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Annotating texts: the MAGIC ELIXIR for reading and writing skills

Updated: Jul 2

Annotating texts for reading and writing skills

I’ve been thinking a lot about annotation lately.  It pops up for reading, research, responding…  It’s a springboard for writing responses, essays, reports.  Let's see why annotating texts is the magic elixir for reading and writing skills!

Annotation is a key – THE key? – link between understanding (what we read, view, listen to) and production (writing, speaking, presenting).


Ironically, we don’t do nearly enough annotating in class.  It should be our key tool – our go-to – in EVERY subject, not just English!

Multiple learning styles and strategies - tick, tick, tick

Annotation plays into the hands of multiple learning styles and strategies:

✅ Reading

✅ Visual work (creating a visual - an infographic)

✅ Kinesthetic (hands on with the tools of annotation - pens, highlighters and that bit of paper)

✅ Speaking (discussing the text)

✅ Working alone

✅ Working in pairs or a small group (building confidence)

✅ Scaffolding - unpacking a text slowly for a leg-up to greater things.

✅ Differentiation by ability- students could just identify...or they could move on to make notes about meaning...

✅ Differentiation by year level - look at the process below - choose and adapt to suit the year level you're teaching.



Here are some ideas:

  • Short texts – place in the middle of A4 paper.

  • If your school has the budget, placing a text in the middle of A3 paper is better.

  • Invest in a roll of brown paper – a big one the whole department can use – or discarded wallpaper rolls (it’s making a comeback, you know!).  Place your text in the middle of a piece of this.

  • Give students the choice of working alone or in pairs.  Maybe threes, but no more than that.

  • Use the pillage and plunder method.  Once students have enough annotations on their copy (and you know your students, so you know what a good attempt for particular students looks like), give them the shoulder tap to look at the work of other students.  They can then return to add the notes they like to their own copy.  You’ll find this gives them confidence AND sparks their own new ideas.  Gold.


Annotating texts for reading and writing skills

Helping students understand what annotation is

A few suggestions:

  • Annotate WITH your students first.  Write or project a couple of sentences onto your whiteboard, then annotate them with your markers. 

  • Show students an example of what annotation looks like – create your own, or see our cheat sheet here.

  • Point out that annotation sounds like the word ‘note’ – yes, they’ll be writing notes all over (okay, around) a text.

  • Tell them this is a visual thing.  Our students live on ‘visual’ (tiktok generation!).  Time to get out coloured pens, highlighters if they have them, and play with arrows, lines, little cloud bubbles… heaven!

The skills that students learn - so many skills!

I'll probably miss a few, but here are the key skills students develop when they annotate or when they move on from that annotation - kind of the nuts and bolts of English when you think about it. Students:

  • Identify aspects of vocabulary and techniques

  • Consider the effects of techniques

  • Note meanings.

  • Step behind the text to consider the writer (tone, point of view, purpose)

  • Discuss/write as they:

  • Respond to the text

  • And with all of this they are playing with EVIDENCE.  Thanks to their annotations they’re familiar with details from the text.  They find, use and appreciate evidence.

  • Bounce from there to write an article about the idea, write a story from a character/object’s perspective, write a letter to the author…

See this process unpacked below or find it in your printable cheat sheet here.  (Alternatively, log into the website to access your Team FREEBIES catalogue - it's in there!)

Annotating texts for reading and writing skills

The process!

Find all of this in your annotation cheat sheet here – happy days! (Alternatively, log in to the website - it's in the Team FREEBIES library!)

▶️ 1. Identification – labelling. 

Students could identify:

Vocabulary - eg:

  • New words

  • Connotations (and how powerful they can be)

  • Colloquialisms (slang, elision, neologism/coinage)

  • Compounding

  • Collocation (words commonly seen together)

Language devices:

  • Figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, synesthesia, apostrophe, synecdoche, aptronym)

  • Sound devices (alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, asyndeton, polysyndeton, caesura, elision, rhyme, sibilance)

  • Other language devices - eg: cliché, pun, euphemism…


  • Links between beginning and end

  • Turning points

  • Contrast

  • Line breaks

  • Verse structure/breaks.

Aspects of formatting/Visual cues:

  • Subheadings

  • Bullet-points

  • Font – style, point size, the use of bold and italics

  • Infographics


▶️ 2. Effects

Students look at some of the things they've identified and note the effects of these. Encourage them to think about their own gut reaction. (DISCOURAGE definitions such as what a metaphor is! Instead, what does that metaphor make YOU imagine?)

▶️ 3. Meaning (Ideas)

Digging deeper now. Have students note (and I suggest in this order):

  • Literal (on the lines) meaning of phrases, sentences, ‘chunks’.

  • A summary.  A key skill – encourage students to stick to the basics about what this text 'covers' - perhaps just bullet points if preferred (still playing on that visual aspect).

  • Gut reactions – what does this word/phrase sound like to me?  How does it make me feel?  (Just a short note or word!)

  • Deeper meanings/ideas – what does this suggest about the person, place, situation?  (Don't go overboard - we do that for 4 and 5 below!)

  • The main idea. A short sentence at the bottom. The main idea is that... They could use a different colour or code to identify the evidence that suggests this. Visual, visual, visual!

▶️ 4. Step 'behind' the text to look at the author

Have students look at their annotations so far. Add annotations beside appropriate evidence to note thoughts about the writer's:

  • Tone

  • Point of view (including knowledge, experience, background, culture, bias…)

Then, you can go further to discuss or write a few sentences at the bottom about what the writer's purpose is. That is, why did they write this?


▶️ 5. Respond

Sitting that annotated text beside them, students can think about, discuss, write short paragraphs about:

  • Their gut reaction to the text overall. What does this encourage me to feel (mood), understand, imagine, do?

  • How their own perspective influences that reaction.  (First, think about what their own perspective is! Now students are getting to know themselves!)

  • What other audiences might think.

  • Answers to questions such as:

    • What if…

    • So what? (Why is this significant (important) to our world?)

    • Why…?

Annotating texts for reading and writing skills

Now turn this aaaaallll on its head. Look at what your students have learned from this text/writer about the skill of writing! They've learned about the power of words, language devices, structure... Boom!

Not only that, now they have a context they TRULY understand to bounce from for their own writing activities.

Annotation: the magic you've been looking for! OMG! Remember your cheat sheet!


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