Annotating As A Way to Deeper Reading - Academic Dean, Sarah Doenmez

There is no academic skill more central to success in high school and beyond than reading. Yet it is a very hard skill to teach systematically. Last year, I asked the English Department what they would most want me to tell students about how to become better readers. All three of them, Nicole Sintetos, Alex Scalfano, and Rachael Jennings, answered in unison: “Tell them to annotate!” These three teachers have asked students to annotate at all grade levels in English classes this year, and the History Department (Erin Bouton, Rodrigo Villaamil, Brooks Johnson) has followed suit. Each teacher asks students to use slightly different systems, but each has followed through in checking students’ annotations and commenting on them, training students to annotate in more detail over the course of the year.

Ms. Jennings explains, “I talk to {my students} about our ‘reciting voice,’ which can sound fluent and sophisticated and effective-- and then our ‘conversation voice,’ which is the more effective, active, comprehension-focused voice. Cris Tovani is one of the scholars I use to frame our initial conversations! My goal is to have students recognize the active role that they play while conversing with a text. Asking questions, making predictions, reacting even with a "yikes!" gives your voice more sound and your mind more to process, rearrange, and reconsider.”

Ms. Jennings shared a handout she and Mr. Scalfano distributed at the beginning of the year in her English 11 course detailing specific strategies she asks her students to use, referencing Cris Tovani's “I Read It, But I Don't Get It".  Here is an excerpt from her handout:

“For each text we study, I expect you to (1) annotate (using at least 3 ACTIVE strategies) and (2) at the conclusion, write down notes (3-5 hearty sentence observations) on ONE passage from the text: (What interests you in the sentence? What is the writer doing with the language? What mood is conveyed and how? etc. Start to examine the diction and syntax in that passage.)

1) Recognize when you are confused.

2) Figure out why.

Is it due to complex vocabulary?

Do you not connect with the characters?

Did you miss important background info? … etc.

3) Actively reform it.”

It is often the case in reading history texts that students feel confused, and most of them accept that level of confusion as their fate. Annotating teaches students to recognize and name that experience, and then to take action to respond to it, to work their way to some clarity or to more specific questions. It empowers them to interact with the text as in a dialogue with an equal mind. It is empowering and invigorating, and asks students to take further steps at each stage of their own comprehension. Here are some further techniques from Ms. Jennings:

“Ways to Annotate:

  • Write connections:
    • Text to self
    • Text to world
    • Text to text (another novel, lyrics, stories)
    • Write specific questions or reactions: “I do not understand this philosophy.” “I do not understand why he is doing this.” “I do not understand the jump from A to B. What happened to provoke that change?”
    • Draw question marks when you are confused.
    • Write personal reactions in your own voice: “Why would he DO that?” “Never saw that coming” “Noooooo!” “YIKES!” etc.
    • ASK QUESTIONS about content, theme, character."

You can see that using any of these suggestions would involve you as a reader in a process of clarifying the author’s ideas and your own reactions to them.

As for the results of this practice, Ms. Jennings comments, “I have noticed deeper, more attentive reading from my students. At this point in the year, students are doing more than recalling content and making predictions and asking questions--they are noticing patterns in syntax and diction, underlining anaphora or polysyndeton when they see it, recognizing and receptive to the micro-level textual details that help create tone and complicate and advance theme.”  In my classes, the results of assigning annotating has had dramatic effects. I now walk into class each day knowing that all students will have completed their reading and be ready to participate. Students have insightful questions, and are ready to take discussions to the significant themes and meanings of a text. It is exciting to see their thinking developing when I check annotations, and even more exciting to see their confidence as readers growing.