annotation

Reading for all Ages

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LETTER FROM MARA

Reading is such a fundamental part of our everyday existence, we often take for granted what a complicated task it can be. We read emails and work communications to do our jobs; we read the news and articles of interest to stay abreast of what is happening in the world; we read directions and agreements to make decisions; many of us read academic texts for work; and when we have time, we read for pleasure. Each of these tasks requires us to read differently, but because of practice and experience, our brains understand how to adapt the way we read to get the most out of the task at hand - for example, looking for important details and taking notes when reading for work, versus skimming the news or getting lost in the story of a book without worrying about remembering every detail. These are subconscious choices we make as experienced readers that come to us as second nature, which is why it can be so hard to understand why kids have difficulty with reading comprehension.

For children, mid-to-late elementary school marks the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. At this stage, we expect students to be fluent decoders capable of investing their mental energy into making meaning of what they read. We want kids to learn to make connections to the text based on their knowledge of the world, their personal experiences, and other books or articles they’ve read. While this is the expectation, though, it is important that we help students along as they learn to think more deeply as readers. With that in mind, Talking to Kids About Books includes a great list of questions you can use to guide more meaningful conversations with your child about what they are reading, and Reading to Learn offers a list of helpful strategies to support comprehension.

For more advanced students, 7th and 8th grade is when kids must learn how to analyze a text. Knowledge of reading must go hand-in-hand with ideas about how an author used subject, form, and diction in order to create a more compelling story. Learning to read closely in this way can require a lot of guidance and practice, and that is why it is so important that students understand how to go about this process strategically. A 7th grader isn’t likely to pick up on themes of isolation or male companionship when reading Of Mice and Men, just as so many high schoolers (and, at times, adults!) struggle with Shakespeare.However, understanding how to utilize online resources to preview themes, or watching a performance of Romeo and Juliet before unpacking the text, can make a world of difference by assisting students to read and annotate with purpose. Next Level Annotation provides useful ideas for helping kids develop these more advanced reading skills.

Next Level Annotations

As students grow older, the demands of their classwork evolve; rather than merely summarizing plot or retaining historical dates, students are challenged to think critically, as they take their base of skills and knowledge and use these tools to forge original analysis. In parallel with this evolution in their education must come an evolution in the way they read, and in the way they annotate. With luck, students will have been building up simple annotation habits for some time by this point — but now, the purpose of annotation shifts, from a tactic for staying engaged with the reading, to an active commentary that records insight and evidence with a grander end goal in mind: the analytical essay.

When students read with the aim of collecting evidence to use in an essay, they do so under a variety of different circumstances. Some teachers might provide a framework or prompt before reading begins — others will wait until after the class has finished reading a text before distributing the essay assignment. In either case the goal of annotation is the same: to activate the mind as students read, and start them down the path of critical analysis. The key here is reading with a clear purpose. If the prompts are distributed ahead of time, students should come up with a key — by numbering them for example — and mark the text with the appropriate number whenever they find a quote that could be of use in responding to that prompt. For visually-oriented learners, pens or post-it notes in different colors for different themes can enhance the process. Even if they don’t have the list of possible prompts before they begin reading, students should use a site like LitCharts to preview the text, searching for important themes that they can annotate in a similar way, as these are likely to be helpful for the eventual essay. It’s best to focus on two or three themes at a time — and remember that one piece of evidence might be helpful for more than one theme, and should be marked with more than one number or color. 

If they’re writing a research paper, and using sources that they find independently, many students will find that the challenge is sifting through the text to find relevant evidence. Here, too, there is a shift in the approach to reading; rather than starting from the beginning and reading a stack of library books through the end, students should begin with a focused question and use strategic searches to isolate the evidence they need. This means using the table of contents, learning to navigate an index, focusing on headings, and searching intelligently through online databases. As students encounter the information they will need, they should be compiling quotes into a central location, making sure to include source information and page numbers as they read and record to smooth the process of creating a bibliography later on. Online tools such as easybib.com, citationmachine.net, and the reference materials at Purdue’s Online Writing Lab make creating citations easier than ever, but most students will need an introduction to the process — both in order to understand the required formatting and its intention, and to avoid unintentional plagiarism. 

The right kind of annotation will make the process of writing a critical essay or research paper ten times simpler, and much more effective at the same time. Not only can annotation provide the kind of record that students can easily transfer into a brainstorm and outline, it will activate their way of thinking about the text as they read, setting them up for success as writers.