Teacher Scholar Voices

Opening the Can of Spinach: Understanding the Power of Annotation for English Learners

Teacher Scholar Voices

Eva Marie Oliver

“Reading for school is different than reading for pleasure… That’s why you make us annotate, Ms. O. ‘Talking to the text’ makes us slow down and think.” This statement represents a huge “aha” moment that one of my 8th graders had this year — one I hope all of my students arrive at (in one way or another) during the two years that I spend with them in 7th-grade English and 8th-grade Humanities. His comment illustrates the important move (or shift of mindset) from dependent, passive reading to independent, active reading that all students must make when they are reading to access, play with, learn, and demonstrate understanding of content in our classrooms.

For this reason, for my inquiry with Mills Teacher Scholars this year, I chose to focus on bolstering my teaching of annotation, or the “reading with purpose,” of informational texts (i.e. articles, case studies, etc.). I already had a basic practice for encouraging students to interact with text. So, with the support of Mills Teacher Scholars and collaboration with my teaching partner, Shelley Goulder, I hoped that a more focused intentionality around that practice would move more of my students — especially my long term English language learners (LTELs) — toward independent, active reading.

Established Practice:


With my 7th-grade ELA students, early on in the year, I modeled the strategy above, using think-alouds and having the students evaluate my annotations. Then, I released them to begin using the strategy on their own, collecting their work as a formative assessment. Quickly, I realized that my cursory explanation was enough for some students, but it was insufficient for most students, especially my LTELs like Alondra and Leah, two of my focal students.

Alondra’s work from October 2015:


From careful examination of Alondra’s work with my teaching partner and Mills Teacher Scholars facilitator, I learned that she could not yet use the tool of annotation (nor the strategy I had modeled) to help her read for understanding or with purpose. The overwhelming amount of yellow and lack of Alondra’s written thoughts on the page told me that she did not yet know how to selectively highlight or “talk to the text” in ways that revealed her work toward comprehension.

Troubled, I compared Alondra’s work to Iris’s — an 8th grader who had become an exceptional annotator.

Iris’s work from September 2015:


Iris had it — the ability to use annotation as a tool for reading comprehension, evident in her annotations themselves and use of her annotations in comprehension questions, class discussions, and more summative assessments. She developed a color-coding system for the organization of new information, she used her annotations to initiate a conversation with the text, and she asked questions when she didn’t understand. Like the can of spinach Popeye ate before any great battle in order to enter with courage, strength, and confidence, Iris’s internalized annotation practice was her way of coming up against challenging text and triumphing. Therefore, I realized that my goal for the year had to be giving all of my students the tools to open their own cans of “reading spinach.”

By unpacking Iris’s success with colleagues in our MTS inquiry sessions and evaluating her “spinach,” my teaching partner and I developed three indicators of success that would guide our shared inquiry around annotation for the rest of the year:

  1. Students can selectively highlight
  2. Students can “talk to the text” in ways that reveal moving toward comprehension and/or that show they are making sense of the text
  3. Students can use their annotations (interactions with the text) for an academic purpose (i.e. answering comprehension questions, participating in class discussions, asking relevant questions about the text, accurately using text in writing assignments, etc.)

To move my students toward indicator of success #1 (and because middle school students LOVE highlighters), I first attempted to institutionalize Iris’s color-coding practice.  

Color-Coding Practice for 7th Grade:






The results for Alondra in January 2016:

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-21-17-amClearly, this new practice greatly shifted Alondra’s approach to annotation. This new data revealed three significant leaps and two growth areas in her move toward independent, active reading.

Significant Leaps Growth Areas
  • The colors encouraged Alondra to read with a more selective purpose. She had to distinguish between the positive, negative, surprising, confusing, and important aspects of the reading.
  • Alondra used text features (i.e. bold, italics, etc.) to help her identify the important words and phrases in the text.
  • The pink highlights reveal places where Alondra’s comprehension broke down because she was either confused or had a question.  
  • Alondra had only ONE relevant and clear “talk to the text.” So, she was not yet consistently meeting indicator of success #2.
  • Alondra could identify the parts that confused her, but she couldn’t necessarily put a question or wonder to that confusion, perhaps stifling her comprehension.

The final growth area with the color-coding was revealed as I began closely evaluating my focal students’ answers to comprehension questions.

Leah’s work in January 2016:


screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-1-55-03-pmPositively, Leah’s work highlights that she internalized and then developed her own color-coding strategy (indicator of success #1). It also shows that she understood how to engage in a relevant dialogue with the text (indicator of success #2). However, Leah’s response to the comprehension question does not indicate understanding, even though she highlighted AND annotated part of the answer to that question while reading the article. So, the annotation practices — specifically color-coding — had not yet brought her closer to indicator of success #3.

This final growth edge made me wonder if Leah’s comprehension was being blocked by the length and/or amount of text. Instead of cramming a whole steak into one’s mouth, I wondered if “the chewing and digestion of text” might be improved by cutting up the steak a bit. This led my teaching partner and me to the idea of “chunking” the text (meaning inserting guiding/focus questions between chunks of text in an article).

Alondra’s work from March 2016:


screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-1-55-35-pmAgain, this new practice moved Alondra’s annotation practice forward toward independent, active reading. First, we can see that even with the introduction of the new “chunking” practice, Alondra is still holding onto the color-coding to help with her sense-making (yellow = the answer to the “chunking” question; orange = other parts of self-identified significance). Second, Alondra is talking to the text with each highlight, though there is room for improvement in depth of dialogue. Third, Alondra correctly identified the answer to the “chunking question,” which reveals understanding. And, finally, Alondra’s highlight helped her to accurately answer one of the comprehension questions.

While Alondra’s work shows tremendous growth — moving from a completely yellow page to using a selective highlight to answer a comprehension question — it still has growth edges that will fuel my inquiry into the next academic year. Although Alondra accurately answered the comprehension question, she did not respond to it completely. The article mentioned several ways in which the mentally ill are treated poorly in prisons, and she only wrote about one in her response. Now, this lack of completeness may be an error in the way that I wrote the comprehension question, or it could reveal a struggle with synthesis across the article. So, I am currently wondering how I build on color-coding or develop a new practice to move students toward synthesizing and connecting across “chunks” of text and, eventually, across articles. Until next time for that struggle…

All in all, my inquiry reminded me of a very important fact. We cannot just tell our students to annotate, write, and revise and expect immediate, “correct” results. Instead, we must explicitly teach them how to “open the spinach” for each of these fundamental skills so that they can be successful on their own, outside of our classrooms.


Eva Marie Oliver is in her sixth year of teaching English Language Arts and Humanities at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland, CA. Having earned her BA in English at Sonoma State University and her credential and MA in Education through UC Berkeley’s MUSE program, Eva has been proud to contribute to the social-justice-oriented and transformative learning space that is Life Academy. Working with Mills Teacher Scholars and the Bay Area Writing Project has enriched her professional experience as an educator in the Bay Area. If not in the classroom, Eva can be found reading, practicing yoga, hiking, swimming, or rock climbing.