the text?” While they had no trouble highlighting, they often struggled to write a meaningful “talk to the text” that was more than a symbol, an “OMG!”, or a one-word question. One student even cheekily quipped, “I tried talking to the text, but it doesn’t talk back!”
However, I found that when I asked students, “Why did you highlight that?” they always had an answer. My response was always, “Write down what you just said! That’s your talk to the text!” Usually this was all the encouragement students needed to begin. Gradually I saw students independently produce more complex annotation. In the example below, Flor, a long-term English Language Learner and one of my focal students, quickly began to exceed the indicators of success. She selectively highlighted using her own color coding key and her talk to the text not only revealed that she understood the text, but also that she analyzed it using the lens of oppression.
While Flor was meeting my indicators for successful annotation, she still sometimes struggled to connect her annotations to comprehension/analysis questions. Thus, even though she understood the text, something got lost in the transfer of that understanding when she had to use the information to answer a question. For example, in response to a question that related to her excellent annotation, she produced the following:
In an interview about this disconnect, Flor explained, “Sometimes I don’t really understand the questions or I can’t really connect them to annotations. When I annotate I focus on the reading and I forget about the questions, so I don’t answer them correctly. So I get confused comparing the annotations and the questions.”
Chunking the Text
Based on Flor’s metacognition and self-assessment, I tried a new strategy of chunking text with a question above it. These questions would then connect to comprehension/analysis questions at the end of the text. My hope was that this strategy would continue to push students toward selective highlighting and help them see connections between their annotations and comprehension/analysis.
Using this strategy, when Flor correctly highlighted the answer to the question above the chunk of text, she was usually successful in answering the comprehension/analysis question connected to that annotation. However, when she did not correctly answer the annotation question, her answers to questions at the end of the article were more variable. Similarly, her answers to questions that asked her to make connections across chunks of text were also more variable. While her annotations did provide a better window into her thinking as a reader, I am still wondering about ways to support her in making connections between her annotations and comprehension/analysis questions and across chunks of text.
Annotation and Student Agency
At the end of the year, on an anonymous survey, 80% of students reported that they believed our focus on annotating helped them become stronger readers and thinkers. Flor, whose SRI grew from 617 to 1023 over the course of the year, wrote, “I do think annotating helped me become a better reader because I understand my reading more.” Another focal student, Maria, whose SRI score remained constant around 650, reported, “In my opinion, yes, because when you highlight you can go back on the important things you have learned. Also, so you don’t have to read everything all over again.” And two students who began the year reading above grade-level reported, “Yes, I think annotating helped me become a better reader and thinker because it helps me be aware and pay attention to what I am reading” and “It was a good way to write down your ideas. And I felt like I was talking to someone when I annotated.”
The theme that came through in almost every positive response was that, regardless of reading level, students felt more agency in their reading, and believed they had acquired a tool that bolstered their academic success.
While students’ annotations did give me a valuable peek into their minds as readers, I am ultimately left with more questions than answers. For instance, I am still wondering how to support synthesis across one long text or multiple texts, and why Flor’s reading score skyrocketed while Maria’s stayed the same. However, as I seek to answer these questions and undoubtedly be challenged by new questions, I know I want to explore and build on this sense of agency because I hope that if my students intrinsically believe in their agency as readers, they will continue to grow as active, tenacious readers.
Shelley Goulder is in her fourth year teaching at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland, CA. Currently, she teaches 7th-grade World History and 8th-grade Humanities. She earned her B.A. in Spanish and Latin American Studies from Bowdoin College and her M.A. in Education from Stanford University. She is excited to continue doing inquiry work in her classroom with Mills Teacher Scholars to better understand her students as active readers. When not in the classroom, she is traveling, rock climbing, backpacking, practicing yoga, eating a delicious snack, or reading a good book.